As I wade through the endless teeming river of living walking human bodies a cynical and deeply world-weary smile plays about my lips. The effect is ruined, unfortunately, by the occasional twitching of the facial muscle responsible for movement in my right eye-lid. And by a similar, irregular twitch in the corner of my mouth, on the other side of my face. The visible signs of too many cups of bad coffee, in too many shopping malls and too many train stations.
I’m in Finsbury Park now, making my way to the station café near the newsagents. After threading my way through the mass of bodies I finally reach my destination and order a coffee. At least this way I will have somewhere to sit down whilst I am waiting for the over-land train to New Southgate. I notice as I wait for my coffee that tea is very cheap here – only 28 pence a cup. Maybe I should start drinking tea instead, I think to myself, again with the cynical half-smile playing on my lips. And the twitch. Always the damn twitch.
There is a particular type of atmosphere here today in Finsbury Park Station. A unique kind of ambience. I’m not sure that I like it much though. Hordes of blokes are making their way past where I am sitting – Arsenal supporters, on their way to the match. They wear red and white scarves. They aren’t particularly drunk at this stage, and seem harmless enough but I wouldn’t like to bump into them on the return journey, particularly if Arsenal loose. The hell with that.
I remember once seeing a fan buried alive by snow on a bench here, late at night, on the way back from a match. He had been very obviously drunk, barely able to walk, and had stretched out on the bench to a have a bit of a rest whilst waiting for his train. The bench was on a part of the platform that was open to the elements and it was snowing heavily. I sat there watching him with interest as the snow slowly covered him, turning him into a sort of a snow-man. His train came and went and he never stirred – clearly in some kind of alcohol-induced coma, it occurred to me. It was late at night, as I have said, and that was definitely the last train. When I got on my train you could hardly see any bit of him that hadn’t been covered by at least an inch of the soft, immaculately white, inexorably-falling snow. The poor bloody bastard. Though I must say I preferred him as a snowman.
The cynical half-smile came back momentarily as I thought of that guy. I bet he didn’t feel too good when he woke up in the morning! Always assuming that he did wake up, that is. There had been another guy in a more mobile – and more talkative – phase of alcohol intoxication who was weaving up and down the platform blurting out his soul to anyone who would listen to him. “I’ve got to go to work tomorrow and I’m out of my bloody tree,” he informed nobody in particular, in a drunken slur, and took another pull from his can. This guy made it onto his train, although somehow I doubt he made it into work the following day. Not that I cared.
I suddenly realize that the coffee I am absent-mindedly drinking tastes very bitter. I know coffee is supposed to be bitter but this was exceptionally so. The taste – which all of a sudden seemed to catch in my throat – made me want to retch. Then I was gagging in earnest, unable for one panicky moment to take a breath. I came out with a strange half-strangled, half-croaking sound before I knew what I was doing and several faces turned from a nearby table to look at me with undisguised curiosity. My eye-lid chose this moment to start twitching repeatedly, with great vigour. I put the disposable coffee cup down on the table and pretended to be interested in looking at something at the far end of the platform. There was in reality nothing at all happening there, but I continued to stare fixedly in this direction all the same.
A bit of coffee probably just went down the wrong way, I figured. No big deal. I really ought to pay more attention. I could end up choking to death in Finsbury Park Station – and what a thoroughly ignominious end that would be. I would hope to go with a bit more dignity than that.
As this thought went through my head I started to notice that maybe something was happening at the far end of the platform after all – the previously clear-cut outlines were starting to grow shimmery and indistinct. It was a bit like heat haze, only this was November in North London, and there was no heat to be had. It was in fact bitterly cold.
And yet I could no longer feel the cold. It was as if I was no longer there, on this chilly November’s day, sitting in Finsbury Park station waiting for the next train to New Southgate, but somewhere else entirely. Somewhere far more exotic, far more evocative – if that’s the right word. I don’t know how this fantasy came into my head but once it did it kind of took hold, it took root and developed. I let myself imagine that I was somewhere else, somewhere hot and tropical perhaps, and was immediately surprised by how powerfully my imagination went to work. I could feel the warmth and the humidity of the air increase. It even started to smell different – richer, riper, and tainted with an unmistakable smell of rotting vegetation. This sensory influx reminds me of something – something primordial, something that had, perhaps, been up to now buried deep down inside me. Like some kind of archaic race-memory coded into my RNA. Or was this too fanciful?
