Sunday, October 21, 2007

Timedance, Part 2: Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

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Here's Part 1.

It was easy to be entertained in Britain in these enlightened days. As the gee-whiz technology of personal game systems, cell phones, MP3 players, portable video screens, and pocket satellite receivers zipped from the high streets to the public's pocket, you didn't have to be bored anymore. Listen to your music, watch your telly, play your games, update your blog, even read your daily paper or book or comic or website on your cellular. Everyone has at last become their own entertainment programmer, and for some, it was better than a mere fifteen minutes in the spotlight.

Grand for the electronics and entertainment industry; a setback for Terry Alan Simon. Terry took the Central Line tube every day from home to work, from work to home, and this night, just after the midnight hour, was no exception, even if it looked like the last time he'd take this particular trip for a while. As always, Terry had his earphones on, gently pumping music into his head, but for once his attention wandered as he walked down off Portland Place into Oxford Circus, hands dug in his pocket, eyes on the pavement.

He was blue.

As he descended into the Underground station, Terry could remember Deb's words to the senior staff barely a fortnight ago: "Radio 1 will cease operations and shut down on midnight Saturday week. I've been asked to tell all of you that, if you wish, there are jobs for each and every one of you at Satellite 1."

Some of his colleagues had gone already, jumped the fence even before the week was over; Terry couldn't blame them. He knew in his heart he was being stubborn. Just because it wasn't live, just because it wasn't impromptu, it wasn't any the less being a disk jockey, was it? Just because it was prerecorded and edited and went out on demand online and on pre-programmed satellite and podcast channels, did it take away from the music?

But it isn't wireless, Terry kept telling himself. It isn't really radio.

All because the BBC had cut off its nose to spite its face, Terry Alan Simon would officially be standing in the dole queue on Monday morning. It was a cause-and-effect snowballing, a butterfly effect he never could have predicted: the rise of cable and internet entertainment into Britain brought more choices than ever to a nation that had for decades had fewer than a dozen television networks and radio stations put together. The development of gee-whiz personal electronics moved audio and video entertainment away from the home and put it in your pocket, or on your wrist, or (in the shops for Christmas this year), under your skin. Albums sold by the song online precipitated the downfall of the compact disc...and for that matter, of the concept album. On-demand purchasing or downloading of television show episodes meant time-shifting had moved entertainment from a nightly event to an anytime occurrence.

And slowly, but surely, the oldest original form left of that entertainment, live broadcast radio, began to change or die: in a Golden Age of iPods and YouTube and DVDs and cell phones and streaming audio and satellite link-ups and instant gratification which turned every consumer into their own personal disk jockey, no one cared any longer about radio. One by one, the independents closed shop, unable to support their staffs and equipment. The day that Capital, the last great independent, shut down was the day Terry started to wonder if it was a boon or a bust for the BBC.

For a while-at least-the BBC flourished, if not necessarily its radio division. But like most things, the prices of keeping a secondary, ninety-year-old institution going in the face of progress (and dwindling cash, Deb always said) was too much for the Beeb to put up with.

The radio stations failed: independents like Capital and LBC closed or converted to online or satellite. In the heart of all this, Terry had been optimistic: it was the medium changing, he always said, not the message. The BBC had been founded on live music broadcasting; the disk jockey format would never die. We all have our little delusions.

Terry and the others at BBC Radio 1 knew they were on the road to extinction when the Director-General announced the conversion of Radio 4's arts and entertainment programs to online- and digital-only and Radio 5's 24/7 sport format to push-streaming satellite.

Two months later, Radio 2 closed completely.

(It was a good joke at the time. Q: "Who counts 'one, three, six'?" A: "Why, the Beeb, of course!")

Then, six months later, 1 was left, the last bastion of live DJ-presented pop music in Britain.

And now...

Terry jerked awake suddenly as the train pulled into the station, blasting stale Underground air into his face. The train was pulled by one of the new magnetic engines, but the carriages were still the old red coach cars from the 1980s; whatever power and efficiency the Magneto Engine had been designed for was destroyed by the mismatch.

He stepped into the nearest car as the doors sighed open slowly, slumped into a seat opposite a group of school kids, their eyes riveted on their hand-held teevees; one of them had a monitor visor strapped across his eyes. Terry knew without seeing the channel that they were all tuned into MTV; they were all swaying, ever so gently, to the same beat, the silent stereo pumping directly into their ears through the once whimsical, now all-too-familiar headsets.

