Have you ever sunk down into the belly of London?
There are vertical escalators, and sometimes they squeak and squeal, groaning under the weight of a thousand feet every second of every day. Never stopping. Hundreds of stories and minds. Millions of thoughts, whispered in thousands of accents, drowned by the voices of people getting things done.
There are pictures on the metal walls, pictures that move and shift and change shapes, kaleidoscopic in their constant swirling motion, and for a moment you want to go to the theatre and see Les Miserable, and the next moment the thought vanishes from your brain as you frantically feel your way through pale yellow tunnels, following the crowd and wondering if you are going the right way, can’t turn back or else people will shove you back the way you came, the rush of hot air pulling you further and further into the belly of London.
Old walls, crumbling civilisations giving way to new ones.
I was born in London.
Same hospital as my mother was born in. So strange, that thought. Twenty four years apart.
My father fell down the stairs and broke his coccyx bone the day I was born. He was rushing to the hospital to see his first child. For twenty three years he hasn’t been able to sit properly.
When I was six years old, my stomach curled and unfurled itself as I clutched a small pink straw bag, descending on those vertical escalators down, down down below the crowded surface of the busy city.
Do we have to go on the tube? Can’t we go on the overground train?
Don’t be so silly, Lenora. Look sharp now, quickly!
My mother, seasoned, marching through the tunnels with myself and my little brother in tow. Stepping onto the train, grabbing the back of her skirt, sick with fear.
Then the hurtle, the loud screaming of the train on those metal tracks, the blackness outside the windows. Why were there even windows, if there was nothing to look at? Terrified. Barely able to breathe. Is this the stop? Can we get out?
A soft groan, deep in my belly.
Any minute now the lights would turn off and the train would stop and we would be stuck down here in the dark and heat forever and ever and
Loud, screaming, hurtling, whistling, wailing. I would close my eyes, begging for this nightmare to be over.
When I was eleven I read a story about the people who cleaned the underground tunnels.
You wouldn’t believe what they found there. Giant rats, and fleas the size of cockroaches, flittering in the darkness. An old woman spoke of the horrors of those tunnels. Yet, they were a refuge to many during the war. Safe havens, in giant brick pools under the ancient city of London. Curving under the Thames and even crossing by the long forgotten rivers that people seldom remember, yet traverse past daily.
And still, I was terrified.
The tube?! Really?! We can get to Victoria on the overground. What about a bus?! A bus is so much better.
Oh, grow up, you silly girl.
Stuck to my seat, sometimes shoved under someone’s armpit, holding tight, my stomach swaying as the train hustled and swerved and screamed its way through those hot, windy tunnels. Fear seeped through my skin, soaking my clothes and beading on my upper lip.
The roaring becoming louder, and louder, and louder, rising in volume and ferocity,
– why is it so angry -?!
I open my eyes.
I am twenty three years old. I am sitting on the tube for the first time in three years, and before that, for the first time nine.
London has not been my home for twelve years.
Yet, every time I step off the train and into Euston or King’s Cross, a rush of overwhelming familiarity hits me.
The smells and the noise pollution, rising high in the sky, thousands of lives picking their way through thousands of machines, breathing in exhaust fumes and coffee grounds, heels on newspapers, sweat pooling in the creases of skin, accents and countries and worlds colliding as people get on with their business.
And I love the tube. I love the tube with all my heart.
I love the feeling of standing on the furthest end, watching everybody and their engrossed detachment from the world around them. The ginger man sitting next to a nun, sneaking peeks at her reading material. The woman who is watching a Netflix show and the audience of standing commuters, eyes glued to her screen behind the grimy glass that separates her seat from the doors.
I love the hurtling, screaming ferocity. I love the traffic of humans, all hurrying, running, racing, sweating, on the same journey but so trained in avoiding any real contact with each other. Physically pressed up against each other but mentally floating high above the tunnels through which they are carried at top speeds.
I don’t love London at all. I might love the memories I have, which lurk around unexpected corners and in strange places. That place that I vomited outside the Natural History museum. That spot in the British library where I tried to hide those chewits. That fountain in Hyde Park where I sprained my ankle and subsequently cried all the way home on the 319. That tree where the dog barked at my brother and I, scaring our five and four year old selves half to death. That rookery where we rolled down the hills and I got grass stains on my blue Alice in Wonderland dress.
But I love the Tube.
I love the old terror that rises in my throat like bile, because my twenty three year old self recognises it for what it really is;