The station seemed to have been left behind. Modernisation of the tube network, which had transformed so many others, had passed it by. You would not have been at all surprised if you had been told that the trains no longer stopped there, instead rattling through in a rush of wind to get to the next, more important, stop on the line.
But they did stop. The doors would open but on few occasions would anyone exit, head down against the invisible crowds nor enter, scanning the carriage with pessimistic eyes for a vacant seat next to an innocuous passenger, someone unlikely to intrude on closely guarded mental space. There would be a dumb thirty seconds before the doors would close. Silent travellers would grumble in their heads about the unnecessary delay before pelting off to the next stop of excited interchange.
You could hardly call it a station, so bereft was it of platform staff, of announcements, of chocolate machines that were not empty. In the countryside it would be called a halt, wild flowers would grow up to the platform, thrushes would nest in the eaves of the waiting-room roof; it would be romantic, summery, lyrical. But deep in the bowels of the central London earth there was no such biology to brighten the scene. Just the blast of wind as a train approached and the faint tang of stale urine, hanging in the air.
What made it particularly exceptional for a station on the tube network was the fact that there were no escalators. The station was sunk at a profound depth but access and egress depended on a large, grey, dirty lift. It seemed to be large enough to accommodate a coach and horses, were such a conveyance allowed on the Underground Railway; which they were not. There must have been a sign that declared the total number of persons allowed in the lift at any one time but it had long since fallen off. Nobody had replaced it because the information was quite academic; at the busiest times the largest number of people to ride in this cuboid monster was five and that included the lift operator who surely occupied the most boring post on the entire network. A small lady with an over-sized hat she would perch on her stool and knit furiously, pausing only to open the doors and call an unnecessary warning. Heaven knows how many cardigans, hats, bed jackets, scarves and matinée jackets had flowed from her frantic needles. Perhaps she had a large family with legions of grandchildren, nephews and nieces, godchildren and the like, all swathed in acres of knitted wool.
Oliver Northcliffe had two aversions in his life. The first was that he was quite unable to urinate in the presence of another person. Not an uncommon phobia, he told himself, judging by the number of men who, like him, opted to use the closed cabinets in public lavatories, rather than the communal urinals. It was always possible to identify Oliver and his like. You would hear the lavatory seat hit against the cistern as it was lifted up by a bashful pisser. Oliver had taken to lifting it very carefully, not letting it emit the give-away sound. Then nobody could label him as such a solitary.
And he hated lifts. Lifts of all kinds but particularly ones like this at his nearest tube station. It was not difficult to imagine (for him, at least) that this antiquated apparatus could lose control of itself and plunge to the depths below. He steeled himself to travel in it once but his nerves failed halfway down. He would have made a scene but one steely glance from the tricoteuse in the corner would have stopped that. As he staggered out at the bottom he vowed never to travel in such a conveyance ever again.
Which posed a considerable problem. The music college that he attended on most days of the week was only fifty yards down the street from the station. He would have had to walk over half a mile to reach the next, escalator-equipped, station on the line. The walk was not impossible but was made more difficult than usual by the fact that he had to carry his particular, the double bass.
For travelling purposes his bass was encased in a thick canvas case, reinforced with stiff padding and equipped with leather straps. He carried it with a long strap over his shoulder in a position which required a good deal more than his own personal space. Taking it on the tube at busy times was impossible so he timed his journey back to a shared house in Streatham with care. Even so he attracted ribald comments from his fellow travellers.
“That’s a big violin, mate. How d’yer get it under your chin, then?” or “Why didn’t you take up the flute?” It surprised him that the authors of these banalities really did believe that they were first to have ever mouthed such ripostes. After he had heard them over a hundred times he developed the art of producing a fixed smile and never replying.
So here was a dilemma. A half mile portage of his bass twice a day held no attractions at all. He would have to use the closest station. Then he remembered the stairs.
He had seen the start of the stairs. They disappeared beside the ticket office – always unmanned – and twisted down and away from view. The staircase was wide, about ten feet from side to side, the walls were coated with public lavatory tiles. He had never seen anybody on the stairs, neither descending to the lower end nor emerging at the surface. He resolved to explore.
It was going to be impossible to descend down this spiral with a double bass, that was obvious. He arranged to leave his instrument at the college for one night, something that was not usually allowed, whilst he made his reconnaissance.
He made his journey back at peak-time, the moment when a large portion of the city’s population empties itself out to the periphery, leaving the centre to drug addicts, hard sleepers and tourists. He stood at the top of stairs and looked down at the steps as they curved away out of sight. The camber was gentle. He wondered how long it would take. Setting off he started to count, two, four, six, eight and on it went, spinning downwards.
Within moments he was on his own. He stopped for a moment and looked around. The tiles were shiny, it was quiet but every so often an updraught of air rose to meet him, sign that a train was arriving at the platform, deep below. No sound came up, though. It was still.
For a few moments these stairs on a long, spiral staircase became a capsule out of time. With no distractions, with limited sensations he found himself moving out of his self. He began to observe himself from the outside. It was a capacity that he had had for years but which could only be experienced at still times like this. He saw Oliver, soon to be married to Barbara, a musician who was uncertain whether he wanted to be, pride of his father’s ambition, a father who was an indifferent cellist and reluctant solicitor. Oliver, deeply unsure about his marriage to Barbara, she whom he had known since primary school, Barbara the singer (“such a marvellous musician” his mother would say), a musical marriage made in heaven, she seemed to believe it. Except that Oliver wasn’t sure, he really wasn’t sure but he could not say it.
The moment was broken by the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Clicking footsteps that identified the approaching climber as a woman. Oliver started off down again, after one circuit of the spiral he saw the approaching stranger ascending from below. He moved centripetally to the narrowest tread of stairs. She was keeping to the periphery.
