Two things are equally terrifying to me: being caught up in a terrorist attack, and becoming a mother.
If both happened at the same time? Well …
Seriously though, when I look at news reports of terrorist attacks, I’m always disproportionately disturbed by the mundane settings they take place in. And of course that’s the reaction perpetrators want: think you’re safe in line at the supermarket? Think again.
The other reaction they achieve, though, is to make me acutely aware of just how easily it could be me caught up in the headlines. The drama. The chaos.
And look I’m not a talented enough writer to segue from terror into motherhood, but for to say this: looking at other women transition into matrescence does seem similarly dramatic and chaotic and out of reach when you’re not involved in motherhood.
Even though it’s a common occurrence, and all it would take for it to be you is just one, little explosion …
These two themes are explored in the short story SMS! In it, a new mother’s commute goes from dark to worse. Originally published in Brain Drip.
I start the day of my death like every other: barely alive.
Sleepless and cruising mindlessly through the shopping centre that some town planner has sketched out next to my regional train station, and probably the train station after that. I imagine a carbon copy of me in the next town over, scurrying to pick up the exact same shrink-wrapped and canned goods that will help me subsist during the workday. Tuna. Sweetcorn. More tuna. A limp and vaguely chemical-tasting salad if it’s Monday (which it is) and you’re detoxing, (which I am).
I stifle a sigh, and get the vague thought that modern life is fucking soulless. I get the even vaguer thought that I’m powerless to do anything about this fact, short of not participating.
At the self-service checkout, I pay for 84 per cent of my goods (punishment to the supermarket for making me do their job while they cut costs and increase profit) then escape the echoed strains of Muzak and the thrill of my own social deviance.
Outside, it’s bright and light and the air feels like it could nick my lungs into a million little paper cuts.
The train is already waiting for me at the station.
I shuffle on with the stretch-marked plastic bags and claim my usual seat next to the toilet so I can pump milk, pee, or cry. Maybe even all three, as has been known to happen since Mia was born.
All I seem to do since I got pregnant, married and then moved, priced out of civilisation as I was, to this dull Suburban outpost for ‘first home buyers’. I don’t know when, but at some point in the recent past that phrase – ‘first home buyer’– crawled into my psyche and implanted. I felt that if I wasn’t one, me and my unborn child would start a downward spiral into reprobation, and maybe meth addiction.
I bought it.
So now I find I just have to wait. For this train to leave each morning. For the debt to die. For the next big thing, which after career, marriage, mortgage and babies is … what exactly?
The train engine growls a non-committal response and the last platform stragglers surge in and on, scavenging seats that will convert to a premium the closer we all get to the city centre.
Glancing around, I see it’s busy. Normally my cue to plug in, shut off and swipe guiltily past the little family on my screen towards the salacious escapism of true crime podcasts. But today I don’t.
I … can’t.
At first I think it’s because of a woman – no, the woman – who glides on and parks her body pumped frame down next to me at the last minute, encroaching ever so slightly on my side of the seat so that there’s a dung beetle’s dick of a difference between us.
But it’s not her.
It’s the three men who get on after her and fan, silently, out among the length of the carriages. One a beginning; the other a middle; the third an end to a silent act of drama that hasn’t been disclosed yet.
Something about the men lodges like a fleck of dirt under my nail bed. Their heavy sports bags, maybe? Their queer mix of hubris and crippling self-awareness?
After careful study, I realise it’s the way they’re pretending not to be together when they so clearly are.
As if sensing me, the middle one – the one closest – breaks his straight ahead stare and starts towards me and my neighbour.
I freeze as he looms overhead, the disturbed air around him carrying notes of sweat and Issey Miyake – my husband’s scent.
I feel the toned thigh of the woman next to me pulse. I pulse too and then feel stupid as I realise: he’s just touching on.
“Ladies,” the passenger nods in apologetic recognition of the physical intimidation then returns to his post, his sinewy arms defined as he sags against two safety hooks that swing from the ceiling.
I hold onto one single idea as the train pulls away, rickety and groaning, from the station: he was just touching on.
But the unease won’t subside. It mingles with the usual resentment that I share this space with strangers every day, twice a day, and will for the rest of my natural working life.
