The Number Forty-Nine lurches as it pulls away from the curb. Hydraulics hiss, and through the settling fog Max makes out brake lights, blinking indifferently in the drizzle. Teeth clenched, he gives chase, struggling against the stream of evening commuters.
Men and women obscure his way, laden with laptop cases and rucksacks, lost in their cell phones, oblivious to all but the hot jargon blowing from their mouths. He breaks from the crowd in time to see another flash of faltering brake lights in the fog. Then the bus slides into the haze and is gone.
Frustration flares inside him, to be swallowed by a void of overwhelming helplessness. Running a hand through his wet hair, he wishes again that he had left the office earlier. There had been a team brief. That file he could not leave unfinished, the conversation with Frederick in the meeting room, it all seems meaningless now in the absence of his lift home. The rain picks up, driving him to take cover beneath the bus shelter. A mad whinny, perhaps the screech of car tyres, fills the street.
In the wake of the six-ten, the shelter is abandoned. Max takes a seat on one of the benches, then stands and wanders over to the timetable. Graffiti obscures the arrival times beneath green stars and ugly swear-words. The next bus might be ten minutes or forty. His shoulder finds the metal post, cold but supportive, and for a moment he is tempted to wait. With a little luck he could be home within the hour.
The thought no sooner enters his mind when he turns up his collars, steps out beneath the sky, and makes for the nearest Underground station. Luck has not been on his side today.
The rain is merciless, and in moments he is drenched. His navy jacket darkens, his white shirt clinging to him like a second transparent skin. The commuter current drags him along.
The street blurs around him. Men and women become base silhouettes; shadows of people glimpsed in his periphery. Shapes sag, stooped against the weather, darkening like his jacket, and it is easy to imagine the rain is responsible; soaking the street, weighing it down, waterlogging the pavement and the people forced to use it. The fog lingers around the road, a blank canvas into which the silhouettes vanish, or reappear suddenly, chased into sight again by headlights and the breathy snort of car engines.
The entrance to the Underground yawns ahead. The current pulls him closer, and even though it is raining, and the station is his destination, he cannot help the wave of panic that crashes over him. Bodies press closer as the stream narrows; flesh and blood and corporate bones digging into his ribs, knocking his shoulders, finding the small of his back. As he approaches the turnstiles, he fumbles in his wallet for the monthly pass that will activate them. Then he is through them, and stepping onto an escalator.
He hates the Underground. If the city’s streets are its thumbprints then these subterranean channels are surely the bare soles of its feet; cankerous, black with grime and ripe with trapped human smells. He detects sweat, and smoke, and the imagined flavour of despair in this place where people crowd and the wind cannot reach –
Despair, but not darkness. Fluorescent strip bulbs line the ceilings, built into the brick or guarded behind strips of wire-mesh, their harsh light as merciless as the deluge outside, every cracked tile, every broken bottle, every billboard plastered with adverts illuminated in the unforgiving brightness. More graffiti covers one of the tunnel walls, language and art reduced to expletives in this place where there is no air and it is never dark –
A train roars through the station without stopping, and he realises he’s standing on the platform. He doesn’t remember stepping from the escalator or escaping the current, but he is here. Carriages shudder past, axles rocking, and he finds rhythm in their terrible speed. He thinks of carousels, and their bobbing steeds, and the motion of real steeds thundering across open fields with nothing but the breeze in their manes and the vast empty sky overhead for company. He used to ride, when he was little and he would visit his grandparents in Sussex.
He knows what it feels like, to take off with an animal and say goodbye to everyone and everything left behind. He didn’t appreciate it then, of course, but increasingly he has been remembering it now. He clings to the memory, covering himself with it, drawing it into him, soothing against his tired skin.
The times on the electronic board inform him that his train is due. He hears it first, its arrival announced by something halfway between a sigh and a mechanical scream. Then the carriages slide into view and he finds himself stepping on-board and finding a seat.
The inside of the carriage is no less bright than the rest of the station. Each seat is mostly plastic, with a covering of something intended to be softer. Stains and daily wear have made the fabric almost unidentifiable. He finds a seat at the far end, slightly away from the other passengers, as the train sets off again.