When they were within three steps of each other she looked up, looked him in the face. She smiled to indicate her thanks for his standing aside and carried on past. He stopped on the narrow step that he had reached and watched her ascending back.
She was wearing a beige coloured coat, buttoned to the neck. There was a small amount of fur trim around the collar. He could not see what she was wearing underneath the coat but it clearly ended above the knee for her coat hem was at knee level. She had on a pair of sling-back, low heeled shoes. She was nearly as tall as Oliver with shortish, strawberry blonde hair. What struck him most was the openness of her face, the brightness of her green eyes. When she smiled he noticed the slightest gap between her two upper, front teeth. If only Barbara could look like that instead of he habitual expression that was too ready to slip into disdain.
He carried on down, not counting now, and was soon at the platform. Only two other people there but when the next jam-packed train came in the doors opened to reveal a sea of faces that seemed to defy his entry. He ignored them and pushed himself in. His mind was racing, racing in directions he never thought possible.
Later he reflected on the whole event. The stairs would be impossible with his instrument. He would speak to Madame Tricoteuse and ask her to take his bass in her lift. When he approached her with this proposition she was not overly enthusiastic but agreed. Very soon she became quite used to being the guardian of this large encumbrance. Oliver would wait for the lift to arrive and she, in a broad Afro-Caribbean accent, would delight in repeating for the benefit of the other lift travellers, the same old double-bass jokes that Oliver was tired of hearing. Her audience remained adept at maintaining a po-faced indifference. So matters continued.
And then, two weeks after the first episode, Oliver met the same woman on the stairs again. This time he was ascending and she was descending. Because of this, and because he was absorbed in counting the steps, he was not aware that he had a fellow traveller on the stairs until she was nearly upon him. He stopped and looked up. She had stopped too, they both stood on the outer part of their respective steps. From this vantage point she seemed even taller and more elegant than before. She stood with her head up, her shoulders unhunched. He noticed the curve of her legs and her partly out-turned feet. She was wearing the same coat.
She smiled at him which made him flush and stammer apologies as he moved centrally to get out of her way.
“It’s all right. Don’t move. I saw you on these stairs last week, didn’t I?”
“Y…yes. That was me.”
“My name’s Emma. You don’t often meet people on these stairs. Everybody seems to take the lift.”
“Oh, I can’t stand the lift. My bass goes in it but I’d rather use the stairs.”
“Your bass? Are you a musician?”
“Well, I don’t know; but I’m a student at the Conservatoire.”
“Are you? I work quite close to there. How exciting.” Oliver was unsure whether she meant his being a music student was exciting or her working near the Conservatoire. A feeling of release came over him.
“I’m not sure whether it’s what I want to do. I just seem to have ended up going down this path.”
“You don’t seem to be very happy.” She was looking at him straight in the face. He was surprised that it was not disconcerting.
“Oh, I must be really. Anyway, I’m getting married in a couple of month’s time.” He tried to inject some enthusiasm into his words but he could see from her expression that she was not convinced.
“Married? Is that what you want?”
How had he got here? How had events elided to deposit him on these secret stairs, talking to a beautiful unknown woman who had, in the space of a few sentences, had reached to the heart of his dilemma, had unmasked his uncertainty. And who made it so easy to talk, It was unnerving.
“I must go. I have a tutorial,” his head was down as he set off up the stairs. She stood and watched him go.
All that day he was distracted. His tutorial on the pentatonic scale passed him by, his lesson with his double-bass professor was such a disaster that his teacher was compelled to terminate it early.
“Let’s hope you are with us a bit more next time, Oliver.” Oliver hardly heard him. All he could think about was getting to the spiral stairs at the station. He packed up his bass and almost sprinted to the station, no mean feat with the bulk of his instrument on his back. Madame Tricoteuse accepted her bass passenger and started reciting the jokes, inappropriately because there was no-one else in the lift. He threw himself down the stairs, round and round, down and down, willing himself to hear the click-click of the sling-back shoes.
He arrived at the platform. No-one. His disappointment was extreme. Anyway, he thought, it was a week between out two meetings. I guess I just have to be patient. He stared dolefully at the green light at the end of the platform. From behind he heard the click-click. Quite unmistakeable, he whipped around.
“Emma!” he called as he spotted the familiar coat. She was walking away from him.
“Emma! Is it you? Emma!” She had stopped but did not turn. He ran down the platform towards her. She was standing at the foot of the staircase. Slowly she turned towards him. He could see that she was smiling.
“I think you’re going to have to tell me your name, aren’t you?” He was overcome by the sight of her. For a moment he could not speak.
“It’s Oliver… my name, it’s Oliver.”
“Oliver.” She was still smiling as she proffered the invitation “Shall we go up the stairs?”. He could not believe that this was happening.
About halfway up she stopped. They both stood still for a moment. Not a sound on the staircase. She turned to Oliver and unbuttoned her coat. She was wearing a turquoise dress, cut above the knee. She reached out with both arms.
“Come to me, Oliver.” He took two steps toward her. Her arms went around his neck. He slipped his arms under her coat and around her waist. They pulled together and their lips met.
It’s never been like this with Barbara, he thought. It’s never been like this. For the first time in his life he felt authentically himself, authentic and different from the Oliver his father defined, Barbara defined, his mother defined. It had taken just a few moments for this enigmatic Emma to find him; why had the others failed so conspicuously?
After a few minutes she moved back from him; with only a smile she disappeared down the steps of the spiral staircase. For a moment he was dazed, then he thought to follow her. Something stopped him, something reassured him that he did not need to grasp and hold on. What had happened was unsought. If it was true, it would continue.
He emerged from the station (with the bass retrieved from its knitting guardian) into a clear light, clear and authentic. He carried the bass back to the Conservatoire. He would leave it there.