It grows deeper and wider, to encompass the woman next to me, who is clearly over it and is now nose-deep in her iPhone, segueing between Instagram (full of teeth; abs; avocado) and outlook, where some poor bastard named Bryonee is receiving a pithy one-liner at 8:07am: I don’t fucking care – just make it happen.
I glance sideways, at the woman’s grinding profile, and call it: corporate feminist. Sits on all the boards. Posts all the right hashtags. Evangelises quotas – and equality – while quaffing champagne, and in the real world? Girlfriend doesn’t practice what she preaches.
She bullies, hustles and gaslights the women around her. Why? Because there just aren’t enough seats at the table. She’s worked too hard to stand by and let the others ruin it.
Ultimately, she is who she is because it’s irrelevant who feeds the coin into the slot machine. Penis or vagina, black or white, young or old, we’re all dealing tender that has the same two sides: self-interest, and the bottom line.
Everyone on this train, hustling their way to the casinos, is complicit – including me.
The realisation brings on a wave of depression so bleak, so revolting, that I have to close my eyes and fight three languid convulsions of misery as they ripple through me.
When I’m able to look again, the woman is still typing. And the man …? He has slipped behind us, into my peripheral vision.
His mate at the far end of the train moves now, too, toeing the sports bag at his feet, still pretending (why is he pretending??) that he’s not tethered somehow to the other, who mirrors his movements and demeanour down to the last detail.
I look to my fellow commuters for validation and get none. Legs are nonchalantly spread. Eyes are vacant. Thumbs are-a-flying.
We’re all bored sitting ducks. Text-text. Quack-quack. Coins in. Ding-fucking-ding. It’s business as usual. So much so that, when the train slows and the door slides open at the first stop, I just sit there. Even as the sun-singed breeze calls me outside. And the door signals its warning.
Beep. Going. Beep. Going. Beep. Gone.
Nothing happens for the longest time.
The men slide so far back I can only smell their manufactured scent. Some people get off but mostly they pile on.
The train clips along, getting fuller, and closer to the epicentre.
By the time the blackness of the tunnel swallows us, I’m forced to consider the fact that my existential crisis is now so profound it’s inventing the will to live and feel. Feel anything. Even if it is the sick thrill of baseless paranoia, and fear.
Laughable, but that’s the though I’m having when it happens.
And when my instincts are finally justified, all I want to do is walk them back. I act the exact same way I did the last time I was in real physical danger: two full months before Mia’s due date, when my insides cramped into a death grip around my life and hers, and I just sat frozen at my desk, answering inane emails and refreshing Daily Mail picture galleries as blood and time were almost lost.
The whole time I just thought, it’s OK. It won’t happen to you. It’s never you.
But it has to be someone, doesn’t it, in the Daily Mail columns? And why the hell not me? Or indeed anyone on this train? What’s so special about us, sitting here slack-jawed and disengaged? Our apathy in life bested only by our apathy in the face of … death?
Screams stab at my ears from the end carriage, I don’t even bother to turn around. I don’t have to. The sudden stillness and the … sounds … confirm that we are in trouble. The grim twist of the other passengers’ faces, which slowly come up from their phones like some sick Mexican wave, tell me this as clearly as if I was facing the action, and its perpetrators, myself.
Which, my brain whispers, you were until a few seconds ago.
I glance at the now-ashen woman next to me, recall a disembodied voice addressing us (‘ladies’) in that charged tone, and suddenly understand that it’s owner will work his way back down the train towards us.
A fresh wave of screaming finally innervates my muscles.
I sink down and crawl towards the nearby toilet that has transformed from a mundane necessity to a lifeline.
My hands and knees slip against slime as I pull open the door open and drag myself inside. There’s barely space for me, so when I see the woman following me in, it’s all I can do not to kick her in the face and slam the door closed in an unsisterly act of self- preservation.
Scared of attracting attention, I can only watch wordlessly as she crawls in, locks the door, and turns to me.
Our eyes meet over the cloying smell of piss.
I can see the silk pussy bow at her throat pucker in and out with the force of her pulse. An infinite amount of time passes. After it, for something to say, I whisper, “What the fuck is going on?”
“I … I don’t know,” she says and looks away.
She’s lying. We both know exactly what’s going on but we just … can’t. Can’t speak. Can’t move. Can’t call the police. If we do, not only are we at risk of being caught, but this will all become real.
