Wednesday, 21 September 2005

The Six Fifty-Seven, By Ben Sheth

The Six Fifty-Seven; 21 July 2005

An inescapable feeling of unease pervaded the air, as it had done for the past few months whenever Venkatesh Subramnian got on the train. He was dressed in standard business attire, though his respectable-looking soft work-bag had perhaps too big a bulge in it for the peace of mind of all aboard. It was full of slides of malignant brain tumours which he would that afternoon present to a medical conference in London. He was not Muslim and for the most part enjoyed living in what was, after all, his country of birth; but it was clear that the majority of his fellow passengers did not perceive either of these points. People looked up, then very quickly down at their feet again; they shuffled, fidgeted and twitched, trying to disguise their disquiet that someone who looked, to them, like a suicide bomber, had sat within shrapnel range of them. Occasionally someone made a more militant display of their ignorance by getting up and walking through to the next carriage when he entered. No one settled in the carriage; it was as if an especially aggressive colony of ants were swarming the seats, but no one wanted to get out of their seat altogether in case someone else took it.

Slap! Whack! Went the rolled up copy of yesterday’s Standard Lite against the stained, grimy window of the WAGN SuperExpress Shuttle, its diesel engines bleating and whining in anticipation of the haul from Cambridge to London King’s Cross.

Rev. Janet Weatherburn looked up, irritated by the kerfuffle, and saw a large man with a large gut swishing and swatting at a bluebottle. The fly was annoying, she thought, but even more so was the fat man, who had neither the speed, accuracy nor nimbleness of footwork to do anything more than provoke the fly to even more piercing frenzies. It seemed to be headbutting the window, and had clearly failed to grasp that the glass presented a permanent barrier.

The train stopped at a small, flat, tarmac-ed commuter village. This was not, its residents would assert with animation, a wild, inhospitable part of the country – neither the Wild West nor the craggy reaches of the Caucuses – yet there was a queue of 4x4’s leading to the entrance to the station. Each had a wife in the driver’s seat, and husband, shaven and scented, leaping out in turn and heading for the platform. The engines were running, and the deep throbbing of the enormous engines, and the quiet leaking of white gas from the exhaust seemed strangely sinister in the otherwise comfortable domestic scene. But no one looked up from the carriage.

Janet looked back at the clutch of papers she was trying to concentrate on. She was preparing a funeral address for a school friend who had recently died of cancer, aged thirty-seven. Janet hadn’t known Clare very well, and hadn’t been in touch regularly since they had left school. Clare’s closer friends had felt it appropriate, however, for Janet to conduct the service. It saved them fishing around for someone else, and they were less worried about the crassness of the address (at least Janet would remember the name of Clare’s partner). Janet was less taken with the plan. She had never known Clare to express any remotely religious sentiments. What was she to say? “We gather here to wish our friend a good time in Hell”? She had cobbled together some predictably anodyne comments, but was worried that they didn’t do justice to Clare (whose Epicurean lifestyle could only be celebrated in the most weaselly manner by a vicar), to herself, or to God, though no one seemed to think of him much any more. Swat! Crash! (The fat man had tripped over another passenger’s bag mid bluebottle-hunt and fallen heavily).

This series of loud bangs set the mood of the passengers even more on edge, but it did at least divert their attention from Venkatesh, sitting in the corner nursing his bag of tumours. He took advantage of the distraction to peer over his neighbour’s shoulder to get a glimpse of what she was reading. He thought he recognised Lorraine van Redewell from a neighbouring college in Cambridge. There being nothing to be gained for either in furthering their academic acquaintance (their disciplines being so different that routine academic back scratching would be fruitless), no eye contact was made. But Venkatesh was very interested in the academic paper she was reading. He was fairly sure she lectured in English, and had a quiet scientist’s contempt for it as a serious subject. But there was nothing lightweight about the text she was holding: “…symbolic rupture of signifier and signified posits the narrator’s mortality…” Venkat (the abbreviation he preferred for acquaintances) scratched his head, made no sense of it and tried again: “…paradigm of premature termination, enhanced by recent ground-breaking bibliographic research revealing many aborted re-issues in manuscript form, which confirms current interpretations of a revolutionary cell of Protestant thinkers among the minor clergy of Somerset…” He gave a reassuring glance at his tumours and got out his Daily Express.

The flat, brown countryside outside was flashing by, segmented into film-roll-like rectangles by the train windows and various vertical obstacles outside. No one felt this piece of virtual cinema worth any attention, however.

The fat man, to be known as X14 for that day, was going to an underground meeting of football hooligans at an undisclosed location. Their topic for that day was to be fighting tactics: how to inflict the maximum injury on an opponent. To judge from X14’s blundering ineffectiveness with the rolled newspaper, he might not be suspected to be much of a threat; but with some broken glass, and the undefended proximity of an unnoticing opponent’s white flesh, he was very savage.

At the last stop in north London a school girl got on and hurriedly extracted a battered exercise book, which she flicked through hungrily but without any organised purpose. She had a biology test first lesson, and hadn’t summoned the enthusiasm to revise the night before. It was about decomposition of plants and animals, and the variety of factors which controlled the speed of decomposition. After some vociferous requests from a few of the boys in the class, they had been shown some laboratory slides of decomposing corpses to provide some visual aids for the topic. One of the noisiest boys had been sick on the way out, but Vicky found herself fascinated, and was looking forward to conducting a long coursework essay on the subject for her A Level investigation.

As they approached central London, the change from dull suburbia to the incomplete building sites abutting the train line aroused the passengers from their restless rest, and people got up, collected baggage from the overhead shelves and rummaged. When they arrived, Venkatesh was allowed off first. No one made eye contact, but several passengers ensured they got on a different tube line.

As they left the train, none of them noticed that the fly had just expired, exhausted by its attempts to escape the glass. It was lying on its back on the window frame. Its legs seemed to be twitching minutely. Or was it the breeze?

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