Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Going Underground

There was a burst of static, and the crackling cries of James and Fatima’s son, Michael, flooded out of the flashing baby monitor.

“Oh, God, what time is it?” muttered Fatima, reaching across the bedside table for her glasses with one hand and fishing around blindly for the alarm clock with the other. It was just gone half-five in the morning; she could hear the dustmen working the streets below.

James began to open his eyes and lazily turned to face Fatima. He let out an indistinct yawn/groan that Fatima took to mean “Can you feed him? I’ve got work in the morning”.

Fatima rolled her eyes and clambered out of bed. Now less drowsy, she wandered into Michael’s nursery – the air was thick with the pungent smell of full nappies. As he was lifted from his crib and carried him to the changing mat, Michael gurgled gleefully. Fatima smiled; his once indistinct noises were starting to sound like speech, and she was sure that he’d be talking within a few weeks. She tickled his nose, and he giggled appreciatively.

Once she’d slipped him into a clean nappy, Fatima headed into the combined dining room/living room and turned the TV on to BBC 2. She always had trouble getting back to sleep at this time, and had got into the habit of watching the early morning “Programmes for Schools” slot – there was something so relaxing and soporific about lying on the sofa, with warm blanket and a mug of hot chocolate, as a woman with a soothing regional accent recited times tables or explained the Haber process.

But something was different this time. The educational programmes had given way to urgent news flashes – children across Europe and Africa had been disappearing in their millions as the sun rose. Fatima sat bolt upright, splattering hot chocolate all over the beige sofa.

“As the sun rises across the Carpathian mountains behind me”, said a reporter, struggling to be heard over a grainy videophone connection, “millions of ordinary families are waking up to an awful truth: their children are gone. The deadly ‘wave’ that sweeps across the planet appears to be inescapable and unstoppable.

“The wave began only one hour ago, at the edge of the Mediterranean basin, but already a number of groups are positing explanations as to what may be causing these disappearances, with reasons ranging from spontaneous human combustion, to alien abduction, to the end of the world: a number of Islamic scholars have claimed that the disappearances herald the beginning of Qayaamah, the ‘Day of Gathering’, while some Christian sects in America are putting forward the idea that the wave is ‘The Rapture’, a time of…”

By now, Fatima could scarcely hear the reporter. Sunrise… children disappearing… she felt numb. She might only have a couple of hours left with her son – she had to make them count. But then, so did every other parent in London. Fatima suddenly pictured the playgroup she worked at abandoned and deserted Suddenly, she leapt to her feet and ran into the corridor. Just outside the door to their flat was a bright red fire alarm box. Fatima swung her elbow as hard as she could against the fragile glass pane. Instantly, sirens began wailing throughout the building. Muffled curses erupted from the surrounding flats as lights flickered on behind frosted glass windows.

The first people out were James and Fatima’s neighbours, Morgan and Jane Okereke and their children Olivia and William, all of whom were wearing their pyjamas and snug dressing gowns. William, their youngest, was clutching a teddy bear and staring wide-eyed at Fatima, who had just realised to her embarrassment she was standing in the corridor in just her nightie.

“You’ve got to turn on your television!” Fatima told them, “Just… turn on your television and watch the news. Children are disappearing. It’s… they disappear with the sunrise.”

Fatima realised that as she explained it to the sleepy parents who were now congregating in the corridor, it seemed to sound more and more ridiculous, and yet more and more terrifying at the same time.

By now, James had climbed out of bed and was now stood in the doorway, carrying Michael in his arms. Fatima rushed over and explained the situation.

“We need to get away from the sunrise. We… we just have to!” said Fatima, holding back the tears.

“But the sunrise moves at over 1,000 mph” – James was a physics teacher at the local secondary school – “there’s no way we can out run it.”

“We don’t need to. We just need to keep him away from the Sun. We could… we could board up all the windows, we could go underground.”

An idea flashed through Fatima’s mind.

“Of course, the Underground!” she yelled, “If we take our children to the Underground, we may be able to hide them until this all passes over!”

A murmur of approval travelled through the crowd of parents. As the fire alarm continued to wail, families darted back into their flats and began packing food, water, clothes and nappies.

