Sarah says, “I have been writing as a hobby since my childhood and particularly when I lived in London, England for seven years. It was here that I was inspired to write a story set on an underground train. The journey from Cockfosters station to Heathrow Airport is the setting of this story, hence the title. Someday I’d love to flesh it out and turn it into a short play (the journey is 90 minutes, after all).”
by Sarah Moraghan
Terry is waiting on the platform, all the fingernails of one hand between his teeth. Minutes seem to pass before the train’s doors slide open. Seconds, in fact.
He ducks into the tube and perches on the seat closest to him.
“This is… Cockfosters. This is a Piccadilly Line service to… Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 and 5.”
Thirty-seven more announcements will accompany him on his journey. His ninety-minute ride to the end of the line. Just him and the robot lady with her honeyed, noble tones.
Listen to the sound of her voice. Relax…
He leans his elbows on his thighs, spreads his fingers to his hairline. His heel is tap-tap-tapping on the carriage floor.
The train waits a few minutes, as it always does. Hours.
He looks up and around him. He is the only person in the carriage. He hopes nobody he knows gets on before he leaves.
Come on. Come on.
A mild rumble and a hiss; another train pulling into the opposite platform. Terry curses under his breath.
Then, a frantic beep-beep-beep-beep-beep serenades his ears as the carriage doors whoosh shut. The train cranks awake, takes a breath. Terry exhales as it begins to trundle away.
“The next station is… Oakwood.”
It’s approaching eight in the morning. A quiet Sunday in mid-January. A city in the throes of Father Christmas’s persistent hangover. The train hasn’t gone underground just as the sun hasn’t yet peeped over, but Terry expects the two to swap places simultaneously. Darkness will shroud him in anonymity all the way down into London’s underbelly.
Plus, he reckons he’s the only person on the entire tube.
Or is he?
Paranoia tickles him. He’s in the rearmost carriage. But did he spot somebody else getting in at the front end, in the distance? He’s not sure. At forty-eight years old, his eyesight has already begun to fail him. One of the body’s signs it has stopped growing up towards its prime, and is now starting its slow, gradual journey towards eventual death.
He scratches murky thoughts with a shake of his head. Tells his mind to shut it and be grateful he’s okay. Grateful he’s getting away from here. Starting afresh.
Nothing left for you here.
Memories try to slither tiny fingers through the fissures of his brain. Blonde hair tumbling. Blue eyes flashing. White dress. Gilded garter. Doctor’s office with reproductive charts on the walls.
Terry groans. Digs the heel of one hand into his eye socket.
The train always screeches when it picks up speed. What on earth makes that godawful howling noise, anyway? He never thought about it until now. Sounds like a thousand despairing souls swirling into the infernal eternal.
Annoying little sprites in his brain. Blonde hair on the pillow. Pretty blue eyes shut in the dead of night. Too late for pillow talk, again. Bumped knee on the nightstand. Ouch.
Both heels of his hands in both eye sockets now.
Think about what’s in front of you.
Cloudy windows. Grey floor. Patterned blue seats, faded by light and prints of hundreds of millions of arses over the years. Heathrow Airport; center of the earth.
Blue poles. Yellow poles. Yellow hair. Blue eyes; open now. Not meeting yours anymore though, are they. Looking over your shoulder.
“Fuck off!” Terry snarls.
The tube doors are open. A random bloke, about to step on, backs away and slips sideways into the next carriage.
“This is… Oakwood. This is a Piccadilly Line service….”
Terry is embarrassed. He rests his elbow on his knee. Peers through his fingers like venetian blinds.
“The next station is… Southgate.”
Distorted silhouettes of dreary scenes whizz by outside. That’s why some people get motion sickness, Terry muses. Blurred vision. Body thinks it’s being poisoned.
Still an empty carriage. Privacy and safety in this cozy vessel of his.
But Terry isn’t far enough away from home to rest. Not yet. He has lived in the borough of Enfield his whole life. His immigrant Turkish grandparents raised his father in Enfield. His father met his immigrant Irish mother in Enfield. Terry met his English wife in Enfield, in the suburb of Cockfosters.
