I hate living in London.
Now, anyone born and raised here could offer you a whole catalogue of reasons as to why that's a perfectly valid statement: traffic congestion, air pollution, premium pricing, droves of tourists from Germany to America to Zimbabwe flocking in like the bloody pigeons in Trafalgar to gawk at you on your way to work. I could go on.
But for me, those all take a back seat to the underground. Yes, that bloated network of clogged veins that tangle underneath the skin of our "beautiful" tourist city. It's not even the trains themselves, in all honesty - it's the people, and the sense of silent paranoia like a fart nobody wants to admit to.
On the underground, everyone's a terrorist, rapist, or serial murderer. Or some combination of the three. And thus, nobody speaks to anybody.
I do my nine to five in an office cubicle with dividers six feet high, and all my coworkers are probably a good 5'10. I get in in the mornings and a hundred unanswered cold calls later I feel like I'm an inmate doing solitary confinement, but I've not eaten nearly enough babies to qualify. By the time I'm out in the evenings, free as a clip-winged bird, I'm just begging for someone to talk to me like a human being.
But instead, I'm swallowed up by the silence of the underground.
That was until last week. I found a new reason to hate the underground, but I no longer take the beauty of silent, crowded tube trains for granted.
Now I flinch if someone so much as opens their mouth in my vicinity.
I take the Piccadilly line from Knightsbridge to Ruislip on a nightly basis, so letting the tides of people carry me down into the train car like a jellyfish, and holding onto something that won't move until my stop is announced feels almost like a reflex, like blinking or breathing. But last week the entire Knightsbridge station was a ghost town, just occasional pockets of whispering people metres apart from each other.
Normally that silence I so-despised was the result of rudeness and not just a lack of people to talk to.
After facing the headlong oily wind of the tube tunnels and making my way down to the right line (noticing the eerie quiet that hangs heavy in the air when the normal busker seems to be taking the night off) I found myself facing an utterly empty platform. No word of a lie, I felt like I was Robert Neville in the empty world Richard Matheson gave him.
I took a seat on one of those uncomfortable iron benches they lay out for you, the ones that look like cheese graters with armrests. I was waiting for the 10 PM train to come lurching down the tracks, haemorrhaging passengers from every door and window...but again, I was wrong.
Something was awfully amiss.
Eventually, the train turned up, as empty as I'd ever seen it before in my entire 32 years of living here. I got up with more than a little trepidation when the doors opened, and upon stepping in and seeing rows of empty seats with about one or two passengers as far as the eye can see, I elected to sit near to the door.
The garbled voice over the intercom told his audience of three what they already knew, and the train jolted forward down the tracks, into the darkness of the first tunnel.
I realised then that if I ever wanted to have a casual chat on my tube journey home, I'd have to be the instigator of the conversation. So I cast my mental fishing line down the train to check out the potential applicants.
About 20 feet to the left of me was a heavy, bearded man with a club jacket and a dirty-looking jumper, lolling over the side of his chair and snoring, a titty magazine open at his feet. Maybe not. Twenty feet to the right was a woman in a nice-looking jacket with fancy jewellery and a handbag that looked designer, reading something by Gillian Flynn. I worried that if I slid over and struck up a conversation, I'd be the one to look like a creep.
Disappointed, but with only myself to blame, I receded back into my seat and held my head in my hands. The one time the tube didn't feel like a sardine cannery, and I was too much of a wimp to talk to anyone.
The next stop is South Kensington.
I figured that I may as well take advantage of the downtime and go to sleep like the Perv on the left (what baffled me most about him was the fact he'd actually bought a magazine, it's 2015, for god's sake!) but, while I was teetering on that weird, hazy period on the precipice of sleep, the entire train went dark.
It wasn't uncommon for a light or two to fail while you're in transit, but for them all to fail at once? That was a new one for me.
Stranger still, in the relative silence of the train I could very clearly hear this weird squelching sound, like nothing I'd ever heard before. In hindsight I can only really describe it as being like someone sifting through a pile of raw meat, if you've ever heard such a thing to make the comparison.
