2013 Runner-Up - Fiction
The others would drink on those nights, before they met up and joined the crowds of tourists and commuters alike filtering into the Covent Garden tube station, but Ellie never did. It wasn’t because she was afraid of losing an edge she didn’t think she had, or of stumbling, drunk, into the path of an oncoming train. It was because she needed nothing else – nothing but the dark, stale air of the tube lines, nothing but the panicked, fascinating rush of a train zipping by only feet away, blowing her hair into her eyes. It was her rebellion, her secret, and she didn’t want to spoil it by overdoing it, the way Zach or Alex or Rae sometimes did.
That night, they met outside the Covent Garden station at the same street corner as always, watching people filter into the large, red brick building for a moment. Ellie was already feeling that crazed excitement of doing something she knew she shouldn’t, even though simply standing on the street corner they looked perfectly normal. Two average upper school students and three average university students. No one would have guessed, looking at them, that they all had torches tucked away in their pockets – in Zach’s case, a headlamp – and that within minutes they would be jumping down from the platform and skipping through black tunnels.
Rae led the way into the station, scanning the crowd to see whether or not the attendants were looking before slipping nonchalantly through the swinging handicapped entrance. The others followed her, one by one. Ellie’s heart jumped with that first hint of panic as she ducked through – had that attendant spotted her? – but then they joined the large group of people standing at the platform’s edge, waiting for the next train, and Milo’s hand slipped into hers, making her breath catch for an entirely different reason.
It was Milo who had first introduced her to something that, a year ago, she would have called complete madness. He was in her year at school, and he’d sat down next to her at the library one day, where she had been staring at her schoolbooks without properly processing a word.
“We don’t have to take those tests for another year yet, you know,” he said, and she’d jumped half out of her seat.
“I know,” she said, trying to return her attention to parliamentary politics from the nineteenth century, even though she was having a hard time shaking her fantasies of curling up on the library’s window seat and taking a nap. “Still, though, I need to get good A levels-”
“‘Course you do. Don’t we all?”
“Look, what do you want?” she’d said at last, turning away from her book and making herself meet his startling grey eyes.
“All I’m saying is, you should give it a rest. I need a break too.”
“Why do you think I should give it a rest?”
“Because,” he said, leaning in towards her, his breath tickling her ear with its conspiratorial whisper, “I saw you eyeing the window seat.”
Ellie turned a delicate shade of pink.
“It – er – looks like a decent place for a nap,” she mumbled.
“It’s rubbish. Trust me.”
He had then gone on to invite her to hang out with him that afternoon. One of his brother’s university friends was in a band, and they were playing at some tiny café or other. In the hours leading up to the time between school and when she was to meet him, she wasn’t certain whether she had been flustered into agreeing with him or if she had actually wanted to go, but once he arrived she was glad that, for once, she had done something different. Milo wasn’t what most girls she knew would consider attractive – he was barely taller than her and just as scrawny, with a crooked nose and ears that stuck out a mile, but he had the kind of smile that lit up his whole face, and that was the smile he’d given her when she had actually turned up to meet him.
Milo’s brother Alex seemed nice enough – he had the same big ears as his brother, but without the bright smile and attentive eyes. Alex’s friends, however, had taken some getting used to – Zach, the one in the band, was an impossibly tall black boy, who could play guitar fairly well and always looked as though he was up to something mischievous and possibly frightening. Rae had been the only girl of the group till Ellie had turned up. She had short blue hair and an eyebrow piercing and every time Rae looked at her now, Ellie could still feel a trace of that first scathing look she’d been given, as though Rae was calculating every detail of Ellie’s soul from one glimpse of Ellie’s brownish pixie haircut, her worn-out jeans and her Doctor Who t-shirt.
“You sure know how to pick ‘em, Milo,” she’d said at last, and this must have been an approval, because Ellie had been a part of the group ever since.
They’d just hung out at first, meeting whenever Zach’s band got a gig somewhere or one of them had a paper they wanted to avoid. They would walk around the city aimlessly, sometimes stopping for coffee somewhere or sometimes just talking about classes and work and nonsense. Ellie and Milo never said a word about it at school; he would just catch her eye in class certain days, and if he smiled at her she knew there would be something happening that afternoon. After a life spent doing homework and steadily working her way through the history books that littered her house, Ellie’s secret life with her new friends had been exciting enough for her before Zach had told her about their underground adventures.