He sighs. The home he just left. His penchant for socializing ensures he knows everyone, or at least far too many people, in the area. He needs to keep his head down, down until he reaches central London, enters town.
He swoops across a bridge. A tunnel approaches, but it’s not the real tunnel. Just a warm up, a friendly. Terry lets his eyelids droop in meditation as its mouth yawns around him. The wails of the thousand souls dwindle into silence.
Yoga class with his wife. Her cute little arse in the air.
“This is… Southgate.”
He senses one person embark the carriage. He assures himself of the low chance he will meet anybody he knows at this hour.
“Didn’t see you there, Tel!”
Terry’s eyes snap open.
“Cripes,” chuckles Ralph. His oldest friend. “You look like you’ve been caught out.”
Despite his surprise and Ralph’s smile, Terry detects the same look of panic in the latter’s eyes as Ralph must have seen in his own.
“Oh,” Terry waves a hand. “I just… needed to clear my head, so I thought I’d—”
“Ride the tube to the end of the line and back,” says Ralph with a knowing eyeroll. “Join the club, mate.”
Ralph sits himself down opposite Terry. Terry hears the strain and squeak of Ralph’s jeans as he settles his large body into the seat. Ralph places his hands on his knees, rubs them a few times. His smile wavers. His lip quivers.
He’s not going to be here with me the whole way, is he?
Right, Terry decides, he’ll get off in a few stations’ time and catch the tube behind this one. Add a few minutes to his journey. A few minutes that could have countless consequences. Christ, he can’t believe this has happened. What were the odds?
But his thoughts dissipate when Ralph’s face suddenly crumples. A water balloon pricked by a needle.
Terry gapes. “Mate, are you alright?”
He can’t recall the last time he saw Ralph cry. Primary school, perhaps, when those playground bullies were picking on him. Making fun of his large size. Terry tried to stand up for Ralph that day. Terry was smaller and skinnier than Ralph and the bullies were smaller and skinner than Terry, but they were pack animals. Terry’s eye bloomed like a midnight rose for weeks afterwards. But Ralph had reached down and helped him up.
Terry remembers this and reaches his own hand across the tube carriage. His attempt at comfort floats in midair, but the gesture lingers.
“N-n-no,” Ralph splutters. He covers his eyes. His entire body jerks with each sob.
“What’s happened?” Terry asks.
Ralph sniffs. “Oh, God.” He draws his shoulders up. Takes a moment to compose himself. “I’ve just been finding things so tough these days. Me and Sharon are fighting all the time since the kids left.” He rubs his nose with the back of his hand. “I keep thinking she’s going to… leave, as well.” His voice squeezes, hisses the last words out. Words inconceivable to him. “So,” he continues, “the last few months I’ve been getting up early on the weekends and riding the tube up and down just like this.”
“This is… Arnos Grove.”
“Sometimes,” says Ralph. He inhales. His eyes refill. “Sometimes—Christ, I can’t believe I’m telling you this—sometimes I imagine… just getting off at the airport, jumping on a plane and running away for good.”
For a moment the only noise to be heard is the coughing of the train along the tracks. Ralph’s body shakes soundlessly now.
“I know how you feel,” Terry mutters. It pains him to see his friend in this state. For a little while, he forgets his woes. He wants to say the right things.
Ralph looks ashamed. “Oh, Tel, I’m sorry—”
“Do you think…” Terry strokes his own chin. “Do you think she thinks you feel this way? Does she know?”
A crease in Ralph’s brow. He hadn’t thought of that.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” he confirms. “I just feel so sure she’s going to leave me. It’s like she already knows. You know?”
Terry can’t help arching an eyebrow. He knows.
“Gosh,” Ralph makes a chuckle sound, but he’s not laughing. “’Course you do. Jesus, mate, I’m really sorry—”
“Harping on about my marriage problems and you’re likely sat there thinking well at least you’ve still got a wife—”
“Not at all,” Terry says truthfully. “Your problems and feelings are valid.” An affirmation borrowed from his and his wife’s old marriage counsellor.