The lights turned back on a few seconds later and I breathed a sigh of mild relief. I've never liked the dark all that much.
However, I noticed something had changed in my peripheral vision. I couldn't see the fat guy with the titty mag anymore, because two tall people with matching trench coats and hats were standing in front of him. I could bet my life and my life savings on the fact that those two guys weren't there before the lights went out.
They turned round in unison from the perv and I got a better look at them. What struck me first was that they both seemed so eerily similar, wearing matching trench coats and scarfs that went all the way up to their jawline, with neat, pleated trousers, laceless loafers, matching leather gloves and wide-brimmed hats. They looked like they'd just come out of some kind of Noir-themed costume party, but asking them about it was hardly on my mind as they drifted over almost weightlessly and sat across from me in silence.
Their faces...they looked wrong, if that makes sense. They weren't faces people were meant to have. They weren't particularly horrific or anything, but they had this almost grey complexion, like granite. They were smooth beyond all belief, no wrinkles or laugh lines, no moles, freckles or scars, nothing that could separate them from being utterly basic templates of what a human face was supposed to look like.
I never knew perfection could be so ugly.
"You guys clothes-shop at the same place?" I said jokingly, trying to break the ice.
The blank-faced strangers remained silent. I noticed one was bigger than the other, perhaps a few inches taller, with broader shoulders. It made the world of difference when they're sitting across from you, staring daggers into you. Jesus, those eyes. Big, yellowish fish eyes, like they had jaundice or hepatitis.
"Sorry," I said, awkwardly, "just trying to ease the tension, it's been a long day."
I noticed the smaller one was holding a duffle bag that clinked like glass-on-glass every time the train rumbled. The Perv wasn't lolling over the seats anymore, he was slumped forward uncomfortably, face to the ground. People don't sleep like that.
The bigger one seemed to register that I noticed.
"Which stop belongs to you?" he said. Slowly, mechanically, like English left a foul taste in his mouth.
"Which stop," he paused, choosing his words carefully, "is yours?"
"Oh, uh, Ruislip. It's a little way to go."
London had plenty of non-native English speakers from pretty much any country you can name, so meeting people who were still getting into the swing of things was by no means an irregularity. But this guy, he didn't seem to have an accent - any accent! Like a bad Text-To-Speech generator, his cadence and syntax were utterly undefined, with a clusterbomb of weird, inappropriate pauses and incorrect pronunciations.
"How about you?" I asked.
The big one seemed to mull it over a little. "We are stopping at," his eyes scanned the line map above my head, "Acton Town."
"Oh, cool, cool."
The silence was crawling back, I didn't want to let it. This was my first semi-proper conversation on the tube, even if it was with some incredibly strange people, I wasn't going to give that up.
"So, do you guys work here or are you tourists?"
The little one cocked his head sideways but remained silent. The big one did the talking.
"We're students. Here to learn. Here with a group."
"Oh, do you go to UCL?"
"No," he said without hesitation.
"Then where do you go? If it's okay to ask."
The corners of the big one's mouth lifted upwards. Even a more generous man than me couldn't call it a smile, but I could tell that a smile was what he was going for. His mouth moved but his eyes never changed.
"A long, long way from here."
"I could tell you're not from around here."
Suddenly, the little one, without even moving his blank face, gave the impression of utter nervousness. He slid a slender hand in between the buttons of his trench coat as if to grab something, but the bigger one stopped him with a glare and turned back to me.
"What do you mean by that?" He asked, his tone stern.
I could feel a bead of sweat creeping down my temple.
"I just mean I figured you weren't from London, you know, from your accent," I said, almost tripping over myself in my rush to qualify what I meant, "I assumed you were from Canada, or something like that."
That was a lie, but it seemed like what they wanted to hear. The little one slid an empty hand out from his coat and settled down in his seat.
"Yes," the big one replied, "Canada. Or something like that."
