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Karen Goes to Town

James started crying again. This was maybe the third or fourth time that he had calmed down, gone quiet, afforded ten seconds of peace, only to erupt into tears again. His action figure lay on the ground. For some unknown reason, James had insisted on taking it out of his backpack and carrying it in his hand. Karen picked it up and tried to give it back to him, but James was crying too hard to notice. Dad was not happy.
“Karen, please say sorry to James,” said Dad.
“Look, I’m sorry, alright?” Karen’s apology was a protest, directed more to her father than to James. Then she paused, turned back to look at James’ red face and even redder knee, and said, with complete sincerity, “James, I am sorry.” She was indeed sorry for hurting her little brother, although she still felt the collision was more his fault than hers. Karen had stopped to look back down Birdcage Walk toward Buckingham Palace, letting James and Dad get ahead. She intended to catch up before Dad had even noticed she was lagging behind, but he did notice and shouted back, telling her not to dawdle. As she caught up with both of them, James had suddenly, unexpectedly, turned around to look for her. In so doing, James had turned straight into Karen’s path. Karen had skilfully managed to avoid knocking James straight on to his bum, but in doing so, she had only succeeded in kicking his foot out from under him, making him fall forward and graze his knee. It had taken all Karen’s balance to save herself from falling too. Now Dad was bound to give her the recurring lecture about “not needing to go so fast with people around, just because you have wheels on your feet.” Karen’s heelys had been the best birthday present she received that year, but it was torture to hear Dad regret buying them after every little mishap. Her brother James walked around so slowly, whilst Karen, with her heelys on, could zip along faster than all the other girls at school, with the exception of Deborah Braithwaite, who always seemed to be best at everything. Zipslicer by name, and zippedy-slippedy fast by nature, was Karen, at least when she wanted to be. Perhaps it would have been better if Dad had put his foot down and insisted Karen had not worn them today. Karen thought about that for a moment, but quickly came to the conclusion that she was being silly. James had stopped crying, this time for the last time. Hoisted atop Dad’s shoulders, the pain in his knee would soon been forgotten, and Karen could go on heely-wheeling down the road, so long as she stayed close to Dad, and did not go too fast.

Outings to London had become rare since James was born and mum had died. They were walking down to Westminster tube. It was getting chilly, and Karen pulled her hat down a little more tightly. Karen knew that as they walked they would take one last look at Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, before getting on the tube and starting their journey home. Going home was always the worst part of a day out, thought Karen. Yes, she wanted her tea. Yes, it was getting a little dark. But she liked the city and she liked the bustle and she liked the noise and all the things to see. Most of all she liked looking in the shop windows and looking at the street performers and looking at the tall buildings and what people were wearing. She liked looking at all of that. That was why she had stopped to look back at Buckingham Palace, and as they walked around Parliament Square she was looking up and down at everything, taking it all in as if she would never see it again. London was a feast for her eyes. She looked at the abbey, and she looked at the statues and she looked at a crowd of people carrying placards and protesting about something. But she also looked at the cars. Karen was sensible enough not to want to be run over when crossing the road. If she got hit by a car, that would really get Dad angry.

The three of them went into the tube station, all holding hands with James in the middle. Dad asked if Karen had her ticket; without delay, she pulled it out and showed him. That made Dad smile. Karen smiled back. Through the barriers they went, and then down, down the escalators. Karen was in front, whilst Dad and James stood on the step behind. It was very quiet. Unusually for a London tube station, there was nobody else around. Karen had already thought that very thought, but then Dad said it out loud. Karen just nodded her head in silent agreement. She was feeling a little tired and not very talkative, unlike James who seemed intent on jabbering away to Dad, though Karen was not listening to what he said. As they reached the bottom of the escalator, Karen saw the tube train was waiting on the platform. Zip! She ran a few strides, then leaned back on her heel and gracefully wheeled across the platform. “Karen!” said Dad, but she did not look back. Reaching the platform’s edge, Karen artfully hopped across, landing inside the train, once more with her weight balanced on the wheel in her heel. She span around, looking back at Dad and James. James had dropped his toy figure again. Dad was picking it up and looking grumpily at Karen, his hand still wrapped round James’. Dad pulled James across the platform, almost picking James off the ground. “Hurry up, Dad!” exclaimed Karen. He and James were hurrying up, but not before the doors closed between Karen and them. Never could doors close at a worse moment. Had they been open a second later, Dad and James would have been safely inside. Instead, Dad shouted through the glass: “Don’t worry! We’ll see you at the next station!” And with that, the tube pulled away, leaving Karen looking back as Dad and James disappeared from view.

