The Eternal Underground

I woke up with a start as the train ground to a halt. I opened my eyes to unfamiliar faces straining to take clean breaths in the crowded carriage. Yes, this was my subway stop. The pillars were a darker tinge of brown, something I noticed about this station. These were the small details you would only have noticed if you alighted at the same exact place every working day. I grabbed my suitcase and bolted out the door without a second thought. That was when I realized that something wasn’t right. The whole platform was empty. I looked back into the carriage, and nobody stirred or showed signs of getting out. I got the same feeling you’d get when you accidentally leave your valuables behind in a public space, except I felt that I was leaving my entire self in a place I shouldn’t be. I should jump back in I told myself. This isn’t normal, its 8 AM … there’s no way this station could be empty. 

But I just stood there.

The train door closed with a vacuum-like sound. A Caucasian boy of about 5 years old wearing a pink shirt and with flowing blonde hair waved goodbye to me from the inside. His mother pulled him back from the window and held him close. I hesitated for a while and then waved back. The train pulled away within ten seconds and I was left utterly alone on a usually busy Thursday morning.

Being alone in a place that should have been bustling with people has two effects on a person. Firstly, you feel confused. You’re confused simply because this isn’t what you’re used to. You only latch onto ideas and put them under the label of ‘reality’ after repeatedly seeing the same things happen, with ultra-predictable outcomes. You see babies cry when they are born, you only hear thunder after seeing the flash of lightning, and you definitely would observe there to be a crowd on a typical weekday morning at a train station with good access to a big cluster of office buildings. When you didn’t see this, then reality has failed you, or worst, you have failed reality by observing something that simply can’t be true! You feel like you’re in an unrealistic world, a world no longer bound by a network of logic. That is the main cause of your confusion. Secondly, you feel terribly lonely. Empty spaces are known to give people a sense of tranquility, but only when there is an expectation of absence. When your mind is so focused on the presence of something, so utterly certain of it, that is when things start to fall apart the moment you realize that there was nothing all along. I stood with one hand on my hip and the other hand scratching my head. I felt lonely. A terrible cloak of dark emotions threatened to swallow me up. I felt like I had been cheated, goaded into leaving the train when everyone knew, somehow, that they had to stay put.

I noticed something amiss immediately. There was a set of escalators that went down. This was a single line station unlike Raffles Place or City Hall. Those stations had platforms on multiple levels, but this station had a simple single-layered platform that only had escalators heading upwards, up to the tap out area and then another set that wafted you up to ground level. There weren’t any escalators that headed down. And yet, there it was: a downward-heading escalator tucked exactly under the upward-heading one. It was totally out of place to the eye, but deep in the recesses of my mind there sparked an uncomfortable familiarity. I couldn’t shut away the after thought that I may have actually been here before, a station with escalators heading up and down. I dragged my focus back to the logical world. Think think think… and then it suddenly made sense. Yes! It had to be that the station was under upgrade. It was under upgrade (maybe it was building a deeper underpass) and so there was an announcement that no one was to get off at this particular stop. This must have been extremely inconvenient for everyone who normally got off here. There must have been audible groans and complains, all-round annoyance and confusion on board, but I was sleeping and none the wiser. But if my theory is true then why didn’t anyone call me back into the train? Singaporeans and their inability to speak up against a wrong! I thought angrily to myself. And now everyone went about their lives while I got stuck in this mess.

The next train arrived, and heaved a sigh as the train doors and platform doors aligned. The doors opened mechanically. I frowned. The entire train was empty; even Chernobyl had more residents. The silence caused a wave of unease to spread through me. I pondered if I should hop on to this empty train, and then thought better of it. I mean, what if this train goes straight to the maintenance hangers or just suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere and plunges into darkness? Nobody would know I was inside. I stood still as the doors closed and the train withdrew from the station. The monitor read “Next train: 5 Minutes”.

Instead of waiting around, maybe it’d be better to try to actually leave this station and just head for work, I began to think to myself. It would be a tremendous hassle to travel to a different station just to come back here by bus. Ignoring the downward heading escalator, I headed up for the tap out to see if I could just jump over unnoticed and escape to the fresh air. I stood on the escalator and it brought me up one level. What I saw up top left me unable to think properly.

What I saw upstairs was the same platform as downstairs. Going up this escalator led me to the exact same platform again. No. This couldn’t be. To my left was the sign ‘to Punggol’ and to my right ‘to Harbourfront.’ The station name was also the same, the plastic signboard hung silently in front of me. No. No. I walked down the steps again and looked around. Yes, upstairs had to be an exact replica of what I saw here. But this couldn’t be possible. At least not in this world, not within the time frame of one day could another identical platform be constructed right above the one I normally got off on.

