Elizabeth McSkeane

Underground

Elizabeth McSkeane

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     This must be simple imagination or perhaps whoever’s doing it doesn’t realise. A heavy sigh should give the message, a shift of weight from one foot to the other and now your left hip angles back towards the carriage door.  It’s just a small disturbance but even that’s too much. A young man glares, a woman rolls her eyes to heaven. Down here it’s impossible to move, almost as impossible to breathe. The air is heavy with odours: sweat, clothes damp with sweat, sour breath, all mingled with a whiff of stale perfume. You have to focus every scrap of concentration, stay upright, keep the nausea down.

     Until the gentle touch returns, a light pressure at first, nothing more than that. Then, a little firmer. There’s movement now, a definite arc. A rhythm.

     But everyone is touching someone, intimately, chins rest on strangers’ shoulders, every body part is pressed and jostled by body parts of other travellers, briefcases, plastic bags, rolled newspapers. And once you find a reasonable position you guard it, plant yourself, stand fast, for no movement is permissible, none possible beyond the swaying and jolting and lurching of the carriage. One exception. Approaching every station when the train slows down and finally stops, there’s always someone in the middle of the crowd who has to elbow their way through. But there’s nowhere anyone can go so when the doors have opened, two or three alight to make way for the one who wants to leave and more are getting on but how can even one more person fit yet in they pile and then the carriage rattles on while the multi-limbed, many-headed body catches its balance again. Thus space is renegotiated, less of it than before but a new configuration now and worth the effort just for that.

     This may well be the edge of someone’s briefcase or umbrella, nothing more than that, if anyone could be carrying an umbrella on such a day. Stillness is essential now as there is no space to move, not without a major fuss and also, it’s absolutely necessary to be sure. Only head and eyes are mobile but a slow scan of the carriage gives no clue. No-one is making eye-contact. The rhythm of the train is jiggling someone’s briefcase, a hand or an umbrella creating this illusion of a slow, irregular massage that’s sliding higher now, higher and wider, wider and higher.

     Someone gasps. It’s you, your own involuntary breath, and it makes you jolt. A flush is rising slowly from your neck. Now you absolutely have to move so you slip your right hand across your torso, reach up to your left shoulder, draw the leather bag-strap down along your arm then pull it over and end up by looping it across your right shoulder. Someone tuts. You mumble a general ‘sorry’. This awkward, apparently pointless, manoeuvre has just caused a major fuss as everyone has had to adjust their position to accommodate your fidgeting. But it has distracted you and maybe others from your burning face, your odd gasp and spasm. Also, that sly stroking has stopped.

     The line map over the carriage door shows four stops gone and nine to go which indicates that approximately twenty-five minutes remain of a total journey time of thirty-five. This mental arithmetic occupies a great deal of your attention which is fortunate, because the effect of that touch has moved from your body to your mind. Like a physical pain. When it stops, first there is relief and then there is suspicion, you’re on the alert, maybe it really has gone and then again, maybe it hasn’t. You just have to wait and see.

     You can’t make a toothache go away but surely you can do something about this. Ask someone to change places. You glance around again, this time looking for a source of help. Everyone, or almost everyone, is intent on keeping their balance and on not touching their neighbours any more than they must. Everyone is wearing a slight frown. You allow your gaze to rest on a couple of the least unfriendly faces. The small woman with the shopping bag. The very tall young man leaning with his back-pack against the rail a couple of seats away. You are determined to catch at least one pair of eyes. Their owners are just as determined that you will not.  So the vague appeal will not work.

     How about the direct approach?

     “I’m terribly sorry but would you mind very much exchanging places with me? You see, someone,” (pause for non-specific glare) is feeling me up.”

     Possible, but with seven stops and nineteen minutes still to go, this would take nerve. It would also be embarrassing. Choice: ridicule or chronic discomfort. No contest, really.

     What about a fighting stance?

     “Would the person who is feeling me up stop it right now?”

     But he has stopped. Of course, he might start again. But that’s only one problem. The other, is the doubt: is this really happening?  (It can’t be!) You should have reacted immediately as if you were swatting a fly or punching a nose that deserved to be punched. But you’ve thought about it too long. You’ve analysed your response out of existence.