There being nobody else in the carriage, Karen sat down. Though upset to be separated, she was relaxed enough to decide there was no point standing, even for the few minutes until the tube pulled into the next station. It was an old carriage. Karen thought they normally had modern trains on the Jubilee line, but she was too distracted to give it any further thought. The seats looked dirty and dilapidated. Instead of running along the sides of the carriage, facing inward, the seats were arranged two-by-two, facing each other, on either side of a central aisle. Karen always liked to sit facing the direction she was going in, so she did, extravagantly sprawling across a couple of seats at once. She had calmly resolved to follow her father’s advice, to get off at the next stop and wait for her father and brother to come to her. Dad was pretty sure to follow and if she waited on the platform she hoped she would see him as the next tube pulled in. If that failed, she might cross to the opposite platform and ride back to the previous station, but that held out the risk they might miss each other as they travelled in opposite directions. Then they would be in a real pickle, not knowing where the other was or what to do next. No, to get off and wait was the most sensible thing to do.

Karen looked out of the carriage window, though she did not know what she expected to see. There is nothing to see in a tunnel. Really, she looked at her own reflection. Dad said she was a big girl now. There was general agreement that she was tall for her age, and strangers often mistook her for being a year or two older than she really was. As she looked, a platform flashed by. The tube had not stopped. The platform had been deserted. Last time they went to London, Dad her told her stories about disused stations that still sat underground, hibernating like the groundhog from that really good movie they had on DVD. Still, it was annoying. Why was the station closed? Now Karen would have to wait until the next one before she got off. She started to get a little impatient.

A tremor ran through the carriage. Then another. Karen realized that they had begun imperceptibly, dismissed as that subconsciously soothing rock-a-bye of any train journey. Now the tremors were impossible to ignore, becoming more intense and frequent until they melded into continuous reverberation. Karen could feel the very hum of the vibrations through her backside. She instinctively placed her hands flat on the seat either side of her, giving herself more support. The vibration became a shake, and the shake became a wave, rolling the carriage from side to side, each swing more extreme than the one before. Karen reached with her arms behind the back of her bench, her hands grasping at it, trying to get a firm hold of something so she could steady herself. She hunched down, pressing herself into the seat. Karen looked around, but still there was nothing to see, just the carriage, the blackness of the tunnel surrounding it and the line of carriages in front, twisting off into the space ahead. Karen saw the carriages tilt, first to the left, then to the right, then back to the left again, rhythmically swaying in time with each other. With a jolt, they all straightened up on the flat again. The train was speeding straight forward, like an arrow down the darkness. Karen could feel the train accelerating. The force pushed her backwards. The old springs of the bench pressed underneath her shoulder blades. Karen pulled her arms around, and grabbed at the frame of the window but it was smooth and there was nothing to get a hold on. Faster and faster the train went. Then the train leant backward, as it started to climb uphill. Karen thought it must be rising up to ground level. Further backward it went, and Karen could feel the weight of her body shifting. Her feet no longer pressed against the floor; her calves were lying on the base of the bench instead. Karen was lying further and further back, as the train kept pointing further upward. Why were they not above ground? What kind of tunnel was this? Karen struggled to stop her neck from arching backwards; without support, her head was being pulled down by its own weight and the ever increasing speed of the train. She was now lying on her back with her arms splayed to either side, across the bench. Her hat fell off, falling down towards the rear of the carraige. Karen bent sideways, twisting her neck so her head was resting on the seat, and she lifted her forearm to her forehead, as if to protect her face should anything fall towards it. The train kept on climbing straight upwards, and upwards, and upwards. And then it suddenly stopped. It absolutely stopped, as if in mid air, and Karen felt herself rise upwards, weightless like an astronaut, and then slump back down on top of the bench, which she grabbed again with white-knuckled fists. Her legs dangled over the side. There the train waited, peculiarly, impossibly, suspended. And then it slid back. First slowly, but getting faster as it went along, Karen thought she could not hold on but as she felt she would lose her grip, the train whirled and sharply levelled, so Karen was once again sitting on her backside instead of lying on her back. The train was going backwards but did not remain level; it was starting to climb again, this time up a gentle incline, with Karen facing away from the direction of motion. It slowed, and then it paused, before moving forward once more. It accelerated and whilst it was not as fast as before, the train still went much too fast, thought Karen. Last time Karen had been in London, the tube drivers had been on strike because of a dispute about safety; she thought they had good cause, if this journey was anything to go by.

