By Alex Townley
I MANAGE to squeeze my way into the carriage just as the doors are closing.
The Circle Line is hot, in that stifling, humid way that the underground seems to make worse by blowing hot air into your face that’s been circulating the tunnel system for hours, draining the energy from your limbs the deeper in you go.
The train carriage is cool, and empty save for two or three passengers, which is a double surprise at this hour, and I take a seat on an empty bench, next to one of the upright posts, already attempting to plan my route on the line opposite.
It’s an effective way to avoid eye contact with any of the other passengers, but it only lasts for a minute or so.
The train lurches to a stop and pulls off again, taking on nothing but a gentle influx of warmed underground air.
The carriage has four occupants including me. A red-faced overweight man in short shorts, who is sporting a bushy moustache and a flat cap and playing with a loose tooth in his mouth. A black youngster in his late teens who is plugged into the world’s largest headphones and filling the entire carriage with tinny classical music, myself, and a heavily pregnant woman, who sits opposite me tapping out a rhythm on her enormous belly, fanning herself with a copy of the Guardian.
I try to let my gaze relax like I always do on the tube, not focus on any one person or thing, but something catches my eye and then draws me in.
Once upon a time, as a younger man, I was a scout, and spent a wasted youth frying unnecessary things over camp fires I’d started myself, and learning Morse code, tapping out dots and dashes to my heart’s content on a walkie talkie to my best friend who lived next door.
The best friend eventually faded away, based as the friendship was on a mutual obsession with scouting, but the Morse skills lingered and now as I sit watching, I’m sure the woman opposite me isn’t just tapping, but is actually spelling out words.
It’s not that unusual a habit in this world of smart phones and iPads and Kindles. I’ve found myself doing it before now, I’ve even spotted others doing it on public transport before, usually just tapping out the words of an advertising panel close to the ceiling, or a pop song they’re humming quietly to themselves.
But this is different.
It takes me a minute to properly fall back into the rhythm of the code, but as the words start to form inside my head I feel as though I’m eavesdropping.
She taps, then pauses as it waiting for an answer, then taps again.
She’s talking about the man with the hat. She thinks his moustache looks ridiculous. It reminds her of a squirrel draped over his top lip. Then she switches to an article she read in the newspaper, how some new development might change things in the Middle East.
It must be some kind of app, a sensor maybe, like those gloves you can get for using your touchscreen in cold weather, rigged up to her phone as a way of making silent calls.
But why would you bother with Morse if you could text someone? It’s got to take at least twice as long. And I’m pretty sure she isn’t wearing any kind of gloves.
I start to convince myself I’m imagining the whole thing, but when I look up she catches my eye.
She stares at me, watching my reaction as she taps out ‘The man opposite is watching us. I think he might be able to understand what I’m saying.”
My face screws up instinctively, and she smiles and gestures me over. And before I can think about it I find myself moving to sit one seat away from her.
The word ‘us’ is playing through my head.
She smiles beatifically at me, so much the opposite of anything you’d expect to find on the underground that I wonder if she might be unhinged, after all there’s no rule that says pregnant women can’t have mental problems.
“It’s okay to be curious.” She has broken eye contact now and she’s looking down at her belly, her fingers still for once.
“I like the Circle Line. Especially on a day like today. It’s hard to find somewhere to sit in central London without someone glaring at you, and here we can just rest until we get back to my stop. I like people watching. We have our best chats down here.”
She glances over at me. “You understand Morse Code?”
I shrug in agreement.
“He picked it up really quickly.”
Now I’m closer I peer at her hands, looking for signs of technology. Maybe they can implant microchips under the skin these days. My smartphone barely lets me read emails, so I’m definitely not what you’d consider an expert.
“It’s fascinating technology.” I glance down at her hands.
“If that’s what you’d call it. I suppose it is technology really. You don’t think about it when it’s natural do you. Don’t tend to label it the same way.”
I know we’re talking at cross purposes, but I can’t see quite how.
“Is it some kind of microchip thing?” I point at her hand, which has started to tap again.
She laughs, and wiggles her fingers at me. “This? This is my hand.”
“Here.” She takes my hand in hers, and starts guiding it toward her.
I’m nervous suddenly, and I resist her.
“It’s up to you.” She releases my hand and suddenly all I want is to have my suspicions confirmed.
I place my hand gently where she was leading me, on the bulk of her belly, and feel tiny kicks jolting against my palm. Steady, rhythmical, some long, some short.
I snatch my hand back, looking at her, thinking about the implications of what I’ve just felt, the chances of it being coincidence.
“Will it. Will it remember, afterwards?”
She grins, “I don’t know. None of the others did, but I like it all the same.”
She looks up. “Oh, this is my stop.” She rests a hand on her belly, tapping away. “We enjoyed meeting you.”
I watch her step out of the carriage into a throng of people, disappearing into the crowd as people surge in to fill the carriage.
I don’t think I would recognise her if I saw her again. I don’t think anyone would believe me if I told them what had happened. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the fluttery feel of conversation through flesh.
© Alex Townley 2016