Ben crossed the street in Shoreditch, pinpricks of drizzle wetting him through, the vapour from a pop-up burger diner hitting his nose and making him salivate. In the midst of nervous anticipation he had skipped dinner. He entered a bar, adorned with neon lights and nostalgic toys, crowded and muggy with people escaping the first spell of bitter winter cold. He was deliberately early and made his way to a red leatherette booth in the corner, from which he could view the front door and wait for her arrival. He didn’t buy a drink, wanting to give an impression of having just arrived. Instead, he reached for his phone and opened her profile again.
She was beautiful, emotionally sensitive, interesting and very clever. He had spent every spare moment of the last week reading articles that she had sent him about subjects ranging from ancient Egypt, the philosophy of free will and economics. In return, he’d carefully curated a version of himself where all the different components of him were of sufficient merit for her. Ben wasn’t usually very lucky in love, but he couldn’t help himself, in his mind, already they were hosting friends for dinner in a central London flat they’d bought, thinking about whether they should leave the city to start a family. He flicked through the selection of images of her, barely noticing his hunger or need for the toilet, just the bright white square displaying the life that would unravel before him from the moment that she would arrive, in seventeen and a half minutes’ time.
The second that the clock at the top of the screen changed to seven thirty, he looked to the door and sure enough she entered. She didn’t look around the bar but gazed straight at him, as if she already knew where he was. A sign of their deep, immediate connection, he thought. His stomach lurched deliciously.
“Good evening,” she said, taking off her coat comfortably. She was as beautiful as her profile, no, even more so, in her three dimensionality. He felt a rush of worry about how she would compare him to his profile, he had selected some photos from a time when his gym habits had been a lot more regular, and his face had developed a roundness in the last year.
“Hello,” he said, shyly.
“I see you haven’t yet bought a drink,” she said.
“I only just arrived, thought I’d nab us a seat, but I’ll…”
“My round.” She smiled warmly and raised her eyebrows. “What will you be drinking? They do a good IPA here!”
She clearly remembered the messages they had exchanged last Tuesday about favourite drinks. She was into this. He sat back down and tried to let his anxiety subside. A pint later he felt his muscles relax into the leatherette. She seemed so interested in him. He talked to her about the films he’d watched in the last year, emphasising the independent film club that he was a member of and explained his work, trying to focus on the time that he got to accompany his boss to New York to meet with the other branch of the company there.
“What about you, you said you work in marketing?” he said.
“App development actually,” she said, always smiling intently, so alert.
“Oh anything that I would have on this?” he picked up his phone which had remained on the table from when he’d been looking at her whilst waiting for her.
“It is actually,” she said, again that subtle raise of her perfect eyebrows. “I work for the app that we met on.”
“Oh. Well that’s got to be fate then,” he said, but he didn’t really know what he meant by this so moved on quickly. “What do you do for the app then? I can tell it’s something very smart.”
She laughed again. “I’m in Improving User Experience,” she said.
He fumbled for the right response and there was an awkward pause in conversation for a few seconds. Across the bar some people finished a game of table football and yelled out in victory.
“This place is cool,” she said, looking above and behind him. He turned to follow her gaze, a huge, glass box was mounted on the wall containing a giant stuffed bird of prey, its beaded eyes reflecting the pink, neon lights.
“God, I hadn’t noticed him. He looks about ready to fly down and peck our eyes out. I’m not sure about this trend of having taxidermy in bars.” He turned back to face her and then worried that perhaps taxidermy was a trend from several seasons ago and he sounded fuddy-duddy. Quickly, laughing too much at his own joke, “I wouldn’t want bits of animal rotting into my pint.”
She laughed graciously and then looked back to the bird. “There won’t be any flesh in him though, the pelt, the skin will have been preserved and used to reconstruct the animal.”
“I didn’t have you down as a taxidermy expert?”
“I believe some live things are worth preserving.” She leaned forward a little and he felt overcome with the intensity of his interest in every word coming from her lips. “The art is not cutting open the skin of the thing and delicately removing it’s organs, the art is in deciding which things to preserve and which things to discard. Oh,” she exclaimed suddenly, “I love this song, I’ve got tickets to see these guys play.”