Within the black void, Karen could feel how steeply the train sped downhill. For the first time, Karen thought about her Dad and brother. If only she had walked with them, instead of racing ahead, she would not be on this rollercoaster of a tube ride, or at least would not be suffering it alone. Karen did not get travel sick, but even her steady stomach had been flung upside down by the freewheeling frenzy, and she became quite concerned that its contents might turn inside out. Downhill the tube train kept going, to what Karen supposed was some unimaginable depth, though she had no idea how far they had climbed during the earlier ascent. Downhill the train went, and there was another tremor, and another, and another, much as before. Then the train wobbled. Then it bobbled. Then it stuttered, and juddered, then shuddered. The rattling of the train was loud in the tunnel, and seemed to be all around her. The train was going even faster, and Karen was just wondering what would happen next, when, before the thought was completed, the whole carriage spiralled around, corkscrewing into the void, with Karen held in place only by her surprise and the sheer speed at which the carriage rotated, held in place like a sock in a tumble dryer. Two, three, four times, Karen counted each full circle between the point when her head was directly above her feet, to her feet directly above her head, and back to head above feet, as it should be. During the fourth spin, the train banked sharply up and to the left, the start of a somersault into a full loop-de-loop, before it once again returned to a straight and level trajectory. “Enough!” shouted Karen above the racket. And as she said it, the train seemed to ease, and made the gentlest of murmurs like it was giving out a sigh. And the tunnel did not seem so black, and the vibrations stopped, and it was like the train was gliding, coasting without the slightest hint of friction, silently, serenely, peacefully, gently. The tunnel became lighter still and Karen pressed her head to the glass, to see as far ahead as she could. The train was coming out into a wide, brightly lit space, and as it did, it ghosted to a standstill. For a moment, Karen sat still, just listening to herself breathe. Her head was still leant against the window, but she looked at her hands, and her feet, almost like she intended to count her fingers and toes to make sure they were all still attached.

Karen sat for a while, in no hurry to get up. She just breathed, and rested. Then a scary thought entered Karen’s mind. What if the train would start up again? She sat up, then looked around quickly. Where was her hat? Up she stood, and to the back of the carriage she hurried, searching for the lost hat. It was not on the floor, nor on the seats. She looked up, and it was caught on the handle of the emergency exit door that separated this carriage from the one behind. She popped the hat back on her head and briskly leapt out of the train, wary in case the doors closed again. Karen breathed out, relieved to be standing on an immobile floor. She gazed about her. The ceiling was unusually high for a tube platform, but otherwise there was nothing out of the ordinary, except that this could obviously be no ordinary tube station. Karen scanned for something to tell her which station this was. On a red tin plate sign, shaped like a square over two parallel lines, there were bold white letters: “Lundern Central”. Karen read the name aloud. Indeed. And then she said: “I’m not on the Jubilee line any more,” and she was right.

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