"Your friend, is he okay? He's looking a little peaky."
The little one jostled on his seat again, and used one of his hands to steady his gently bobbing head.
"He hasn't said anything." I continued.
"He's fine. He doesn't speak," the big one said, seeming as annoyed as his voice would permit him to be. "You ask lots of questions, don't you? Is that typical or atypical of others?"
I shrugged, feeling a little hurt by his bluntness, "we can not speak if you like, I was just quite curious about why you're here, you seem like interesting guys, as all."
The big one tried one of his faux-grins again, and asked in a more confident tone, "what is your name?"
"Russell Keene," I replied. Something about a question asked by one of these strange people demanded an answer, regardless of whether you wanted to give it.
"We are here to obtain research samples, RussellKeene," he said, saying my name as one word as though it was customary wherever they came from, "this place has such a bountiful collection of different specimens. It was the most effective place to get a realistic, representative sample."
They took longer on the larger words like "bountiful" and "representative", sounding them out and putting emphasis on all the wrong parts. Occasionally the train doors opened and closed, though nobody got on or off.
"What samples are you collecting?" I asked, not entirely sure I wanted to know the answer.
Without saying a word, the big one leaned over to his comrade and unzipped the duffel bag, much to the little one's chagrin. That glass-on-glass chinking was a collection of jars with strange, mechanical lids, where I could see poorly defined red and pink masses floating in dark, viscous fluid. The slender fingers of the big one grabbed a jar at random and held it out for me to look at.
I want to believe that my eyes were lying to me then, but I know what I saw. What looked horrendously similar to a human heart was bobbing gently up and down in the black fluid, and I suppressed the sudden urge to heave.
"All kinds of samples," the big one said in his mechanical drawl, placing the jar back into the bag and zipping it up.
The silence came back and I welcomed it, not wanting to exchange another word with these awful...things. I expected and hoped that this was some kind of elaborate prank for a TV show I'd not yet seen the advert for, but there were no cameras, or presenters emerging from the shadows to thank me for being such a good sport. We sat silently until the train pulled into Acton Town station, as the intercom told us so.
The two men got up, again in unison, and the little one shouldered the duffel bag carefully. The platform was empty aside from a small group huddled near the exit, all wearing matching trench coats and wide-brimmed hats - just like the ones the two on the train were wearing.
"Goodbye, RussellKeane," the big one said, catching me off guard, "perhaps we'll see you again the next time we visit, yes?"
Without another word, the two walked out of the train and onto the platform, but the little one dropped something, it looked like a handkerchief floating down to the ground.
Instinctively, I reached down and grabbed it to give it back to the man who dropped it, but the texture of the material stopped me. It was unnatural, like nothing I've ever felt before. I grabbed a corner in each hand to get a better look at what it was, but my entire body tensed up. I could scarcely move or breathe.
In my hands I was holding a grey face, or rather, the artificial skin of one, staring eyelessly back at me.
My head jerked up to get one more look at the two men who had just got off the train, and I saw the little one gazing at the face I was holding through the window. His little yellow eyes, now the only aspect of his face that was familiar to me, were buried in a strange, black mass of something insect-like that moved and grasped and squealed and chittered like nothing of this earth. The train pulled away as those terrible eyes bore into me, until I could see nothing of them anymore.
The rest of the journey back to Ruislip was long and silent. I sat holding the face, feeling its smoothness, its alien texture. The woman was still buried in her novel and the Perv wasn't moving at all, not even snoring.
I haven't seen the two men or any of their strange friends since then, but the next time I saw the Perv was on the news that night. Found dead on the train, his heart surgically removed and his chest and sewn up with equally surgical precision afterwards. Police don't know what to think, as no security camera picked up any footage of people being anywhere near him during the power outage.
I've not really left the house since then either. I've had a lot on my mind, a lot to think about. Like who exactly were those people I was talking to on the train, where did they come from, and when will they be coming back?
Yes, I think about that a lot these days.