I step into the first cabin of the subway train because it will be the first to pull into the station I'm heading to, and therefore I will be one of the first on the escalators, and among the first to make the transfer to another line. I do this because I am on my way to work and can't afford any delays.
It's the school holidays, but the cabin is not so crowded. All the seats are taken but almost no one else is standing, so I go over to the window alcove at the nose of the train, which is large enough to hold two people. I only want to lean against a flat surface for the duration of the ride. Like an adult I look at my phone screen, not out the window into the yawning black, or at the other people in the cabin.
At the next station I gain company: a small, perspiring human - his cardholder flapping on a blue nylon lanyard - flings himself into the alcove, almost colliding with my shoulder bag. I look at the people who've just boarded but can't identify who's responsible for him. Every face is blank, or turned away. The boy is just tall enough to rest his chin on the recessed window ledge, which surely must be covered in a billion squirming bacteria from strangers' hands and elbows.
You can see everything from here, he announces to me, or no one. Everything!
The train starts to move again and rapt, he settles the weight of his noggin (strange how I never realised children have such big heads) on the ledge, cushioning it on the backs of his folded hands, as if settling in for a long television programme or bedtime story. I turn to look out the window and all I see is the slowly building darkness as we pull out from the lighted station and gather speed.
I have my headphones on, so for me our tunnel flight is hushed, silent as a video with the sound turned down. Chilly Gonzales is playing The Tearjerker Returns, an instrumental piece from Room 29, his collaboration with Jarvis Cocker. On this track the piano echoes the tentative accusation of the earlier piece, turning it wrong side up to reveal a plaintive tenderness where Cocker was ironic, knowing.
I listen to this tender piano, and strings like deep sea-water, watching the blackness fly by. Next to me my pint-sized companion in the alcove is quiet, aglow in his own dream: captaining a vessel in deep space, perhaps, zooming past galaxies, or descending to the mystery of the ocean floor, unimaginable pressure and creatures on the other side of the reinforced window. For him the train heads towards the future, where exhilarating possibilities set the darkness aflame with excitement, and there is not yet a destination.
In contrast I am older, and I listen to pretentious piano music, and I am going to work, and I only see the inevitable terminus at the end of the line. That last station is no mystery, just resignation. The tunnel is not outer space or the Mariana Trench, only the fast-decaying result of machinery and toil. And you and I are not explorers or astronauts, or even half as brave and intrepid. Just grown-ups going to work, waiting for a seat, turning away from the hypnotic dark to stare at our lit phone screens. We do this because after too long, the darkness becomes dangerous. It leaves children alone, kindly, but it swallows adults whole, makes us sad and unable to pay our mortgages on time.
You can see everything from here, said the boy. I almost did - but then the music ended, the train arrived at my stop, and in my haste to be first I left the alcove to him without looking back at all.