Down Station - Simon Morden Page 0,1

rat her out in an instant if she didn’t turn up on the dot.

But free all the same. There were compensations to working for the Underground. The other – aside from not being banged up for twenty-three hours a day, or whatever the current regime demanded – was the people she worked with.

It was like clocking in with the United Nations every day, but she was a London girl and fine with that, though some of the accents were difficult – not just at first, either. Supervisor aside, and he really was a prime piece of shit, the rest of the crew didn’t seem to mind her past, or her future for that matter. All that counted was whether she pulled her weight in the now.

She lugged her heavy bag across the road against the flow of traffic, towards the tube entrance. Another low boom echoed from the west, and the waverers decided against stopping for that last drink, heading for the stairs too.

When they pushed past her, running and talking too loudly for the confines of the concourse, she had her mouth open and an insult balanced on the tip of her tongue.

She checked herself, as she’d been taught: her breathing was fast and shallow, and inside she felt the cold rush of rage. Those that worked with her had lots of fancy names for it, but none of the labels meant anything to her, except a single off-hand comment that she seized on. The Red Queen was the one she recognised and owned: the terrible desire to give orders, to be obeyed, was deep inside her. Yet she knew she’d never be in charge of anything, let alone be a queen.

She counted to ten, and hoisted her bag back on to her shoulder. By then, they were gone, voices muffled in the depths. They were jerks. They probably hadn’t even seen her. She was better than to rise at their carelessness. She took a deep breath, and carried on.

She had a pass: a proper pass that she’d had to sign for, that carried her photo – God, she hated it because it made her look like this weird child-thing – that allowed her to access almost everywhere and everything. Losing it would mean instant dismissal. Losing it and not telling anyone she’d lost it would be enough to land her inside. They may as well have printed her details on a gold brick instead of a laminated piece of plastic, for all they went on about ‘the integrity of the system’.

The ticket hall was all but empty. A couple of stragglers tripped down the stairs from another entrance, stumbling and looking back the way they’d come, then hurried on to the barriers, wallets already out and in hand.

She followed them, touching in on the pad. The gates banged back, and she twisted to get her bag through.

Then it was the long ride down the escalator, down to the deep levels where it was hot and humid, and ever-so-slightly foetid. The advertising panels flickered their wares at her, five-second looped images, discordant and bright: enough to catch her attention and slam a message into her eyes, but not enough to seduce or explain.

One was for a holiday. How long was it since she’d had a holiday? They’d had day-trips from the home that had been, to quote one of the staff, a logistical nightmare. One of the other members of staff had said it was more like herding cats. It had been Southend, usually, and Eastbourne once.

That’d been a disaster. The M3 had locked solid, and they’d barely had time to eat fish and chips in some formica-countered sea-side shed before piling back in the minibus for the trip home. Eight teenagers with a broad spectrum of emotional and educational problems, four carers. It was a wonder that any of them made it back alive.

Again, the five-second image: a white beach and blue sea, and a lone woman, just about in a bikini, lithe and tanned and happy, running into the waves. Visit Greece, it said.

Mary didn’t have a passport. She didn’t even know if she had the documents to get a passport. She knew she’d need a birth certificate, and if one existed for her, she’d never seen it.

She imagined it, for a moment. That she was the woman. That the white sand was hot under her feet and between her toes. That the water was clear and bright and broke like diamonds as the wave hit her