A City Circle train slides to a hissing, creaking stop, momentum hits and passengers grip whatever is close at hand: metal poles, seat rails and even fellow passengers. Pale green doors slither open with a bang and a noisy gaggle of young-ish passengers in brightly coloured t-shirts, short shorts, jeans and a few dreads—surrounding an older, overweight man in a blue benie and brown jacket—wanders out from the belly of the great snake-like machine. Looking lost, they stand on the floor of what is really a brightly lit subterranean chamber plastered with concrete, billboards and stairways. The overall impression allows for the feeling that this might be the foyer of some great world of the underground; a notion reinforced by cold winds blowing straight out of the black, gaping mouths of tunnels at each end of the platform.
A young man in dreads points to a sign on one of the stairways and looks at the portly man who shakes his head and waves the others on. The group hurry for the steps, but he lingers near a tall, brown-haired young woman in a grey business suit who has just taken a seat as if to wait for a train. The two—although at some distance from each other—are having a conversation. An exchange that the man has been hoping to have with her for several weeks.
‘Will they be OK?’ she asks as she waves at one of the girls who is now halfway up the stairs.
‘Don’t worry about them,’ he says. ‘It’s me they have to worry about. Now that I am old.’
‘The Falstaff of the group,’ she says coyly and raises an eyebrow.
‘“And now am I,”‘ he says, adopting a theatrical posture and making quotation marks with his fingers. ‘”… if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked.”’
‘Henry the Fifth,’ she laughs and then corrects herself, ‘No … the fourth.’
‘Yes. “Sir John Sack-and-Sugar” in all his glory,’ he says and looks straight across the platform at a wall of rock. ‘We should do the Bard again one day you know. Get all the old crew back, even if some of us are a bit worse for wear.’
‘Speak for yourself old man.’
‘I am … but going back to what you were saying, perseverance will only dig you into a hole.’
‘A fox-hole,’ she says as she lifts her bag off the seat and moves along to make space for him to sit.
He thanks her, sits down and takes his hat off, revealing a shaved but obviously balding head.
‘What’s this?’ She laughs and then adds, ‘the new trendy Gareth?’
‘No “Athena the ever-young”, this is Gareth the ex-youth leader and perennial law student cooperating with reality,’ he says and then goes back to the thread of their conversation. ‘You can’t just push on when there are real questions taking you to places of honesty. You don’t—’
‘Want to be dishonest,’ she finishes the sentence, turns to him and catches his eye. ‘Yeah I get that,’ she adds as she holds his gaze, determined to make some point. ‘But I’ve heard all these questions before: mum and dad, my brother, they use them all the time. You use them.’
‘But they’re good questions,’ he comes back defensively, not sure where this is all going but having a deja Vu moment as her clear face and grey eyes challenge him.
‘No they’re not, they’re “f*#! the world” pills.’
‘What?’ he says and smiles as he remembers her knack for colour in a conversation.
‘Well … they like these questions that “romanticise despair” as my dad says … he did philosophy once. He’s the happy frog in our family.’
‘Yeah, like, there’s a boy staying with them. He ran away from home. Church and all that screwed him up. So dad got him started on his “f*#! the world pills”. Now he’s kind of happy!’
‘But what about you. You don’t have to just go out and get drunk because of a few questions. Doubt is good.’
‘That depends,’ she says, rummages through her bag, takes out a cigarette, lights it and then adds, ‘You once told me, “The easiest pathway through life is to either believe everything or doubt everything because that way you don’t have to think.”’
‘I don’t remember that, but I agree,’ he says.
‘And you know what?’ she says and pauses as she takes a long suck on the cigarette, then lifts her face upwards, opens her mouth and exhales. ‘Right now I’m believing the easy way and I love it cause it drives the old frog mad.’
‘Maybe it’s time I came to see him myself,’ Gareth wonders aloud as a rush of cold air and screaming of brakes announces the arrival of her train.
‘Whatever you like sir,’ she says as they both stand—her towering over him. ‘We’re all watching the footy tonight at dad’s.’
‘Let’s do it then,’ he says and grins outwardly but inwardly a knot is forming in his stomach.
‘Frogs prefer warm water,’ she says, tossing her hair as they step onto the train. ‘But I like it hot!’
‘Could be an interesting night,’ he murmurs and looks out as the train begins to roll into its tunnel.
‘By the way,’ she says as the two of them grip a steel pole—her hand much higher than his. ‘You once told me something else.’
‘If you can’t get them to see sense, then laugh at them!’
Gareth smiles sheepishly.