Breathable Air [ unpublished ]
Word count: 7558
The amber haze covered the old city. The old mammoth, big screen, advertisement hoardings were now tricolour projectors, signalling safe levels of breathable air. The haze like a blank sketch pad, with the artist's background hues projected and erased. From the air the city resembled a luminous moving cloud, obscuring the land below. At night the cloud moved across the twinkling static
star-like urban lighting.
Vaughan remained seated in the tube, exhausted and masked during the amber lights' signification of partial caution. The air, he had read, in a leaflet, was still breathable during this period, but who would take the risk. He knew that the effects of contamination could lie dormant within his lungs for many years, with almost undetectable symptoms. Plus, he couldn't afford a mobile mask, well a decent one. Amber, signified 'proceed at your own risk'. Therefore the authorities would take no responsibility for any direct or indirect future malady caused, if you chose to continue to breath unprotected. At red, at lock down, the seating straps and masks were locked. The civil authorities could detain, with force, anyone who did not comply. Public breathing tubes supplied the majority of people, although mobile masks were becoming more popular and available. Many cars were fitted with these and 98% of residential homes and 100% of work places were safely fitted with air-locks.. Green: Normal conditions, but one must always be aware of the need for sudden lock down. It was rare for green to turn straight to to red though. The clouds' routes were quite easy to predict, unless there was a sudden, major weather disruption.
In the beginning, the beginning of the atmospheric destabilisation, there was mayhem. Some newspapers informed the masses of the imminent changes that lay ahead, others lay scorn of the whole idea. The scientists had been warning of this for many years. Nothing had seemed to change, for so many years. Some people never believed, others did, but in a way that was widespread at the time. They believed the facts, they believed in the economic inequalities, they believed that wars were being fought in their name, by governments that represented them, whether by vote or by apathy. They believed all of these things, but they were always in a relatively better position, there immediate, in the present situation was, well, how, the sweeping historians now say: contented, though it may not be the best word, but in a relative way, yes. They never saw the reality of others, a disconnection existed between the facts and the reality. The doomsday clock had moved to two minutes to midnight. This kind of news was read and understood, but happily ignored. Some historians say that people just couldn't take in so much contradictory news.
When the market responded to the dominant scientific news that oxygen levels were depleting, and the atmosphere would soon, no longer be able to sustain the people living, breathing, moving, eating its ecosystem, it, of course favoured the entrepreneurial response to the symptoms of the Earth's illness. “The Earth's atmosphere is dying, but you don't have to too!”. Oxygen suits were advertised, the answer to the panic. But their was no general panic. Newspapers enlisted 'experts' to give their views on the 'next phase'. Scientists, pseudo-scientists, journalists, politicians, the celebrity sage, all had their views on this. Television debates ensued, opinion polls were held, gamblers waged bets, restaurants and bars were filled with the hum of the layman's debate. The public, in general, discussed the likelihood of the unthinkable happening, and the masses responded with the 'business as usual' ingrained mentality. 'Somebody is making some money from this', 'who is telling the truth?', confusion, or self-willed confusion was the comfort that belied the reality. Like a child who hides beneath the covers, in fear of the unimagined. The belief that, even if this were real, the patriarchal, or invisible hand would ultimately fix it. 'We are represented by the people who know', and maybe they did know. When the shock came, there was many deaths, those who were unprepared, the masses. “These things don't happen to us, we view death, we know it happens, but not here please”.
Vaughan sat still in his chair. He could talk through the mask, people would talk to him, through their masks sometimes. When the colour changed, when the shrill pitched sirens began, people used to run or were herded to the many plastic tubes. Here 4 or 5 people could sit on the hard blue plastic fold-up chairs, and don the masks, at red, the tubes would automatically close when occupants were inside or the occupants could manually shut down if they wished, or in emergency situation. Vaughan remembered being separated from his mother. She was guided to a chair and before he could sit down, a man in an official's suit sat down. He was lifted up by another man in an official's suit and put in the tube next along. He could see his mother for the whole five hours of waiting, her masked facing in his direction the whole time. Nowadays, cloud pollution times were relayed to the public everyday, much like the weather forecast. You knew where to be at the right time. Well, that was the idea. Public tubes were pretty old and tattered (although the masks were much improved), and closing them was almost pointless, with the airtight seals worn on most of them. The sirens continued to wail though, at the red signals. Noise pollution was higher on the agenda for some.
