This is a project I’ve had in mind for the best part of a year I guess. I make notes, lose them someplace in a notebook, find them again. Forget. Etc.
Naturally, living in London I ride the Tube a lot. Usually I’ll do what everyone else does, avoid eye contact, read my homework or notes on whatever event or interview I am headed to.
There’s the odd journey where I get to stare into space – if that meant it looked like I was staring at you, my apologies.
Anyway, I decided to find some time to have a crack at it before I forget altogether. With so many Tube journeys, there must be something to imagine about those trails from A to B.
I stood on the platform at Maida Vale with my brother Hank. He steps from side to side, humming while I stand still staring down at the tracks.
A black mouse appears on the filthy concrete, jerking from place to place, sniffing stuff. Doing Tube mouse things. Hank slows down and joins me watching.
“I’ve never seen a black mouse,” he comments.
“It’s not black,” I reply. “It’s covered in Tube soot or something. Makes them all black.”
Hank backs away from the edge. Looking worried. “Just how dirty is this place? Where does the soot come from?”
I look at him. As active as I am still and probably as neurotic. Just in a different way. I can see a freak out coming, so I try to think of something to calm him. Hank doesn’t come to visit too often. It’s great to see him, even if he’s a handful.
Looking up at the LED information board, we have 2 minutes until the next train, more than enough time for him to turn tail and leg it out of the tunnels. I need to come up with things that will get him on the train.
“It’s not that bad,” I try for starters.
“Where does it come from?”
“Just the tunnels or something. It doesn’t do anyone any harm though, look,” I gesture at the people waiting with us on the platform. “They’re all fine. We all ride the Tube every day.”
Hank looks suspiciously down the platform and flicks a glance at me to make sure.
He looks back at the mouse. “What colour are they normally?”
“Um, grey I guess. Maybe brown?”
“Not any other colour?”
I stare at him.
“What other colour have you seen a mouse be?”
“Well, if they’re covered in soot, it could be anything.” He’s being contrary. A coping mechanism I recognise from when we were kids. I smile and go with it.
“What about pink?”
“No. Well, not unless they’re part of an experiment.” His eyes widen. “What if scientists are letting experimental mice out on the Tube?”
I purse my lips and blink at him. Just as I open my mouth to make things worse, a roar from the tunnel and a push of air blows my hair into my face. Just before the train passes by, I see the little mouse disappear into a crack that can barely be seen.
The doors open with their familiar beeps and I look at Hank. He’s hesitating, chewing on his lip.
“Get on the train Hank,” I say, firmly.
He complies. Thankfully it’s not a long journey into town but it’ll probably feel like one for him.
Hank’s hated the Tube for years. He’ll get on it at least once to make sure, but his imagination about the space, the speed and tight tunnels tends to freak him out. If I can get him into a conversation, or make him start to tell me a story about recent events, he can get through up to fifteen minutes. That’s all we’ll need to get to our destination.
So long as I don’t act as though I’m trying to calm him or that there’s something going on, he’ll be fine. He may be neurotic, but he’s always been smart. He always cottons on to the plan.
We sit, not far from the doors and I open with questions about school. Hank teaches music to kids in rough areas. They’re a hard bunch to deal with, or so it seems. But he appears to have a natural aptitude for getting them to want to be involved. Everyone has their own magic.
He chatters on about this kid and that one. The ones with talent and the others with enthusiasm. As he talks, we go through stations and more people take seats around us. I think we might make this one well enough to be able to get the Tube back. At least that will save me a taxi fare later.
Adverts shimmer near the ceiling and switch as people look to them. Near field communications have a lot to answer for. But then they also provide something to engage the passengers. All these years riding the Tube and you’d think an application to normalise conversation would have been invented.
A girl sits opposite with giant, brightly coloured headphones, she draws Hanks eye three, four times and I smile. That’s his type alright. I consider the idea of him talking to her. It’s more likely a unicorn will get on at the next stop, but it’s a nice idea.
The train starts to slow in the tunnel. I feel a pressure on me. Hank’s not going to like this. Being trapped in the tunnels is one of his repeated ideas of hell. He slows down talking and looks around with wide eyes.
“What’s happening?” he asks.
With perfect timing, the audio system crackles and the driver lets us know we’re being held until the next train clears the station.
Hank looks visibly panicked.
“It won’t be long,” I tell him. “The next stop is ours. We’re nearly there.”
But he’s looking distracted. “Can you hear the music?”
I look at the girl with the headphones again, she’s smiling at everyone, playing with switches on her headphones.
I grab Hank and make him look at me. “Hank, put your scarf over your nose and mouth now. Cover your ears.” I’m rummaging desperately in my handbag to find ear buds and music which I ram into my ears and turn up the volume.
Around us a few people are covering their faces and squinting and the woman with the headphones. Hank is gazing at her, mesmerised as I pull his scarf up and try to clamp my hands over his ears. He bats me away, smiling at the girl who grins back as she turns a final switch on her headphones.
What looks like coloured steam jets from the speakers on her ears. The girl is a Dust Bunny. Neural musical advertising. I had thought they had been banned from the Tube.
Coloured particles drift in the air as we inhale odourless musical programs. I peer at her headphones, seeing now that the switches are designed to be adjusted to the sex and age range of the people in the carriage for maximum uptake.
I still admire the technology involved but legislation is already working to have this form of programming banned. It doesn’t seem fair if there is no choice for those affected, like being stuck in a Tube carriage surrounded by audio advertising that you can’t get away from.
Each song is related to an ad campaign and designed to create recall for those who inhale. Brands pick up the strongest ear worms of all time, paying top dollar for the rights to change our minds with them. I concentrate on my own music hard, trying to ignore the fact that I can hear the Carpenters in the background. I recall that the track is related to margarine and make a concerted effort to ignore it again.
Hank is tapping me wildly on the leg. “I LOVE THIS SONG!” he mouths at me, grinning. At least he’s not freaking out about the Tube.
The particles start to clear and the Tube shudders on its way again. The girl is packing her headphones into her bag now. I note that she has various brand stickers on her satchel, no doubt the companies working to get public listening. We all stand to get off at the station.
I take my ear buds out as the train pulls in. Around me a cacophony of humming and singing. Those who were not fast enough to plug their ears and nose are already programmed for the day. A businessman next to me whistles the melody of “I just called to say I love you”, two teenage girls in front of us sing the theme song to Ru Paul’s Drag Race, the old TV show. Amusingly an old woman, still seated appears to be muttering “Warm Leatherette” repeatedly.
I look at Hank, wondering which song got into his head. He looks elated. “There were nights when the wind was so cold!” he sings at me dramatically.
“Celine Dion?” I ask, astonished and mildly horrified.
“Yeah!” He grins. I remember that the dust carries a mild euphoric chemical, encouraging people to sing, thus spreading the audio further to others.
We get on the escalator. I’m fighting to ignore Hank’s happy chirping. A man in front of us sings “I am a woman in love” at a confused commuter.
Up and down the long escalators people sing. I tend to find Dust Bunnies a violation. Forcing neural ads onto unsuspecting travellers is a pretty rum deal. But then the Tube can be such a miserable place, creating a mixed sing-song is really not so bad, even if it is confusing for the people just heading into the station.
Hank stops for a moment, a relief from the old pop song he had been performing to anyone around us. He looks thoughtful. “I really want to go to the NikeSony store,” he says to me.
“Yeah,” I sigh. “I thought you might.”
Thanks to everyone on FB and Twitter who tempted fate by naming their persistent earworms for this story.