Bashful, Ralph sighs through his nose. “Cheers, mate,” he mumbles.
A brief silence embarks their carriage. Ralph opens his mouth, goes to say something else. Hesitates. Joins his hands as if in prayer.
Terry senses a slight reduction in their speed. “Right,” he says. “I suppose I best—”
“Did you ever feel the way I do now,” Ralph interjects, “before she left?”
His question slows time. Terry’s mind rattles and whirrs into the next station along with it.
“This is… Bounds Green.”
Terry tilts his head. Thinks about it. “No,” he says simply.
Ralph’s eyes fill again, this time with surprise and sympathy.
“I was too preoccupied,” Terry goes on. “After counseling, I thought we’d worked it out, you know? And I never thought about it again.” He shrugs one shoulder. “And I never asked her how she felt again.” His throat tightens, to his utter dismay.
Bloody hell, Tel. Keep it together.
“Do you wish you asked her?” Ralph says. “Do you think it would have—”
“Made a difference?” Terry finishes. He expels air slowly through puffed cheeks. “To be honest, mate…”
I’ve absolutely no idea. She never asked me how I felt either. It was always going to end.
Say the right things.
“…It probably would have made a difference,” Terry admits, or lies. He’s not sure which. “Every day I wish I’d handled it differently.” No harm in a spot of embellishment.
Ralph considers this. Fingernails in his mouth.
Terry’s eyes flicker to the young man and woman who have just hopped into the carriage. They seem awfully sprightly for such a time of a Sunday.
He steeples his fingers and leans towards Ralph. Instinctively, Ralph mirrors his movements. “What exactly do you and Sharon fight about?” Terry asks.
Ralph throws his head back. A most unhappy laugh. “Don’t get me started,” he says. “It’s everything, mate. You see, I can’t focus since the twins left and to be fair Shaz’s always hated when I forget things, but now I’m forgetting things all the bloody time. Medical appointments, shopping lists, even holiday bookings, flights, the lot.” He bows his head. “It’s got to the point where everything I do seems to annoy her. And I don’t know how to fix it for her.” His voice shoots up an octave.
Stone dread drops into Terry’s stomach. Ralph and Sharon married very young. Had their children very young. He’s seen and heard about this kind of thing before.
Nonetheless, Terry clears his throat. “Communication,” he declares, his index finger held aloft, “is king.”
Or was it key? Another anecdote from his friendly neighborhood marriage counselor.
“Eh?” says Ralph.
Terry spreads his arms in a rainbow. He’s holding an invisible tapestry, a prophecy of sorts. “You’ve just got to talk to her, mate!” he cries. “Tell her how you’re feeling and ask her how she’s feeling.”
Ralph ponders. “I think I can,” he says. The little engine that could. But he shudders. “I don’t know. What if she says she’s leaving me.”
“She won’t,” says Terry. “I promise she won’t.”
Shouldn’t have said promise. Always making promises you can’t be sure you’ll keep.
“But what if she does?” Ralph presses.
“Look, mate.” Terry shifts in his seat. Assumes a managerial stance. “All I can say is you can’t go on like this.”
Another silence. The wailing souls are eavesdropping.
“For all you know,” Terry points out—points out and points at Ralph, “she’s probably lying awake right this minute, missing you. Wondering where on earth you’ve got to.”
Ralph appears buoyed by these words. His slumped shoulders lift a fraction.
“Maybe,” he says. A smile teases his lips, a sparkle his eyes. Dazed by love. Terry’s heartstrings sting.
The train chugs into the next station.
“You should go back to her,” Terry advises. He jabs his finger at the carriage door. “Get off now and go right back to her.”
Ralph slams his beefy hands onto his knees. “You’re right.” He exhales a gust. “You’re right, Tel. I’ve got to at least try.” He rises to his feet.