Before jumping to any conclusions, I doubled down the escalator steps, and jogged to the new escalator I saw going down. What lay below was unchartered territory to me, so whatever I saw would give me a big clue as to the problem I was currently facing. Stay calm now, strange situations like this aren’t entirely foreign to you. As I was walking down these steps I recalled myself as a child, travelling with my family to Yorkshire. We visited a castle and beside it was a huge hedge maze. I was only a small boy no older than five, and rushed into this maze without second thought. It is human nature to explore, find their way into situations that are out of the ordinary. There was a certain unusual kick we sought in this, finding our way through the unknown. Anyhow, I wandered about this maze without telling my parents, but soon realized that I had underestimated it. It was much more complex, much larger and the hedges much too tall for me to simply give up halfway and climb across to freedom. The more I explored, the more new paths I stumbled upon. These new paths of the maze led to more new sections, and just when you thought you were going somewhere, just when you thought that your explorations would lead to your eventual freedom, you hit a dead end. The hedges watched on quietly, blocking any path of escape. Before I knew it, I was stuck inside for half an hour, and by the hour I started to panic; tears and mucus flowing gently down my cheeks and lips, warm and wet. It was the exact same feeling of loneliness and abandonment. You were trapped in a world far removed from what you were accustomed to, and that feeling really stuck with me. I knew from then: I was going to stay in the real world no matter what, a world where things made perfect sense. Eventually I was saved not by my own efforts, but by luck. A tall German tourist chanced upon me and showed me the way out, reuniting me with my worried parents.

Shoving that particular childhood episode aside, I walked down further. What I saw made no sense, yet perfect sense at the same time. It was, yet again, the exact replica of what I saw one story above, two stories above. I began to feel sick. I walked to the other end to find another set of escalators going down. This was just like above, the new installment of the downward heading escalator. I ran down yet again, and I already knew what I would have seen before seeing it: the same platform again. There were the lonely benches sitting idly, the same signboards and the same tone of lighting. NO. I ran down five more stories, rushing down in a frantic state, with each story down the certainty of seeing another similar platform increased. I observed five more similar platforms and was panting hard. I sat down to think. I couldn’t be stuck here. No. But somehow, in some insane corner of my mind, this made sense. It made sense in explaining the staircase going down, it made sense because only with an entrance and exit could the platforms perfectly replicate themselves, over and over. But first I had to prove this. I had to prove that it was being replicated. I put all logic of the old world I was in aside. That was a world that didn’t entertain the idea of eternity. Everything in the old world worked around the finite. Cars travelled a certain finite distance to get from place to place, skyscrapers had a finite number of stories. When you got married you told your other half till death do us part. The finite even encroached upon the eternal values of love. But damn it! This wasn’t about love. I thought, I’m stuck here. Stuck in this seemingly infinite world, that is more than willing to replicate itself. I came to a conclusion: the only way to have a chance to escape would be to play by the rules here.

I started by making three assumptions of this new world. First was that this world is infinite. It cannot be escaped from because the platforms replicate themselves eternally. I couldn’t possibly prove this by running up and down forever, but I had to ascertain this without substantial proof so I wouldn’t waste my energy chasing a non-existent exit. Secondly, I assumed that I was alone. There was an overbearing silence all around from the start, and my smartphone had no reception upon stepping out onto the platform. I couldn’t find any information from the outside world and there was nobody who knew of my existence here. The third and most crucial assumption was that I could only exit this world the same way I came in. The same way I came in…

The next train arrived on cue, five minutes after the previous. Again, it was empty. Not entirely surprising. This time though, I stepped into the train. I had to. It was my only real chance of getting out; the closest available alternative to the same way I got in; from a train. It didn’t matter if there was an awkward confrontation with the subway staff. It beats getting trapped in an alternate reality of everlasting train platforms. You could only exit the same way you entered. I was banking everything on this assumption. The train doors closed with a sigh and the train started smoothly to the next destination. I was leaving the world of eternity behind. I took a seat and waited, studying the subway map.

The train doors opened, and my mouth went dry. I stepped out onto an empty platform. That would have been bad enough, but then I saw the darker pillars of the station. I saw the downward heading escalator, and saw that the station name was unchanged. The train brought me to the same station again. I stepped out and allowed the train to leave. I walked up 5 stories of repetitive platforms and began to feel sick, my innards so numb from the initial panic that I no longer felt anything. The next train arrived and I boarded it. I needed to confirm with some time that this, too, was a train that would lead me to the same station over and over. I sat there without the slightest hint of an expression on my face as 7 of the exact same station passed before me, the doors opening mockingly each time as if challenging me, challenging me to leave and explore. Maybe there’s a lapse in this world, maybe this station will lead you to an exit. Maybe you can find a glitch within this system and get your life back. Before the doors could open for an eighth time, I took out a pen and a piece of scrap paper from my leather suitcase. I needed to think. I drew a vertical line and a horizontal line. The vertical line represented the infinite layers of platforms that stretched up and down. The horizontal line represented the tunnels that also seemed to stretch on infinitely, bringing me to the exact same station time after time. I imagined that the paper was infinitely big, and replicated the lines accordingly forming a network of lines that looked like the strings on a tennis racket. I drew dots on the intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines. These were the individual platforms themselves. It was like a map of the network I was trapped in. I imagined I was stuck within this network on this piece of paper that stretched on for eternity. Then for the third time today, it all made sense.

