By Chris Ward
The sound came again from inside, a rushing, roaring noise like a strong wind in a tunnel. Rob kicked at the red bricks once more, and then hit them with the piece of wood he’d taken from a demolition site. He thrust the piece of wood into the gap he’d made, hooked the bent nail that stuck out of the end over the bricks, and pulled.
One more fell away, and a couple more loosened. Perhaps ten more and there would a space big enough for him to climb through.
The roaring had died away. Maybe fifteen minutes before it would come again. He couldn’t wait any longer; he had to see it this time.
“Hey! What are you doing? Stop that!”
Rob turned, the piece of wood coming up automatically like a weapon. People didn’t shout much anymore without violence to back it up.
An old man stood maybe five metres away, bent over a walking stick. Grey cardigan and dirty slacks hung off his bony frame, dirty slippers covered his feet.
“Put that damn thing down, fool. Battering an old man won’t send you to heaven.”
“What do you want?” Rob said, looking around. The man must have seen him from one of the old houses on the street that ran alongside the scrubland.
“What I want, boy, is to know what you’re doing breaking in somewhere that you don’t belong. You don’t know what’s down there, do you?”
Rob looked back at the redbrick wall, partially collapsed from his efforts. It was just part of what looked like a small building jutting out of the ground, a few metres square. The rest of the walls looked more solid. This one was weaker, because the bricks had been added later to cover an old entrance.
Above what used to be the door, the residue of removed lettering outlined the words:
St Cannerwell Street
“I know what’s down there,” Rob said, still on the defensive, though he’d let the piece of wood drop to his side. The old man didn’t pose a physical threat. “That’s the old London Underground down there. I read about it on the Internet, before it was banned last year.”
“Ah, know all about it, don’t you.” The man grinned. “Mind if I sit down?”
Rob said nothing, but the man took his silence for permission. He shuffled over to what looked like a mound of brambles, and fearlessly brushed them away to reveal the remains of an old metal park bench. He slumped down, as weary as the damned. The stick clattered to the ground.
“What makes you want to go down there? Poking about in an old Underground station?” the man asked when he was comfortable. He pulled a small hip flask from a pocket and unscrewed the lid. “Want some?”
Rob snorted. “Ain’t that the cliché,” he muttered. “What are you, a bum?”
“It’s espresso, boy,” the man said. “Takes a bit of caffeine to wake up the old bones most mornings. You want some or not?”
Rob smiled. He felt a strange liking for the man, something he didn’t feel for many people. The man wasn’t afraid of him. He wasn’t hiding indoors, away from the streets and the anarchic youth, like most old people did.
“Thanks.” Rob sat down beside the old man and took the offered flask. The espresso was hot and bitter and the taste was vitalising.
“So, I say again. What’s a young lad like you doing trying to break into an old Underground station? The London Underground’s been closed for twenty years.”
“If that’s the case, why are the trains still running?”
The old man leaned his grey head back and laughed. “So. You’ve heard that story, have you? What fool told you that?”
“A friend.” A lie, Rob didn’t have any, none that wouldn’t steal his shirt while he was sleeping at any rate. It had been some drunk in a bar who’d stirred his interest.
“A friend,” the old man scoffed. “And who did your friend hear it from, might I ask?”
The old man nodded. “And so it goes,” he mused.
“What’s it to you, anyway?”
“I know—knew—a bit about trains, is all.”
“Boy, don’t be a fool. I was riding those trains to work back in the day, long before they closed down the system, and before you were a cherry in your mamma’s eye.”
“Why did they close the system?”
The old man laughed. “Government didn’t like the legacy, is all. Too much history, too much…past. Built the monorail system instead. The one we have now. You ever ridden on that, boy?”
Rob knew the London Monorail. Its elevated tracks twisted everywhere throughout the city, leaving poor suburbs like his in perpetual shade. He’d never ridden on it, didn’t have the money, couldn’t meet the dress code. The only people who did were the upper classes, who lived in new towns outside the city or in the huge, multi-storeyed apartment complexes that had grown up around each Monorail station. Like little worlds in themselves, they were only accessible from the ground in certain areas, through tall gates and heavily guarded ticket barriers.
“You ever seen Big Ben, boy?” the old man asked.
“In real life?”
Rob almost said yes, but could see from the man’s eyes that lying was pointless. He was wiser than Rob wanted to give him credit for. He’d obviously seen things Rob couldn’t imagine.
“Only on TV.”
