It was just a normal Tuesday.
I got up late – as usual, and by the time I got to the tube the platform was packed – again, as usual. There was no way I could have squeezed onto the first train, and I’d have been quite happy to not board the second one either, if it weren’t for the thought of my boss’s snide comments. Not that they would be limited to my punctuality, or lack of it. She’d also criticise my attitude, the quality of my work, my appearance, the state of my desk, and even the way I slurped my tea, and all accompanied by a chorus on the state of the economy and how lucky I was to have a job at all.
I did think about not boarding that train. But really, I didn’t have a choice. The doors opened directly in front of me and the horde of commuters at my back surged forward and deposited me on board. I braced myself against the eternal optimists who believe they can occupy the same space as me, but mercifully – surprisingly – no-one else tried to get on. The doors slid closed and I turned to give my brightest smile to the massed ranks of passengers on the platform.
Which was when I noticed the smell. Normally the morning tube is a heady mix of recently applied perfume and the great unwashed, but this smelt like – well, a box of matches. Or more accurately, the smell you get when you strike a match to cover your tracks after using your hosts’ bathroom. An acrid, burnt tang over the smell of something rotten.
And my fellow passengers were a bit odd-looking as well. I’d put that down to the lighting, which was more subdued than normal. Very subdued. Positively gloomy. After a half-hearted search for my place in the latest Dan Brown book, I gave up and shoved it back into my satchel, and peered around. And began to get more than a little freaked out. Even in the dim light I could see there was something disturbing about the tall guy in the pinstripe suit just opposite me. His eyes were yellow, and they almost seemed to glow.
And he, like his fellow passengers, wasn’t holding onto anything. Yet as we slowed with a screech of brakes at Finsbury Park, nobody except me made a last minute grab to stop themselves from falling.
But it wasn’t just the passengers that were weird. Finsbury Park was deserted. Nobody got on, and nobody seemed to be getting off. And then the brakes screeched again. Only this time, we weren’t moving yet. I looked back around the carriage, and the pinstripe with the yellow eyes gave me a half smile, but no-one else batted an eyelid.
And that wasn’t the only oddity they steadfastly ignored. At Arsenal, I thought I saw shadows moving against the platform wall, but there was no-one there to cast them. At Holloway Road, a dense fog filled the platform. A few small wisps wrapped around my legs and the strange smell intensified. At Caledonian Road, the train didn’t stop, but as we went through at walking pace an orange flame burst out of one of the exit tunnels and licked towards us. It was gone in an instant, but still, whatever maintenance work they had been doing it was pretty obvious that there had just been a terrible disaster. I didn’t know what to do. I wondered if I should reach above my head towards the passenger emergency alarm, but as I turned to the rest of the carriage for moral support, more yellow eyes flicked in my direction. I shrank back against the door, trying to make myself small.
And as I did my brain re-arranged what I’d been looking at all along. I noticed the tails. I’d mistaken them for coat belts, or for handbag straps, or coiled scarves. And that’s what a lot of them looked like. Some were scaly, some leathery, and some furry, all of them twisted around the poles at waist height. I let loose an involuntary whimper, and more and more pairs of glowing eyes turned my way. Metros were folded up and stuck behind the seat backs for the next passengers. Earphones were detached and wound around iPods or tucked into pockets. Bookmarks were placed between pages and novels regretfully put away. And all the eyes turned on me. A sea of yellow waiting for my next move.
Which was to fall out of the tube and onto the platform as the doors suddenly opened. I scrambled desperately backwards, coming up hard against the wall as the passengers advanced on me, their eyes glowing and tails twitching, and I covered my face and waited helplessly for the end. But they marched on, and past, and up the stairs to the exit, as the Tannoy announced that this was Kings Cross and the train terminates here, and please take all your belongings with you.
By the time I summoned up the courage to peek the platform was deserted, and I was wondering if I should try to re-board the train. I figured it would have to go somewhere, and anywhere, be it maintenance depot or just a dark tunnel underground, was better than here. But my legs wouldn’t move and then I felt a steely grip on my shoulder.
“Lost, are we?” said the tall man in the pinstripe.
I cringed and stammered my pitiful reply - “Yes”.
“Well then. Let’s see if we can’t find out where you belong, shall we? Which meeting where you going to?”
I looked at him dumbly.
“Ahh! Of course, you must be a new recruit. You’ll be wanting the induction tour. But there should have been someone here waiting for you!”
He looked around the empty platform, his yellow eyes blazing. And then they dimmed, and he turned and smiled. “Oh well, the tour’s a bore. Tell you what old chum, why don’t I show you around? Here, let me help you to your feet.”