Today, it was just him and a large man in a green rain mac, in this tube, he could smell the sweat emanating from him. The man had shut the tube, when he had entered, waking Vaughan from his light snooze. He opened his eyes to see the man place himself in the seat with a thud, as he fell back into the trustworthy chair. Vaughan turned to face the man, meaning to ask why he felt the need to close the tube, but refrained from asking, he was so tired, it made no real difference to him. He thought that the man was probably just old, with the old habits.
'Excuse me, excuse me'. Vaughan opened his eyes and irritatedly turned to face the man.
'Yes', said Vaughan
'Do you know where we are, I mean or where we were?' The man said as he uncrossed his arms and lent his large frame across to Vaughan, his two blinking eyes just visible through the tinted visor.
'Where we were? We're moving? Oh no, I think we've gone with the on to the rails'?'
Vaughan looked out of the tube, no haze, just the dim glare of the maintenance lighting. The seating compartment was still moving along the maintenance rails. On it's way to the clean out. How stupid. He had heard of others who had fallen asleep and ended up miles away, awaking with the light trickle of soap bubbles on their heads. Well at least he had averted this ignominy.
'We're heading to the cleaning equipment, where this is, I have no idea'. Vaughan said as he stood up, agitated. Having no idea of the colour outside, he kept his mask in place, even if the dilapidated tube still worked, they had left the docking station, so it's protection had ceased, air hoes had now opened. The faint smell of urine hitting his nostrils. He had got used to this unpleasant experience. Why kids felt the need to urinate into these masks, that they themselves, may soon wear, was a daily concern of the tabloid press. But, of course, this territorial marking, by young males was nothing new, thought Vaughan. What better way to alert others to your presence than to smear your piss in their face. And the youth wanted to be noticed, now, as in any other time. That some felt the want to regress to these most basic animal instincts, was an unsettling remark upon society, or maybe reminded society of the veils which are hung.
'Well, what do we do? How do we get out of here?' The man asked, still seated, peering up at Vaughan, his eyes blinking in what looked like an almost humble way, like a begging dog, Vaughan thought, he felt contempt for this overgrown helpless animal.
'What happened? I must have fallen asleep, why didn't you wake me? Why didn't you press the exit button? Vaughan said.
'Why would I? I was waiting for the colour to change, it was red. To open the tube would have been suicide'. The man said.
'No, as long as we where the mask. Why did you close the tube? There was no need to close the tube, it was amber, not red.' Vaughan averted his eyes form the man and peered outside the glass container. He could faintly see that they were travelling along, what seemed like a high bridge, with two concave cavernous drops either side of the tube.
'I always close the tube. I take no risks with these things. Many a friend has faced the consequences, of breathing in this stuff. I take no chances. You should have left, moved to another tube, if you prefer the risk taker's life. Anyway, I was right to. It turned red a few seconds after, and you didn't even notice, what then?'. Said the man.
'Then? Then it would have automatically closed, sensing our presence. You know this. Not that the tube itself is effective any more anyway, you must know this too!'
'I know nothing, I trust nothing. Nothing that has anything to do with this system. It was this technology that got us in to this mess. Me, I live, my ancestors lived. We breathed. Now, one of the most basic of human needs has been cut off and handed back to us at a price. So, I double check everything'. The man was getting into his stride now. A much preached sermon, that Vaughan had heard many times before from this generation. The generation that caused the whole mess. Who had lived in a time before, a worry-less time. Vaughan felt like punching the man in the face, the blinking eyes behind the mask. Instead he interjected.
'Look, do you see these caverns? We're stuck now. No way out until the tube stops. We could be anywhere, this isn't a cleaning route. They don't go out this far!'
'Okay, well you should have woken up!' The man said, with a slight aggression, as he attempted to get up from the seat, placing his large wrinkled, chapped and nicotine aged hands onto the plastic seat rests. He pushed himself up, his hands turning a purplish, red, tinge, and passing wind as he did so. Vaughan moved to help him, but the man was, thankfully, standing before he could. He hobbled over to Vaughan, his green plastic mac squeaking, and surveyed the dark.
'I can't make out anything, it's too dark' the man continued. 'You say anywhere. Well we can't be too far from where we got in', the man said as he stood still.
