By Frances Gow
I glanced at Gran over the rim of my can and sucked the cold baked beans into my mouth, swallowing without bothering to chew. They slid down my throat with slimy satisfaction. I belched loudly and she winced. Ratman looked up and grinned, as he fumbled with another can. His teeth showed their sorry black and yellow state and his hair hung limply past his shoulders, matted and sooty from our subterranean existence. I guess I probably didn’t look much better myself, but what the heck, eh? Vanity never was my strong point, even in the days when we had mirrors to admire our reflections.
I watched her spoon the beans into her mouth, chewing and swallowing as if at any moment she might chuck the lot back up again. Her short blonde hair was impeccably styled, like she had just stepped out of a family portrait of forty years gone. Pristine clothes and painted nails; she can’t have been more than about seventeen. She would have put me to shame if there was any shame left inside me. Only her sallow complexion gave any indication of the illness that was eating her up from inside. There were tears in her eyes, though she tried to hold them back and I wondered how in this shit heap of a world, I was going to tell her that I was not her daughter, but her granddaughter.
Ratman suddenly upped and took off. He darted out of our little hovel and down towards the platform, then jumped. His head disappeared for a second, then bobbed up and down two or three times before he emerged with a large stunned rat in his fist. Gran watched in horror as he brought it back in, still alive and squirming, pinned it to a block of wood and began to carefully dissect it with his flick knife.
“Aw, Man . . .” I said. “Not in front of my dinner guest, have some decorum. One of these days you’re gonna catch something horrible and die.” Ratman continued his task unperturbed.
“What is he doing?” Grandma said.
“Oh, he eats them . . . or rather, bits of them. Can’t hack it myself; like chewing rubber.” Her face paled and she placed the tin of beans on the concrete floor. “Not hungry?” I reached for the virtually untouched can and slung an empty one over my shoulder. It made a loud clatter as it hit our pile of empties and Gran jumped.
“I, err, ate at the Institute,” she said.
“Oh, yeah. The Institute,” I said, stuffing my mouth. ICR, Institute of Cryogenic Research or just, the Institute. Either way, it always leaves me cold inside. I could have been living up there with the Privileged of London, instead of dossing down here with the likes of Ratman. Ratman is okay, really. He’s just never known any different.
It was all part of the Government’s new initiative to crack down on crime and clean up the streets of London.
Flaming marvellous. How can you not tolerate someone who has nowhere else to go? Anyway, it was when the Police started to turn their weapons on the homeless that we moved, en masse, into the underground system. The trains eventually ground to a halt when the customers stopped using them. They all travel by tram up there now. And the streets are clean.
“How do you find food?” Grandma looked at me with a pained expression. Was she trying for a little motherly concern, to make up for all those lost years? I laughed.
“Oh, you’d be amazed at how resourceful we can be. Sometimes the tunnels bring you right up under the big stores. You need only be exposed for a split second and you’re out the back door before anyone has noticed. Have to raid at night though; most of us been down here so long, we can’t see in daylight.”
“Yes, it’s so dark down here, I was sure I’d never find you but everyone seemed to know you,” Gran said.
“We’re a close-knit community. Well, you have to be, don’t you? This is our home, our land now. See this room? This dive I call home… it used to be a security office. See those monitors?” I looked up at the line of TV monitors all smashed to bits, wires hanging out. “That’s where the underground staff used to keep watch on all the platforms. Only, Ratman couldn’t stand the sight of his reflection, said it was like sharing a pad with half a dozen clones. Some of my friends live on trains, you know. Most of the carriages were dismantled and taken away, but people found the odd one here and there. Others live on the platforms like they’re still on the streets. Some people go down those tunnels and never come back.” Gran shook her head in bewilderment, trying hard not to notice what was going on in the corner with Ratman.
“Things were so different when I was… before I went to sleep.”
Was there guilt hiding behind those pretty green eyes? She had betrayed her future generation, left them to fend for themselves while the last dregs of the family’s wealth went to the Institute, to fund her suspended animation.
“What are you doing here?” I said. She looked taken aback.
“I . . . I came to see you. I need your help.” I wanted to say, where were you when I needed help, when Mum needed help? But I held back, there was no use in raking over the past, she would have died before I was born anyway. I looked at her and shook my head.
“Didn’t the Institute tell you what year this is?”
“Well, yes. 2041.”
“And you were seventeen when you were… went to sleep?” She nodded.
“That was what, 1992? So your daughter, Josephine, would be… 50, or thereabouts?” Her eyes widened as she realised what I was saying. “Now I know I look a bit grubby… but it’s nothing a decent bath wouldn’t fix.”
“Oh, Jesus wept. I didn’t think.” She was shaking her head and crying now. I even felt a little sorry for her.
