She felt the telltale rumble of the subway minutes before it arrived. Screeching to a halt, the orange caterpillar belched, spewing fumes of humid air. The doors slid open to reveal the illuminated recess, devoid of the usual swarm of commuters. Entering, she seated herself near the door along with the few others travelling. A businessman, a drunk, and a student; it could almost be the start of a bad joke, Alice thought dryly, before plugging her earphones in, and tuning out.
The night blurred outside the window, and looking up Alice saw it was only the businessman and herself left. He looked jittery, his eyes constantly checking the time on his sleek phone compulsively. His bucktoothed mouth was constantly moving, and by straining her ears, she could her him muttering “Late, late, late”. For what, she had no idea. His whole face was twitching between his overly large ears, and his eyes were stretched wide, the huge expanses of white giving him a manic expression. Definitely best not know. She slowly shifted towards the door as his murmuring began to increase but, she needn’t have worried; he was bounding out of the door as soon as the train came into a station, brakes screaming, and the doors thrown wide as if to divest itself of the dispossessed. It was only as the doors began flashing that she realized his phone still sat upon the seat. Without thinking she grabbed it, hurtled out the door, and began haring up the stairs.
As the tiled floor levelled off, Alice stood in the bricked underpass. Various entrances branched off, each different sizes and colours; gold rimmed, pillared, glass doored. Stunned into silence, she had just decided to take a random guess when a briefcase disappeared down a dark passage. Hearing the grate of metal ahead, Alice followed the sound with arms outstretched into the darkness, her hands coming away damp, covered in a filmy layer of slime and droplets that leaked from between the cracked stones. In the distance, a patch of light caught her eye and crouching down she could see the businessman through the soldered grid, scurrying though gloom towards a chink of orange. Easing the metal grill aside, Alice lowered herself into the space, the thick diesel tainted air catching her throat, before she began walking towards the light.
Stepping out of the tunnel Alice found herself outside, the glare of the orange streetlights illuminating everything in an angry glow. It was a park, but in the middle – almost as if sprouting from the cut turf – were two trains. Both trains displayed a destination; one was ‘Somewhere’ and the other ‘Elsewhere’, nothing else.
“How does that help?” she muttered.
“You could always just ask.” a voice suggested. Alice spun around. Behind her was a ticket machine, a pixelated face blooming up on the black screen. The grainy teeth were bared in a grin disproportionate to the rest of the flickering face, and yellow eyes roved disconcertingly.
“Just ask” it repeated.
“I…I don’t know which train to get.” Alice stammered.
“Well, what’s your destination?” Alice felt more stupid by the second.
“I don’t really know”. The eyes blinked.
“Surely then,” it purred, “it doesn’t matter which train you get?”
“Well,” she began hesitantly “I am looking for a businessman.”
“Ah, so you do want to go somewhere. Then get on the Somewhere train. But then Somewhere could be Elsewhere if you understand me.”Alice stood bewildered. “But then sometimes the somewhere isn’t actually anywhere …” the face went on, its voice growing fainter as a ticket with Somewhere spouted from the machine, the screen slowly fading until only the smile was left.
The train rattled and swayed, eventually screeching to a stop. Stepping out, Alice was immediately aware of the noise. Not the usual subway noises; water dripping, echoes, the buzz of the flickering lights. This was music. A fluctuating, throbbing beat that shook her very core. The focus of the sound emanated from the manhole sunken deep into the grey concrete. Far below, shapes writhed and voices merged to an incomprehensible cacophony. She dropped herself into the hole, falling towards the party below.
Alice drifted amongst the dark shadows bordering the room, pulsating techno music and strobed lights striking her nerves. She pulled at her top, now stuck to her skin with sweat, attempting to circulate some air, but the pervasive humidity saturated the atmosphere. Progress was slow, she was buffeted between gyrating hips and those weaving precariously with drinks but up ahead, like a distant promise, was a roped-off sanctuary where the dancing throngs were clearly unwelcome. A ceiling fan promised cool air, and cushioned seats were dotted around a large table.
Sprawled in a throne at the distant edge of the table sat a man. “Who are you?” he asked, tilting his head back to observe her from beneath the rim of a top hat, suspended precariously. Standing up his frame towered over her, and as he bent closer she found herself looking into the face of a handsome young man, but in his pale blue eyes she could see red rimmed madness, and trembling whites. Alice remained silent. “Do you like my hat?” he questioned again, barely giving her a chance to reply before breathing in heavily as if to start screaming, breath reeking of liquor before he began laughing. His sharp teeth tilted back, demented cackling leaking out of his mouth as he dragged her over to another table. Rows of bottles stood on it, several of which got shoved in her arms, the Hatter’s laughter getting broken up with a slurred “Drink, drink” before walking off and leaving her.
Taking his advice Alice slugged an unfamiliar blue concoction and felt a burning warmth flood her body, her fears dissipating and her confidence growing. Emboldened, she stumbled into the thick of the party. Half blinded by the glaring lights and rivulets of sweat running into her eyes the sea of dancing faces blurred until she spotted the businessman, looking harried as ever, scurrying through a heart-shaped doorway.
Taking chase, Alice found her legs less than reliable, and after stumbling through the doorway, landed hard on a plush crimson carpet. Sitting imperiously behind a desk was a striking woman with flaming hair and a heart-shaped face, almost pretty if not for the pinched red lips. All around the large desk sat vintage telephones, each ringing loudly and incessantly. The woman leaned forward to look over her desk, eyebrows arching as she looked at the intruder. “Is that how you usually enter for an interview? Alice’s cheeks now matched the carpet.
“I haven’t got all day so can we start by asking what you can possibly bring to this prestigious dating agency?”
“I think there’s been a mistake, you see I was simply trying to return…”
“Do you know how many people want this job? Do your pitch quickly, before I lose my temper!” Behind the tyrant the businessman sat cowering, determinedly avoiding Alice’s desperate eye contact. The woman sent him a glare. “I’ve already been failed once today!”
He cringed, and began speaking “I, er, I, I…….” but his hesitation was causing her to turn vermillion, and as the panic began to grow in his beseeching eyes Alice felt herself shift guiltily forward.
“He means..I ,I .. iPhone, Miss Heart!” the woman spun around.
“Take your agency into the next century with a dating App.” Alice pulled the phone out and began to explain how the technology could replace the phones on her desk. Ms Heart’s lip curled into a quivering snarl. Interrupting, the iPhone pinged, a grinning face appearing on the screen. Below it; ‘The next train to Anywhere departs in 30 seconds.’ The yellow eyes winked and disappeared. As Ms Heart erupted volcanically at the suggestion of change, Alice slid the iPhone across the table to the businessman and sprinted towards the door.