“You’re gonna be fine,” Terry reassures him with a nonchalant wave.
“This is… Wood Green.”
Ralph clenches his fists and jumps out onto the platform. He darts a few steps. His trainers squeak as he pauses to turn back.
“Hang on,” he says. “I never got to ask—”
But the excitable beep-beep-beep rings out, and the doors slide shut before Ralph gets to ask. Terry sees his friend’s mouth form the words: are you okay?
Thumbs up; all good. Perhaps Ralph, in his newfound clarity, noticed the pain in Terry’s eyes. But no matter. Ralph’s concerned scowl shoots sideways, swallowed by the tunnel.
Safe and alone again. Alone aside from the nattering young man and woman, who haven’t yet sat down.
“…Impossible to get her to leave Bounds Green,” the young man is saying. “I really wanted to go to Soho.”
“I don’t understand why so many people in London are incapable of leaving the village they live in,” says the young woman. “I mean, hello! This is London. The world is literally your oyster.”
“Exactly!” the man cries. “A city of infinite possibilities!”
“That must be why it’s called an Oyster Card,” the girl says. She’s frowning at the little blue card in her hand.
“Did you only just clock that now? You numpty.”
Laughter. “Shut up. I’ve only been here a few months.”
“Well, have you been to The Cock yet? Pretty decent pub…”
Their voices fade into the tunnel of Terry’s subconsciousness.
“This is… Turnpike Lane.”
The world is your oyster. People incapable of leaving the village they live in. Terry takes offence from that remark. The Cock.
He met his wife in a pub of the same name. The insufferable swarm of memories bursts through his brain’s cracks and floods him. His estranged wife. He remembers when he first beheld her.
Amy. Her blonde hair, her bleached blonde hair flicked—more than flicked—cascaded across her left shoulder as she turned away from a potential suiter at the bar. Her ocean blue eyes met his mahogany brown ones.
Of course, Terry remembers this moment in slow motion. He scoffs quietly at his cheesiness.
“This is… Manor House.”
Two more people step into the carriage. The dull trundle of suitcase wheels. Tourists on their way to the airport.
That makes three of us.
Terry’s hands unconsciously pat the pockets of his jeans and jacket. Phone. Wallet. Passport.
He’ll buy a new wardrobe, a new life for himself in Turkey. In Bodrum. He’s got family there. Family he’s not close to, hasn’t seen in years, but he’ll win them round, make them his friends. He’s a charming guy. He wouldn’t be the managing director of a real estate business if he wasn’t a charming guy.
Wouldn’t be. Isn’t anymore, though, is he.
“This is… Finsbury Park.”
“Right,” chirps the young man from before. “To the Vicky Line!”
The two energetic friends hop off the tube and skedaddle. Terry hears their shrieks in the tunnels. He thinks of his twenties. The sleep-free nights. The ambition and excitement for the future a constant high.
And the women. All the women. Terry closes his eyes and lets himself think about the women. Their squeals of pleasure, their tears of heartbreak. He never wanted to settle down. He never thought he ever would.
“This is… Arsenal.”
He thinks about football. Christ, his season tickets. He wonders if he should give them to someone. He wonders if he’ll ever get off at this station for a match again. He thinks about a networking conference he went to in the Emirates stadium a few years ago. Back in the prime of his career. Back when he still had a career.
“This is… Holloway Road.”
A few people get on. Blank faces. Never see them again. Meditate. Deep breaths.
“This is… Caledonian Road.”
Is it just him, or is time going by far too fast? He thought the automated announcements would soothe him. Why does it feel like they’re hounding him?
“This is… King’s Cross St. Pancras.”
Two contrary groups of young people get on. A couple of wizards in full robes sit down near Terry. Three others—bucket-hatted, dark-clothed, bum-bagged—stand around the center pole. Terry manages a smile. Angels of the morning crossing paths with divils of the night, as his mother would say.
“Platform nine and three-quarters,” titters one of the wizards. “These pics look great.”
“Gosh, I wish it was real,” sighs the other.
