HYPOGEAL by Michele Seagrove (2nd place Jul19)

The loudspeaker crackles and all the passengers look up expectantly. I strain to hear but can only make out the muffled words: ‘Ealing Broadway’ and ‘delays’. I sigh.

‘Bloody hell,’ the man next to me says. ‘Always the same.’ The temperature in the subterranean world is stifling and sweat is beading on his forehead. I surreptitiously watch, fascinated, as a drop teeters on the end of his nose for a moment then falls to its death. The urge to escape is overwhelming but the platform is rapidly filling up and it’s impossible to push back against the increasing tide of bodies.

The overhead sign blinks. I wait. It finally comes to life and announces ten minutes until the next train. I feel myself drooping and shift aching feet. Will I survive that long? In ten minutes it will be like the front row at a concert down here. The prospect of standing in a crush on the train, my face pressing into a sweaty armpit, didn’t appeal one bit. Maybe if I stand at the front. More chance of getting a seat.

Nine minutes until the next train.

I’m powerless to avoid the inevitable and begin to drift down towards the end of the platform, weaving in and out of the crowd. From here, the train will speed past me, slowing down to a stop at the far end. I can hear distant rumbling from the yawning hole and peer hopefully into the blackness, but it’s coming from a different track. The movement pushes a hot gust of air down the labyrinth and provides slight relief from the oppressive heat, albeit temporarily. I’ll take every cloud.

Eight minutes.

I’ve been feeling this way for so long now it has become a habit. Ever since she was thrust into my arms – her perfect face waxy, like a doll – dark thoughts crash daily into my subconscious. An end to the effort of carrying on is becoming ever-enticing. Every morning and evening I am a mole, waiting for my metaphorical train to come. But I continue to stand on the platform, suffering in silence with all the other travellers. Once I reach my home station, I ascend into the light and begin to breathe again, having escaped Hades once more.

Seven minutes.

The heat from so many bodies washes over me and claustrophobia clutches at my heart. It beats in my ears, like a timpani drum.

‘Move along the platform,’ a guard shouts and some passengers shuffle a little, while others back up along the corridor behind, muttering in irritation at the delay to their journey. You can always spot the tourists. They huddle together like lost sheep, timorous eyes constantly on the alert for danger, unsure of the protocol.

Six minutes.

I step forwards so I can be first on board and the pull of the chasm assails me. I look down. Which is the live rail? Will it be an instant death or a painful, muscle-jerking end? The crowd closes in behind me and I can’t move. I swallow and, battening down panic, try to count slowly to ten, but my attention is arrested by the poster on the wall opposite. The baby in the picture taunts me. Reminders are everywhere.

Five minutes.

People are still coming in. When will the guards stop the influx? There is no room to breathe and the swell behind me sways, as one.

‘Stop pushing!’ an authoritarian woman orders over her shoulder. Maybe she’s a teacher. There’s no reply but there is a slight easing. She turns her attention back to her phone.

Four minutes.

The temperature climbs a notch. I feel faint. If I could escape I could walk home but I don’t know if I can walk that far. My strength is diminishing daily. I become aware of my handbag strap, diagonally positioned, digging into my shoulder and I hook a thumb into it to ease the pulling pain. I’m tired, so tired. I imagine lying down and closing my eyes.

Three minutes.

My eyes fly open. Can humans sleep standing up, like a horse? I pull a water bottle from my bag, take a swig of lukewarm water and pull a face. I’ll make a cool drink when I eventually get home. Then I remember there’s nothing in my studio flat. I hadn’t seen the point in stocking up if I wasn’t there to use it. It’s just me now. He left soon after the funeral and I’m alone with my thoughts.

Two minutes.

Shouting claims my attention. Everyone turns and crane periscope necks. Obscenities are being bandied about and I bite my lip as I stand on tip-toes, trying to see what’s happening. Like a wave, the pack suddenly parts, allowing the passage of two policemen dragging a scruffy young man. His shouts echo eerily along the corridors long after he’s gone and I wonder if the heat has become too much for him as well.

One minute.

My heart sinks lower than ever before and a wave of desperation engulfs me. I have to escape – I’m drowning. At last I hear a rumble in the tunnel and the mob get their elbows ready. A hot mistral blows into my face as I wait for the sense of doom to dissipate. It always has before. But it keeps hammering away at my psyche. The monster is coming for me.

Train approaching.

High-pitched screeching fills the air and white-hot sparks light up the darkness as the monster navigates the catacombs, a blinding light announcing its imminent arrival. In a tumultuous crescendo, it bursts out of the tunnel and I lean forwards to embrace it.

My hair whooshes upwards in a vortex and I feel the brush of the monster as it flies past my body, brakes squealing.

The doors open and I get on the train.