And, as if in a dream, I let him, though I wanted to scream, though I wanted to run. But scream to whom, and run where? My tongue felt thick and I stumbled over my words.
“Who are you? And where are we?”
He stopped, and grabbed my hand, pumping furiously. His fist, which looked reassuringly human, felt ... other. “The name’s Maxwell. And ...” – his eyes bored into mine – “... you must be Alex. It seems we both work in Hedge Funds, so we might end up working together. Terribly busy time, of course, though good. Very good! Greed and fear, excellent, what?”
I felt lightheaded, confused. “Excuse me?”
He laughed. “Come, I’ll explain everything.”
He led me up rough-hewn steps to a ledge and I looked out over a gigantic cavern. Down below I could see clusters of people, gathered around large meeting tables, or drawing on whiteboards, or watching pie-charts appear and disappear on overhead projectors. I felt my legs tremble, then something touched the back of my knees and I collapsed onto the chair Maxwell had just placed there.
He stood at the edge and looked down, his tail gently swishing around his ankles. “Take a deep breath! Can you feel it? There’s a buzz in the air! Things are on the up!”
“What ... what am I doing here?” I pleaded.
“Like I said! You’ve sold your soul, so here you are, a new recruit. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Where was the Devil at the crossroads? The contract signed in blood? The pact – fame, fortune, knowledge, sublime guitar playing, all in exchange for your soul, right? Hah! Most people sell their souls without even realising it. Tell me, do you like your job?”
“Well. It’s ...” I struggled.
“Soul-destroying, right? Working stupidly long hours and not enjoying any of them. And doing what? Pushing virtual money around to make a quick buck – not actually making or creating anything, just preying on the greed of others. Do you feel like you’ve sold out of your personal life as well? When was the last time you phoned your mother and didn’t think of it as an unpleasant chore? And that girlfriend of yours – she’s more a matter of convenience than anything else, right? I mean, you don’t love her.”
I felt my hackles rising. “Yeah? What do you know?”
He smiled. “Everyone is born with a soul, Alex, and with a talent, however modest. That, and a connection to others’ souls, is what makes you human. When that connection weakens, and you discard or prostitute your talent, then your soul is lost. And you’re on your way to becoming a demon. Can you feel your tail yet?”
I suddenly realised that I’d been scratching the small of my back. “I’m growing a tail?”
“Oh yes! Though it will take a while before it’s a magnificent specimen like mine! Having lost your soul, it’s only natural that your deeds and actions will be to encourage others to lose theirs. And for every soul lost, every successful recruit, you will gain certain benefits and your tail will grow. Think of it as a pyramid selling scheme. These monthly meetings, they will help you. Set targets for you, suggest new strategies, hone your techniques.”
I shuddered. “And what if I don’t? What if I try to regain my soul?”
“Dear boy. Going to give up the comfortable pad are we? The exotic holidays? Going to tell your weekend girlfriend that you don’t love her and embark on an excruciatingly embarrassing and painful search for true love? I don’t think so. Besides, you probably don’t even know what your true talent is.”
“Ermm, writing?” I hazarded.
He looked at me aghast. “Writing? You? Hah! And no, I’m not going to tell you what your talent is – what you should be doing with your life. Frankly, you’re beginning to annoy me. I think it’s time we sent you back.”
He loomed over me, eyes gleaming, and peered intently at my forehead. “Hmm. A sharp tap here should do it...” and he shot a scaly claw at my face. I jerked back and there’s a sharp clunk as my head hits the glass window by my side, and in between the stars I see that the train has just pulled into Hyde Park Corner. There’s a beep-beep-beep and I lurch out of my seat and slip through the closing doors.
Out on the street I suck up the fresh air and lean against the railings as my pulse slows. I feel good, I feel alive, and as I watch the people scurry towards their little cubicles, I contemplate taking a brisk walk around the park to blow away any remaining cobwebs from my odd dream. But my feet reluctantly follow the familiar route to the office, and to my desk, where I sit for a full minute before I realise that my boss isn’t in yet. I check the time – it’s well past nine. I can’t believe my good luck, and peer round the office smiling.
I’m still daydreaming when I feel the presence at my shoulder. “Awwh. How sweet. You’re waiting for me to arrive before you log in!” The rest of the group chortle away as she dumps her bag on her desk. “Sorry I was late everybody, the tube was hell this morning!”
And then she winks, and I swear I catch a brief flash of yellow along with the whiff of a burnt match, behind the recently applied perfume.
© Liam Hogan, 2008
Commuters’ Tails by Liam Hogan was read by Silas Hawkins at the Liars’ League Lost & Found event on Tuesday 9 December 2008.
Liam is single, and looking. He worries that his stories might put people off, but is even more worried about those that they don't.