'I don't know. How long was I asleep? And to think of it, how did we even get on the rails? The warning lights flash, the audio sirens are pretty loud. We're not drunk, well I'm not, I mean we hadn't passed out. I just came from work, and you?'
Vaughan moved back to his seat, the proximity of the man was starting to irk him, his large sweaty smelling, worn body. Vaughan felt disgusted and fearful of his own mortality. At 35, he was still fit, but he was starting to feel the aches and pains that he had heard his parents complain about, when he was a child. He could never understand why they didn't want to run around and play all day with him. Why they constantly seemed to want to sit down and rest, well from his memories of his child-self perspective. He could now feel the mild discomforts, the nagging urge to sit, to lie down, the death instinct, to return to the earth. This ageing man, in front of him, how must he feel, he wondered. That overweight, fading sloth. Was this his future also? What was determined and what was subjectively decided, what is real or unreal. These questions were no longer certain in his mind.
'You, slept, and I must admit I may have had a little nap also. I mean, I was sitting there, comfortable, thinking, and then I awoke in the dark. Now, let me think, let's check the time. Ah, I have my phone in here somewhere'. He fumbled in his mac for the phone. 'Oh, where is it? Do you have my phone?' he accusingly glanced at Vaughan.
'Have your phone? How and why would I have your phone?' Vaughan stood up and felt in his pockets for his own phone. 'Okay, what's going on here? My pockets are empty, everything gone'. He looked at the masked man. Whether guilt was hidden behind the mask, shock or cunning, he couldn't tell.
'Okay, let's think about this. We both fell asleep and someone robbed us, without either of us stirring, when the tube was opened and closed'. Vaughan said. 'Is this likely?'
'Impossible, well it seems impossible. I would like to check your pockets. It was just you and I, in this tube. I'm not going to be taken in by you'. He started to move towards Vaughan and before he could react, the man was padding down the sides of Vaughan's coat, as he sat in his seat. His large hands tapping and sliding on his legs and hips moving up to his upper torso and neck.
'Hey, get off of me, what do you think you're doing?' Vaughan, in a slight shock and confusion, pushed the man away. The large bulk of a man fell back straight on to his rump, holding a phone in his hand.
'So you had my phone. You're a liar.. just as I supposed!' The man shouted.
Vaughan stood, bemused. Who was this man? was he lying or was Vaughan lying to himself. Maybe he had robbed this man, of his phone, maybe he committed this crime and in a state of somnambulism. But,the phone wasn't in his pocket a few minutes previously, he knew this. Maybe he was dreaming this whole event.
The man stretched his hand out towards the seat and twisted his body round, so that he was now on his knees. Vaughan moved towards him, naturally planning to aid him. As he moved towards the man, he felt the tweak of the pipe and heard the whipping sound as it hit the floor. Air gushing for a few seconds and then automatically turning off. He froze in horror. The mask was now useless, the open socket at the back was free from the oxygen inlet, and open to the potential poisons outside. The man must have dislodged the pipe. Already the poisons would be entering his lungs. He stopped breathing, and frantically fell to his knees, searching for the pipe, reconnecting it and waiting for the life giving air to start pumping again. He slumped in the corner of the tube, the man on the opposite side mirroring his pose, blinking eyes watching, as if in complete apathy. Vaughan pressed the green button, to start the air, but nothing happened. After twenty or thirty seconds he gulped down a large breath. The machine was not operating, maybe it cut-off deep inside these caverns. He unclasped the mask from his head and lay it down next to him. The man stayed sitting, looking at Vaughan, and Vaughan stayed transfixed on the man's gaze, slowing his breathing and heart rate down. Trying to make sense of what had occurred.
'You know, you have probably just killed me?' Vaughan said.
The man said nothing, he stayed motionless.
'You know this will all be on camera, this will be seen again. You will be convicted of murder'
The man pushed himself up, resting his elbow on the seat next to him.
'Can you hear me?' You have just killed me!' Vaughan screamed at the man, ostensibly taking deeper breaths. Of what, he didn't know.
'I'm sorry' said the man 'I was looking for my phone, you stole my phone. I just wanted it back. You pushed me, the pipe must have caught on to me when I fell'.
'I don't believe you. I didn't have your phone'.
'You didn't have my phone. Right, you're insane. Do you make yourself believe in your own lies. Does this help with guilt of being a thief?