As if to prove the point, the other passengers’ delayed reaction implodes beyond the door. The screams mix with swearing, insults, banging, and – worst of all – the stunned silence of those who still don’t get it.
All the possible reactions, fight, flight and freeze, play out on the shadows underneath the door. The powerlessness of those three limited options makes me inhale. The breath catches on the smell, and then the sobs come.
In a second she’s on me, her grimy hands covering my mouth so we aren’t heard. She shakes her head inches from my face. No, please. Don’t get us caught. Don’t get us killed.
I dry heave harder and try to bite her greasy palm.
Desperate, the woman’s eyes swing around the tiny, soiled space for something that can connect two, perfect strangers. I’ve heard of that happening during the other attacks in London and Paris; unknown and unrelated humans forming bonds in beautiful, poetic ways as terror plays out around them.
A caress in the dark.
A whispered promise.
A human shield.
I won’t get anything that deep; the woman wrestles her phone (rescued in her waistband) and forces shaking fingers across the notebook app.
Take your phone out, she writes. And then: Stay with me. Stay k-o-o-l.
I look at her, reminded of the exercise I do with my psychologist called would you rather…? Would you rather burn or drown? Be deaf or blind? Face down terrorists, or sit texting while they decide? Who are you when it counts?
The ideal answer is someone who can decide between two shit choices, and appreciate that even the worst scenarios have positivity and agency.
Resigned to this frustrating holding pattern of adulthood, I take out my own phone and write the only thing I can think of worth writing. K-o-o-l? We could d-i-e in here.
Her brow collapses in apparent disappointment that I’ve violated the denial code. A painted bottom lip trembles, dimpling her chin.
With stabbing motions, she types, what is your problem? Then shows me an unflattering emoji that would pop up if you wrote the phrase bad vibes.
I blink. Wondering if we’re having the same experience.
Then I realise: she’s not talking about my problem in here. She’s talking about my problem out there, in life.
And since she’s asked, I find myself just telling her.
In 140ish words, I finally articulate that I get up every day and dance. Go through the motions while every cell in my body screams, ‘you don’t like this! This routine. This job. You are someone else.’
I ignore and repress this because I don’t have the money or the balls to forge my own path. I comehome to my second (unpaid) job and realise that all I really have control over is whether or not I burn my husband’s steak.
And I do burn his steak, because I am shit and uncompromising in marriage. Same with motherhood, which I suspected I might also not be good at, but had to follow through with and botch to find out for sure.
I am so vulnerable and powerless that all someone has to do is walk onto my train with bad ideas and a bag, and they can end me.
This is my problem.
I stop typing and show her the diatribe. She looks confused, and stunned.
I feel that too.
And also … relieved.
The woman begins to respond, but stops typing as a shadow shifts under the door.
There’s shouting. And voices, getting closer.
My interlocutor’s shirt collar goes into motion again, a visual metaphor for my own fear response.
I look at the woman, wanting to say something reconciliatory and final.
But it’s too late. They’re outside now. They’ll have seen my abandoned bags, and the little slash of red that indicates the activated lock.
The door gives out to three men who are in masks now. They have guns, not knives like I’d first thought.
The middle one uses his weapon as a finger and points it into the toilet. To his credit, there’s none of the gratuitous violence or drawn out sadism that someone dying as cowardly as this might expect.
He just says, ‘Get them’ to the others, and that’s what they do.
The limbo between life and death is the worst part. The most toxic.
That bit where the outside world learns what’s happened, but not thanks to who, or why.
I can only watch as the blanks get filled in with dog whistles and endless replays of eyewitnesses accounts, most effective when they combine the mundane with the harrowing: he looked straight at me. He was nervous. He touched on – then helped kill 27 people trapped in a tunnel, clearly torn between decent and evil right until the last minute.
Obviously, I can’t spill these details. Or rather: I choose not to.
Because even though a picture of the special forces walking me and the woman along the train tracks – the carnage still burned into our retinas – did end up in the press, I just don’t want to share the narrative that goes along with the image.
It doesn’t feel like my story to tell anymore.
The person whose story it is died in that toilet, and she said her piece before she went.
She freed me, then set me up for a Second Act. And this is what I’ll do with it: look forward to a lifetime full of powerless, cramped commutes that will one day get so bad, that they finally spur me onto change.