A God’s-eye view of the whole damn flea circus: down we go through the toxic morning London air, homing in like a pigeon looking for a perch amongst the roofs, the car parks, the patches of green garden, swooping down over the sticky black lids of the carriages on the overground train. See it wheeze and brake to a stop tantalisingly close to its destination station. God lifts a lid and peers in at the stranded multitudes inside, suffocating in silence. Sitting ducks. Aha!
There! He spots one of His messengers slouching in a corner with his rucksack pressed between his sweating back and the connecting door. God gives him a prod in the arm and The Messenger shuffles, straightens and then starts up:
“Ladies and gentlemen,”
he begins, softly but firmly, like a primary headteacher at the year’s first assembly,
“I want to talk to you about our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The leak sprung, the bank burst. The Messenger’s opening words seep across the floor of the rush-hour carriage, puddling round the shoes of the commuters. Heels come up off the floor, someone picks up a bag.
“…to His Word, marriage is between a man and a woman…”
Inches from The Messenger sits a woman hardly breathing. There’s enough hot air in here without them having to share the bloody Holy Spirit around as well. She wishes she could climb into the black handbag on her lap; at least any germs in there would be her own, God damn this germ-slathered fart-filled little caravan. The baptismal water reaches her ankles and she bravely unfreezes a little, takes a tiny breath, gets the Polos from her handbag, pops a mint.
“…there are sinners amongst us…”
Metros dampen, hair curls wilt and earbuds dangle like water weeds.
A suited man stands so close to Polos that his portly stomach almost touches the top of her head. He winces at The Messenger’s voice; it’s making him feel seasick. He thinks of the dry land of the office. Already late and now this. He expels a great sigh that sends his stomach swaying, ruffling Polos’ hair below. She smells coffee, hazelnuts, sweat.
Squashed against the doors a bearded man in a red jacket holds a novel near to his face but he’s lost his place now. He turns up his internal reading volume, shouting silently to himself about angels who carry their wings in violin cases and sing desperate songs of survival on rough seas. He pauses to tell himself this – this – is a Good Book.
“…of begetting children. And the Mortal Sin of …”
Past Good Book, deeper into the carriage, a young woman checks the faces of her fellow passengers, her fingers nervously searching the lapels of her jacket for a badge to fiddle with. She’s replaced her Corbyn badge – she’s upset with him for the moment – with a Baby on Board badge designed to make people offer her a seat. She’d had to ask for this seat all the same and now she wishes she was standing, by the doors, or at least sitting somewhere else, somewhere away from this…this…what is he? Maybe she should stand now. There’s no room to move. Oh God. What if he’s, you know, extreme? They don’t look like that though, do they? He doesn’t even have a beard.
A man in chinos finally notices they aren’t moving and glances around the carriage, stretching his neck towards a window. He lifts a headphone and hears:
“…Death is not the end, but…”
and drops the headphone back on. He looks back at his phone and weighs up his next move on Words with Friends. PRAY or PARTY?
“…You will be judged by Him…”
The Messenger’s voice more confident now. God looks on, proudly.
Sitting opposite Baby on Board, a red-haired woman grits her teeth. She has only just started taking the goddamn train. She blames her latest therapist, the one who told her that her claustrophobia was the direct result of being stung by a wasp whilst in utero. She looks for comfort in the pages of her Metro but only the bad words jump out.
Seasick Businessman sighs again with all his might, emptying a full stomach of breath into the carriage. He should call the office, drown The Messenger out. But that new idiot will probably answer the phone, the one who barely speaks English. Jesus. Nothing is sacred any more. You can’t say anything though. He looks around, tries to make some serious eye contact. Why does no one tell us what’s happening?
Baby on Board keeps fiddling with the badge, trying to ignore The Messenger, though her eyes keep pinging back in his direction like the silver balls of a Newton’s cradle. They don’t, do they, look like that? Not the ones she’s seen. She should have listened to her mother and moved out of the city. It’s not safe.
Headphones spies a little I and plays the word PARITY.
Stung In The Womb tries to bury her fear in a patch of soil in the basement of her brain whilst aware that this strategy, taught to her two therapists ago, had never proved successful. She can’t see the window from where she sits; they might as well be underground. She feels the wasp’s demon poison flow faster in her veins.