Vaughan felt his heart pumping in his chest. His hands were clammy and sweating. Fear and anger were colliding within him. His death was inevitable, he was sure. Maybe these symptoms were the first signs of the unavoidable cessation of his life. He stood up and walked over to the man. Standing over him, fists clenched. Flashing lights from outside, were now becoming more frequent. Vaughan had a slight inkling that they may be getting nearer to wherever this thing was heading to.
'I want you to tell me the truth now. Why did you pretend that I had your fucking phone?'
The man stayed sitting looking up at Vaughan. Those pathetic blinking eyes. Staggering his words the man replied. 'Please, I have no idea why you're doing this. I got into this tube, because that is what we do, when we're told to. You were sitting in here, asleep, well I thought you were. The next thing I know, we're here and you have my phone. What do you expect me to think? As you say, the camera will reveal all'.
Vaughan turned from the man and crouched down to look at his mask. The metal casing and glass viewing panel, were of a purely expedient, generic design. The result of central planning. The anarchy of the market economy, the freedoms of the individual to demand and choose what they desired had caused the contamination of the air. Blind ignorance, of immediate pleasures, over long-term, shared benefit, destroyed our life source. Now we tried to correct the decades/centuries of false prosperity, by means of perfecting and reusing, guiding and learning. “Wisdom of the few, shared to the many”. But, it was probably too late. Vaughan knew this as well as many others. Not only was the air almost totally unbreathable, which had already decided the fate of millions of humans and wildlife, but increased temperatures, rising sea levels and atmospheric depletion had given us, what some scientists believed, to be 50 more years of sustainability. We would be like Venus, within 1000 more years.
'So you blame my generation for this state of things do you?' Vaughan didn't turn around as he asked this.
'What state of things? Look I just know what I read. I understand that you're angry. You I mean, you're mask has broken. Give it to me, I may be able to fix it.
'It's not the mask! It's the air, there is no air! Didn't you watch me?' Vaughan couldn't help shouting now. The lights were becoming more and more frequent now, a mild strobe effect entering the tube. Vaughan looked up at the tiny cameras. One in each corner of the tube. Everything would be recorded. He would like to know how all of this had happened, but his death, this was above all else. This little puzzle had lost it's main interest now.
The man started to push and pull himself up. Vaughan looked at him between his arm and his body. He was upside-down, from this view. The man heaved and stood, leaning against the side of the tube, sweat gleaming on the back of his hands. Vaughan continued to examine the mask, the thing that had enabled him to live his life. A life that the man had lived without it's need, at one point.
'Look, whatever you are lad, I don't want to see you die. Let me have a look at the mask' The man asked from the other side of the tube.
It was now Vaughan's turn to not speak. Not from a conscious decision, but because he didn't hear the man. His awareness of the external world, at the present time had left him. The past, the future, the end were consuming him.
'Come on, you piece of shit'
Vaughan awoke again. The man was pressing buttons on his phone, and yelling. 'No reception in here. Well, why should there be, fuck'.
Vaughan turned around, keeping the mask in his hands, he sat and looked at the man.
'Let me look at the phone' Vaughan asked the man.
'I don't think so. I will help you, if you want, but you're not having this back' The man put the phone back in his pocket.
Vaughan felt the rage again. This disproportionate response, from the man. The phone was as good as worthless. This model was the same as everybody else’s. The local provisions office almost gave them away. It was, of course, also in there interests to have a satellite tag on you, as well as having cameras in every corner of the city and face and fingerprint recognition in every tube. Freedom has a different meaning from every different perspective. The authorities have the freedom to know if any germs are going to infect their system. Maybe from the perspective of the society, as a body, a whole, this is freedom. The individual has the freedom to do as they wish within the body, within reason.
'No, no. Give me the phone! I want to look at the time. I want to know how long we've been in here'. Vaughan forcefully screamed.
'Okay, I’ll tell you the time'. The man took the phone out of his pocket. 'It's ten minutes to 12'.
'So we've been in here for nearly seven hours? That's impossible. How could we have been sleeping for this amount of time, huh?' Vaughan peered out of the tube. They were definitely near to some kind of human activity, or perhaps surrounded by activity. The glare of the lights and the increased speed of the tube made the outside look almost like a single white light against a black background. He then realised that is was the an increase of speed, not an increase of lights. The man seemed to understand this, at the same time. The tube began to feel quite unstable as it sped along.
