Neil’s on the busy platform waiting for the subway home. He’s unmasked—they all are now—but he’s guarded. Cautious. He’s been walking the city in the months since his mother died. He flirts with the streets, the bars. Soon, he tells himself, he’ll be a part of it all. Like he never could be before.
Laughter nearby jolts him. Students, he guesses. A group of them. Heading back to their shared house after a Friday night out. An older couple brushes past him, dressed smart. They’ve been to a play, he thinks. Opera. He smells the perfume on her. The beer on him. Or maybe it’s his own breath he smells.
A train arrives. No one gets off. People push on. The platform empties as he’s jostled and buffeted. He shoves a guy in front of him, then looks away quickly as the bigger man turns around. Neil backs off. The crowd flows around him, pinched at the doors of the train carriage then expanding into it, filling it, like sand flowing through an hourglass.
The doors close. The train pulls away. He’s left on the platform. Alone.
There’d been glimpses of companionship. The stillness and isolation forced him to make an effort, in his own way. A few drinks with an old schoolmate he’d contacted on Facebook. That had been just a one off. He’d tried the dating apps but barely got past the banter. One girl agreed to meet him; Lisa. She’d been gorgeous in an effortless way. But the second, last time they met she only came out to say, “Sorry about your mother, Neil.”
An announcement startles him: “The next train will not stop at this platform. Stand back.”
The tunnel lights up and the warm, stale subterranean air is pushed into his face, making his eyes water. The train rolls in, moving quickly.
Neil watches the train cars speed past. Empty seats lit in garish white fluorescent lights. Then he sees it. Or thinks he sees it. A fight. Fifteen, twenty men in a carriage. Violent action passing almost too quickly to register. The train is gone.
He’s jarred. Unnerved. He grinds his teeth at the thought of it. At what he saw. What he thinks he saw. Kicking, punching.
He clenches his fists. He opens them.
All the other carriages were empty. Just one car with the men. Clawing, gouging, lashing out wildly. Biting. Screaming.
He looks around but there’s no one to share this with. No one to acknowledge what happened. To laugh it off. To calm him down.
Another train is coming in four minutes. The last train of the night. He paces on the platform. He sees a filthy mouse skit along the tracks and disappear into a hole. A few groups of people emerge onto the platform, panting, laughing, in time for the train.
He turns. He’s back up the stairs, through the turnstiles and out into the frigid air of the small-hours city. The bars are still throbbing with people inside and mobbed by smokers outside. The pavements are heaving. Traffic is crawling along the streets; taxis, buses, Ubers.
He looks for a policeman but there are none. And what would he say? “There’s a brawl on an empty train under the city.” They’d think he was drunk. Or mad. He checks his phone but there are no messages. There haven’t been for weeks. He thinks about messaging Lisa. He wants to. But he deleted the app weeks ago.
He goes to the nearest club. He sees it’s busy through the door but the bouncer puts a hand out before he can step in.
“You meeting someone here, buddy?”
“No,” Neil says. “Just want a drink.”
“Can’t let you in. Sorry. Not a guy by himself this time of night. You know what I mean?”
Neil looks up. The bouncer’s eyes are resolute but not unkind. It’s more boredom and pity there than malice. Neil grinds his teeth, about to argue. Normally he wouldn’t insist. But images of the train flit through his mind. He looks at the bouncer’s big hand still blocking his way. He imagines it balled into a fist.
“He’s with us,” a voice from behind says. Neil turns. There’s a group of girls behind him. One of them smiles at him. “He’s with us,” she says again. One of her friends rolls her eyes.
The bouncer hesitates. “You sure?” he asks.
The girl answers, “Of course!” but the bouncer had been looking at Neil.
They move into the club. Neil with the girls.
“Thanks,” he says to her.
“No worries,” she replies. Her friend is pulling her away. “Have a good night!” They disappear into the crowd.
Neil watches her go. Her top is cut low. He sees the muscles ripple on her bare back. The whisper of a tattoo lower down.
The crowd is five-deep at the bar but he goes to get a drink anyway. The music is pumping, some sort of dance track. He’d not listen to this normally. He wouldn’t be in a place like this normally.
The train. What was that? Neil has never been in a fight. Once, over a decade ago when he was still in school, he’d been punched. That was a one-off thing though. One punch. One event.
Even that had been mistaken identity. Two older kids calling him ‘Barry’ and asking him where something was. In a park near home after school. He’d forgotten the details now. It happened quickly. The taller one hit him and he went down. Just stayed there, waiting for more. For a fist, a boot to the kidneys. He lay there, clenched-up, curled like a baby. Nothing came. The other kids walked away.
The Neil that eventually opened his eyes and stood up was different than the one that went down.
Neil is soon at the the bar. A few people around him get served and are replaced. He’s still waiting. He catches a barman’s eye but the guy looks away. People are pressing up against Neil. His heart is going fast now and his breathing is shallow. He’s winded, or feels it. He thinks he might be wheezing. The crush of people, their breath. No one bothered him about vaccination proof and masks here.
It takes him a while to realise someone is talking to him over the music. The man standing next to him asking, “Having a good night?”
