Edgware Road

For the last six days, Adoha Okoro has been followed by her own mortality. More than once she’s noticed it loitering around the edges of her perception, as if unwilling to intrude without good reason. It may sound unlikely, but it’s perfectly true. Even though it has no wish to interrupt her (not yet anyway), Adoha’s mortality has accompanied her everywhere recently: a guardian stalker cloaked by shadows, hedges, lamp-posts and wheelie bins.

Adoha cannot, or rather will not, face it. She’s looked away every time a lack of cover has forced it into view, turning her attention instead to hangnails on her thumb or imaginary strands of hair clinging to her sleeve, and been sure to absorb herself in these or other trivial activities until her mortality has discovered a fresh hiding place. Of course, Adoha cannot deny being curious about her new companion but, all the same, she’d rather not see it.

Today she crosses the river and threads her way through the mass of bodies passing the high glass-fronted entrance to Blackfriars Station. The orange of her scarf stands out in the jostle of the crowd as she enters the building. Each person follows their designated path, side-stepping and weaving around their fellow travellers like an avant-garde flash mob. Adoha darts around a woman with a pushchair, disappears behind a pillar, rounds a corner. A swarm of commuters threatens to block her way, and she quickens her pace to avoid them.

She feeds her ticket into the machine, then pushes through the opening gate with her hips twisted to avoid catching her bag. And there is her mortality, wrapping itself around someone’s rucksack to ride piggyback through the barrier. It makes sure to keep close, following her progress across the tiled concourse and down the stairs, onto the Circle Line.

Adoha skims the handrail as she moves underground with the throng. The blended aromas of take-away coffee and filled croissants surround her until a blast of cold air from below gusts them away, leaving only a musky staleness in its wake. Adoha keeps her eyes down, paying scant attention to the finger-picked guitar of the dreadlocked busker or the advertisements pasted along the passageway – West End shows, pregnancy advisory services, perfumes, literary blockbusters, independent financial advice – until the walls either side of her open up. Platform One.

The overhead display gives a waiting time of two minutes, so Adoha turns left and continues until she finds an empty space. In an attempt to look occupied she gets out her phone. There are no texts for her to read. No missed calls. Only the hospital and the woman at the cleaning agency have her number. Her mortality, discreet as ever, turns right and conceals itself behind the suitcases of a German couple engrossed in the pages of a London A-to-Z.

Last week, a softly spoken man considered the data collected from the tests Adoha had undergone at his instruction. He asked if she had anyone with her and, when she confided to him that she had come into the country alone, ushered her into the Quiet Room. While she concentrated on the hair protruding from the mole on his chin, he drew her attention to the Kleenex box on the low table and assured her she might enjoy as long as another six months of good health. Well, fair to good.

His eyes were apologetic but his voice was firm and, while she was in the room, Adoha accepted everything he said. A shy twenty-two, brought up to respect those with education and know her place, she lacks the confidence to challenge authority figures. However, since their meeting, she’s suspected his estimation of her remaining time, like his use of the word ‘enjoy’, might be incorrect.

Neither Adoha nor her mortality give any outward sign that acknowledges the presence of the other. However, by standing on Platform Two and looking over the sunken tracks you can see them both quite clearly. Adoha, her neat cornrows and bright scarf, scrutinizing her phone, standing with the rounded shoulders of a girl uneasy with her height; her traditionally dressed mortality crouching behind the suitcases, equally tall but slimmer and with better posture. Separate entities, conjoined by a sameness which holds them together no matter how far apart they become. Two, and yet one.

Although Adoha has tried three times to write to her family, no one in Nigeria knows about her conversation with the consultant. Admitting she’s let everyone down has proved too difficult and, guilty that the sacrifices made to send her to London will have been for nothing, Adoha has reduced the unfinished letters to crumpled balls. Now, as she stares at her phone, she resolves not to burden those she loves any further.

An echo rolls along the tunnel, reaching Adoha’s ears before the train-cab emerges from the darkness in a flush of air and noise. The waiting passengers surge up to the carriages, only to step back as the doors slide open to allow others to disembark. Adoha tucks her phone into its sock and returns it to her pocket. She joins the untidy queue and, when her turn comes, steps across the yellow and white painted lines, then over the gap into the carriage.

There are just enough empty places to allow her to choose where to sit. She heads for the closest seat, one at the end of a row. When she draws level with it she finds someone has left their newspaper behind, so slides the folded tabloid along as she sits down. Passengers shuffle around her, filling the empty places, sighing as they take the weight off their feet. Others prefer to stand, remaining only a few paces from the doors. No one moves the newspaper and Adoha is, as she’d hoped, left without a neighbour. Her mortality, further down the platform, boards through the carriage’s other set of doors and settles itself as far away as possible. However, in accordance with the sign above it, should an elderly, pregnant or disabled person require the seat, it will immediately volunteer to give up its place.

The overhead lights flicker and the train moves, gathering momentum as the tunnel consumes it. The carriage rocks, and a woman with a bulging stomach allows a small boy to climb onto her lap. He loops his arms around her neck and looks up at the curved ceiling. For a moment his eyes settle on Adoha and he gives her a smile as wide as the one belonging to the steam engine on his top. Having discovered that children are one of the few types of traveller it is acceptable to make eye contact with on London’s public transport, Adoha curves her lips slightly in return.