“Mum died seven years ago. She never really adjusted to this new lifestyle. She took stuff . . . crap, street drugs to escape. She was out of it most of the time. I don’t think you would have liked to meet her. Most people kept clear of her. My Dad . . . I don’t even know who he is or was. Just someone she found to comfort her. He fucked off after I was born. After that she didn’t need anyone else, she had me. Before we came down, it was rich pickings up there. We had a squat and everything. It was the move down here that finished her off . . . you okay?”
She was blubbering and I couldn’t do anything except watch. Even Ratman had paused momentarily to stare in her direction.
“It wasn’t my fault; it wasn’t my idea. God… it wasn’t even my money. If I had known, I would never have agreed. I would rather have died young, that way I could have spent some time with my baby.”
I looked down at my scrawny figure, hunched up under the tatters that passed as my clothes. My long straggly hair, dirty bitten nails and sooty complexion. I sighed.
“Guess all you got now is me. We could be sisters, like.” I smiled and she started to cry again. Oh well, I guess the prospect didn’t look too attractive to her at that point in time.
“It was Mother’s idea; to give up Josephine for adoption. I was told she was going to a good family. That she’d be okay.” I was almost embarrassed by her naivety.
“Yeah well, even the so called good families fuck up.”
Grandma got up and dusted herself off; yeah, I know. I used to do that when we first came down here. Now I don’t bother. It’s a futile exercise, dusting; all you do is swirl it around a bit so it can settle again five minutes later. Besides, I kind of like the grubby look. Grubby is ‘in’ down here. Anyway, Gran walked out and down to the platform. She found an old bench and sat down, watching the people around her and ignoring the stares. I guess she just wanted some time to think about things.
“Hey, Jo.” I turned to look at Ratman. He had disposed of the rat somewhere, somehow and was sorting through our collection of tin cans. “Like your Gran. Kinda sassy for an old girl.” He grinned and licked his lips. I had to laugh.
“Stick to sorting tin cans, she’s way outta your league.” Ratman just laughed and I went to stand in the doorway so I could keep an eye on Gran. It wouldn’t be long before the residents of the platform would have the clothes off her back. It was a habit that was hard to kick from being on the streets; everybody aspired to being a Robin Hood of the twenty-first century. One or two hopefuls began to edge a little nearer to her, though she seemed oblivious to the stares and nods of affirmation being sent down the platform. I knew that the minute she told them who she was, they would leave her alone. Down there, we had a kind of unspoken respect for each other and our families. She would never have found me any other way.
I walked down towards Gran and the platform seemed to empty itself of potential thieves. Gran looked up, make-up smeared across her eyelids, which were swollen and red from the crying. I sat down next to her.
“So, I guess they must have found a cure for you. Or did they just run out of space in the deep freeze?” She smiled, her lips trembling.
“They found a cure, but there’s something I need from you.” I frowned, not understanding what she could possibly want from me, other than a guided tour of London Underground. I looked away and focused on the sign on the wall above the tracks. Goodge Street. The only thing I had ever learnt to read were the names of every station on this line; from High Barnet to Kennington, from Edware to Morden and every interconnecting station. Seems pretty inconsequential now, but it is my home line. The black line. Dubbed ‘Misery’ by some. But it’s still my home.
“Bone marrow,” she said. I turned slowly to look at Gran.
“I need a bone marrow transplant.”
“But why me? Can’t they find someone else?” I didn’t much like the sound of what she was suggesting. She shook her head.
“No. They can’t find a suitable match. You are my last chance. The Institute would look after you and I have some money, we could find somewhere to live, up there.” She nodded upward. It slowly began to dawn on me what she was saying. This strange girl who had dropped in on my miserable existence was offering the hand of hope. This stranger from the past… from days of medical ignorance and traffic accidents. I was lost for words. Of course I would help. How could I refuse? She was, after all… family. I began to see Gran in a different light, or rather, shade of darkness because that is all there ever was down there.
She got up and walked slowly towards the edge of the platform and looked over her shoulder at me.
“Of course, none of that really matters anymore,” she said with a profound sadness in her voice.
I watched her step nearer to the edge and she turned to look at me. Then she smiled. The first confident smile I had seen from her and it touched me. It hit me in a wave of nostalgia as I saw Mum smiling back at me. I was six years old again. And we had a room, we had beds, we had a life. And Mum would tuck me up and tell me stories and cuddle me. A lump constricted my throat. Mum, I just wanted to say… but there was nothing to say.
In an instant, she was gone. She just stepped back and dropped. For a second I just stood and stared, then I raced to the edge of the platform and I watched her get up, dust herself down and walk off up the line towards Warren Street.
“Gran.” I said. People were edging towards the platform to see what was going on; curiosity of humankind was one thing that never changed. I jumped down and began to walk behind her, unsure of what she was doing or why, but understanding that she had reached a point of no return in her short staccato life.
