Frederik had been unconscious for four hours, having been knocked unconscious at 10 o’clock at night by a mugger who took his wallet, which included his bank cards as well as all of his personal identification. His mobile phone and watch had also been stolen from him. Unfortunately, he had been knocked unconscious inside a tube station and dragged into a corner that would be almost impossible for any commuters or underground station attendants to discover unless they were specifically looking for that spot, so to his terror he awoke in utter darkness inside an unmanned tube station at 2 o’clock in the morning. Because he couldn’t see, his first instinct was to think that someone had cut out his eyes. However, as he became accustomed to the lack of light he realized that he was in the dark. The lack of pain in his face also gave him a clue that his eyes were intact. The back of his head was sore from where he had been hit and his hands were cold because his circulation wasn’t that good.
Frederik took his first steps into the darkness very slowly and carefully, he didn’t know where he was and didn’t want to fall over anything that might be in his way and make his injuries any worse than they already were. Because he was so scared, he didn’t know whether it would be for the best to be quiet or to call out for help. I don’t know where exactly in the tube station I am, but I am sure that I am still in the station because of the air, he thought. Frederik noticed that his jacket was missing, a jacket which he really loved. He had bought it only two weeks ago from a shop in Knightsbridge which had measured him very carefully to make sure that it fit him correctly, and he felt quite naked without it. I will just have to do without, thought Frederik. He remembered a friend of his who had stayed on a night bus for too long because he had fallen asleep, they had laughed about it over a drink just a few weeks ago. Frederik began to look forward to being able to recount this story to his friends in a few weeks time.
Frederik realized that he felt very cold, there must be no heating in the station during the hours that it is not open. The heating probably comes on an hour before the tube workers arrive in the morning so that there is enough time to warm the station up, and to save power and not force up the electricity bill, which for a place like this must have been enormous. Frederik wondered how much money must be wasted by a place like this simply by heating the customers. Of course the heat did not have to be supplied in the summer because it got so warm underground, but on a February evening like this it would be necessary to turn the heating on. As Frederik was thinking about the logistical problems of heating the tube station he had gotten into the habit of running his hand along the wall as he walked, so that he could roughly understand areas he had already been in so as not to walk around in circles. He felt all sort of surfaces with his hand, from cold dry stone to the power cables that one often notices stapled to the walls of tube stations such as the one Frederik was trapped in. I must be careful, thought Frederik, not to walk too fast, or else I could run the risk of cutting my hand on a sharp surface such as one may well find on the wall of a tube station, which was essentially bored into hard rock and earth. He suddenly felt as though with all the energy he had lost from sleeping in such a constricting place as this, just one more cut or bump could be fatal.
It was hard not to keep checking his wrist for the time as he was so accustomed to doing, in fact, he had to make a conscious effort not to do this, otherwise he would simply keep checking, getting more and more annoyed with himself for not remembering that his watch had been taken. This was perhaps the first time in five or six years that Frederik had not been aware of the time of day when he needed to, the last time being the occasion when his watches battery had run out, which had prompted him to buy a watch which ran on energy produced by the simple and necessary action of moving the body an idea which appealed to him immensely. The watch had admittedly been slightly more expensive to that which he was used to paying, but he had been sure at the time that the difference would eventually be made up in savings made on the batteries used to power his old model of watch. How was a man expected to organize a plan or even his own thoughts without knowing how much time was available to him? Frederik decided to make up a system for remembering how much time had gone past.
After thinking about the best way to understand time for quite a while, Frederik decided to sing a song to himself with which he was well acquainted, over and over again, so that he knew how many times he had sung it, and therefore, how much time had relatively passed. He hoped that he could sing the song, remember how many times he had sung it, and begin to devise a plan of action all at the same time, though he was quietly confident that this should not be too much of a trouble for him, seeing that multi-tasking was a routine activity for him in his normal everyday life. After a few times through the song, Frederik began to realize that this should not prove to be a problem for him at all, and that if anything, humming the little tune to himself was both reassuring and quite conducive to thought.