“Yeah,” Neil says. He wants to say more. He wants to tell this guy about the fight on the train. Why he’s in the club. Why he doesn’t want to go home. But he can’t. He won’t. “You?”
“It’d be better if we could get some drinks in, eh?”
The guy gets served, buys four bottles of beer. “He’s next, mate,” he says to the barman, nodding at Neil, before he turns and is gone.
Neil orders two bottles of beer for himself. He forces his way back and the crowd closes behind him.
The dance floor is packed. The music is the same. It might have been one long track since he came in. He thinks he spots the girl who got him past the bouncer but it’s hard to make her out.
He finishes one beer. He sips the other, leaning against a wall.
It’s closing time soon. The place is starting to thin out.
He’s thinking about the night bus home. His only cheap option now that the trains have stopped. It’ll be long but he’s got no reason to hurry.
He downs his beer. He leaves. The pavements are empty now except for a few people here and there. He walks down to the bus stop. A car horn blares twice near him, making him jump. The car drives on.
He hears laughter behind. His ears burn in embarrassment. He feels he is being laughed at. Ridiculed. He turns. It’s a group of guys and girls. He thinks of asking them what their problem is. Squaring up to them. But he thinks too about bricks hidden in handbags. About screwdrivers hidden in pockets. He thinks about Barry, knocked down with one blow.
The group passes without looking at him. They laugh again. It’s three couples, holding hands. They pay him no mind.
He turns and looks back as they pass. That’s when he sees her, the girl from the club. She’s with her friends. Some guys are with them too now. He catches her eye and smiles. There’s a moment where she doesn’t seem to know who he is. Neil feels warmth spread to his cheeks. Then recognition shows in her eyes. She smiles back.
“How was your night in the end?” she asks. She stops in front of him. The group stops with her too. One of the guys puts his arm around her as the lot of them bunch up, looking at Neil.
“Good,” Neil manages.
She slips out from under the guy’s arm and is about to say something when one of her friends, he thinks the eye-roller from earlier, takes her elbow and pulls her away.
“Come on,” the friend says, “I’m gonna wee myself.” They both laugh and are off again. The group swings into motion behind them. Neil falls in step with them but the big guy, the one with the arm, shoots him a look.
“Look, just fuck off. She wouldn’t be interested in you, alright!”
Neil’s heart beats hard. Blood throbs in his ears. He looks up, imagines swinging for him. Headbutting him. But he nods. He looks at the ground as they all walk on.
Neil follows some paces behind. All the groups and lone stragglers are moving in this direction, like leaves caught in a stream’s current. One solitary man, a decade or so older than Neil, staggers, sways, steadies himself against a wall, continues shuffling along.
They’re all converging at the night bus stop. It’s surrounded. He can barely make out the small shelter. People all around him are chatting, laughing, smoking, shouting. There are a few loners like Neil; most of them are hiding in their phones.
He follows the girl’s group around the far side of the crowd. Here the shuttered shops are split by an alleyway. Neil watches the guy say something to his friends then jog up the alley, disappearing into the darkness.
Neil looks at his watch. Three minutes until the bus is due, although it could be here any second, or in ten minutes. He looks around at the crowd that is still growing around him.
He walks into the alley.
The hum of the city, the laughter, the shouts all disappear as he picks his way between the bins and rubbish bags. Neil sees the guy. He’s whistling as he pisses against a door, skimming through his phone.
Neil stoops, picks up a lump of old brick. He steps closer to the guy. He brings the brick up. He thinks of Lisa, the train, the bouncer, Barry’s attackers, this guy. Neil’s gripping the brick so hard he’s sure his hand will bleed. His heart is knocking in his chest, like it’s come loose, causing him to shake with each beat. He imagines bringing the brick down on this prick’s head, feeling him crumple under it.
The acrid smell of piss hits him. It stings his nostrils and brings a wetness to his eyes. A clear memory comes to him of changing his mother’s bed sheets. Lifting, shifting her, tugging the sheets, like the carers had shown him. She’d reached out with a skeletal hand and gripped his arm. The flesh was rough and leathery, but warm. He was surprised to see her eyes open. She smiled at him. He felt the faintest pressure on his arm as she squeezed it, like warm water running across it.
He hadn’t remembered this episode since, as fleeting as it had been. It’s the smell that brings her back now. The hospital bed is still in the living room. His mother’s been gone just five months. No more untouched cups of tea. No more carers coming and going.
“Talk to her,” they said. “She can hear you.” But he didn’t find a word to say. What could he say that she didn’t already know? He’d been on a cycle of work and sitting with her. There was nothing to talk about.
He walks away, on down the alley. He slings the brick to the ground as he goes. He doesn’t glance back. He doesn’t know if the other guy saw him or not.
Neil follows the web of alleys and streets. He leaves the city behind as the sky is lightening, softening. The darkness is watered down and fades. The cars, gates, fences, houses, all take on more colour and definition. He hears the first birdsong. He smiles. He’s walking home. He’ll pull back the curtains and open the windows. He’ll let the morning in.