Of course, it was that simple. The only way to leave this network could be visualized with the piece of paper I had. I didn’t have to be bound by this piece of paper even if it stretched on forever. This piece of paper was two dimensional, but that didn’t mean I had to be constrained by that. Let’s say a fly landed on an infinitely big piece of paper. It need not walk forever to find the end of this paper until it starved to death. It could just fly away from the paper. That was it! I had to find the third dimension in this world and use that to escape, and with a sudden, instinctive realization I had just the method to find it. Before the train arrived at the next station, I ran to the last carriage. Tucked in one corner were a red button, and a blue button. The red button was the emergency stop with a warning of a fine if misused. The blue button would direct me to the intercom. I quickly decided against activating the intercom. A part of me already knew I would only hear silence on the line. I was like I had already tried this alternative. You are alone in this, I thought, don’t forget that. I held my breath, and pounded down hard on the red button.

The train jerked hard and almost knocked me off my feet. I grabbed onto the rail for support as the train screeched in the act of slowing itself down. It was like the sharpening of a thousand kitchen knives. In my mind’s eye the lights flickered and the wheels produced sparks, though in reality neither of the above happened. Reality, I scoffed. Reality was sorely lacking from my day. Gathering myself, I walked over to the emergency exit at the end of the carriage and yanked on the tab. It came free and pulled along with it a bendable metal pin. It felt therapeutic, like pulling a parasitic worm out from your skin. The door slowly opened, collapsing itself away from me like the opening of an escape pod. I clambered out cautiously, prepared to face a wall of darkness.

As soon as I walked out of the train I realized it was brighter outside than I imagined. I took a few steps forward. There were small lights stuck to the tunnel wall every fifteen meters or so, and they were like a comforting constellation of stars pointing terrified sailors in the right direction. As soon as I took ten steps forward, the emergency exit whirred to life, the gears working to heave the door shut. I stood there and watched. Once the emergency door fully shut, the train came to life and started inching forward, steadily gaining momentum before disappearing from sight entirely. I supposed that the train had to keep within the rules of this world and continue on with the flow. It truly left me without any company, real or imaginary. Just gets better, this day. I couldn’t help but surmise. From being in a busy subway carriage to this: alone in a dark tunnel looking for a way out.

I realized I had to work against time. The train tunnel looked awfully narrow. Though I could probably fit myself nicely at the side, I wouldn’t want to risk getting crushed by the next oncoming train. I had to find a hatch, a door. Anything. What started off as a fast walk became a steady jog. I brushed my hand along the concrete wall of the tunnel and looked closely for any sign of a hatch. I made sure I felt the outer side of the tunnel so as to move outwards from this world. To fly away from the paper! Yes, that was it. But after fifty meters of close inspection and feeling about, I didn’t find anything. I cursed myself for not keeping track of time. Given that trains came at five-minute intervals, I had to know the amount of time I had, to the last second, and yet I was clueless. The tiny white lights zoomed past one after the other. This was a subterranean space that truly looked out of this world. In the dim light, my mind wandered back to when I was stuck in that hedge maze in Yorkshire. I felt the same sense of removal, the same sense of loneliness. The more I wandered, the less I discovered. Everything was a dead end or a repetition of the same wall of hedges. Over and over again I debated if I should just cry out for help in my loudest voice but I knew then the same thing I knew now. I was totally, unapologetically alone. Only I could help myself. That was the source of both my joy and despair. To know I had control of my fate was thrilling, yet the responsibility that begot that terrified me. My five year-old self honestly thought I may be lost in there for eternity.

But of course I wasn’t alone at the end of my hedge maze ordeal. Light after light passed me by as I remembered the handsome face of the tall German man who guided me out of the maze. My parents thanked him profusely as I clung onto them and wiped my mucus on my mother’s shorts. At the end of it, I wasn’t alone. What could this mean for my chance of escape here? That I could never conquer this alone? That I was doomed to be trapped unless a certain someone helped me? I decided right there that loneliness is underrated. This line came to me from a youthful Joseph Gordon-Levitt acting his line in 500 Days of Summer. It was funny that I would remember such an absurd moment of the film at such a time, being trapped in a never-ending series of tunnels and platforms, but the human mind dredges up the most irrelevant matters at the most stressful of times. I couldn’t help but think that we had no choice in this world but to account for ourselves. We come into this world alone and we leave it alone. If I had to die solving this problem, I would.