There had been, for about thirty songs, a slight scratching noise following Frederik along on his travels. For some reason, perhaps because of Fredrik’s growing accustomed to his environment, the level of light in the station had seemed to increase to a background hum of light, not really casting any shadows, because it had no apparent source, so Frederik no longer had to run his hand along the wall of the station to keep track of his progress. Frederik was terrified of the noise. He had, to his horror managed to navigate his way into one of the tracks along which the tube trains run, and so could only keep going forward, because he was making some progress, at least attempting to reach the next station along, where some help may be at hand. But the noise still followed him, it had been another forty songs now, and Frederik was beginning to despair. Thoughts of secret watchers, malformed tube creatures stalking, dripping along the tracks in search of violent conquest and frenzied feasting played on Frederik’s mind. The creatures would no doubt not be able to communicate, being forgotten by cruel society or perhaps shunned by a world unable to tolerate imperfection of such a hideous and extreme level. Perhaps the creatures had begun life as Frederik had here, slowly changed by an unseen airborne infection, harmless to those not often exposed, but slowly and surely devastating, starting with the rotting of limbs and malfunction of mind, until all that was left was a monstrous red mouth, like a wound in the middle of an eyeless face. How could Frederik hope to turn around and face this chance, when an open and hopeful road lay ahead of him, on his way to the next station.
There was within Frederik a conflict between his fear of the unknown and his desire for knowledge. It would surely only be a matter of time before he simply had to know what it was that was following him. Frederik recalled with a sickening mind an abseiling outing he had undertaken as part of his school as a child, which had incidentally been heavily subsidised and organised by the school. His first descent of the cliff face had been scary, but not terrifying since he had bounced down with his back first. Due to peer pressure and a desire to face a thrill even if it was frightening, Frederik had elected to descend with his front facing down on his second and final trip. He remembered vaguely the view looking out from the top of the cliff, but the view looking down was incredibly clear, a smooth brown and grey plane, stretching into the horizon, totally filling his view. His view of the tube tracks slowly began to coincide with the images from his memory, until finally the unknown but present fear behind him proved to be too much for him not to acknowledge. The scratching was too much, Frederik had to turn around and face whatever it was that was with him. He turned and saw that seven or eight rats were about five feet behind him. He looked at the rats, and momentarily gave up on the idea of counting his songs; he found it hard to keep singing when faced with these silent horrors. The rats, as he turned, became eerily still, trained by years of cruel existence to freeze at any sign of detection. To Frederik, this mass halt seemed in some way contrived by these creatures which had for one hundred and forty songs been tracking him unrelentingly and almost silently through the shadows. Frederik now was unsure as to the best course of action. He was shaking because of his fear, and would not have felt good about the idea of making any sudden movements to attempt to scare the rats into moving away, in case they were in some way bewitched, or had an evil intelligence to them, He also thought that if he were to scare them, no doubt more rats would simply come to replace the creatures, emerging from the shadows to increase his anxiety. He could not simply walk away from the rats, firstly it would not solve his problem, and secondly, perhaps more importantly it was not in his nature to back down from a challenge. He slowly bent down, his whole body quivering, incased in the chill of his fear. His fingers fumbled for a small rock that he could see from the corner of his eye, and when he had it in his grasp, he straightened out his frame. He raised his arm, stilled his aim, and then, he stopped still.
The rats seemed so expectant. He took a step backwards, the rats took a step forwards. He took another step. The rats advanced. Frederik’s view seemed to hollow in on the rats; he could feel his face slacking and tightening and was for a second very glad that none of his colleagues were here to see him in this situation. Completely at a loss, he turned and started to run. These shoes were not right for running of course. Frederik had a smart pair of trainers at home which would have been perfect for this job, seeing as they had an adjustable pocket of compressed air which cushioned the foot and provided an extra spring which added to the speed one could obtain while wearing them, Frederik thought of his other life as he streamed down the deserted tracks, aware that the rats were not only behind him, but closing the distance between them and their prey. Frederik decided after a short time that running was not helping. The adrenaline given to him by his run had been enough to convert his fear into aggression and bravery. He turned, and faced his tormentors. The rats were still. They were even now five feet from him, but had been joined by three more of their brother rats. All of the rats were looking at Frederik now, their eyes were, as far as he could perceive, unblinking in the yellow light of the tunnel. They were very small, as all tube rats are, noticed Frederik, a useful survival tactic, so as they could duck underneath any approaching train as well as darting in and out of any of the hundreds of thousands of tiny gaps and cracks in the aging walls of the station. Had the rats been this small before living in the tunnels, thought Frederik, or perhaps they had somehow been forced to evolve in this way, so that any larger rats that had been alive at the time of the colony inhabiting the brand new tube network were crushed by the trains and the commuters, leaving just a few of the pygmy rats to continue the brood. One of the rats let out an ear piercing scream, its gaping mouth hanging wide open as the sound emerged. Frederik collapsed in a pile, clutching his ears with his hands and biting his lower lip with his top set of teeth so hard that his mouth started to bleed.
