Paternoster Tales: Chapter 23

Disembodiment … part 3.

How close have you got to a spider? Or a beetle? Or a wasp? Are you a fascinated, if slightly creeped-out watcher? Or a panicked screamer?

How would you cope with a rat?

Or thousands of rats?

Trapped by a train plunging down the tunnel towards me and Silas somewhere behind, I had no choice – I lay down on the writhing bed of rats and waited for the train to pass. That wait was probably less than a minute long. But that minute was probably the longest most dreadful minute I have ever experienced in my life as a waif. I was buffeted by the explosion of air from the train engine and assaulted by the clatter and scream of the wheels. The immense weight of metal racing along metal rails made the air fizzing hot. Really hot! And spark with arcs of friction like spumes of tiny shooting stars piercing the gloom.

The real horror though was my temporary mattress. It had teeth. And claws. And a terrible, choking, urine-soaked pong.

I didn’t notice the  song of the rats until the train had passed. Imagine the sound of sticky, strings of slobber being licked off a thousand snarling ratty lips. And a high pitched constant squealing – rats don’t squeak. Rats squeal and snarl and bite. I took little comfort in the knowledge that for the rats biting me was a singularly unsatisfying experience, no better than biting air. The bites still hurt. Though it was more the thought of them that hurt. The imagined pain. The real sensation of teeth tearing where once I was cloaked with flesh. You never forget pain. Nor how to experience it.

I had another two minutes before the next train. I had to move.

A sudden chill hit the tunnel and it shivered. Everything stilled. Even the rats paused in their tormenting of me. Silas must be near. Nothing else would cause the rats to hesitate. And scatter. They might respect Silas, like him even, in a hey-we’re-rats-and-hate-everything-and-are-scared-of-nothing-except-when-that-nothing-is-a-vengeful-cruel-taunting-and-awesomely-incredible-waif-called-Silas but that didn’t mean they’d hang around to see him.

I found myself dumped in a thick layer of dust and rat droppings and sticky, wet, black slime. Silas was coming closer; I sensed him and shivered. Fight or flight? Silas always made me a coward. I chose flight.

The tunnels of St Paul’s lie one above the other; like the momentary meeting of two black snakes before they stretch out and slither away beneath the London streets. The station was built before the days of escalators, when the only way of accessing the tunnels was in lifts falling through vertical shafts. I hoped Silas didn’t know this. I wasn’t sure how I did. Perhaps it was one of Paternoster’s stories. Somehow his stories always had a hidden message or a lesson or something that might come in handy one day. I hoped this was one of those days.

I had to get myself near a lift shaft without Silas seeing. I had to make him think I was hiding. That I had run in a different direction. I knew that if I got to the surface, he wouldn’t – couldn’t – follow me there.

There was still the dim light filtering tentatively down the tunnel from the station. I went that way. I knew Silas would follow. I could hear the next train approaching as I reached the platform. People, like the foam at the edge of an incoming tide, lined their toes up along the yellow line painted on the platform floor. It was easy to weave in and out of their legs. Easy and distracting to Silas.

The tube doors opened and I allowed myself to be washed into the carriage. I checked that Silas had followed. He was grinning with his mouth but his eyes were black and filled with the hunger and hatred of a predator who knew he was winning but was disappointed that the chase had been so very, so boringly, so yawningly and so predictably e-e-e-e-e-eas-a-a-ay.

The doors closed and I started to run. I had to convince Silas that I had squelched. If I did then for a few seconds he wouldn’t expect to see me.

There was a mother with a small child in a stroller. She was bending over to pull one of the child’s arms back through the seat strap and was struggling because that’s not where the child wanted her arm to be.  I blew gently on the child’s face and her eyes popped open and looked into mine. She froze and her mother won. Arm back in place the mother started to stand and I looked into the space between her shoulders and her backpack. The train jolted and I hoped Silas would think I had fallen into her.

One second passed.

Two …

None of the windows were open.

Normally, we have to see into where we’re going, so the ventilation grille was a huge gamble. I couldn’t see beyond the mesh. But it said ventilation and ventilation means outside air. And I needed to be outside. So in I went.

I couldn’t really have endured anything else. If I had stayed in the carriage it would have meant endlessly to-ing and fro-ing on the Central line with the risk of Disappearing. I wasn’t ready for that. If Paternoster keeps telling us his stories I’m not sure I’ll ever be.

Anyway it was a gamble that paid off. I found myself back on the platform as the train gathered speed and disappeared into the tunnel. I was alone. But I knew that if Silas followed me he would look to the escalators first.

A locked gate and another metal grille – a larger one, easier to squeeze through – and a filthy vertical lift shaft. And fresh air. And sunlight.

And Patrick.

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