The boy tilts his head back, allowing the train’s motion to bump it rhythmically against the woman’s shoulder. Do the colours and numbers again, Mummy, he says, Test me. The woman closes her eyes and exhales. Edward, she says. Number two, blue, he replies, immune to her lack of enthusiasm. James. Red, and five. Percy. Green, six. Thomas…

Absorbed in their game Adoha is unprepared for the woman’s stomach to move. A hand, foot, or elbow, yearning for freedom, pushes outwards and her swollen abdomen shifts, distorting on one side. Adoha catches her breath and turns away, uncomfortable at witnessing such intimacy.

The carriage slows, ready for its arrival at Temple. Roundels bearing the station name slip by, framed in the grimy rectangular windows. Passengers leave, others take their places. An elderly woman, a tartan headscarf over her white plaits, gets on and sits opposite Adoha. To avoid seeming to stare at this new arrival, Adoha adjusts her gaze. Now she sees only the woman’s knees, shins, feet. Flat, scuffed lace-ups and greying ankle socks, which leave a three-inch band of shiny and purpled skin exposed below the hem of her polyester trousers.

The carriage doors slide open again. Embankment. Adoha lifts her bag to her lap and, on impulse, counts the number of paracetamol boxes within it. Six. As each contains sixteen capsules, that’s ninety-six 500mg doses to add to the three hundred and eighty already in her bedside drawer. Adoha doesn’t consciously set out to buy them. It’s just that, since the weekend, she’s found it impossible to pass a pharmacy or convenience store without purchasing a box. Or two. Although sympathetic, her mortality refuses to accompany her inside the shops. Instead it waits in the street, wrestling with the question of free will versus determinism.

To Adoha’s right, across the gap by the doors, a man reads a broadsheet, holding its large pink pages so that only his profile and left hand are visible to her. His hairline is receding, baggy skin folds under his eyes and a wide gold band circles his third finger. Adoha crosses her legs and, without looking at the old woman in the charity shop trousers, raises her eyes above the windows to the station map stretched along the side of the carriage. Westminster, St James’s Park, Victoria, Sloane Square, place names as familiar to Londoners as those around a Monopoly board, all the way along to Edgware Road. The end of the line.

A resonance rumbles deep within Adoha’s chest. The Quiet Room. Again her eyes trace the yellow path known as The Circle, again she sees its symbolic promise of eternity broken to form the end of the line. Adoha’s mortality leaves its seat and moves into another, a few steps closer. Edgware Road. The words accrue meaning until they become the saddest phrase Adoha has ever read. Her throat constricts. She’s never actually believed the end would come, not to her.

Adoha tries to blink the stinging from her eyes but cannot protect herself from the clamouring realisations that swamp her thoughts. No longer concerned with Tube etiquette, she stares at the old woman, the young mother, the middle-aged man. Thinks: I will never. Never see the decade change never feel a foot twist inside my ribs never feel heavy with milk never own a house never wear a ring until its pattern wears smooth never fret and search a mirror for crow’s feet never find a grey hair never mourn my parents never never never. And every never brings her mortality a step closer, until it slides into the empty seat beside her.

Deep inside, the rhythm of Adoha’s heart stumbles. Nevers flood its chambers, causing an arrhythmia which begins in the left atria and ripples its way throughout all four chambers until it reaches the right ventricle, causing the organ’s beating to halt for a second. In the darkness the train’s windows act like mirrors and, over the old woman’s shoulder, Adoha catches her reflection. An echo of herself, without substance. Another stutter. She looks like a ghost. A rip, a hiss. A puncture appears in the aorta. No one, not even Adoha, can see or feel it. No blood escapes her broken heart but something is released. It rises, passing through the pericardium’s fibrous membranes, into the thoracic cavity and up into her throat.

Adoha’s mortality touches her shoulder. Everything I’ve been, am, or could be, will be lost, she realises. I will never go beyond what I am today. A muffled whimper escapes her lips and with it a translucent cluster of atoms appears, touching the air for the first time. In an instant the cluster dulls and then climbs, until it floats higher than the heads of the passengers standing in the aisle. What is it? Adoha’s hope, her future, anima, essence, spirit? Her spark of divinity, perhaps? No. This is not the time for euphemisms. Call it what it is. A soul.

For the first time the soul confronts its mortality. There is no need for either to hide any longer; they have waited a lifetime to meet. But something is happening to Adoha’s mortality. It begins a series of rapid changes. It is an angel, Adoha’s grandfather, the dog she grew up with, a garden, a light, the reaper, an angel, a grandfather, a dog. Adoha’s soul (or rather the soul that has been Adoha) seems untroubled by its escort’s sudden fluidity. It takes in the vacant figure below, knowing the body will carry on for a few days, at most, now it has been abandoned, and feels neither happy nor sad.

The carriage slows and the lights flicker once more. Sloane Square. Adoha’s body gets up and stands by the doors, leaning against the metal pole to steady itself as the train slows. The soul follows as the body steps over the gap and is swept along by the tide of passengers. As it reaches the end of the platform the body pauses, glances over its shoulder, as though checking it hasn’t left anything behind.

As they approach the exit, Adoha’s identity diminishes until there is no longer enough remaining to keep body and soul together. The distance between them increases. Adoha’s mortality – reaper, dog, angel, grandfather – maintains its customary diplomatic distance while the body rides the escalator, the soul above it; both ascending without effort.

This is a reprint of work originally published in The London Magazine: Southern Universities Short Story Competition Winners.

Jacqui Pack’s fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications, including Litro, Swarm, Storgy, Spelk and Synaesthesia. She was among the winners of The London Magazine’s 2013 Southern Universities Short Story Competition, was awarded Long Story Short’s ‘Story of the Year 2009’, and holds an MA in Creative Writing.

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