“…for Hell is real. Repent now…”
Polos notices a halo of space has emerged around the Messenger, though no one has been seen to move away from him.
Headphones is tweeting: stuck on broken train with religious nutter. won’t @overground deliver me unto Wimbledon? #poorservice #mondayblues
“…if you ask The Lord for His forgiveness…”
Polos peers around the stomach for a glimpse of sky through the window, thinking of the zoo on the other side of the river. She mentally puts The Messenger in a cage, looks straight at him for the first time. A glance at his rucksack and then away, making eye contact with the stomach’s head. Seasick Businessman returns her look. Suspicions deepen; hearts quicken.
“…for even in death…”
The D-word again. Is it getting hotter in here? Polos touches her hand to her forehead, looks up again at Seasick Businessman, red-faced and glaring at The Messenger. These people are a plague.
Stung in the Womb feels the air prickle with ghosts, sees them floating through the carriage, breathing onto necks, squeezing guts and balls and throats.
“…There is nothing to fear in death if you are ready to repent…”
Good Book is sick of this. He can’t breathe. He can’t focus on his book, rolls it up broken spine and all, stuffs it into his jacket pocket. His pulse throbs in his neck. Why aren’t they moving yet? They pay enough for this crap service. Won’t someone shut that bastard up? His prayer is answered swiftly:
“Can you stop please? You’re frightening people.” Seasick Businessman speaks loudly and firmly to The Messenger and a ripple runs through the fear-flooded carriage like an electric eel. “That’s enough about Doomsday for one morning, thank you.”
Blackbird has spoken. Heads bob up above the surface to take deeper breaths, lungs tentatively filling with fighting spirit. Murmurs start to rise in the carriage, a churchful of non-believers at a wedding before the service starts.
“I would like to get off, I’m not staying here with this bloody terrorist,” Stung in the Womb has said it, she said that word, and is on her feet.
God watches them all fall for it and rubs His hands.
Baby on Board knew this would happen. It was only a matter of time. She’s not one of the lucky ones. Just like all those others. Trapped. Dying all alone. What awful times we live in.
“What’s going on?” The volume in the carriage increases as the whispers take hold.
“…she says he’s a terrorist…”
“…in his rucksack…”
“…might blow us up…”
Stung in the Womb, propelled by wasp venom, is leading the way to taking back control. She pushes towards the doors, her bush of fiery hair burning a path through the knots of bodies and away from that savage, that devil. Not today.
Tears spring to Baby on Board’s eyes. This isn’t real, is it? If only she’d started her maternity leave last week. So what if they can’t afford it, better poor than dead, right?
“…they said high alert…”
“…what did he say?…”
“…it will hurt…”
The Messenger stands dumb, staring at his shoes, but only God has noticed and He keeps quiet about it. Harmless lamb, his job’s done for today.
“It’s too full in here!” Seasick Businessman is barging through the buzzing crowd, using his belly and losing his temper.
“Let me through please, let me through,” Stung in the Womb is making a beeline for Good Book. More people bob up from their seats, elbows churning the current, feet kicking up silt.
“…in his rucksack…”
“…on the radio this morning…”
Headphones senses the commotion and looks up from his phone. Come, friendly asteroid, he thinks. Put them all out of their misery.
Good Book sees red hair flaming towards him and accepts the part he has been given to play. For he is closest to the doors.
“…we need to get out…”
“…I can’t move…”
With a whirlpool suck, bodies draw away from The Messenger, away from certain death and towards the light, towards Good Book and Stung in the Womb and the closed train doors and the promise of eternal life outside the carriage.
Baby on Board silently votes to leave and rises, gives herself up to the tide. Didn’t people get crushed underfoot on the stairs in the Twin Towers? Polos is up too. Please, please God.
Headphones stays where he is. Are they trying to get themselves killed?
Good Book turns to the doors and spreads his strong fingers along the rubber seal. Other hands quickly join his and together they pull with all the divine strength of the long-oppressed until at last – praise be! – the doors are parted.
Passengers explode from the carriage, memories of The Messenger’s voice still ringing in their ears. The godless escape their deadly baptism of terror, free at last to breathe deeply of the toxic air, to wander onto the rocky desert outside and trespass around the live tracks, ensuring long delays across London.
Morning has broken.
God scarpers back upstairs, chuckling.
Published in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 15 (Birkbeck, 2018)