Ten minutes later, still in their nightwear, Fatima and James joined the crowd of parents all clutching children as they ran down the stairwell: James was carrying Michael while Fatima clutched the travel bag she’d filled with water, sandwiches and the baby changing kit. Halfway down, the group met a pair of firemen, sent to investigate the alarm – Fatima tried to stay as nonchalant as possible (given the circumstances) until she was sure they’d gone past.

Bethnal Green was the nearest tube station to the block of flats where the families lived, and the fact that it had been used as an air-raid shelter in WWII made it the ideal hiding place. As they turned the corner onto Bethnal Green Road, though, Fatima noticed they had clearly not been the only families to come to this conclusion. Hundreds of families were filing down the steps, under the watchful eyes of swarms of police officers.

James tried to dial as many friends and family as possible, to warn them and tell them to seek cover, but he was always met by the same computerised “the network is currently unavailable” message. He switched on the phone’s built-in radio and tuned to the news. By now, the wave was deep into France, and would be crossing the Channel in a matter of minutes. The first, confused reports were coming in of adults being taken – a spokesman for the Vatican was claiming the Pope and a number of high-ranking cardinals had just vanished during early morning mass, leaving nothing but their robes and vestments.

Fatima and James began the long climb down to the ticket office, where they were met by sudden pandemonium. Hundreds of people were trying to squeeze through a handful of barriers. Some were scrambling over the sides, others trying to lift pushchairs and prams over the gates. Police officers were trying in vain to keep some calm, but for every 5 people who managed to get through the gates, 15 more were arriving from the street.

Once they had finally got through the gates, they found the stairwells down to the platforms just as packed, as people jostled to get as far from the Sun as possible. Fatima felt a sudden shove from behind – Morgan Okereke had fallen over in the scrum and, from the sickening crunch, it sounded like he’d broken his leg. Already, people were clambering over him to get down to the platform as quickly as they could. James passed Michael to Fatima and helped Morgan to his feet. With the help of Morgan’s wife, Jane, James supported Morgan as he limped slowly to the platform.

Once they got down to the tracks, things seemed much more dignified. People knew there was nowhere further to go, and were just sitting on the platform. Fatima had seen this before – she’d been on the underground during the 7/7 bombings, and had been forced to wait for hours in a tunnel with dozens of other passengers. But this seemed different. On 7/7 everyone had been jovial, sharing water and joking amongst themselves – Blitz spirit, the newspapers had called it. But here, barely anyone was even talking – the few that did spoke in voices tinged with fear. During the bombing, everyone had known, deep down, that it had happened to someone else. Here, it wasn’t some isolated incident that would affect a handful. The disappearances sweeping the globe could affect anyone and everyone down here.

The Sun was due to rise any minute now. There was a banging noise from far above as the doors to the station were closed, just to be on the safe side. Fatima clutched Michael to her chest while James helped Morgan kneel down to hug his children. There was a rumbling and gust of warm air, accompanied by a flash of light from the one of the tunnels – there must be a train due, Fatima thought, but according to the destination board, all trains were cancelled. Puzzled, she was turning her head back to the tunnel when she felt the bundle in her arms suddenly collapse and slip through her fingers.

She began scrabbling frantically around the floor, hoping she hadn’t dropped Michael, when a thousand voices all screamed at the same time. Looking around, Fatima saw the station was littered with empty children’s clothes that billowed gently in the draught from the tunnel. Fatima sank to her knees and sobbed, her cries mingling with the thousands of others that filled the stale air.


Spherical Time said...

Beautiful story. Very well told.

Geds said...

Nice work taking my random bit of atmosphere and running with it.

Ain't it crazy how there are so many good stories that come out of the Rapture idea if you decide to write and care about the people instead of the preaching?

Nenya said...

Wow. With this one I really *get* the utter horror of blandly saying, "Let's have God rapture all the children." One would have to be either horribly insensitive or be very sure that what was to come after the Rapture was so much worse that this would be a *grace*, to write something like the LB novel.

Oh, and you outdo LB by orders of magnitude in your depiction of non-WASP people!