Ben loved this band too and they were off again, chatting about music and concerts and music podcasts. She was so tasteful. He didn’t usually have a good head for women’s fashion but her dress was sharp and unusual.
At exactly eleven o’clock she said that it was time they headed on, pulling on her coat.
Ben tried to assess whether the evening had been a success. “Would you, I wouldn’t mind, I mean I’d love to do this again sometime,” he said.
“Can you walk me to the tube?” she asked.
He felt a rush of joy. “No problem,” he said, casually. They stepped out of the door and he closed it behind them, creating a wall between them and the chatter and music of the bar. The night evening had become colder and the light from the street lamps was entangled with the mist, barely breaking through to the cobbled street.
“Which station are we walking to?”
“Aldgate East, Jack the Ripper’s area.”
He laughed, “hopefully he won’t jump out of the shadows this evening.”
“You know,” she said, “talking of the tube, did you know that there is a huge network of old disused London underground lines around here? You can go on a tour of them.”
“Yes, I think I’d heard that, I bet they’d be cool to see.” He hesitated. “Maybe that would be a fun next date?”
She looked excited. “What about doing one now, they do night tours of them around Halloween.” She stopped and looked at him apologetically. “Sorry, that suggestion was probably a bit much, I imagine you’ve got work tomorrow?”
“No, no that would be amazing.” Ben worried a little about staying up so late on a work night, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to show it. This was going very well.
“Are you sure?” she said, “I do get a bit YOLO at times.”
“Well,” Ben said, “It’s true. You only live once. Unless you’re stuffed by a taxidermist of course.”
She gazed at him and laughed again and his mind drifted to the type of band that would play on their wedding day.
“Great, I think the tours start in a pub,” she tapped intently on her phone and then pointed, “down this way and then the street on the left.”
The pub looked more like a modern estate agents office, with clean office-like tables and trendy bean bags in the corner. “I’ve never noticed this place before,” Ben said. It was so exceptionally bright that he felt deeply exposed, as if under this light she would be able to see every failing of his personality scratched across his face.
“I’ll get us a drink and ask about the tour,” she said.
He sat on one of the tables and looked around. There were a lot of couples in the room, all sorts of people though. On the table next to him he could hear the middle-aged and very sophisticated man and woman debating politics of the middle east. On the table nearest the door two young women stared intently at each other and held hands. They all looked exceptionally engaged in each other, laughing or in the middle of focused conversation, and Ben experienced another wave of insecurity over whether his date was having a good night.
She returned with their drinks and behind her a man in a hard hat shouted, “Right, are we all ready to start the tour of the underground! I’m your guide for tonight, Bertie. Tonight we will wonder labyrinths of dark and dusty passageways, discover deep bomb shelters, imagine trains that haven’t run for years carrying you to your dreams.”
Everyone in the bar was watching the tour guide. “Are all these people here for the tour?” Ben asked.
“Looks like it,” she said and ran the tip of her forefinger along his middle finger. He wished that he was capable of controlling his blushing.
“We will have to squeeze into some small places, so for health and safety reasons I am going to ask that you put on some hard hats and hi vizs, and your head torches,” continued the tour guide. Ben froze slightly for a second, remembering the claustrophobia he had experienced when he’d once attempted to go caving. His stomach had felt like it was falling away and his heart had tightened in pain as he had descended into panic.
“How’s your beer?” she asked.
Pull yourself together Ben, he thought, and smiled as he took a sip.
The tour handed out pink and grey pairs of hard hats to pairs of people. Absolutely everyone, Ben noticed, was in a couple. He supposed that a late night tour of an abandoned underground was a perfect date-night activity. As he came to their table, despite his enthusiastic announcements about the experience everyone was about to have, for a second the tour guide looked bored and blankly at his date whilst he handed her a pink hat and pink hi viz vest, and then, as if recovering himself from tour-guide fatigue, he brightened as he handed Ben his grey hat and silver vest. “You folks are in for a treat,” he said, directing this words to Ben but speaking loud enough for the whole room to hear.
When everybody was kitted out, the tour guide walked behind the bar and pulled an old, brass lever, the only thing in the bar that didn’t look sterile. Huge double doors at the back of the room opened to a dark, stone staircase.
“It actually starts here, in this bar?” Ben asked her. “I thought that this was just the meeting place.”