She’d been into the tunnels with them several times now, and this time, when the train pulled into the station, she stepped over the gap and into the car with the others with no hesitation. That first time she had gone with them, she had nearly turned around and run out, but something had set her feet moving forward. The exhilaration of it all was still something she was getting used to, but once she had followed the others into the dark, once she had been shown the bizarre dreamworld that existed beneath London’s streets, sketched out in intricate artwork on the old tunnel walls, once Milo had grabbed her hand that first time, she knew that this was something she did not want to miss, no matter how terrified she was.
He had been the one to finally convince her to go in the first place. Zach had brought it up casually, almost astonishingly so, as if he was asking if she wanted to meet in a coffee shop.
“Ellie, want to come tunneling with us this weekend?” he’d asked.
“Er – do I want to what?”
Zach had just grinned at her, a scarily mischievous look that Ellie had not been able to understand until Rae had rolled her eyes and explained.
“It’s what he calls it when we go into the tube tunnels,” she said. “He thinks he’s being clever, giving it a name when it hasn’t got one. It’s just a thing we do.”
“A what?” Ellie squawked. “A thing you do? As in you actually go into the actual underground?”
“Yeah,” Alex said, shrugging.
Alex had a way of being nonchalant about absolutely everything. When Milo had introduced her, his brother had looked at her and calmly raised his shoulders as he said hello, as though he couldn’t care less about the girl Milo had dragged along to his friend’s concert. The two brothers were strange, standing next to each other – Ellie had always seen how Milo was enthusiastic about everything, about the books he read and movies he told her about, but Alex seemed almost painfully sedate. Even so, even in regards to a person who had never shown a great deal more energy than most inanimate objects, Ellie could not fathom how someone could explain that they walked around in tube tunnels with no hint of emotion whatsoever.
“You are kidding, right?”
“Why would we make that up?” Rae said, turning her disdainful look from Zach’s still-impish expression to Ellie’s shocked face.
“It’s – because – it’s mental, that’s why!”
Rae’s disapproving expression intensified. Ellie always felt as though Rae was judging everything that she said and did, but just at that moment, she did not care if she did not live up to the much bolder girl’s standards.
“Yeah, a bit,” Zach said. “So? That’s what makes it fun. You should come with us, kid.” He slapped her on the shoulder, knocking her forward a few steps. “Loosen up a bit. Do something crazy for once – it’s healthy.”
“Milo – you – you don’t go with them, do you?”
Milo smiled sheepishly, then nodded, admitting that he was more than the sweet, enthusiastic boy who liked talking to her about Elizabethan culture.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know it’s crazy, but, it’s sort of liberating. It’s proof that you can do anything you want to. Homework and A levels and futures don’t matter – it’s just you and the dark and the rush of the moment.”
Ellie blinked at him. The idea would be poetic if it wasn’t so insane.
“You should come with us this weekend,” he said. “I mean, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to. I won’t make you. You’re right, it is dangerous. But – I think you might like it.”
That weekend, Ellie had turned up at the Piccadilly Circus station dressed very oddly. She’d stretched the bottom of her leggings over the tops of her boots, tucking away the laces, and the sleeves of her tight-fitting blue shirt didn’t gap away from her thin wrists at all. Milo’s customary smile faltered when he saw her.
“What are you wearing?” Rae said, appearing from the crowd and standing next to Milo.
“I-” Ellie stammered, looking down at her unusually form fitting clothes, which highlighted her gawky limbs. “I figured it was better not to have anything that could get caught on something-”
“Right.” Rae rolled her eyes. “Well, Catwoman, let’s get going.”
Ellie had blushed, wishing she could prove to Rae that she was a worthwhile human being, but at the same time, her feet stayed stuck to the ground as she watched Alex, Zach, and Rae jump the turnstile and head towards the platform’s edge.