“What a sick club,” says one of the ravers. “Bare music.”
“I’ve got fucking tinnitus again, man.”
“Well, we were dancing next to a speaker for five hours, to be fair.”
“This is… Russell Square.”
Terry looks sadly at the wizards and the ravers. Each one of them lost in their respective imaginations and fantastic realities. He remembers losing his heart to fantasy books as a teenager and his mind to dance music in his twenties, on the colorful, spiritual journeys both held his hands through. Will he ever feel excited about anything again?
“This is… Holborn.”
“Come on then, chop chop. Central Line awaits,” says one of the ravers, before looking over and randomly saluting Terry. “Toodles, mister man.”
Terry is left once again to his thoughts. His doubts. Amy’s face.
He was forty-two when he met her. She was thirty-six. He had never been in a serious relationship and he thought it would be easy. He thought it would be easy because she was the only woman he ever loved. He thought being in love was enough. He wasn’t prepared for anything else.
She wanted a baby as soon as they wed. And they tried and they tried. He couldn’t understand why it didn’t work. Something the matter with him. And then the IVF didn’t take. Amy kept her cool. Remained hopeful and positive. But Terry didn’t like how he felt about himself.
“This is… Covent Garden.” He remembers taking his mother’s family to an Irish bar here, long ago.
A group of tourists embarks and there’s a flurry of chatter.
“We’re going to Lie-chester Square first, then on to Glow-chester Road.”
“Look! There’s a station called Cockfosters!”
Laughter all around.
Terry’s soul hurts. He loves Cockfosters and wants to tell these American numpties to show some respect for his hometown’s perfectly valid name. So what if he never really left his own village? He’s leaving now, isn’t he.
He folds his arms and stews all the way through central London.
“Hyde Park Corner.”
“Knightsbridge.” The robot lady sounds like she’s from here. Yes, Terry decides, Knightsbridge is where she’s from. He has a picture of her in his mind. Vintage cigarette holder and pearls.
Two young women get on with suitcases. They sound American. No, wait. Irish. Unusual accents, though. Different to Terry’s mother’s accent.
“Seriously, Megan, back in the day I read so much stuff about these attacks and how to avoid them and how to spot potential attackers. I was, like, obsessed.”
“Well, it’s not like that anymore.”
“I know, I know. But still, that’s why I made us get on the back carriage. The bad guys are more likely to get on at the front.”
“Mm-hmm. And, like, you can spot the signs. For example, it’s more likely to be a guy on his own, recently shaved, and staring straight ahead, or, like, mumbling to himself.”
“Don’t stare, Melissa. It’s rude.”
Terry senses at least one pair of their eyes on him. It shocks and irritates him. He could say something. He could pontificate about how, as a schoolboy in the eighties, he was conditioned to fear attacks of by people from their home country whenever he passed through central London, despite the love for their people his mother nurtured in him. Yes, he could say that.
But no. Leave them to it. Be the bigger person.
“This is… Barons Court.” Back overground. Cold winter sun. Terry’s pulse quickens. The airport is drawing ever closer.
He blocks out the women’s bickering and all the conversations around him on the tube. He’s tired of them.
Think about the Knightsbridge lady. Meditate to her voice.
He ponders the advice he gave Ralph earlier about his marriage. He said it to be nice, because it was what he should have said. But he wonders was there something to it. More than just words.
He remembers all the nights he came home from drowning his misery. Amy’s beautiful sleeping face. And he couldn’t make her smile anymore. He couldn’t give her a baby.
Things got better for a little while during marriage counselling. They went on dates again, took up new hobbies together. But once their sessions finished, Terry’s sadness came right back to him. It was always waiting to come back to him.
And the night he saw her eyes meet those of a man who wasn’t him. That was when he knew he had lost her.
For better and for worse. In sickness and in health. Is sadness considered a sickness? It probably is, Terry thinks. Depression.
They separated a year ago. Terry told himself he was fine. He had been single and happy his whole life before he met her. He could easily revert back. No problem.