He gently spun up the volume on his own music as he glanced up and down the carriage, not surprised to find that nearly everyone else on it was wearing headphones or earbuds of some sort, cutting them off from the rest of London but opening them up to another whole wider world. A couple of the train riders even, apparently unironically, were wearing the new MouseEars that picked up, even underground, satellite broadcasts live from around the world. There was talk in the tech magazines that Sony was working on a way to scale down the MouseEars; Terry had laughed at that and rather regretted their research. There was nothing like riding the Tube with escapees from a Disney cartoon. Terry had nothing against personal electronics-he loved to fill his world with music every waking hour, but his tech of choice was his blueberry iPod, nestled snugly in his pocket. It was there for function, not for show. Without looking he tapped and spun it over to a favorite playlist and half-closed his eyes as the Tube doors swished shut, just in time to admit a last straggling commuter to the train car. That commuter was not wearing a earphones.

What Michael na Calbraight did wear was a single-minded determined look on his face, a dull glint in his green eyes, and a grimy Aran sweater, patched at the collar and elbows with yarn that did not quite match.

Michael na Calbraight also carried a battered wooden case by a cracked and paint-stained plastic handle. The box was as beaten and worn as his favorite sweater, a sweater he would have parted with for very little other than the truly obscene. On the other hand, he was more than especially keen to get rid of the briefcase.

"Next station is Bond Street," said the pleasant computerized female voice over the speakers as the train moved out of the Oxford Circus station. Michael perched on the seat next to Terry and glanced around in ever-so-casual theatrical disinterest while scouting his opportunities. He decided against it, not merely for the fact that any action would be immediately suspected by the two Fabs who were staring at him-their hairstyles, dyed bright blue, neatly parted across their skulls from ear to ear to accommodate their MouseEars-but also the fact that, as Michael remembered, the exit at Bond Street station was at the far end of the platform. So Michael na Calbraight sat on the edge of his seat, rocking the wooden box gently between his ankles as it sat on the floor before him, and attempted, without much success, to keep from sweating.

"This is Bond Street station. Please mind the gap," the tube lady cheerfully announced, and a few passengers got up and left. Michael stayed where he was. "Next station is Marble Arch. Mind the doors."

Next to him, Terry crossed his legs, bumping the box, nodding a silent apology to Michael. The train moved on. Michael picked at a bright blue paint stain on the sleeve of his sweater.

The train slid into Marble Arch station, grinded to a slow halt against the platform, and the veins in Michael's neck suddenly pumped furiously. "Now." he told himself, instinctively giggling with nervous glee, and he understood, if only a part, of what Shannon had told him about "the thrill of the moment"; now was the time, now was the place, nothing could go wrong now, it was just as he had planned it all out, he knew it was right now. Barely two flights to the street, getting lost in the late-pub crowd of the Oxford Road or slipping into some deserted mews, stepping unseen into Hyde Park and strolling through it, walking slowly, casually, just on his way home, officer...

Except he had to get off the train first.

It took all his strength to push himself up out of his seat, not too fast, not too slow-his boots moved for the doorway, still knowing he was not yet safe, not yet...

Lost in his thoughts, Terry's eyes slid slowly from the departing man to the wooden case on the tube train floor, and he bent over helpfully, reaching for the handle. "You forgot your case," he called out. Across the aisle one of the spandex-and-leather-clad Fabs looked at Terry, and gave an amused smile that didn't look as much like a sneer as she hoped it would.

Michael paused just inside the train, shuffling his feet on the floor, cursing himself for his hesitation. It would be so easy to step back, to pick up the case before the doors closed, to quietly say "thank you," to walk away with it under his arm and find someplace else to dispose of it...

Terry sighed, leaning over and grabbing Michael's sweater by the elbow. "You forgot your..." he began, swinging the box up from the floor.

The lid popped open on hinges, as Michael had designed it to do.

"Ohmygod!" the Fab cried as the case fell open, exposing its contents to the riders of the carriage.

Terry dropped the box like a potato that was not merely hot, it was right-out radioactive, but his other hand tightened instinctively on Michael's sweater, making the Irishman slip and crash on his arse, half-in, half-out of the tube train, one leg sliding down between the train and the platform as the electronic automated voice brightly instructed "Mind the gap."

"BOMB!" shouted the Fab, tripping over fashionably dangling neon boot laces in a desperate attempt to leap over the seats for the door, and almost as one the inhabitants of the car shrieked. Even over the remixed DoubleDolby stereo sound, they had heard that cry, and now any one of them could see the briefcase lying open in the aisle, next to the object that had fallen from it, a complicated electronic device of dubious mechanical origin, but one thing was very clear to everyone-there was a clock attached to it.

And that clock was ticking.

Terry had seen it first, perhaps even before the Fab had reacted. There was a clock wired up to the whole mechanism, of course, and some tightly-wound oversized springs, little mechanical hinged arms, a couple dubious-looking metal cylinders, and the whole box was shaking with an alarming whirring and buzzing now. If he hadn't gotten his foot caught in the box as he sprang up, Terry would have been the first out of the door, but he went sprawling onto his hands and knees. There was something infinitely depressing, he decided, about losing your job and being blown up by a terrorist's briefcase bomb on the very same night.