Such hardy resolutions quickly melted away when I saw the dim headlights of the next oncoming train in the distance. It looked like a dim candle at the end of the tunnel at first, but it was unmistakable. This light would soon glow in intensity and engulf me, crushing me against the tunnel walls. My windpipe closed up slightly and fear knocked the breath out of my lungs. Oh fuck. I may actually die here. I started thinking this for the first time. No, I was certain there was a way out. After all this time I couldn’t help but think that I’d actually been in this situation before. Whether it was my past hedge maze experience or something less tangible, I couldn’t say for sure. Anyhow, at the back of my mind one fact remained, and it was that I was going to get out of this. This was a known fact. The clear sky was as blue as my chance of escape. I felt the wall with a fierce concentration; all the while noticing the headlights grow brighter at the corner of my eye. I was at a full sprint now, covering more portions of wall then before. I suddenly felt no fear, but the steely resolution of a man with nothing to lose.

It was then that felt it. It wasn’t very remarkable and could be easily missed if your hand left the wall’s surface for just a short while. But it was unmistakable. The cold smoothness of metal against the warm jagged concrete felt like the sweet kiss of a long awaited loved one. I stopped in my tracks and felt this surface. It was about the size of a mini fridge and had a small rusty handle. I tried for the handle but it wouldn’t budge so easily. The approaching train made itself audible. It screeched and roared in the distance like a pack of hungry wolves. The headlights from the train became so glaring it illuminated this metal contraption. It was probably an emergency escape, given the size and build. It even had the manufacturer label SACKGASSE written on the surface that I hadn’t realized before. Sackgasse…wasn’t that German? I thought back on all the Europe guidebooks I read in my younger days. Yes…it was unmistakably German, though I couldn’t decipher its meaning. I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed as to how it all fit…almost too well. A German man rescued me when I was five, and I was about to escape through a German-manufactured hatch. Ignoring the coincidence, I strained to turn the handle, pounding it with my fists and kicking at it with my work shoes. I observed the area around me illuminating, and the heat of the glaring headlights could now be felt as I desperately pounded at the metal hatch.

The hatch opened with a hiss. Another bright light came from beyond the hatch. Of course, it was the light from the world that awaited me. My heart lifted. I frantically gripped both sides of the opening and pushed myself through in one swift motion. The violent air currents caused by the oncoming train helped to catapult me out into my new world, like a tennis ball leaving a tennis ball machine. It was a narrow escape. I watched the body of the train through the small hatch pass by in a blur. Again, this had the most hypnotic effect on me. It was like staring at the center of a whirlpool or the aggressive white foam created at the base of a waterfall. The power generated and the potential to be crushed to bits intrigues us, draws us in and keeps us humble.

By the time I snapped out of my trance, it was already too late. The source of light beyond the hatch was anything but from a new world. In those few seconds, I thought of the paper, how the fly thought it was so smart to try fly out of it. I pictured a fly stuck in an infinitely high stack of paper, wedged between two pieces and unable to move. Even if it could bite a hole through one piece it would end up facing another piece, then another, then another. The fly was stuck in a three-dimensional system that was determined to hold it prisoner for a long time, perhaps forever. I thought of myself, a commuter on the morning train, getting off to a world of infinite layers. I thought of the Caucasian boy I waved at, my last form of human interaction. I thought of the German man and his big hands. I thought of the world I had left behind, and the people out there, the food, the smells and the freedom. My heart shrank and withered yet pulsated madly as it would before the gallows. The air around me stood still for a split second before a great gush of wind almost knocked me off my feet. Then there was the bright light of an oncoming train, illuminating every part of me. I stood still and for the first time in my life felt afraid.

There was a bright light. I opened my eyes with a start.

I was ensconced amongst the sound of people. The train was coming to a stop.

Did I miss my stop? It is the first panicked thought of every sleepy traveller who dozes off too comfortably. I felt edgy and disorientated as I observed the people around me. An old lady looked down at me as I gathered myself. There was the faint notion of a dream. If I had been dreaming, I couldn’t remember much of it, just the abstract feeling of fear that lingered like a bad aftertaste. Could you even dream so deep on a twenty minute commute? As I wiped the cold sweat off my forehead, the door opened. I observed that the pillars on this station were a darker brown, and with a sudden realisation, bolted out of my seat. I startled the old woman who gave me a grave look of disapproval as I rushed past her out of the door. A Caucasian boy with a pink shirt waved at me and I smiled hesitantly back. I had no intention of being late for work, and even if I was late, missing my stop would be a terrible way to achieve that. Today, though, something was different.

It took me three steps out of the train to realize it. The whole platform was empty.

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