And then Milo’s hand had slipped into hers and while her fears stayed very much intact, her insecurities melted away. Milo seemed to think that she was a worthwhile human being, and that mattered much more than Rae’s opinion.
“You okay?” he asked.
She had turned to him, white faced and terrified, and, nodding, had allowed him to lead her into the underground.
The train was late; Alex and Zach had glowered into the dark tunnel, mumbling about how it was probably blocked by “another bloody jumper,” a thought which made Ellie feel halfway sad and halfway nauseated but which did not seem to phase the boys, or anyone else on the platform, in the slightest.
Still, all too soon, the train had arrived, the people on the platform had boarded, and the train pulled away again. With a great whoop, Zach jumped off the now-empty platform and into the space the train had lately occupied, switching on his headlamp and scurrying off into the tunnel, where the darkness swallowed him whole. And then Alex and Rae had disappeared as well, and she and Milo were at the end, ignoring the robot voice that told them to mind the gap, and Ellie had tipped over the edge into the abyss, her heart pounding in her throat.
Almost immediately, Ellie was wishing that she had not been idiotic enough to agree to this venture. Their torches illuminated strange pieces of the tunnel, flashes of graffitied walls and iron tracks. Intermittently, orange tube lights lent a little more light to the cold, black tunnels, but it seemed to paint everything in a rather hellish light. Ellie clung to Milo’s hand, flinching at every move of the torches, and, when Zach’s headlamp illuminated a pair of rats scurrying across a worker’s walkway, she screamed. Rae burst out laughing, the sound echoing strangely in the dark space, quavering through the thick, stale air that smelled inexplicably disgusting, air that seemed to be clogging Ellie’s throat and also her ears as Rae’s disdainful laugh had washed over her and continued down into the unending dark.
“Shut it,” she’d said, shaking. “You’re all mental.”
The track beside her feet had begun to rattle slightly then, and if she had been terrified before, it was nothing to how she felt then.
“It’s about to get far more mental,” Zach had said. “Come on!”
The five of them had taken off, flying along the tunnel in the dark, their feet pounding out a counterrhythm to the rattle of the tracks and the increasing rumble of the approaching train behind them. Ellie choked down the acrid air around her, watching her feet pound on the filthy ground between the iron tracks dimly illuminated by dancing torch beams.
And then something had happened. In the impossible rush of that moment, the exhilarating terror of that first raced train, after the five of them had hauled themselves into a safe place beside the tracks where workers could stand to test the electricity before the train had rattled past them, whipping the putrid air into something rushing and fresh and new, Ellie had discovered why the others were insane enough to descend into the underground on a regular basis. She had discovered that it was only within the most impossible places that she could feel something impossible and hopeful within herself. She had felt the girl who dreamed of napping on library window seats and spent hours reading detailed histories of Versailles break apart and flutter away, tossed aside in favor of a girl who could do anything, just as Milo had said – a girl who could race a train and win, who could howl with laughter into the rush of air whooshing past and prove that she was invincible.
Ellie, Milo, and the others had gone into the tunnels several weekends and evenings in the months that had followed, and slowly Ellie had grown used to the strange-tasting air and frightening dark and had learned to appreciate the bizarre beauty of the tunnels. The orange tunnel lights no longer seemed hellish – they seemed welcoming, pools of brightness illuminating the unknown space beneath the sprawling city of London.
That night, like many other nights, they rode on the tube for several minutes, winding their way along until they found a stop that seemed sufficiently deserted.
“Come on,” Alex said, leaning towards her as they stood up, breathing alcohol into her face. “You’re only young once.”
And they were young, weren’t they? She and Milo were seventeen, just at the edge of something new and exciting and terrifying all in one, something Ellie did not quite understand but was eager to race towards nonetheless. They all were young and mad and reckless, and as soon as the train pulled round the corner they jumped off the platform and hurried into the dark. Their torches and Zach’s headlamp winked on, splashing sporadic spots of white along the tunnel walls, along the ground, dancing as they darted forward and jumped back and forth over the rails, their laughter ricocheting down the long, black, endless gap ahead of them. Part of her knew how ridiculous it was, but her secret rebellion, these friends, these tunnels, made her feel completely invincible. She could run, laughing, through the London Underground at night – she could do anything. She had raced the trains and sung poorly into the dark and written her name on the wall in a place where no one would ever see it. What did that matter? At school she was quiet and clever and didn’t cause trouble. Here, she was impossible, unbreakable, exhilarating.