'Give me the phone!' Vaughan barked.
The man was still holding it, it seemed very small in his large hands. He again moved to put it back in his pocket. Vaughan rushed towards him, and attempted to grab the phone.
'Stop!' the man shouted, looking up, almost pleading at the camera in the corner opposite to him.
Vaughan felt the phone on his fingertips. The man was holding on tightly, and Vaughan, despite his youthful vitality, couldn't manage to prise the man's hand open. With all of his attention on getting the phone, he didn't notice, until it was too late, the weighty slug of a right hook connect with his left jaw, and he flew to the ground. The man leaned back against the tube gasping for air from the mask. Vaughan was lying on the floor feeling utterly dazed, and foolish. How had this man managed to disconnect his oxygen life source, trick him, possibly steal his wallet and phone and punch him to the floor? He may have felt embarrassed if he wasn't fearing the end so much.
'You stay where you are now' the man stuttered, 'just keep back from me, and we can wait to see what the authorities make of all of this. We, we, must be stopping soon. I don't want any more reasons to have you arrested'. The man said as he moved, hulking his body weight to the left and to the right, to the seat and fell into it, in his bear like way.
Vaughan, stayed lying on the floor for a moment, looking at the man. What a predicament he was in now. He felt that the man had led him into this situation. The man was right, the camera would hold the truth. But it was also possible that the man was just as innocent as him, possibly this was a trap laid down by a third, unseen person. Maybe they were both the victims, and he himself had possibly caused his own death, from his lack of trust and failure to hold back his impulsive behaviour.
'Okay, I will keep back from you. You over there, me over here. We really have no reason to trust each other or to fear one another. But we do know that we're are both stuck in this tube, and that we have been here for a long time. What do you suggest we do?' Vaughan stayed lying down on his side, quite still, as he said this to the man.
'First of all get up, will you. Show some respect for yourself. You're gonna die, you're not going to die. We don't know, but please, lying there is just pathetic.' The man said, seemingly attempting to turn the table on his position of fear. 'But yes, I agree. We need to work out why we're here. If this wasn't all your doing'.
Vaughan ignored everything the man said apart from the agreement.
'Right, well I suggest you try to make a phone call, from your phone? Did you even look?'
'Of course I looked. We're in a tube, in a cavern. How can I make a call?
Vaughan started to feel the swelling rush in his chest again, as anger started to brew. He calmly shifted his attention away, as he had been taught to do, at school. Situations of panic, stress and anger could be avoided by attuning the mind to positive trains of thought. As such, we could live in the reality, that had been created for us, and learn to blank out questions of how and why. Well, now he used this method, and again it quickly fell away.
'That's true, but please, at least give it a go' Vaughan pleaded
'I asked you to get up, you didn't. Now you ask me to waste my time. You see, you young people, you don't tell me what to do'. The man seemed to be suicidal. To keep pursuing this fearful and then aggressive schizophrenic behaviour.
Vaughan, could now see that this man was a master of avoidance, and thought that he was the master of all in his presence, or at least his act was portraying this. He now set his mind on getting the phone, or at least persuading the man to show him it. He had to, what else could they do to stop the tube, which was now travelling at, god knows what speed, he could feel the air, the possibly toxic air, breaking in to the tube, through the crumbling rubber seals. What a joke this antiquated tube system was. He wondered if even the masks were still effective in preventing the carbon contagion. And the germs passed between people, through wearing the masks,the 40 year old pissed stained publicly owned and claimed, preventer and creator.
Vaughan got up and sat on his chair once again, he now had a predatory height advantage and also had ostensibly followed the commands of the man.
'I'll ask you again. Try the phone again!' Vaughan eye-balled the man this time with psychotic intensity, as he shouted the words.
The man shifted his frame to the right and dug his left hand into his mac's pocket, and took the small phone out, along with a snow like fall of used non-discarded tissue shreddings, that fell to the floor. One of his large hands cradled the phone, the other fiddled with the buttons, in a painstakingly clumsy way. He put the phone to his head, and waited.
'You see, no signal, as I said'. The man moved to place the phone back into his pocket.
Vaughan with a massive effort of calm continued to talk.
'Wait, sorry. May I look at the phone, I may be able to get it working' He then began to lie to the man. 'I used to work for the emergency services, on their switchboard. There are certain codes, that is, number configurations that can be used to access the Intranet services of the authorities. These tunnels must have communications. Accidents can happen anywhere'.