     Meanwhile, someone has just got out and this has created another surge and settling in the crowd. Briefly there’s an empty seat but it’s pointless even to think about it. Three or four passengers have made a dive for it, standing on the toes of everyone else who has decided it’s not worth the fight.  A man in a light grey suit clutching a newspaper has managed to push his way through. He heaves a sigh as he sits down. The others slip awkwardly back into place among the people they have just been elbowing and shoving in their scramble. These are well-dressed individuals with the good leather accoutrements of a professional life, people who would normally hold out chairs and open doors for each other. There are no old people or pregnant women or children down here today. If there were, what would happen to them?

     Then very gently it begins again. Light but steady, this time making a circular motion. There is absolutely no mistaking this and there is absolutely no way of moving or manoeuvring. The only way out is to say something, loudly, but there are six stops and fifteen minutes still to go and as it’s impossible to guess who could be doing this, impossible even to see everyone within touching distance, it would have to be a general accusation and how ridiculous would that sound, how stupid, how insulting to all but the one, unidentified offender.

     Also, it’s too late. How can you explain having allowed this to continue, having endured this, for more than twenty minutes? An excess of reasonable doubt has weakened your will, paralysed your natural mechanisms of defence. Whoever is doing this knows he’s safe.

     There are three people close by: in front, a woman clasping a carrier bag to her chest; to the side, two men, one turned away and a small man on the right who is standing a little closer than he absolutely needs to. You get a feeling about the small man, look him full in the face, willing him to look back. He does, bold as brass. It would be nice to have a knife or a gun or a baseball bat and use it to do something unpleasant to him. A fierce glare makes no difference, the stroking continues, more insistent if anything. At the next stop the small man gets out and after the settling of the crowd there’s a gentle pinching this time, a suggestive rolling of flesh. Just as well about the baseball bat, it wasn’t him. But who? I know you don’t like this, those fingers are saying.  What are you going to do about it?

     The train is moving towards the fifth station from your stop, thirteen minutes from home and this time the deceleration rattles you out of your groove. Get out, get off the train, how foolish not to have thought of it before, how awful that flight is easier than fight but just now it’s the only workable option. You twist past the small woman with the bag, push past the others, stand on someone’s foot, hard, I hope it’s his, jab furiously at the button that tells the door to open but the train hasn’t quite stopped yet, stumble on to the platform gasping with relief. Streams of people are making their way through the gates and you just cannot bear any more jostling. So you lean against the wall, half-hidden behind a machine that sells sweets and soft drinks and you rest.

     Almost immediately there’s a presence close by, too close. It’s the very tall young man, he has stopped and is fixing the straps on his back-pack. You turn quickly and look him straight in the eye. He looks back for just a second and then his eyes flick away, his head turns and is that a slight shrug, a wry little grin, perhaps, as he veers around you? Could he have seen? He must have seen. He must have noticed you, enduring or maybe enjoying, is that what he thought, why did that stupid woman in the underground let that dirty old man (what dirty old man) feel her up? Why didn’t she do something? And you want to look at him again, explain, really make him listen but he is still walking away so you have no choice but to tell it all to the back of his curly head.  Because at first I wasn’t sure that this was really happening. Because I thought I might be making a mistake. Because I couldn’t believe that he, whoever he was, would knowingly do this. Because I felt stupid, ashamed, that this could happen to me. Because I couldn’t think of anything to say. Because very soon it was too late and I knew that no-one would believe me. Because I thought that they – you? – might find it funny and laugh. Because I was afraid, of what exactly I don’t know, maybe just afraid that smug bastards like you would judge me. 

     “Take your pick.”

     No-one stops but you must have said something after all, one or two people have turned around, you’re getting a few strange looks as you start the climb up to street level, towards the light summer breeze and the daylight.

  

Elizabeth McSkeane


Liz was born in Scotland and has lived in Dublin since 1981. In 1999, she was the overall winner of the Sunday Tribune/Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year Award. Her first novel, “Canticle,” was one of twelve winners in the 2016 Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair. She has three poetry collections: “In Flight,” (Lapwing, 1996); “Snow at the Opera House” (2002, New Island); “So Long, Calypso” (Turas Press, 2017). Her poetry and short stories have been published in the Irish Times, Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Pages, The Shop,The Stinging Fly, The Cork Literary Review, Orbis, Stepaway and others.