They sold their marital home and Terry moved into an apartment. His new bachelor pad, he told himself. Cheered himself on. This was going to be great.
Then his work began to suffer. Shifty eyes in the office. Pity the poor soul. He decided to take a career break before anyone could say anything. That was two months ago. But he made up his mind he was never going back.
And oh. The last time he saw Amy. He’d phoned about a month ago her to let her know about his sabbatical. She was pleased for him at first, but his gloom concerned her. She came over for a cup of tea, to check he was okay. A cup of tea became a glass of wine, and a glass of wine became two and three. It was the last time they made love and the last time they spoke.
He closes his eyes and thinks about that night with her. His throat is so tight he feels he might choke. What he’d give now to have just one more moment with her.
“Heathrow Terminals, 1, 2 and 3.”
The train pauses for a few moments longer at this station.
Am I a coward?
Should he go back? Should he try to get Amy back? Is he being realistic? She probably has a new boyfriend. Quit the wishful thinking and get on with it.
“This is… Heathrow Terminal 5.”
Here we are. The end of the line. Terry takes a deep breath. Can he really do this?
Suppose I can just get off and wander around for a bit.
Have a cup of tea and think about it for a bit.
He rises to his feet and moves slowly to the tube door.
Here we go. Out onto the platform with all the suitcase wheelers.
What on earth?
Terry spins around. He sees Ralph lumbering fast-paced towards him.
“Ralph,” he says. “What are you—”
“I couldn’t let you—I had to make sure you were okay—” Ralph is sweating, his breathing labored. He raises a finger like give me a second and leans on his knees to catch his breath. “I just had this awful feeling—”
“How did you get here before me?” Terry asks.
“Jumped in a cab soon as I got out the station,” says Ralph. “But Tel, mate, you weren’t thinking of leaving, were you? Just something you said earlier, when I said the thing about running away on a plane… got me thinking…”
Terry releases all the air from his lungs in drawn-out defeat. “I was thinking about it,” he admits. Shrugs.
Ralph lunges and embraces him. Squeezes the life out of him, but Terry welcomes it.
“You can’t leave,” Ralph sobs. “You can’t. You have to stay, you’ll be okay, we’ll figure something out. You and Amy’ll work it out, just like me and Sharon will. You can get back together.”
Fat tears squeeze themselves out of Terry’s eyes. His body, tense and aching, collapses against Ralph’s bulk and he allows his emotions to take the wheel.
They stay like that for a while. Terry loses himself in his love for his best friend. Ralph, with his most kind heart.
A passing youth swipes, “Batty boys!”
Terry sniffs. Christ, his nose is running like a tap.
“Right,” Terry says. “What next?”
Ralph looks around him. He curls his lip in thought. “We could get a coffee around here or something,” he suggests. “Do some plane spotting.”
Terry considers it. Decides against it. “Nah. I’ll get us a cab home. Let’s do breakfast in Cockfosters.”
He feels lighter. That ninety-minute journey went by in a flash. He was so sure he was ready to leave London, to get away from all the non-things his life had thrown at him in the last year. But now, all he wants to do is go home.
They get in a taxi and Terry’s eyelids sag immediately. Exhausted. He nods off to the sound of Ralph chatting to their driver.
A little while into the journey, his phone vibrates him awake. Groggy, he shuffles it out of his jeans pocket. Squints at it.
It’s a text from Amy.
Hey Terry. Hope you’re well. This is a bit of a happy shock, but I found out yesterday I’m pregnant, 4 weeks gone (yours, obviously!!). Sorry to tell you over text, I just felt too anxious to do it any other way. Let me know if you’re free for a call and we can chat about it. I’m so happy. X
Terry laughs. Why are we all so awkward? Why do we find it so hard communicate with one another?
“What’s so funny?” Ralph asks.
Terry melts into his seat. He recalls Ralph’s dazed look of love from earlier, and his heart no longer hurts.
“Tell you later, mate,” he says.
Copyright 2022 by Sarah Moraghan