Panic Hour

 

It’s eight in the morning. An escalator pulls me down from the street into the intestinal darkness. Streaks of lightning blue rush past my left shoulder, Photoshop motion-blur. Same in orange on the opposite wall, like this is an immersive internet advertisement. This tunnel is the cable. We are the particles. A unitary quantum system with a single wave function. I adjust the weight of my satchel and start plodding into the dim crowd.

On a violin, a G is stroked and resonates through the space. There’s a young man like me with a stub of a ponytail. I want to listen but a brush at my back reminds me to keep moving. You cannot be still in the tunnel unless you’re begging or performing. I keep pace along the dirty tiles. A synclinal gutter lines the edges like a blood or beer swill recess, metal grates every few metres. The ceiling is low. A line of fluorescent tubes casts an icteric glow. Every fifth one is orange. Is the place mildly radioactive? Is it a warning to proceed with caution? Like cows in an abattoir, docile but hyper-aware, we follow the path laid out.

A teenage girl sits against the orange wall. Her legs are bent; knees up. Her freshly-washed brown hair cascades down her side, pink tips dip-dyed at the ends. A square LP-sized cardboard sign rests against her. There’s writing on it — in the ubiquitous black uppercase Beggarscript. It’s too small to read. She reminds me of Alex.

*

Alex was performing when I first saw her. I did the poster design and got a free ticket. She had thick black-rimmed glasses and silky raven hair that captured pools of blue from the theatre lights. She could have been a movie star or the queen of the underworld. During the instrumental, we locked eyes. Her thrumming bass and the keel of her hips were a conversation between the two of us.

I tried to say hello in the after-party. I kept failing. She was magnetic and out of my league. Eventually I gave up and realised I was kidding myself. I drank at the bar alone, chatted with whoever would avail themselves. Then about two in the morning she sidled up to me. Her elbow rested behind her on the bar, a green tumbler in her hand.

“Saw you in the audience.” She had a honey gravel voice. She signalled the bar tender for a drink. He poured liquid. I poured compliments. The band was great; she was divine. I didn’t feel embarrassed, just honest.

Her eyebrow made a tiny arch, and her hazel rings sharpened. She smiled from a corner of her lip. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

*

I’m wearing a nice suit for my sentencing. It’s high quality and a good fit. I got lucky that day at Vinnies. Any money I once had is long gone. In daylight, the suit is dark green. Down here—treading along the underground cracks of ground-in dirt, like unexpurgated sin—it’s black.

There’s a photomontage of train tracks and sandstone arches. I hear a jingling rattle from further down the tunnel. Small bells. Shaking rice-filled maraccas and hand drums. Multiple voices. Hare Hare. Hare Rama. Rama Rama. Hare Rama.

Four young women in pastel silk are sitting on a green and scarlet cloth laid out over the dirty floor. They sing and sway in unison, oblivious and euphoric with the accompanying sub-bass drone of an harmonium.

Alex and I went to Govinda’s once—a big vegetarian Krishna restaurant and movie house. We were both veg at the time. We did kirtan—the improvised, enduring chant and bell ringing. It wasn’t exactly transcendental, but nice, kind of. It was a scene I considered becoming more a part of. Like my design scene, the band scene, and then the natural therapy scene. I remember watching the people in their hemp clothes and long hair, fully-fledged identities. Authentic in every way. On the path.

My heart stops racing. I step out of the main flow, nodding my head with the rhythm, feeling it resonate. I lodge my thumbs under the strap of my satchel; sunglasses bob on the top of my head. It’s transportive.

If I abscond, I could stay in the tunnel. I could join this group. Or not. I am the etherised patient on the table. The cow moving to the slicer. Dare I continue to the courthouse? Dare I abscond? Could I shave my head and join them? Turn a remnant of my long hair into a single plaited cord? Disappear into another dimension of joy and praise?

I step away and then turn back. My eyes say Thank you. But they don’t engage. They are far away. A paper sign that says ‘Street Kirtan’ is taped above them on the pointillist panorama of a freight train.

I walk past the China man. I’ve seen him before in Pitt Street. Is he for real? I could be like china man one day. Grow long hair, wear thick coke bottle glasses, play a quivering one-string instrument. Get a cheap ukulele. Regularly change my disguise. Escape up to the platforms for snatches of sunlight and sushi. Live on vending machine orange juice and cashews.