For a second I even consider the possibility that I was experiencing a full-scale olfactory hallucination. Ridiculous though that seems. Who gets olfactory hallucinations after drinking a cup of coffee? Acid heart-burn, maybe. A twitching muscle just above my right eye, very conceivably. But not hallucinations. Definitely not hallucinations.
The relief that I obtain as a result of dismissing this idea vanishes instantly as I realize that everything around me is now shimmery, not just the far end of platform 2. It is as if my eyesight has just packed up, gone out of focus. I rub my eyes but nothing changes. It is still all just a blur – a multi-facetted blur that keeps looking as if it is going to resolve into something intelligible, but never does.
And then – with no sense of transition at all – I really am somewhere else. I am not in the station at all. Wherever I am, it feels eerie and unearthly – I feel as if I have been transported to another world, either untold light-years away in space or hundreds of millions of years in the past.
There is something hauntingly beautiful about this place. It is so hugely peaceful – it is timeless, eternal. I am caught up in that tremendous sense of unbroken, timeless peace. I instinctively know that no human beings have ever set foot here. Maybe that is why it affects me so much. I am somehow aware that no human being has ever set eyes upon the scene that now lies before me – I don’t know how I know that so absolutely but I do.
The everyday world that we are all so familiar with – North London for example – has been seen so many times by so many people, it is like an old penny that has been passed around from hand to hand, pocket to pocket, so many millions of times that it is almost worn away. But this green and tropical world that lies all around me has never been seen – no one has ever set eyes upon it. It is pristine, unsullied by human beings and all their wretched carry-on. It is like a dream no one has had, an idea no one has yet thought of, and that is why it is so charged with energy, so awesomely full of vibrant potentiality.
I am in some sort of swamp, surrounded by what looks like giant fern trees. They grow so high that everything is shaded out – I can’t see the sun but I know it is there because of the sense of heat that radiates so strongly down on me. It is diffuse jungle heat, the heat of a sweltering rain-forest. The air around me is dense, warm, foetid, full of the scent of both life and decay.
After the initial shock of finding myself in this uncanny primeval world I start to tune into the fine details of where exactly I am – I am standing on a small mound of earth looking at a wide pool of greenish, stagnant-looking water. The light isn’t good, it is murky. I can’t see the sky, and the sunlight seems to be filtered through layers upon layers of green, ferny leaves.
A bad smell assails my nose. I notice that bubbles are coming up sporadically from the bottom of the pool, and as they break gloopily through the surface I am aware of an appalling stench. Like very bad farts, I think. Like the farts of someone suffering from a serious dose of dysentery. Dysentery of the advanced, gut-rotting amoebic variety, most probably.
And then, to my utter horror, a huge flat wrinkly face slowly emerges from the depths of the pool. It is monstrously large and immensely ugly, grey in colour covered all over with wrinkles and bumps and warty growths. I have never seen such a grotesquely deformed face – on the one hand it looks like a very old man, but it also looks like some sort of giant toad-creature.
I stare in sick fascination at the ancient wrinkled visage breaking inexorably through the surface of the foetid swamp hole. I can’t move, I am rooted to the spot, I am frozen with fear. I have never seen anything so frankly grotesque – it is more dreadful than anything I have ever seen in my life. I can’t look away. It is a thing out of a nightmare.
And it is looking at me.
Its gaze is terrible, knowing. I realize then that there is something very familiar about this face.
All of a sudden, shockingly, a dreadful awareness dawns upon me with irresistible force, and I realize that it is my face I am looking at. I am looking at the reflection of my own face in the half-drunk cup of coffee that I am holding in my hand.
Another strangled croak, much louder this time, escapes from my constricted throat.
The spell is broken. Violently, with a cry of sheer loathing, I throw the cup of coffee back down onto the table. It bounces off the table surface and at least half a cup of lukewarm coffee splashes with unerring precision onto the crotch of my trousers, making it look as if I have pissed myself. I get up abruptly, too abruptly, almost knocking over table and chair in the process, pretending not to notice all the faces looking at me.
As fast as I can, trying to make it look as if I am not hurrying although I am, trying as best I can to kid myself that I look reasonably casual although I don’t, I walk away from the café area and lose myself in the crowd of football supporters and other, miscellaneous travellers thronging around in the main station concourse.