lines from the underground: writers respond to Tony Thorne’s illustrations

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by Darren Lee

He was a Sentinel.

The Sentinels didn’t have names, at least not in the human sense. If he could have picked something for himself he would have settled on “Metro”; a name he kept seeing on the masthead of the free newspapers that the humans liked so much. The word stood out on the front page, bold and constant; he aspired to these attributes.

It was with the newspaper that Metro found a kindred spirit; like the strange, papery object he too spent most of his days loitering on the tube. This was his beat. He sat for most of the day, absorbing the rhythm and rattle of the carriage, observing closely the behaviour patterns of his fellow travellers: aloof, restrained and noncommittal. The humans hid behind their sheets of newspaper, hungrily devouring it with their darting eyes, before throwing them over their shoulders to litter their vacated seats. A fickle bunch, thinks Metro. Ripe for a takeover.

He coughs and a small specked feather escapes from his mouth. He had been briefed about this: nothing

to worry about, Control told him. The disguise had yet to be perfected. The rest of the Bakerloo passengers conform to type and don’t register anything untoward.

Metro is learning the Humans’ reading habit, but he mostly looks at the pictures: glittering people waving as they walk into a cinema, a plastic-faced man holding a battered briefcase aloft, a bloodied child crying amid rubble. As a Sentinel it’s Metro’s job to learn what he can and these abandoned items are good tidbits for his report; all nourishing breadcrumbs for a curious intellect.

On the way to Charing Cross he puzzles over a picture of a human female; he has seen her image before and is aware that she has elevated status within human society. She is showing her posterior to the camera. Metro doesn’t understand this and ponders if the backsides of the rich do not fulfil their original purpose; are they purely ornamental? He makes a note. This is something to brood over later with Control.

 


There is no danger of Metro going native. Control had warned him about that too: previous expeditions had turned and lost their avian nature. Metro thinks he saw one once in Regent’s Park. She was in the form of an old woman who sobbed openly as she tore up hunks of stale bread which lay uneaten at her feet. Her former brethren watched indifferently from the trees, forbidden to descend and peck at the tainted crumbs.darren lee crop 1


Metro is quiet and unmoving for most of the journey. It’s best for him to sit still; the disguise chafes his breast and his folded wings regularly cramp. There is some release when he reaches Charing Cross and he settles into the task of piloting his human shell to Trafalgar Square. His steps are tentative at first, but he eventually settles into a pattern, a stroll which syncopates with the bustle around him. Of all human activity, it’s walking that puzzles Metro the most. How did they cope with being
 so earthbound all the time? Maybe this was why they distracted themselves so much with the rear ends of the great and good?

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Metro bounds up the stairs to Trafalgar Square two at a time. He is showing off, trying to make a grand entrance. The crowds, too absorbed in taking photographs of themselves, fail to notice him. The birds sense his presence straight away; they immediately land and a silence spreads. They all look towards the corner where Metro is waiting.

A fat pigeon descends from Nelson’s hat and circles it’s way down the column, swooping over the silent brood. The pigeon gracefully lands at Metro’s feet.

Metro bends down and offers Control his hand. The pigeon rests upon his palm and is slowly elevated level to Metro’s face. The Sentinel launches into his latest report. After being confined to his disguise it feels good to revert to the old language once again.

Control listens patiently, processing all he can, hoping that among Metro’s theories on celebrity and transportation may lie the seed that grows into the humans’ final destruction. His flying army is ready, stationed on rooftops everywhere throughout the capital, ready to swarm as soon as the chink in the armour is revealed. Until then, the Sentinels arrive and share their knowledge.

Metro finishes his report and goes back to the tube.

Control flies upwards to his perch and defecates on Admiral Nelson. He continues his watch, making sure the world ends not with a bang, or whimper, but a bloody coo.

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. 

Shelter

Susie greenhill october 2014

by Susie Greenhill

They found places to keep things, islands, that’s how it started. Atolls for cartons of egg-shells, for foreign postcards stacked in boxes. Archipelagos cluttered with shipping-crates of photographs, moss-terrariums, insects adrift in methyl-alcohol, vials of nectar, jars of ochre-coloured soil. Islets devoted to feathers, to gem-stones they’d found while still clinging to the mainland coast, still sifting through the deserts. Uncut sapphires glinting in torch light, kicked over on the goldfields – carried now in buckets with amber, quartz, granite flecked with mica – coated with dust from dilapidated shacks, busted cities, from the gully where their tumbling down home had once stood, leaning into the westerlies, into winds that brought ice then razed forests, bared the green of the plain.

They had an atoll for seeds, un-germinated seeds which they’d stored for posterity, a vestige of hope. They ferried them to that island in flotillas of walnut shell boats, while the ocean was still as a stone. She remembers that day as the last when they knew they could still return to their home.

They built shelters: a tower of spiralling shell, bunkers lined with coral, they slept on pandanus. When night fell they paced out the shores of their islands, the silt coves, they followed the rhythms, the turnings of the phosphorescent tide, they spoke about the sky, about the lights they saw sometimes in the distance, the fishing hulks, the ferries carrying children, rising, falling on the horizon to the north.

‘What will we do if they come here?’

‘Why would anyone come?’

‘If they’re lost?’

‘These islands are too small, they’re too low. They will see that.’

‘But those boats, they’re not safe.’

‘If they come here we will go.’

And things did come: discarded things, a child in a basket of reeds, up-turned rafts, leather boots, things that sting. They fended them off, they waded into the shallows and veered them off-shore with poles whittled from palms, with nets woven of shoe-laces, frayed ends of string. They were grateful for the fins, for the singing.

The winds came. They swept over the islands like a flood. Pieces of damp paper, torn letters shivering in leaves, in the branches, filled the air above their islands like locusts, cicadas falling from the spinning of the sky – catching in her hair, covering the floor of his boat. In the tower she pieced them together, words about love, about things they had lost.

‘Will nothing grow now?’

‘I don’t know. Some things will.’

She placed her hand on the warmth of her belly, she remembered the swelling, the kicking of feet, tiny elbows sculpting tents out of skin. She thought of the child in the basket.

‘He could have stayed. There is room.’

‘It’s too late.’

You can read Unravelling, by Susie Greenhill, in the upcoming publication through Transportation Press, Islands and Cities. To stay updated on release date, subscribe to our newsletter.