‘Are we supposed to buy a ticket?’ I asked the businessman-looking guy beside me. He wore a black business suit and trousers, and a grey tie. His polished business shoes shone even in the dim light inside the tube.
At my question, he turned slowly — rather eerily, like the Terminator — towards me and made eye contact. The look on his face scared me out of my wits. I felt as if I was without my pants and asking whether I was supposed to have worn one.
He stared for a long time at me. I tried to look away, but I couldn’t. It was the worst situation I’d ever been in. Then I thought of getting up and moving somewhere else, but I didn’t do that either. So I kept looking at him looking at me for about a minute. Then he spoke, slicing me into a thousand little pieces with his unearthly stare over the rims of his glasses.
‘Yes, didn’t you buy one?’ he spoke each word clearly, spacing them out as if talking to a child.
‘No, I mean if they’re returning the money, what’s the reason —‘
Just as I said that word, I noticed him shrinking almost imperceptibly and a frown cross his face. I said no more.
‘Here comes the checker.’ He motioned towards a dark, gloomy person approaching from the right, sympathy etched deep in his face as he observed me with a distant, cool stare. The checker was still a few seats away, standing before an old couple, one arm around a hand-hold. He took two tickets from them and fished around in his huge black bag before emerging with a few coins and handing them over to one of the old couple. When this transaction was finished, he turned his head towards our direction and swept the passengers with nonchalant yellow eyes before turning back. I decided to get up and get a ticket.
The view outside the window was a blank darkness. The tube didn’t sway, or rock, or turn, or generally give away any symptom of movement. I doubted if there would be any perceptible difference if it was stationary.
I went and stood in front of the old man sitting behind a box beside the doors. He had a single stack of yellow tickets on the box. He looked up as I approached. I was about to ask him which ticket I needed, when he slid one of the stiff cardboard tickets across his makeshift table. I took a better look at the stack now. All of the tickets were not only yellow, but the same stiff piece of cardboard, with the same amount of money printed over them. I extracted the amount from my pocket and placed it on his box. He slid out a drawer and dropped the coins into it with a brush of his hand in the same nonchalant manner that the checker exhibited. I pocketed the ticket and turned. A few questions nagged inside. I remembered the face of the businessman and wondered if I would ever ask them. Then with a bit of logical reasoning, I concluded that it would be best not to give anyone else a shock. It would be wisest to ask him again what I wanted to know. I hoped he wouldn’t be so shocked now that he knew I was the type who could ask if he needed pants.
I met the checker on the way. He took my ticket and returned me the money printed on it, without ever taking his eyes away from his tickets or coins.
All of a sudden I had a desire to laugh at this folly, to point out to him how much it resembled kindergarten games, where everyone feigns purpose in stupid meaningless transactions, in an effort to construct a sort of grown-up structure in their childish activities. The solemnity in the way this was being conducted made me want to laugh out loud. But I didn’t say anything and walked back to my seat. I noticed a few of the passengers whose tickets had been exchanged for money were getting up and walking slowly towards the old man behind the box. I figured it was because the checker would soon be back. How stupid, how funny.
I didn’t really want to face the guy beside me again, but I decided I had to. With much resolution I turned and asked him flatly, ‘Where is this tube going?’
He turned in the same eerie maneuver that made me want to run away from the place. I kept still. He began his disbelieving stare. I was patient.
At length he said ‘No one knows. Why do you want to know?’ He twisted the ‘you’ the way a six-year old would pronounce the scientific name of a strange new creature seen in the zoo.
It was my turn to stare at him. What does he mean, no one knows? There’s a whole train full of passengers going somewhere, and no one wants to know where it’s headed? Wait, the blank darkness outside, the strangely smooth motion…
‘Is this even going somewhere? I mean, is it moving? Because you see, you can’t really tell —‘
‘A tube moves. This looks like a tube.’
I tried to fathom what he wanted to signify, but all it boiled down to was this should be moving. Whether it is, is beside the point.
I was beginning to feel scared. It wasn’t funny and kindergarten any more. With an acidic feeling, I sensed that none of these people in the tube took it as a joke. They took it rather seriously, and didn’t see anything funny in it. Behind their solemn faces was a resolute determination to keep this game going, to not realize it was a game in the first place, to deny that it was stupid.
I glanced at the doors. They didn’t look like they ever performed their function.
I thought to hell with his stare and asked, ‘Why does everyone have the same ticket?’
He turned again, slower than a minute-hand of the clock. I could see now that he was irritated and maybe did not want me to be sitting beside him.
‘Because everyone’s on the same tube.’ He said and cast an anxious glance at the other passengers, as if to see if anyone was looking at us and maybe associating him in some way with this strange new creature that was me.
I could feel a new question in me, knowing it wouldn’t be proper to ask it, that it wouldn’t be appreciated. But I had to know the answer.
‘Why are you doing this? I mean, do you see any point in this?’ I asked rather timidly. I was very afraid of his stare.
At once I wished I hadn’t asked the question. He looked at me as if he would report me to the museum.
‘Everyone’s doing it.’ He said with an air of finality — like saying thus proved — and turned away.
Through the blank darkness, the tube sped on without a sway.