“Yeah, thought so. There was a time I used to get off at Westminster Bridge station, walk along the side of the Thames, drinking a Starbucks and watching the ducks and the barges in the river as I made my way to work each day. But that was a while ago now…”
“I almost went in once,” Rob said.
“Wore my best clothes and everything. Guards at the Monorail station said my shoes weren’t new enough.”
“Huh. Figures. Was it true?”
“Maybe. I got them off…”
Rob shrugged. “Something like that.”
He’d stolen them off a guy he’d beat in a street fight. The ones he wore now, old, threadbare sneakers, he’d come by in the same way.
The old man sighed. He took a swig on the espresso flask and handed it across to Rob.
“And now you’re trying to find another way in?”
“You can hear them.”
“What can you hear, boy?”
“The trains. They’re still down there, in the tunnels.”
“Hear the trains, can you? Have you ever heard a train, boy? What makes you think it ain’t the wind?”
“Come with me over to the entrance. You can hear them down there. They come by maybe every fifteen minutes.”
“Huh.” The old man laughed wryly. “Sounds like they cut the service back. It was every two back in my day.”
“I’m not joking. You can hear them.”
“My ears can barely hear you, boy, let alone some rush of wind you’re mistaking for a train.”
The old man looked uncomfortable. He shifted on his seat and shaped to get up. “And you think that one of these damn ghost trains your ears are hearing is gonna take you back in there, take you right back into London, make you forget all about them bastards shutting out the poor, make you something you’re not…” He trailed off. Rob stared at the old man.
“I didn’t say anything about ghost trains. I think those trains are real. I think someone’s using them, and I want to know who.”
“Well, good luck, boy,” the old man said, pushing himself up off the seat. He wobbled uncertainly and then found his balance just as Rob thought he would topple over. It didn’t cross Rob’s mind to help the old man. You didn’t do those kinds of things these days; the old were just as likely to put a knife in your back if you dropped your guard as the young were.
Rob watched the man stumble away. He thought the old-timer might catch his feet in some of the potholes or on some of the protruding shrub roots, but he made it back to the road intact. Rob waited until he’d turned out of sight down a small alley, the sort old people should leave well alone, then he turned back to his work. The station and the trains were waiting.
One hour later, with the sun’s heat lost behind the crumbling high-rises to the west, Rob had made the hole large enough to climb through. He’d found some of the masonry rather tough to shift; his back was damp with sweat. His hands were calloused, his throat dry. He longed for a drink, even a swig of the old man’s espresso.
He piled the loose bricks by the hole, climbed inside and then partly bricked it up again, enough to conceal the entrance. He didn’t want anyone else to find it; dead ends were a bad place to be caught at night.
Steps led into the darkness. The lingering daylight guided him halfway down; after that he felt his way. While his decision to break into the derelict underground station hadn’t been on a whim like most things in his life, Rob had come unprepared. He had no torch, no matches. All he had was faith, and that wasn’t much to go on.
At the bottom of the stairs, a corridor rolled away into darkness. The air was dank and muggy around him. Drops of condensation splashed his face. Rob put his arms out in front of him and walked blindly forward into the darkness, trusting his luck that nothing would have fallen to block his way. He could feel a draft coming from somewhere ahead; he wasn’t likely to meet any more walls he couldn’t skirt around.
He reached a section where the passage turned left; he knew because a glow had appeared in the darkness ahead, the luminescence of emergency strip lighting that really should have gone out long ago.
Yet it was still there, glowing away potently, lighting the way down a long, tiled corridor, five metres wide, dusty, but still intact. About halfway along, a row of metal contraptions blocked the way, and he paused to examine them before climbing over and continuing.
They were old ticket machines, still waiting around for the commuters to come back.
At the end of the wide corridor Rob found himself at the top of a pair of what he would describe as mechanised stairways. He stepped on to the one indicated for down. He didn’t expect it to move, but surprisingly it did, rumbling into life as his body tripped a sensor. Clouds of dust bloomed up into the air, cogs whined and squealed, and rusted joints grated as the waking metallic dinosaur carried him down into the earth.
He was close, he knew it. To whatever it was he needed to see, whatever it was that was rushing through the dark. He hadn’t told the old man why he had been breaking into the bricked up tube station, but the old man hadn’t been far wrong. The truth was that Rob had nothing in his life worth holding on to. On another day he might have hit the old man with the stick, pushed his body into the hole he’d made, and bricked it back up.