The man continued to put the phone away, seemingly disregarding Vaughan’s words.
'There is no signal young man. That is enough. I did as you asked me'. He calmly slouched on the chair, and took a large breath, that to Vaughan appeared to signify a deep satisfaction.
At this Vaughan got up and rushed at the man, a slight squeal of fright coming from the man. The man anticipated Vaughan's aim and clasped tightly to the phone in his pocket. Vaughan forced his own hand into the pocket and punched the man in the arm. This did more harm to Vaughan than good. The man's heavy coat simply soaked up the punch and Vaughan gasped in pain. The man looked up at Vaughan and tried to push him away, but this time Vaughan dodged the man's weighted energy, and watched as the man fell forward, exposing the back of his neck, mask clamp and oxygen pipe. At once Vaughan saw his opportunity, and deftly unclasped the mask and pulled the oxygen pip from its inlet valve. The man scrambled on the floor, writhing on his back. He felt above his head for the pipe and tried to re-connect it, hopelessly misjudging where to fit it, at each attempt. Vaughan almost wanted to help him, he resembled a helpless cat, caught, knotted in a ball of wool. He, of course, resisted. And when he saw his opportunity, when the man had given up the fight, he picked up the phone that was now it three pieces, scattered across the tube.
Around fifteen minutes had now passed. The man still lay on his side, on the floor. In shock, misery or death, Vaughan wasn't sure. Vaughan sat on his chair, contemplating what he had discovered. He had reassembled the phone and it came back to life. This particular model was pretty much standard. Most people used this device. Well, any other would probably not work with the authority's public network. Anyway, the phone was free. Well, your taxes paid for it. It was in the public's interest to have the most practical, robust design. But what shocked him, when he had turned the phone back on, was that it was unmistakably his phone. All of his contacts were on there, his last calls, data information. He tried to call outside, and to his surprise, he got through to the emergency services, telling them what had happened and gave the tube's serial number. They didn't seem at all surprised by his story, they seemed more agitated by his call, asking him if he was intoxicated and how he didn't hear the warning signs. He was assured that he would be stopping very soon. They were probably on the loop rails, awaiting their turn to enter the washing maintenance area. Although their precise location could not be given just yet, as the satellite system was down. Immediately after the call, the man came alive once again.
'You idiot' The man whispered to Vaughan.
'Pardon...Idiot? Yes, I see what you mean. Yes, you had me believing you. Well now.'
'No, no..Why didn't you ask about the colour. Fuck everything else. If we die, we don't have anything else'. The man continued to whisper as he lay there.
'Ah, so you see now. Death has faced you. Now you lay there, pathetic, disgusting. If we are going to die, then we can't do anything about it now. It's too late. Now, explain to me, why you had my phone, what is all this about, did you drug me?' Vaughan asked, staying seated, looking down at the man.
'You see, I see now. Knowing that you're dead, I see now why you don't want to move. It's like the point of everything has gone'. Said the old man, now slightly raising the volume of his voice and continuing. 'I lay here sucking to the floor, my body responding to the news, aching, yearning to return to the Earth, without pain'.
'Okay, yes, I feel what you're saying. That was/is exactly the thought I had, as I lay there, not so long ago. But, I will not be misguided by your digressions any longer. I want to know why you mislead me, why you have my phone, for fucks sake!'
The man rolled over, in a rather adroit manner, which surprised Vaughan, and maybe the man himself. He pulled himself up, into his seat, next to Vaughan. Without his mask Vaughan could now smell the man even more, the curryfied sweat aroma. The man turned to Vaughan, pulled up his mask slightly, to reveal his unshaven greying chin. He produced a lighter and cigarette packet from his pocket and popped a bent cigarette into his mouth and lit it. Vaughan turned away at this, he hadn't seen someone smoke a cigarette in many years. He didn't even realise that they were still manufactured. Well, these ones looked particularly old. Vaughan turned again and surreptitiously studied the man's mouth and chin. He knew this mouth, he knew it from somewhere. Maybe work, a family member. He watched as the old man began to talk.
'You are a character, Mr..?' the man said blowing smoke into the air next to Vaughan.
'Mr Vaughan, but I'm sure you know this already'.