They ducked out of the way of a passing train, tucked almost-safely into a niche built into the wall for workers. Zach and Rae shouted into the rush of wind, their voices harmonizing oddly with the screech of the train, and Ellie laughed, her hair in her eyes and her hand still securely in Milo’s. She kept hoping he might kiss her, or say something to her at school, but she didn’t mind the silent pact of his hand wrapped around hers. It only heightened the impossible, bizarre beauty of the tunnels – anything could happen at all, there in that black space filled with danger and excitement and unspoken secrets. Words weren’t really necessary – time stretched on into infinity, down miles and miles of empty space, and there was no need to discuss what might be. They would get there eventually.
The train passed, and Zach and his headlamp led the way forward again. They were heading to the Blackfriars tube station – it was closed, and had been for a year, and it was an excellent place to stop and watch trains rush past before making their surreptitious journey towards the surface again. Ellie and Milo laughed as they watched Zach play a strange game of hopscotch over the rails, skipping back and forth over the dangerous iron tracks, his headlamp light swinging wildly in the blackness as he did so, his laugh ringing through the maze of tunnels. Milo whistled a song that she thought that she recognized, but was not quite certain she could place. The sound echoed eerily through the space in front of behind them, bouncing off of rounded concrete walls and iron supports. Rae and Zach were walking calmly ahead of the group for a while, arguing about something idiotic that their professor had said in class the day before, while Alex walked alone, in the middle of the group, looking around at the tunnels and, Ellie thought, trying to memorize every crack in the walls and every line of graffiti scrawled near the ceiling. A few more trains zipped past them, some closer than others, one close enough to elicit a lot of swearing from Rae and Alex, but nothing seemed unusual then. Nothing was any different from their usual underground adventures. Not until they reached Blackfriars.
“I think I hear a train coming,” Milo said, pointing at tracks that seemed, to Ellie, to vibrate very slightly, sending little silver slivers through the dark air.
“All this time down here and you’re worried about that?” Alex teased. “That’s not a problem at all. C’mon, we’re nearly there.”
The sound of the approaching train grew steadily louder as they walked, but while they quickened their steps, none of them worried. They had all done this a thousand times before. For a moment, Rae even made a show of lagging behind, showing off her painted-on tough attitude, and everyone laughed. It seemed beyond hilarious to laugh in the face of screeching metal death, and it was certainly easy. Milo continued to whistle, holding Ellie’s hand and smiling that wide, enthusiastic smile, the smile that made her blush all the way to her ears, the smile that she knew he saved just for her.
They rounded the corner, with Blackfriars the next stop ahead, and for a split second they all paused, blinking as they saw the glare of a train’s headlights in the distance, the rattling screeching rush of its noise far too close, impossibly close. How had they allowed it to catch up to them? Did the train not understand their laughs in the darkness? Did it not understand how this was supposed to work?
All five of them started sprinting along the tracks.
The platform seemed an eternity away, the train closer and closer with every second, but somehow Zach’s long legs carried him to the platform and powered him up over the edge. Rae and Alex, shorter, compacter, sprinted close behind, and Ellie dragged Milo by the hand, her fingernails digging into his wrist. This was different. The adrenaline coursing through her now wasn’t exciting; instead, she felt she was going to be sick, watching the train speed forward, its lights burning into the backs of her eyes where it had previously been so dark and so seemingly safe.
How had she ever thought this was safe? How had she ever thought that she was any match for screeching metal and solid concrete?
But then Zach was grabbing her hand, yanking her up, and her feet found purchase on the platform’s edge. She stumbled forward into the dimly lit, abandoned space, dumbfounded, as feeling rushed painfully back into her hand, pins and needles stabbing at her fingers. She stared at the white marks that Milo’s grip had left on her skin, fading slowly into nothing. The train sped past the platform as though nothing had happened, as though no impossible future had been shattered, as though Alex was not screaming his brother’s name into the dark.