He waited for the rats to come to him for twenty five songs, cold and still. They were probably waiting for him to die, thought Frederik, there was no way that a few rats could overcome him, even if they were disease ridden and fast. Now Frederik really couldn’t see what was happening, he was despairing and humming to himself, still listening to the rat’s singing and wondering how it was sustaining the noise for such a long period of time, until he noticed that the noise had stopped. His ears were ringing terribly, and there were no scratching noises now, the rats must have gone. He slowly raised his head from the protection of his arms only to see a very strong white light coming from directly in front of him, which immediately made him shield his face with his hands. In the wall at which he was looking, was a door, or rather thin slits in the stone, through which light was beaming, outlining a slab of the rock in sharp white light, making him think of a door. Next to the door was the doorkeeper, dressed in thick grey robes, with his head bowed, looking straight at the floor in front of him. Who was this man, in the tube station with him at this time of night?
The doorkeeper did not move any part of himself that Frederik could see, but nonetheless he uttered the words, “ Do you have an appointment?”. Frederik didn’t know what to say, because although he had many appointments the next day with clients and superiors at the bank, he most certainly did not have an appointment with this man waiting here, and he thought that the chances of the man asking whether he had any appointments in general were very slim indeed. “No.” The doorkeeper remained motionless in front of Frederik. “You will have to wait then of course. Did you simply arrive thinking that you could get in without having an appointment?” Frederik thought about this briefly, he had certainly not arrived in this fashion, since he knew absolutely nothing about this door and its keeper. On the other hand, he certainly did not think that an appointment should be necessary at this time of night in an almost deserted tube station to access a room which was unknown to him. “No, I didn’t know that an appointment was necessary,” replied Frederik. “In that case, why were you bowing like that? You know there is no way that I can let you through without an appointment? You will just have to wait I’m afraid.” Frederik felt very confused by this and not a little bit upset. Frederik thought about his situation, he did not know where the door and keeper had come from, or indeed where the rats had gone. Had he passed out again, under some mysterious curse or spell? Was he simply hallucinating? Was this all a very elaborate prank that his colleagues at the bank were playing upon him?
The door keeper, who was suddenly next to Frederik placed a warm hand upon Frederik’s forehead. “Don’t worry, all of your questions will be answered soon enough. You just have to wait a while here until they are ready to receive you. It’s a shame you don’t have an appointment, it would really speed things up for all of us. Now that you are here all of your forms will have to be stamped, and that alone can take hours. Then the officer will have to personally inspect each of the forms, making sure that there are no errors or omissions. With a bit of luck, the forms will be in order and they can then be processed by the sorting machine, of course, if there are any mistakes then they will have to be checked and signed again by the clerks, but in any case the whole process should take at least three hours, and at the very most seven to eight hours. Unfortunately, I am by no means an expert in these sorts of proceedings and so my estimates could be totally inaccurate, or they could be spot on, you see I am only the doorkeeper, and I can only speak from the experience I have of the other patrons who have used our service.” Frederik, trying to keep up with what the door keeper had told him, broke into a slight sweat which was incredibly uncomfortable due to the now extreme cold of his surroundings. “What exactly is the nature of the service that you provide here?” asked Frederik. “Well, the only aspect of it that I really understand is that everyone benefits from the service, and no one is disappointed. We make people’s lives better here, and it is all down to the sorting machine.”
Now that some sort of machine had been mentioned, Frederik became uncomfortably aware of a sort of whirring, clunking hum that resonated from somewhere beyond the door. He imagined some sort of towering monstrosity of interconnected metal mechanisms, wonderfully engineered yet macabre in its accuracy and judgement. He imagined papers, somehow electronically marked, being fed into the machine, being processed and then re processed until all error and inaccuracy had been removed, until the details of a human life were perfectly and clinically sorted. “How would the machine help me? My life is ordered and well organized at the moment, I can’t see how any thing could improve the efficiency of my days.” The doorkeeper, still with bowed head took a step back, and said with a sigh “ I am afraid that these things are far beyond the comprehension of those such as you or I. Some in the offices say that the only thing that truly understands the way that the machine works is God. Listen, I have seen some men sit here for hours and hours, quiet and cold. I am not really meant to do this but I can offer you a service. After a client first comes to us, I am duty bound to watch them until they are ready to be seen. However, these men who I have seen sitting here and fretting quite often make their situation worse by pleading and begging me to let them through the door, thus increasing the amount of time required by the staff here to go through their forms. If you wish, I could close my eyes for two minutes, allowing you to walk off and come back in a few hours to check your progress, thus preventing you from prolonging the frustration you are bound to experience.”