Terry had once read a book on crowd psychology during moments of stress on the Underground: tales of the London blitz of the previous century, and how all remained calm inside the Underground while bombs dropped from the skies above, or how City businesspeople, delayed by a fire on board one of the trains, headed in single file, calm and unruffled, towards the emergency exit, not even leaving behind a single unfolded pink copy of the Financial Times in their escape. Obviously no one else now on the train had read that same book. Humans-those rational animals-were spurred on by that one emotion that inspires all true modern commuters to action: panic. The crowd erupted behind him, and Terry jerked back his hands to avoid being trodden on by boots and shoes and spiked heels in the mad rush for the exit. They shrieked and cried and hollered as they pushed past each other and tripped over Michael's still-stuck body, heading en masse for the exit.

The clock's alarm rang, and something in the box clicked and snapped into place, mechanics whirring and grinding in time with the bell.

Terry pushed himself up with a remarkable sense of calm, his face a hand's breadth away from the box. His iPod shuffled over to a new song. Oh, effing hell, thought Terry. I don't want to die listening to Britney Spears...Kylie, at least, please.

One of the metal cylinders in the box suddenly popped up, spring-loaded on a jury-rigged mechanical arm, and began revolving slowly, like a clockwork doll on a pre-programmed path. Terry brought up his arm over his eyes, and as an afterthought he didn't remember doing later, tapped the touchwheel of his iPod and skipped past Britney.

He felt the warm wet spray on his arm and the unprotected part of his face at the same moment the apocalyptic guitar of Paul Weller soared up in his ears, and then his voice:

The distant echo
Of faraway voices boarding faraway trains
To take them home to
The ones that they love and who love them forever

He coughed and spat out the mouthful of spray in distaste. It didn't taste anything like he had expected blood would taste. It splattered on the floor before him, a bright blue Rorschach dripping from his lips as the canister continued its slow left to right rotation, a thick focused jet spraying out of its nozzle just past his left shoulder onto the wall of the carriage behind him.

"It's not a bomb!" grunted Michael, trying to tug his leg up from the gap and falling back on his arse again as the automated doors slowly tried to close on him again and again. Terry blinked at him past the blue spray, feeling the dripping run down his face. He lifted his hand to his face and wiped his forehead; his palm came back brilliant blue, not blood red.

It was paint.

"It's not a bloody bomb!" Michael repeated, pulling off his boot and abandoning it to the gap as he struggled to his feet. He glanced back at the blue-sprayed Terry. "Sorry," he apologized, and sprinted away as Terry pushed himself back up again.

The second canister popped up on its spring-loaded arm and sprayed him point-blank across the crotch with a blast of lime-green paint.

Terry leapt back, sliding for a moment on the spilled paint slicking the floor, and watched the box in mute shock while Weller wailed

I'm on my way home to my wife
She'll be lining up the cutlery
You know she's expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork
And I'm down in the tube station at midnight

The two spray cans hissed and moved in unison in their makeshift metal grips, slowly rotating from side to side and moving up and down in jerky but deliberate clockwork-programmed rhythm. Terry spat out a last mouthful of blue paint, very glad his mother, who taught him never to spit on the tube, was not there. It took him a moment to glance behind him where the paint spray was directed, where a bright blue-and-green graffiti now glistened on the inside wall of the tube car:


Or, rather, as close it could read with the first word distorted and smeared. Terry had a feeling that if he could look in a mirror right now, he would find a big blue ART across his face.

He sighed and wiped the already-thickening paint from his forehead to keep it from trickling down into his eyes, and stepped across the mess of paint as the spray cans slowly hissed into emptiness and the clock wound down, its alarm fading as the clockwork mechanism slowed, the cans grinding to a halt with a low sputtering hiss. He left it behind.

As Terry pushed through the electronic barrier to exit Marble Arch station at street level, there were police officers sprinting into the station, heading for the stairs down to the trains. One of the constables' eyes widened as he caught sight of paint-streaked Terry and grabbed his elbow. "Are you all right, sir?" he asked.

Terry couldn't resist a tight grin. "I'm fine," he said, moving past the constable. "Just a little blue." He dug his hands in his coat pockets and began the walk home, down the Bayswater Road towards Gloucester Terrace, heading home to the sound of the Jam:

And I'm down in the tube station at midnight
The wine will be flat and the curry's gone cold
I'm down in the tube station at midnight
Don't want to go down in a tube station at midnight

(More to come. Next week: The Girls of Brasenose.)

Playlist 2: Queen "Radio Ga Ga" • Donald Fagen "What I Do" • The Soundtrack of Our Lives "Mind the Gap" • Britney Spears "Toxic" • The Jam "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight"

1 comment:

SallyP said...

Man, I was SURE that it was a bomb! Good stuff, Bully.