'Ha, now you claim to have my name and that you own my phone that you stole from me!'
The man's health seemed to be getting better as he talked, whereas Vaughan was feeling gradually weaker and breathless. The man suddenly stood up and moved to the other side of the tube. He opened his hand out for Vaughan to see. He had the phone again. Vaughan moved to get up..
'Now wait, stop. You claim this phone is yours, well why then are all of my contacts on it'. The old man fiddled again with the phone. 'Oh, no. There are no contacts on here. What have you done? You have erased them!'
Vaughan couldn't believe it. The man had somehow managed to fool him again. He moved to get up, but found it very difficult to move. He needed to use almost all of his energy to push himself up, and when he did an overwhelming dizziness hit him. He made to walk towards the man, the man seemed to lift up as the floor was now the only thing that was in his view, growing bigger, he spotted a black mark in front of him, growing bigger, and bigger. His face hit it, then it was all black.
He awoke, how many hours later, he had no idea. He was still laying on the floor, he saw the man pacing up and down the tube, stretching, even exercising, it seemed. He still felt so tired, he continued to fall asleep and wake intermittently. Each time he woke, he gestured to the man, but he paid no attention to Vaughan, maybe he couldn't hear. The man still wore the mask, why Vaughan thought to himself. Sometimes the man would be making phone calls sometimes he would be sleeping himself. Finally, he managed to grasp on to his consciousness. The man seemed to finally notice him and came over, a bottle of water in his hand.
'Here, have some water, you have been asleep for sometime'.
'H..h. How long?' Vaughan fought to speak, his throat was so dry, his stomach in pain. He peered down at it. It had expanded somewhat. Maybe by about 10 inches. His trouser buttons were missing.
'Oh, I really don't know, the phone's battery has died. I've been feeding you. You may not remember, you may be concussed. I have loads of expandable food capsules and water with me. I think you look better now, how do you feel? These capsules are highly fortified'
'Huh, terrible. You fed me, this is madness, you had no food and water with you before. And you, you've lost so much weight'.
'Oh, I had food, just these small capsules you see. My inside pocket, always there for emergencies. You, well you have been lying here, consuming 2000 calories a day, in zipped form.' The man informed him, in an almost motherly way.
'Days.. what do you mean days?' How long? Where are the authorities? They told me that they would come for us. Vaughan stared up at the man's masked, emotionless face. He was his carer now, his source of life, and he hated him with all of his soul, at that moment.
'No, you are mistaken. No one knows we're here, but I think we'll be stopping very soon. All of this. It has been a misunderstanding, on my part. I know see who you are, why you acted in this way. I think you may be sick.' The man put his hand inside his coat and pulled out a packet. His sleek hands, delicately popping a capsule out the sachet. Vaughan saw the small oxygen tubes laying around, remnants of blood, he thought. It was difficult to tell, he still felt so dizzy.
'Here, have one of these'
Vaughan looked at him at his slim hands. He raised his own hands to the man to accept the pill and water and saw that his own hands were bloated and red, I fact, now he thought about it, his whole body felt bloated, his clothes felt so tight and uncomfortable. In a sudden fear he pushed the man's hands away. The water bottle flew and capsule flew into the air in opposite directions. The water bottle left lying on its side, water pulsating from its nozzle, the pill, he didn't see. The man shot up and scooped up the bottle and located the pill in seconds. He came towards Vaughan and performed what could only be described as a footballer's penalty taking kick, into Vaughan's stomach. Vaughan couldn't breath, the pain was excruciating. The man came and sat next him.
'Now, you won't be such a baby again will you? He then pulled Vaughan's mouth open and slipped the pill in.
'Drink this' the man commanded. Vaughan could barely hear him, he felt the capsule on his dry tongue and tried to push it up into his upper jaw between his cheek, but his energy was so low that he failed in this measly task.
'Drink this!' Shouted the man. He grabbed Vaughan, pulled his hair back, twisting Vaughan's face in to an almost horizontal position. The nozzle of the bottle was forced into his mouth. Vaughan's energy came back to him. He swallowed , and continued to swallow, the pill ingested. He managed not to choke, this was a great feat of survival. The man let go of his hair, taking a large chunk of it with him, in his hand. Vaughan cringed as he saw this. The white strands falling to the floor as the man stood up. The ridiculous green mac, was now hanging off him like he was a boy in his father dressing gown. Vaughan closed his eyes, exhausted. The energy for the day wasted.