“I guess this bar would have been part of a station once,” she said. “Ready for the underground?”
They shuffled down the discarded staircase. A rat scuttled in front of the group and Ben felt that he could hear a deep moan from afar, perhaps this old underground warren was connected to the modern tube. The light from their head torches lit up bits of the tunnels whilst other dark crevices remained out of site.
As they stood on an old platform and peered down the tunnel as far as their headtorches would reach into the blackness, Ben’s torch cut out, and one by one the torches of some of the other group members.
Hers was still shining bright and she leaned in to him and said, “Don’t worry, stay close to me and we won’t get lost.”
He fumbled desperately for his phone so that he could switch on its little torch but crunched against the other couples all moving along in the same direction, it was too difficult to hook his arm around to get to his back pocket. They walked on and he felt that the tunnels they explored were getting smaller and the roof was closing in from above.
“Be a man,” Ben muttered to himself. He breathed slowly, trying to calm his panic but his anxiety that she would see his fear created fresh layers of panic upon panic.
“Annnnnnd next!” The tour guide continued, “You will see where everything is controlled. The old train control room.”
The train control room was an empty, small room with a large metal grate across it’s entrance in bright silver. The tour group stood and peered through it. In the flickering lights of the headtorches that still worked, Ben could make out a small space with walls of huge, flat grey slabs of stone. Compared to the cobwebby, crumbling walls of the rest of the cavern, the slabs were impeccably clean.
“For this bit I’m afraid that you won’t all fit, so we’ll go in half at a time,” the tour guide continued, pulling back the grate. “Now, let’s see, those with grey hats first please.”
There were about 12 people with grey hats in the group, and it would be a tight squeeze. He turned to her and whispered, “I might sit this one out.”
She smiled at him as if he was telling a very funny joke and whispered, “I know, I’m glad you’re going first. Go on, I’ll see you in a minute” and she placed her hand softly on the small of his back and gave him just the tiniest push.
He walked forward with the group whilst the jovial tour guide continued behind them, “Pile in everyone, it’s fine if you’re a bit cosy.”
As they crowded into the room, Ben tried to turn around to smile at her but his little group of grey hatted people were tightly packed and every single one of their head torches had gone out. Behind, every one of the pink hatted people’s torches were shining bright, creating an eerie, blinding affect.
Suddenly their darkness was broken. One entire wall of the little room lit up suddenly, a blank white screen. The room was bathed in brightness. He looked around, disbelieving his eyes, but all were staring at it in shock. For a few seconds Ben could do nothing but blink as his pupils adjusted to the screen. Distracted, nobody in the room noticed that the tour guide was closing the metal grate until it locked with a deep clang that echoed through the tunnels.
The tour guide turned, so his back was to those locked in the room, and addressed the people in the pink hard hats, his voice flat and ordinary like a bored businessman in a meeting that he had to sit through every day. “Okay team, well done, another great evening’s work improving our users’ experience. I notice that there’s nine of our team who are not here, and I can only say I appreciate that you have all managed to deliver, on a night that swipe-outs are likely to have work in the morning and choose to return home.”
Ben could see her amid the group, she was no longer smiling but staring through the grate, her jaw slightly dropped in a deep boredom.
“Please keep up the good work,” the tour guide continued amid cries of confusion from the others trapped in the room around Ben. “Our users experience relies on us doing this important discarding work, we need to keep our efforts up if we are to ensure that those that are swiped left over their permitted swipe left allocation are swiped out permanently.”
Ben looked again at the screen and saw that it displayed the pink and grey logo of the dating app. Around him shouts of “What’s going on?” drowned each other out.
And then the wall that had become a screen moved, inching towards them and making the room smaller and smaller. People closest to the grate flung themselves at it, shaking the metal. A small man next to Ben screamed, piercing the deep, dusty air. Outside the tour guide and the ones in the pink hats stood in a perfect line, gazing blankly into the panicked group as they desperately clawed at the grate and the room became smaller and smaller and smaller.
Ben’s lungs gasped the last little air available, he was trapped between the chest of an obese man and the boney shoulder of a woman. Even in his terror he noticed, as if watching from afar, how the words of so many people shouting for help drown each other out to create a deep, wordless wail. And the screen, inched in to swipe them to oblivion.
Madeline Denny, Brighton 2019