Rob wasn’t a bad person. There just wasn’t room to be good outside of the Monorail gates and the walls around central London. The world these days wasn’t kind to people like him, whose shoes weren’t new enough to be let in. You made your own laws and your own luck, or you ended up like his father, beaten to death outside the employment office when Rob was still in primary school, or like his sister, caught on the way home from school and abused so many times that the idiots that passed for police hadn’t known whether her attackers had numbered five or ten.
This legend, this myth, that the London Underground trains still ran, was something to clutch while he tried to sleep at night, wrapped up in a couple of dirty blankets in a derelict building somewhere, hoping no one would find him, hoping he wouldn’t need to use the broken bottle that lay by his makeshift bed. It was a dream, and in a world where dreams didn’t exist anymore, the idea of ancient trains rumbling beneath the city long after the last station had been boarded over or bricked up was more like magic than reality.
He stepped off the moving stairway into another corridor with strip lighting down its centre. It was brighter here, no longer emergency lighting, but regular, working-hour light. The floor was clean: spotted with gum and stained, but polished nevertheless, as though someone had come through recently with a mop. Rob felt more certain than ever that a revelation was just moments away.
The strip lighting ended at an archway. Rob’s heart was racing as he stepped through it and out onto the platform. Wall lights gave it a yellow glow, illuminating a large sign saying “Northbound” and various posters along the opposite wall, advertising movies, perfumes, shoes, clothes, hotels, none of which Rob had ever heard of. In the light they looked new; they could have been posted yesterday.
Rob looked down over the platform’s edge. The rails gleamed, shiny. They seemed to vibrate in anticipation.
He looked up and down the platform. Unsurprisingly, there were no other people waiting. An overhead sign a few metres away from him suddenly flashed up the words TRAIN APPROACHING in red letters. An electronic gong sounded. Rob stepped back, afraid; after all, the station was supposed to be derelict. He looked up again at the sign. The “Bound For:” section was blank.
A roaring, which had begun as a low hum down the dark tunnel to his left was getting louder. He felt warm air on his face. He shut his eyes, and when he opened them again twin eyes of yellow light watched him out of the darkness. As he stared them down, the sound grew louder, the metal face of a train appeared, and then it was upon him, roaring into the station.
Rob wasn’t surprised as it slowed down and came to a stop in front of him. He looked up through the windows at the rows of empty seats inside. This was his ride, his chance. It had come here and stopped for him, he knew. It had come to take him away.
The doors swung open. Rob took one look up and down the empty platform, then up at the empty carriage. History blew out at him, the breath of a million commuters long dead. He closed his eyes, and with a smile he stepped on board. The doors slid closed behind him.
Later, after night had fallen, the old man hobbled back out to the scrubland and to the black silhouette of the abandoned St Cannerwell Street Underground Station. He knew there were kids out here, kids with sticks and knives, but he didn’t worry. He’d been around a while, and it took skill and guile to live to his age these days. He’d made it with cunning and the potency of the weapons in his own pocket: a switchblade, an electric stunner, and a small pistol. The last had been a nightmare to procure on the black market, and he had less than ten bullets for it. He’d used just one, long ago, and a kid was dead because of it. Now, no one who knew him bothered him.
As he reached the partially broken-in entrance, he set down the wheelbarrow he was pushing. His back ached with the strain, but the old man wasn’t nearly as weak as he looked. The stoop and the stick, the signs of weakness, were further deterrent.
It took him about twenty minutes to mix up the cement with a small trowel, stirring it into a thick, sludgy texture that would hold the bricks back in place.
He remembered the trains, the days when a few thousand people passed through St Cannerwell Street every day. Maybe the boy was right, maybe the trains still ran; the old man guessed the boy probably knew by now. But in the meantime, this was a tomb, a tomb for a past age when the world was free and there weren’t restrictions on where you could go or what you could watch on TV. When gangs of jobless kids didn’t roam the streets like feral beasts feasting on whatever they could find.
You should never open up a tomb. If you did, you had to be brave enough to face whatever you found inside, and lucky you if it turned out to be some sort of revelation. But you had to understand that once you were inside, there was no turning back.
“Goodbye, boy, and good luck,” the old man muttered, as he slapped down the first trowel load of cement, and put the first brick back in place.
Chris Ward is a young writer from Cornwall, England, but currently lives in Japan where he works as an English teacher. In the last two years he has sold 20 stories to various magazines and ezines. His first semi-pro publication appears in the current issue of Weird Tales.