This sounded like a very decent offer to Frederik, who did not seem scared any more. One thing still was worrying him, and he wondered whether or not he should ask the man in front of him about it. He seemed reasonable enough, and quite well spoken, or at least, clearly spoken, for a mere doorkeeper. “I’m sorry, but do you have the time, just before I pop off?” The doorkeeper moved his hand so that it was almost pointing to the left. “If you want to take up my offer, take it up now,” he said “you won’t have another chance, perhaps I have been overly generous already. If my senior officers knew about the risk I have taken by trying to preserve your sanity they would have my pay docked for at least a month.” His hand returned to his side very slowly. Frederik took a few steps backwards and said “ Thank you, I do appreciate this,” turning slowly around until he faced away from the door. His footsteps made rather too much noise to be comfortable as he walked and he became conscious of his breathing and heartbeat. He remembered a biology lesson in school during which the children were asked to control their breathing in order to feel the movement of their ribcage and diaphragm. Frederik remembered that after becoming aware of his own bodily functions it took an annoyingly long time before one ceased to be aware of them, and the more one thought about not thinking about them, the more one thought about them. He could still feel his heart and his lungs moving inside him, and thought about how separate from his conscious will his organs were. This of course was so that the conscious mind had more time and space to think about more important things than self-regulation, he thought, like banking, he thought.
Walking away from the door was not as difficult as Frederik had imagined; There was some comfort to be found in the certainty and imminence of his return. His new found relaxation made Frederik aware of changes in his surroundings. Smells seemed to be developing from the musk of the murk, a waft of grass and the tender scent of fresh air. His skin pricking at the new sensations, Frederik found that every now and then as he looked around, shapes were determinable in front of his eyes, natural and good. He could have sworn he heard the rustle of a tree. And Frederik closed his eyes, and opened them, and his view was filled with an expanse of green.
The meadow was the countryside that Frederik had lived in as a child. There was the blue gate, thick with rust, many times vaulted by Frederik and his brother on their way to further adventure. Frederik vaulted it now, his feet landing hard on the dry earth on the other side, all thoughts of songs forgotten. Electricity pylons which had stopped him from flying his kite in this field still towered overhead, dwarfing him into wonder. He began to walk down the gentle slope of the hill, through dandelions and daisies, grass passing him quickly by. He could see in the distance a black streak, painted onto the horizon with an impasto verve, a cathedral in the distance, the graveyard nearby holding so much of his boyish thought.
Frederik did not think much as he continued to walk. He found pictures of his mother as a young woman, so old now, yellow. A stash of unfinished homework, hidden from parents and teachers behind a radiator. Bicycles, tracks, garlic. Frederik stumbled. His boot had become stuck in the mud beneath his feet. He startled, shocked and tugged upwards, pulling his foot quickly out from inside the shoe and planting it on the wet grass next to it. He grasped the top of the boot, frantic, trying desperately to pull it free from the ground. However, the boot was too firmly stuck. Try as he might, Frederik could not budge it, as it continued to sink deeper and deeper into the earth. How could he go back and face his father after losing his boot in the mud? Shame and desire to run, cry and lie pulled at him. Tears began to form at the corners of his eyes. He felt ashamed. He felt inept, incompetent. Blood filled his face.
His silly little thoughts carried on for quite some time, and so did his heightened sense of self awareness. Only when he realised that he was now in some kind of void, was it that he stopped thinking about his heart and lungs. The shock of being forced to concentrate on his current situation rather than school memories pounced on Frederik and he looked around, suddenly panicking. There were no walls anywhere, and the lights that had previously been with him had completely disappeared. He held up his hand to his face only to regret doing so because he could not see his hand at all, or even perceive some movement in the atmosphere around him as he swiped it around. There was no way that he would ever find his way back to the doorkeeper, and by now his forms would most likely have been processed and the machine would be ready to sort him out. But somewhere, a long way away was the whirring and clunking and smashing noise of the machine. Distant, like an echo or one of his memories. The blood rushed to his head as he knew that the machine was getting louder, more efficient and more powerful, seemingly bearing down on him. The noise grew and grew in his brain until it totally dominated him. Again he was aware of his heart and lungs, and their thumping added to the texture of the machine which was bearing down on him until in a final stream of movement, he was crushed by the tube train that he had thought was a machine that would organise his life. The northern line was suspended for a long time causing much delay to commuters, some of whom worked at his bank.