When I was losing my mind about a year and a half ago, I started writing about small, mundane religious experiences happening in London. I like the thought that every minute of every day things are happening that would have once been considered miraculous, not even too long ago. Plastic forks. Plastic forks! Eighty years ago, the idea of plastic forks would have seemed amazing, absurd, utopian. Now, we fill our bins with them. Anyway, I had an idea for a collection of stories which involved people finding themselves in symbolically significant situations in London’s unseen temples; Westminster Tube Station, The Savage Garden, Deptford Bridge, The Serpentine. Each one would record a singular event, which was both much more, and far less than the sum of its parts. I wanted to play on the tragically accurate stereotype of the ‘London Face’, impassive, uninterested, aloof. I wanted to have God as a commuter, a plastic bag, the reflection of your face in the tube window as you go through yet another tunnel. This piece is unfinished.
As the heaving train pulls into Westminster station, I can feel the subtle, ordinary paranoia that comes with these journeys, a free token given to those who have been in the city already too long. Perhaps the only time in their day when they are literally surrounded on all sides by figures of myriad cultures, each with stories that could fascinate and inspire; and yet the English disease pervades, and pulls us all back from even making eye contact for more than half a painful, embarrassing second. Wave after wave. And so I stand, too tired, and filled with that peculiar sense of hopelessness you only get when you’re on the tube, lookong for a seat. People rise, and I move collectively out into the platform.
Each time I travel through the stations I feel the same; as if I am in an inverted cathedral, spire caught in rock and loam, the faithful subway drones passing silently around its zenith as if they know they are in a holy place, heads lowered and hooded, a parikram cloister pounded deep beneath the London soil and tarmac.
This day was not unlike any other time I have passed through; the journey begins with saying goodbye to somebody, often saddening, on this night a great relief.
We start our pilgrimage downriver, at Victoria. If stations do carry a subliminal air about them, then for me, the most depressing example could be this one. A port of farewells for almost six years now, I have grown to despise the place. You rise, choking, from one of the filthiest areas imaginable, (you can watch the rats watching you, praying to the golden arches on the district and circle lines) through a stretch of cheap linoleum so crammed with tourist it’s like a filtering process, a system of londoncentric osmosis which forces you out into an enormous blank space. Here, people stand and wait. They are empty pixels.Drinking bad coffee with the smells of fast food and soap filling their blackened nostrils, they wait and wait until they have to rush. And all I ever had to rush for there was to say goodbye to a lover, or a friend, or an acquaintance. Goodbye, I love you! And then I too must stand and wait, becoming one of those whom moments ago I was cursing, as my light dims and my vacancy emerges, turns itself over. I wait, standing, drinking bad coffee and choking in the odours of goodbye.
But only two stops away on the carriage of mundane fear, of typical paranoia, is the grey and silver abbey, the machine that I have to walk through. The punishment has past, and had to pass in order for me to witness a glimpse of what the machine would see as divine.
We haved moved on, though. To Westminster station, the cathedral. This place is beautiful… It has a certain sterility, a chrome and black vinyl taste which compliments its vast depths, flanked by grey stone walls, which stretch down, and down to a non-slip metal jigsaw of platforms. High notes of satin, of glimpsed thigh, and low notes of delicious, salty tar on the front of the palette. Escalators fight for room, and cross each other over five flights, filled with their production line of commuters and tourists, here to see the houses of parliament and the abbey, unwittingly passing through a holy relic of modern technology and engineering. The station revolves like a prayer wheel, endlessly streaming its components through its system. Those who exit; blinking into the sodium London light, are replaced by another at its very pit who must begin the pilgrimage of the modern laziness, climbing dozens of feet on legs that do not move.
I move onto the first escalator, taking me away from the uncharming shabbiness of the green and yellow stripes, and into the sanctum chromium. One by one we stand in single file, always bound by localised etiquette and urban mythology to keep to the right, while the godless push past and walk down the moving staircase, gripped with the fear of having to wait longer. At the base of the escalator, the congregation divides.
Someone has seen it. Someone has seen.
A woman stands at the entrance to one of the tributaries, arms outstretched, alone, aghast. Her gaze is fixed to the dead space at the central nave, her eyes rise alongside the gradient of an invisible escalator. Forty feet above, I watch this. I watch this unknown pilgrim, this woman stare at something I cannot see. I am aware that people who were looking at me are now observing her too; confused, curious. A gap in the heaving mass begins to form around her, people avoid the space she occupies without even realising they are doing it. Within seconds, a perfect circle of lonely grey metal washes her feet and pushes itself outwards as if a wall is built, a brick each heavy second, and all the time her gaze still centres on an unmoving point of air.
She has gone. Turned, lifted, and thrust back into the fabric – the sphere closed and swallowed her, or the skin-heavy underground wind pulled her into the glass-clad orifice, adorned as it is with veins of yellow and green. I approach the sanctum at the base of the moving staircase, I have descended with a hydraulic hiss, and I watch amazed as a pattern blossoms. Each questioner who walks ahead of me stops for a second, or less, or more. They turn, and look upwards to a slice of empty inner-sky, they search a space for the shortest time before lowering their attention and moving on. Some seem satisfied, even subtley ecstatic with what the vision offers them, some are not, and never would be.
I step into the circle, the mundane, hallowed space, and turn to face the gap. I am there for the briefest of moments, golden, an avatar. I feel the heat of faith on the back of my neck, contracting my muscles and lifting my chin. My line of sight matches the assigned angle for the shortest time, my arms begin to lift involuntarily from my sides. My attention is snatched by a new congregation, fresh from the Eastbound rumbling, lining up dutifully atop an escalator. It is they now, who are watching intently, confused, curious at the allegory held in my pose.
I turn on my heel, a smile creeps into my face as I lower my stance in ordinary penance, feeling the shadow of millions of eyes, of two thousand years past and many thousand more to come, falling gently on my chest.