Notes From the Underground
SOME sights imprint themselves on mind and memory forever after, and my first childhood descent into the Glasgow Underground Railway had something of the miraculous, never-to-be-forgotten about it. As I stood with my mother down there out of the dark tunnel emerged, not a train, but a guard holding high a lamp. Following him warily, as sheep their shepherd or rats the Pied Piper, his passengers crept, escaping from their broken-down carriages, rescued from who knows what dire dangers. I quite expected that this would happen every time I was taken traveling under the earth - when was the man with the lamp going to appear? He never did, but the expectation in itself was wonderful. That moving staircase led down to a labyrinth where Ariadne could weave her guiding thread, to Kubla Khan's caverns measureless to man.
Years later, on my way to classes at the university, I have found all the old subway fascination, along with a wealth of insights into the human condition. Down the escalator stream Pakistanis, Irish, Jamaicans, students from all over the world, Glaswegians themselves.
Young women with chalk-white faces, like malevolent queens of the night, swoop past in black capes and high black boots. We go rattling and clanking along, mostly absorbed in our own affairs, sometimes, however, drawn into a kind of subterranean fraternity. Every week I come on the same scrawny old woman in a moth-eaten moleskin coat, always scrabbling about in a canvas bag, emptying its contents out onto her lap and over the floor - curlers, combs, mothballs, candles, crumbling dog biscuits. ``I've lost my ticket!'' she wails. ``What if the Inspector comes!''
Her fear of being found traveling without a ticket becomes like an allegory of the Last Judgment. Her plight might one day be ours; we, too, might be asked by the dread Inspector for an account of our tick- ets. We scrape about on the floor - ``Is this it?'' It never is. We want to comfort her, protect her. How many hours of her life does she spend underground like a mole?
On nights of football matches there is an atmosphere of Jihad about the place. We shrink down in our seats like rabbits in their burrow, hiding from the marauding fox, while the supporters rush up and down the carriage. They flaunt their team colors, brandish banners, taunting opponents with shouts of ``Who wants a fecht?'' As scuffles and skirmishes break out we are united in the solidarity of the persecuted. Once they go storming off we relax. Why can't they enjoy football in peace?
At that question a baleful voice rings out. ``Yon day is ower. There is no discipline in the home now.'' An elderly man like some Grand Inquisitor glowers round his fellow passengers. ``They're hooligans, wreckers. Prison's too good for them.'' He stumps off the train and we see him rising up the escalator, gesticulating ferociously, no doubt meting out punishment and declaring, ``No discipline. Jail the lot!'' He leaves a troubled air behind. How should we deal with violence? Prison can't be the only answer.
One night a middle-aged man slumps down on the seat: Reserved for the Infirm and Disabled. He swivels round and reads out the notice. ``That's me all right!'' he exclaims bitterly. ``There's a new word for it now though, redundant. Not 50 yet and redundant. Me! I'll bide down here till I've the courage to face them at home.'' Next to him a ragged man in a grease-encrusted jerkin sits slumped in sleep. Not by the flicker of an eyelid does he show that he sees, hears, or even exists. The redundant man nudges him in the ribs, seeking in his predicament for some sign of fellow feeling. ``Hame!'' mutters the sleeper, half-opening a bleary eye. In a phrase that chills the heart he adds, ``Down here's hame.''
Often as I enter the train someone sidles up. ``What's the time?'' It is an opening gambit, an excuse for talk. ``I haven't spoken to a living soul for days.'' A whole life story can be poured out in the space of three stops. Sometimes figures as weird as any in the pages of Dostoevsky or Dickens travel beside me. The befuddled man opposite might be Marmeladov, the tragic father of Sonya in ``Crime and Punishment;'' over there might be Sonya herself; that pale student looks like Raskolnikov. I catch glimpses of Miss Flite, Pecksniff, Uriah Heep, Mr. Micawber. One of the familiar travelers is a grizzled Pole in a peaked sailor's cap. Over the years of exile the swaying subway train has taken on for him the likeness of his old wartime ship. ``Starboard ahoy! Steer her to port!'' a bearded man shouts, teasing him. ``Leave him alone; he's lost his country!'' another shouts. A turbaned Sikh beside them gazes imperturbably into his lost landscape. How many exiles travel on this train?
One day a touseled boy sitting beside his mother, beaming, attracts everybody's attention. ``Round and round!'' he keeps exclaiming gleefully. His flustered mother takes the whole carriage into her confidence. ``In one second he was gone, vanished from my side. I don't know how often he went round on his own.''
``A regular little Marco Polo,'' says an Irishman admiringly. ``The lad'll go far.''
``Round and round,'' the boy repeats dreamily. I see my childhood self in him. He has discovered this mysterious labyrinthine world as I did and felt its spell. He has even been rewarded for his escapade. He shows us - the kindly Inspector who reunited him and his mother slipped him 50 pence and he sits now, a little Prince of the Underworld, clutching this unexpected fortune in his hand.
One night recently the train stopped short with a violent jolt and we were plunged into total darkness. There was no d'ej`a vu, no guard came with a lamp as in my far-off vision. We waited, at first uneasily, then with growing apprehension. What if fire breaks out, what if we are suffocated, where is the Inspector? We are stranded - abandoned beneath the earth. The world overhead, where rain falls, snow flutters, the wind blows and the stars shine seems immensely far away.
Then, out of the blackness, a child asks in a penetrating whisper with a faint quiver in it: ``Does God see us down here?''
``There's a sermon for our times!'' replies a cracked old voice. ``Does God see us down here? I hope he does - yes, I'm sure of it.''
The tension is broken; relieved, we all start to talk. Someone takes out a mouth organ and plays the ``Blue Bonnets are Ower the Border;'' someone else, not to be outdone, sings in a fine baritone ``Lead Kindly Light Amidst the Encircling Gloom.'' The train grinds back into life, the lights come on, dazzling us. We are delivered. For a short span of time that seemed an eternity we have ceased to be strangers to one another in our shared ordeal.
Round and round we go in our grimy, creaking carousel. For some it is merely a means of transport, for others it stands for sanctuary. Down here congregate the lost and the lonely, the violent, the apathetic, the compassionate, all sorts and conditions of men and women. I sometimes meet the eye of a fellow traveler who, too, observes the scene - A chield's amang you taking notes ... I can learn more about our human predicament than in any university classroom in the course of a journey underground.