About the size of a packet of cigarettes, the cheap plastic of the Buddha machine fits snug in my palm. It is simple- a speaker, a volume wheel, a switch, a red LED, a headphone port. A few basic circuit boards sit encased in what was once pristine white. I turn the wheel of the Buddha machine to its full volume and a loop begins to play in my ears. I close my eyes. Thirty seconds of gentle tones expanding and contracting, and then it repeats. I could turn the switch and another loop would come, but I am lucky. My breathing synchronises effortlessly with the ebb and flow of this first loop. I open my eyes.
It’s close enough to winter that the trees past the train windows are gilded with ragged leaves. People are wearing jackets, but not yet scarves or gloves. Everyone is too hot in this carriage. Past the noise of the Buddha machine, I can feel the train vibrate, I can almost hear voices. The loop is ambiguous- every noise that sidles past the headphones is incorporated until the train is breathing with me. Across the aisle men gesticulate and smile and talk. A girl is reading a book. A grey haired man looks pained as he casts his eyes around, oppressed by the weight of life pressed into the carriage. Beyond him in the gloaming I can see lights burning in office buildings.
We stop. We accelerate. We continue. We decelerate. We stop. We accelerate. We continue.
It feels as if there is a larger pattern, as if the loop is changing, as if it draws out – there is not. The change is in the train and in the passengers. This loop is thirty seconds long. The man next to me is reading a free newspaper. I am tired.
We reach my station and I step out onto the platform and the train keeps going, and the loop repeats.
Tony Thorne’s illustrations, sketched while in London, travelling the iconic underground rail system will feature throughout the upcoming publication Islands and Cities, a collection of short stories by Tasmanian and London based writers. To celebrate this cross-cultural exchange, writers from the publication have each been assigned an illustration by Tony Thorne to respond to, for publication on our website.
“Nah, Rose, listen- it’s Cthulhu. CUH-THOO-LOO, yeah?”
Rose frowned and kicked at a pebble with her battered hi-tops.
“And you reckon it’s him in the underground?”
They were down a side street south of Waterloo station, far from picturesque skylines. The surrounding warehouses loomed in the tarnished glare of sodium streetlamps.
“Not IN,” Keith said, smiling, “UNDER. A three hundred metre tall octopus-elephant-beast-god-monster. You saw the badges, yeah? Something’s down there, and I reckon these guys are keeping him asleep. ‘Cos if he comes up it’s like end of the world-Armageddon Ragnarok APOCALYPSE level stuff, right?”
Rose smiled. She had seen the badges. They had spent days riding the underground checking members of staff. Each wore a little pin on their chest, a single point the size of a button with eight lines curving out from it. Most were silver, some gold. Keith swore he saw a jet black one on a guy at Marble Arch, but Rose hadn’t seen that. Sat in Keith’s flat, it all seemed fun, like signalling saucers from Primrose Hill, or trying to sneak cameras on tours of masonic halls.
Keith stopped in front of an anonymous steel door and consulted a battered A to Z.
“This is it,” he said. Rose leaned over his shoulder and looked at the map.
“Jubilee, Circle, District, Victoria, Northern,” Rose incanted. They had spent hours poring over maps of ley lines drawn by pagans. When you overlaid the ancient lines of power and the underground map, well… Rose was the one who noticed the nexus; one point circumscribed by the Jubilee, Circle, District, Victoria, and Northern lines- the point just south of Waterloo.
“The deepest point of the London underground,” Keith had said, and they had grinned.
“What do you think is down there?” Rose asked. Keith’s eyes sparked.
“I’ve got my ideas. I need to check some sources. I’ll tell you when we go down…”
This was what they did for fun- Rose didn’t drink, not after seeing her dad drink. Keith wasn’t good with people. So they followed clues, they tramped across the city. It filled time, it was fun, and it hurt no-one. They had spent a month tracking the grave of the Hampstead vampire and had ended up lighting some candles and leaving garlic and crosses over their top suspect’s tombstone. They had spent weeks conspiring to steal the London Stone, before Keith decided it was too dangerous— if the Stone left London, the city would fall. This was the way it had been, for years now. Rose wanted was to be part of something bigger- Keith helped her.
The tube strike was a blessing. No trains to worry about, no people, no electrified lines. The door was unlocked, swinging open onto darkness at Keith’s touch. He grinned at Rose and held a finger to his lips and they began the descent.
Seventy feet down and two hundred feet south they heard the footsteps. Keith grabbed Rose and pulled her tight to the wall and they turned off their head torches.
“Transport police— stop right there!”
Suddenly there were torch beams crisscrossing their paths, blinding their eyes. Rose tripped on a railway sleeper and fell, her face and hands landing in rough gravel inches from a rail. Would that rail be electric? She didn’t know. She was breathing so hard she thought she might burst. She could hear Keith scuffling behind her. She stared at the rail until she was roughly picked up.
“What’re you up to?” asked one, whilst another leafed through Keith’s A to Z. He stopped on a page and showed it to a few of the others. They stared at Keith and Rose then, and their faces hardened.
The officers walked them further down the tunnel and refused to be drawn out by pleading or questions or apologies. Finally they came to an opening, an arched vault where a dozen lines crossed.
Keith saw it first, and began to scream, swearing, shouting, struggling. Between the tracks there was hole— darkness thicker than ink, an onyx maw. An absence of light— a presence of darkness. Not brick or stone or mud— something organic. Rose’s eyes widened and she looked around for salvation. She saw the pin on the lapel of the British transport police officer holding Keith— a solid black point with eight curved lines spreading from its centre. Rose stared at it and then locked eyes with the officer.
“What’s down there? Sfuloo?” she heard her voice ask. Keith had stopped screaming, had started crying. The officers forced them to the precipice. Rose couldn’t stop herself from looking- blackness and darkness and endless depth and something else far below.
The man holding her gave her shoulder a squeeze.
“Sorry love,” he said. He pushed, and Rose tumbled into the black, toward something bigger.
You can read, Water Birds, by Ian Green in the upcoming publication from Transportation Press, Islands and Cities, for updates on the release subscribe to our newsletter.
Ian Green is a writer from Northern Scotland. His short fiction has been performed at Liars’ League London, LitCrawl London, the Literary Kitchen Festival, and published in OpenPen London magazine. His work can also be heard on The Wireless Reader literary podcast and will feature in the upcoming short story anthologies Broken Worlds by Almond Press. His story Audiophile was a winner of the BBC Opening Lines competition 2014 and was produced and broadcast by Radio 4.