Alone, he stares at his reflection in the glass window opposite him. In the blackness of the tunnel, the window is a mirror. The harsh light is as unforgiving to his face as it was to the rest of the station. The bags under his eyes are heavy and dark, his skin pale, lips tight. Any traces of humour have been banished by the missed bus. Any traces of youth have been drained by the long day. He thinks again of his grandparents’ house in Sussex, and the horses in their stables, and the young boy who rode them. Eagerly, perhaps desperately, he searches his reflection, looking for some sign that his younger self lives yet, somewhere inside.
“Where are you?” he asks, watching the slight movement of his lips. “Where are you now?”
Lights flash behind the speeding carriage windows, and for a moment he thinks he sees something else through the glass; a horse’s head, thrown back, lips speckled with froth and blood. The glass clouds with hot breath as another giddy scream fills his ears. Then the train is slowing again, and he realises it is braking. Standing, he moves towards the door.
The rest of the carriage is empty. He does not know how long he has been sitting here, or which station they are pulling into. The name of their destination appears on a small screen above the connecting doors but the letters swim in and out of focus. Rubbing his eyes, he fumbles for the button that opens the carriage doors and disembarks.
The platform is similarly empty. He moves slowly towards the stairwell, possessed by the insane notion that he is on an abandoned film set after hours. His life up to this point feels like an act, a supporting part in someone else’s show, or less than that; a walk-on role for which he is not even acknowledged afterwards. He repeats his name to himself, to prove that it is real and it is his. The word echoes around him.
He is at the bottom of the stairs when he hears another sound in the station. Turning, he cranes his head. He is still alone, but the sound is clearer now, growing louder from the darkness either side of the empty train: the casual clatter of hooves against metal.
A part of him is drawn to the darkness of the tunnel. It seems an impossible thing here, where the harsh lights are unfaltering. In darkness there is comfort; respite enough from the rest of the world to draw real breath and find relief. It would be an easy thing, to wander to the edge of the platform and climb down. Then he hears the clip-clop of hooves again, and heavy breaths. When two white eyes appear, floating in the gloom, he turns and flees.
The steps are slippery, or perhaps it is his haste that makes him trip and fall. With delayed dream-momentum he stumbles away, up the stairs and the escalator long since switched off for the night. He races past the turnstiles, all set to open, and into the night-time street.
He does not stop running. He cannot remember ever having run so fast or with such wild abandon. Nor is he quite sure what he’s running from. He cannot see his pursuer but he hears its snorts, feels the warmth of its breath on his face and in his mouth. He tastes blood and sugar-cubes. Puddles shatter underfoot.
It has stopped raining, at least. The fog has lifted, too, the city glistening as though iced. He races faster through the streets, sometimes stumbling, other times reaching new found speeds, but the alleyways are never-ending. He wonders if he could run forever and still not escape, if there will always be another road, another side-walk, another set of street-lights illuminating his face, casting shadows beneath his eyes.
Headlights turn into the road ahead, and through a different kind of fog he remembers something; lateness, another run, the bus he should have caught to take him home. Lowering his head, he gives chase. The wind tousles his hair. The sound of his shoes marries with that of hoof-beats in the night.
It might be the same bus and it might not; the detail does not seem remotely relevant anymore. Exhilaration presses at his ribs, his belly, running like electricity through his limbs.
He remembers other missed buses, and board meetings in which his colleagues may as well have been speaking different languages. He remembers missing files and the inane chatter that spills from Frederick’s mouth whenever his colleague corners him in his office. He remembers the helplessness that consumed him, when he realised that he had missed his lift home. But he is not helpless now. In the cold night, with the wind in his hair and his eyes, he feels free.
The bus is slow, and in moments he has caught up with it. As he pulls parallel to the vehicle, he catches sight of his reflection again in the row of windows and finds himself changed. Slabs of muscle in his legs ripple with each stride, a vast belly swinging beneath him, hooves striking fiercely against the ground: Great Nyctaeus, reborn of this modern Hades!
Moonlight picks out his monstrous shape in majesty; slender but powerful as he thunders onwards. His eyes gleam like two pearls in his head. He glances once more at the windows, tossing back his broad neck. Pink foam from his muzzle flecks the glass.
A dream flits through his head: the sight of an open field beneath empty skies. Then it is gone again. Charging ahead, nostrils flaring, he chases the night through dark satanic streets.
~ Thomas Brown
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