He remembered more water, nakedness, cold, shouting, the pacing man, more phone calls, crying, screaming. The strobe lighting was like his thought. Meaning and then no meaning, rapidly fluctuating, until the obscurity was too much, and he lost thought, lost consciousness once again.
He was sitting in the tube, in the seat. Not his seat, the other one, the man's. He looked up, his head was working. The heavy green haze was penetrating everywhere, the tube was filled with this. The tube had stopped. He looked out, he recognised this sight, it was near to where he worked. He pushed himself up, rocking backwards and forwards a number of times, to get the momentum. The aching joints, the swelling, such discomfort. He hobbled towards the door and pressed the release hatch. Moving forward he felt the tug of the oxygen pipe. He felt his masked face and unbuckled it. Letting it fall to the floor, as he dragged his feet out of the tube and made his way across the street towards some shops and people. Cars rushed by him at what seemed like incredible speeds, the noise was unbearable, not because it was loud, but because it seemed so confused, a cacophony of murmurs, from voices, cars, aircraft, trains, electronic advertising. Together with the lights, the perpetual haze, that dimmed even the most potentially bright days, it crushed him. He put his hands up to his temples, feeling an unfamiliar countenance, the unshaven rotund unshaven face. He looked at his large chapped hands. He rushed to a bench, gasping for air. He inadvertently pushed into people, receiving outraged looks. Masked children and their mothers stared at him, as he threw himself down onto the black, faux-wooden bench. He was breathing rapidly now, maybe this was a symptom of the carbon poising, he thought. A woman sat down next to him and sucked on a vaporized nicotine vessel, which she has fitted to her mobile oxygen mask. He leaned over slightly, to talk to her.
'Please, speak to me' The man croaked the words out. 'Please, tell me, how do I look, do I look ill?
The woman took a long drag on the vessel, the vapour circled out from a pipe on the top of the mask. She then calmly stood up, looked down at him with a snarl, and applied a shot of anti-bacterial liquid, that she produced from her coat, to her bare arms and neck, and walked away.
He could barely comprehend what was happening, he lent forward and brought his hands, these inflamed hands, to his face, the rough skin scraping against the stubble on his jaw. He took deep breaths and tried to slow his breathing down. Eventually, with an enormous effort, rocking himself backwards and forwards, he got up. He thought that he must find his way home, find people he knew, a method of communication, on that would connect him straight to those who knew he was communicable, without fear. He felt in his pocket, in hope of finding the phone. Instead he found a folded piece of paper. Leaning on a lamppost, he unfolded the paper and read the words “Second life”.
He headed for his home, across the crowded streets of commuters and shoppers gripping onto any stable structure that would give him a few minutes of recuperation. He looked back and could see the tube, the door still open. A masked man sitting in the chair that he had occupied. An overwhelming urge came over him. Who was it that he saw sitting there, he was so familiar, why was he sitting there, in the green haze, was he sleeping. He hobbled to the lamppost opposite, held on, and felt like dying. A car pulled up in front of him, obscuring his view of the tube. A man got out of the car and ran off towards the shops. Vaughan stared at the image before him, reflected in the car's window. The old man was standing there. He looked around but there was nobody there. He looked again. The old man's image was standing right there looking down at the car. He edged closer, and brought his face right up to the window, and then bent to look in the door mirror, the green mac squeaking on the door as he moved. The driver came back shouting something, he remonstrated with Vaughan, and pushed him over, got in the car a sped off. Vaughan looked up, tears were now streaming down his face. He could still see the tube, the door was now shut. Rain started to pump down, the spray bouncing off of his mac. He crawled to the edge of the kerb. The sirens started to wail. The haze suddenly turned red. He scrambled to get up, his breathing getting worse. He fell down again, and tried to clasp his mouth open, trying to open his airways, that felt like they were constricted to the point of asphyxiation. He looked towards the tube, a large man in a green mac, slumped down next to the man. The tube lifted and moved forward on to the rails. Hundreds of masked men in green macs emerged on the street, from, it seemed like nowhere. They paced and hobbled up and down in the pouring rain, some with walking sticks, others in wheelchairs, some looking quite sprightly. Vaughan felt his body being lifted, he was looking down at the other green macs, his own mac fell from a great height. Ageing and defeated.