She swayed her hips confidently, held her head up high and didn’t look back. “Gran!” Not a flicker. Her clothes faded, the further she got to the mouth of the tunnel. Now she was wearing the black gothic cast-offs that I had spent hours pilfering from Camden Market in my teenage years. Her blonde hair seemed to fade to smudgy grey, then black as it fell to her waist and I recognised the walk. The confident, fuck-the-lot-of-you walk that had been my personal hallmark. The faces peering over the edge of the platform faded from their grubby dark personas and were replaced by the public of another time. The light began to burn my eyes as suddenly as if I were in daylight. There were shouts and screams that triggered the memory of that day, when I had argued with Mum and jumped between the tracks to face an oncoming train.
The wind rushed through my hair and I really thought that it was over. I felt the thrill of death beckoning me onward as two white lights sat side by side, like giant cats eyes peering at me through the darkness of the tunnel. They grew before my eyes, widening into saucers and the wind was knocking me over. The screams faded with the light and I no longer knew where I was. The advancing roar was a tidal wave of lost emotion coming to take me away from all the pain of life. I was ready, I was willing. And then I lost it.
“Gran!” I squinted into the dark and caught a glimpse of her blonde head as it dipped into view, then disappeared around a side turning. She had found one of those little side-tracks, as I had done years before. Saving myself from certain death, but condemning myself to an uncertain future.
I followed for several stations up the line before losing sight of her for the last time. It seemed that each time I turned a corner, I would just catch sight of her figure, then she would disappear into the distance. For a while, I thought it was my eyes playing tricks on me, but at Camden Town, I saw her on the platform talking to someone. By the time I had caught up, she was gone again. Once I reached Kentish Town, I was pretty sure that she had taken the other line where it forked and then when I was just about to give up hope of ever seeing her again, I saw her come out of the tunnel.
She was striding towards me, a picture of calm serenity. It was a curious transformation from the nervous seventeen-year-old who had come in search of help. She looked as though she had gained ten years in the last few hours. Perhaps it was like that when they pulled the plug on your freeze box, perhaps she was only now starting to wake up.
She smiled and my Mum smiled back at me.
“Jeez. You don’t know how much you look like Josephine,” I said.
“Are you so persistent because you care about my fate, or are you looking for a way out of this dump?” She cocked an eyebrow at me, still smiling. It was an expression that Mum always used whenever I was trying it on. I shrugged. Her smile faded and she nodded to herself and reached up to pull something out from underneath her top.
It was a silver rope chain with a small dangling oval disk. She handed it to me and I looked at it sitting in the palm of my hand. The disk had an inscription on it; some numbers, a name, something like that. I couldn’t read it. I felt a sudden sense of loss, like when Mum died.
“So, where will you go? You don’t wanna live here,” I said, turning the disk over in my hand. She shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter now. I won’t buy my life at the cost of yours. I’ve reached the end of my road, but you… you deserve a future. You should have the years that I had as a child, as a privileged child. Take the disk to The Institute. The money left was to cover my operation and just enough for living expenses until I got myself organised. Take it all. With that tag, they have to give it to you if I don’t turn up for the operation. Tell them I had a change of heart. Not that they are that bothered; it’s just another one off the waiting list. I owe it to you… and to your mother.”
“But, can’t you come with me?” She was turning to walk off again. I followed in her wake and she just shook her head and tut-tutted without turning her head.
“You don’t need me. This is as good a place as any to die.”
And I stood still, watching her walk away again. The finality of her words struck me with an aching melancholy that I didn’t know how to deal with. She wanted to go, so I let her. Fuck it, eh? Life goes on. She traded her life years ago for her daughter’s and now she was trading it back. I wished Mum could have been around to see her altruism.
Several of my kind were milling about watching the exchange between me and this smartly dressed outsider with a posh voice. My mate, Ken, stepped forward and raised his eyebrows at me. I nodded and he smiled, giving me the thumbs up, then fell into step some distance behind Gran as she disappeared into the tunnel.
I slipped the chain around my neck and ran. Sometime later, I fell breathless into my little hole much to the surprise of Ratman.
“Hey. Thought you’d gone for good. Where’s your Gran?”
“Ratman? I have a job for you. How do you fancy looking after my Gran for me? Be back as soon as I’ve sorted a few things. Ask Ken, he knows where she’ll be.”
“Cool. Where are you going?”
I rummaged around amongst the debris on the floor and extracted a pair of shades from the pile of odd belongings we had collected over the years.
“I have a life to save. And then, I’m going to get us out of this pit.” I tucked the chain underneath my clothes, slipped the sun-glasses on and headed for the nearest exit.
One of my favorite stories