This is a small excerpt from the short story The Ghosts of London Underground, available now as part of the book London Eyes: Short Stories. Enjoy!
The ghost counsellor wore a three-piece suit tailored to a body which no longer existed. His tie was Cadbury’s purple and was tucked flat into the waistcoat. His spectacles were small and round and they perched precociously on the end of his thin nose. He held onto a look of permanent seriousness.
"Did you have a pet?" he asked the old ghost sitting opposite him.
"A pet, yes."
"You did not have a pet?"
“No, I did not.”
“Are you quite sure?”
"Well, I used to feed this cat," the old man said.
"Just feed it?”
“Did it sleep within the boundaries of your property?"
“What do you mean by that?”
“Did the cat take residence in your home?”
"Would you say this cat loved you?"
"How would I know? It was a cat!"
"Did this cat show you any sort of affection that wasn't dependent on the provision of food?"
The old man’s chest sank but no air emerged. It seems they were right; old habits do die hard, and none are older than breathing. "No, I suppose not. He always came for the food."
"Well, it wasn't the cat that loved you then."
"Loved me? What's love got to do with it?"
"Everything," the ghost counsellor blinked and pulled the crisp cuffs of his white shirt down over his wrists.
An indeterminable amount of time ago…
“If time is what measures life, then it’s logical that we have no sense of time down here,” the woman said as she walked into the darkness. “But it can be difficult. And very difficult to adjust to. The best way I can describe it to new arrivals, is like one of those days in real life, when you are so consumed by a happy event that you don’t notice how quickly time has passed. Do you know what I mean? You have no concept of the passing minutes, they just shrink and disappear? That is what it is like down here… just without the happiness.”
She wore a long dress, cinched at the waist and layers of petticoats shuffled around her ankles. The old man had only seen dresses like that in museums or on TV in programs he tried to avoid.
“Some people really struggle with it,” she continued. “Having a sense of time was a luxury we didn’t know we had when we were alive.”
Carrying an old-fashioned candleholder, the small flame lit up their way down the metal spiral staircase. Her hidden feet made dainty clicking sounds, which bounced off the walls. But the dust didn’t aggravate him, and the steps weren’t hard to descend. In fact, it was as if his body was superfluous. He could hear his footsteps, but he couldn’t feel them.
“I don’t understand how I’m walking…” he said.
“You’ll get used to it. You’ll have to change how you see your body now. It’s a capsule and it’s still your body, but it’s more a projection of what it was, rather than a physical thing.”
“Like a hologram?”
“What’s a hologram?”
“It’s a type of an image. Like a 3D projection of something.”
“Would you need a computer to create a hologram?” the woman asked. “I’ve heard all about computers from recent arrivals.”
“People like yourself. When you’ve been dead 237 years, there’s a lot to learn about what has happened after you’re gone. Of course, I don’t know for certain that I’ve been dead that long, but I try the best I can to keep on top of it based on what the new arrivals tell me. Is it still 2014?”
The old man had to think about this. Habit had him reach to scratch the underside of his chin, but although he saw his arm go up he felt nothing. “Yes. It’s still 2014.”
“And I can trust you?” the woman asked. “Sometimes people tell me lies, or at least I think they do.”
“Why would I lie to you?” the old man felt himself get defensive. So he could feel emotions, but not physical actions. How odd.
“Why would anyone lie to me?” the woman turned to him and smiled. She was missing several teeth.
“237 years. I suppose that explains your frock,” the old man said, but it didn’t help him explain anything else. One minute he had been lying down looking up at a network of white ceiling tiles and then he closed his eyes to darkness. He couldn’t have said how long it was before he saw the light, but he began to walk towards it. Like a camera lens coming out of focus, he eventually saw that the light was coming from the candle held by this woman and she had started to walk away from him.
“Come with me,” she had said and after a quick glance behind him into blackness, he followed her down the stairs that seemed to have no end.
“Remember I have no concept of time,” she said. “Thank goodness. Could you imagine wearing the same dress for that long?”
The woman’s laugh bounced off the walls, but the old man was preoccupied, thinking about how already he was aware of how time didn’t seem to exist. He couldn’t say how long they’d been walking down the staircase, but it didn’t seem to matter. Every now and again he heard a soft rumbling in the distance and the occasional gust of wind swayed the woman’s petticoats and forced his own jacket open.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“York Road Underground Station. Closed in 1932. Occupied by ghosts since 1937. Or thereabouts,” she said. “Again, I have to rely on the information of others.”
“An old Tube station?”
“Yes, and be grateful we’re here. Before we moved into the disused stations on the underground transport network, we had the messy task of living in graveyards. We may not have been able to feel the worms and soil, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant, and it was much harder to find people to help you out.”
“Help with what?”
“You’ll find out soon enough. I’m taking you to your appointment now.”
“I have an appointment?”
“With the ghost counsellor,” she said.
The stairs stopped and the old man followed the woman through a doorway and into a large tunnel with a curved roof. In the light of the woman’s candle he saw the walls were lined in maroon and white tiles, arranged in a certain order. To the right, there was a sudden drop and below he could see the occasional shimmer of metal tracks when the candle’s light carried that far. The tunnel curved up ahead and there were gaps in the tiles where doors stood. It had been a long time since the old man had used the Underground, but like a smell or taste from his youth, it all came back to him. A few steps ahead, the woman stood beside a closed door, which she pulled open when he approached.
Inside, the old man saw a room filled with other old men, all in various styles of dress such as three-piece suits, tailcoats, and bowler hats. Many had beards, and a few had impressively curled moustaches. Only a few spoke to each other. The silent ones sat on wooden chairs or they slumped on the floor, their bodies sagging under an invisible weight and their faces frozen by a deep sense of shock or loss, or both.
“This is where other men with similar backgrounds and age to you socialise,” she said, though it seemed the wrong word to use. “Feel free to mix with others in nearby rooms, but kindly refrain from wandering the Tube lines alone. At least, not until you’ve had your orientation. If you get that far, of course.”
“The Tube lines?”
“Of course we can’t stop you, and you probably will want to explore eventually, but if we don’t know where you are we can’t get you to your appointments,” she closed the door and continued to walk down the platform. “Just so you know, this station isn’t completely disused, every now and again the living will be down here using it as an evacuation route when things go wrong at King’s Cross. It doesn’t happen very often but it’s happened before and probably will again, so please bear that in mind.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
The woman stopped and turned to face the old man, her eyebrows pulled closer together.
“We do not encourage spooking of any nature,” she said.
Read the rest of The Ghosts of London Underground and eleven other stories inspired by travel in London Eyes: Short Stories available on Amazon. And you can add London Eyes to your Goodreads bookshelves.
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Frances M. Thompson
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