*

Alex and I fell in love. In autumn we went to an ashram in the mountains. We had our own ceremonies of love and peace. In winter we moved in together. We had a tiny apartment with a rooftop garden. In spring, Alex started studied herbalism. She had more that she wanted to do in life than play bass in a rock band. She inspired me. I thought about setting up my own graphic design business. We could have gone into partnership and been ‘Herbal by Design’. Ridiculous. She kept tinctures and started treating our friends. Bruises got arnica; a dead pet meant rescue remedy; shyness meant bushflower essences.

In summer, we hit a series of wild concerts. We did festivals. We took acid, ecstasy, speed, cocaine. We basked in dappled sun at Victoria park. We swam in the ocean. We looked after a stray black cat and called him Vladimir. We bought acid for our friends. Alex had a contact.

“Come in for a second,” Alex poked her head around the front door. She knew the contact, I didn’t. I was waiting on the veranda. There was trash in the yard. I stepped inside and padded down the dark hall. At the end of the corridor, a small window bled diffuse light, framed by old French lace curtain with nicotine stains around the edges. A table stood beneath, covered with detritus. A pubic mound of tobacco exploded out of a pouch. There were bent spoons. Cigarette lighters. A red-and-green tartan dressing gown belt. Large sheets of patterned paper.

“They’re only five dollars each.” Alex pointed to some black-and-white chequered cardboard. “How many do you want?”

I was wide-eyed, transfixed by the pattern, computing the profits.

“We would never sell that many.”

*

A tall blonde ponytail sashays past. White cords hang from her ears. Her hips and hair swish from side-to-side. I inhale the confidence. I can do this. Behind her, a woman walks just as fast. She’s shorter, teetering on plastic heels. She wears a hot pink jacket with a sharp V cut out of the back — contemporary throwaway fashion. I can’t do this.

A guy stands in the torrent of commuters. He wears a black T-shirt with white text, one of the new fonts.

“Good morning.” I hate this. “Good morning.” Sound happy. “Good morning.” This sucks. “Good morning” Take it! “Good morning.” TAKE IT! On the tiles around him is an arc of dropped cards.

The wall is covered in diamond-shaped tiles. The pattern is like little flames that leap from a fiery orange bottom to a fast-food yellow sky.

*

Alex had burst through the door in a black singlet. She wore heavy mascara and the lashes swept up like cattails, tiny balls at their ends. “He’s coming.” She put a plastic satchel on the table.

“Since that girl died, nobody wants these.”

My eyes were like saucers. I’d hardly sold that batch. Her arms were stiff at her sides, fingers splayed. “It’s too hot for me. I’m out.”

I took rings, my camera, anything I owned of value and the satchels in my backpack. I pushed into Scotty’s on King and set off the croaking door frog. The unshaven, malodorous storeman gave me a wary eye. He looked as suspicious as any of the customers. I hated it, every second of that experience. It was all wrong, and at the same time, completely necessary.

“Pawning these?”

“Selling. “

“Okay. What have we got?”

I laid out my motley collection. A few old things he picked up and pushed aside – worthless.

He trawled slowly through the rest and finally said, “You got some ID?” I gave him my licence.

“I’ll just go out back and prepare you a quote.”

He disappeared through the wood veneer door. Five minutes went by. Then seven. I looked at an ugly white clock above a shelf of dead televisions. Something was wrong. He was still out back with my licence. The frog croaked again. And then there were two plainly clothes detectives in their fifties asking to see inside my backpack please.

*

Billowing steamer emerges from a sepia-tinted wall of the tunnel, with an old handwritten letter blended from a separate layer. Next to it, the gaussian blur of a speeding electric red train. The glorious future. The regrettable past.

A silent and serious-looking woman stands in front of the mural. She wears a long blue cardigan. Her booklet says Watchtower; her resigned eyes say, You will be judged. I know I will. In about twenty minutes.

I’m nearly at the end. Gradually, sounds float my way. A man is standing at an electronic keyboard. Earnest. Asian. His hair is short. He is concentrating on his playing. Soft flutters of precision. I know this one. Philip Glass. I walk towards the music, close my eyes, move through the soundscape. Beautiful shards of breaking glass fall aurally around me. Clear tears roll along both sides of my face.

The light changes as the ceiling opens out. A counter-surge of suits appears. They weave into the throng. Ahead of me is a temple of stairs and escalators. A steep ascent, splashes of light and moving shadows are thrown over them. People move up and down. At the top, cars bleet, traffic lights pulse and skeletal tree branches stretch across the white sky.

(c) Published in Tincture Journal, September 2015.