By Steve Downes
“Hello friend,” spoke the soft voice of the old man. It was a barely audible sound over the rattle and squeal of an arriving Tube train. Angel Street Station was busy even for the usual rush hour morning and a forest of legs, garbed in suit pants, skirts and workman’s jeans marched by. The noise each footfall made on the tiled floor was like an inharmonious drumbeat, its constant rhythm echoed as if a great Biblical storm was hailing down on a tin roof. Occasionally the Tannoy system would blare out across the background din with a harsh high voice like a knife cutting into the earlobes, the words spoken were incomprehensible from low down, seated on the ground in a niche in the platform wall as he was.
The train regurgitated its fill of passengers onto the platform. They bustled and shoulder-barged their way up the long escalators and crammed into the grey, tin lifts, faces trying desperately not to face each other. Those who were escaping into the light above were replaced on the train by a similar sized crowd, jostling and squeezing, close, as if they were dancers, yet strangers in an erotic tango where no words were necessary or desired.
A screech, a push of hot air and they were all gone, sucked into the ground, leaving the platform almost empty, but for a few late runners standing, out of breath, and some early commuters awaiting the next dance, just moments away.
The bigger the city, the less you can be seen. No one noticed the old man half-lying, half-sitting in the niche, he was invisible to all their senses. They didn’t detect a pungent odour that emanated from his clothes, a damp perfume, a cold scent of death and decay. Nor did they hear his wheezing breaths, as he struggled to inhale the musty air infused with the burning of heavy duty metal brakes and the perspiration of many thousands. They did see him, like you see a bag of rubbish on the street; you don’t pick it up, you just register it as a bad thing, a dirty thing, something you wish just wasn’t there.
No one noticed the small black cat. It was hiding beneath the long ragged coat of the old man, as ragged and worn as the garment itself. The cat was hungry and despite the warmth of the station there was chill in its tiny body.
The old man fished in one of his long deep pockets and retrieved a sandwich. The bread was stale and the meat had hardened but it knew from experience that it was still edible. He divided the bread from the meat and slipped the latter into his coat where the cat devoured it. The old man ate the bread; it was like ash in his dry mouth. He desperately wanted a drink of cool, refreshing water, but his legs were heavy, far too heavy to lift him from the ground now. He felt the creature move under his jacket and settle into a dreamless sleep.
“Sleep, friend,” he said tenderly and closed the coat over. The dance of the underground station was continuing unabated above and around him. Sometimes to his eyes it would appear in slow motion and at other times it would be as if the world was skipping by like a needle on a broken record. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock, day or night, it was all the same music.
“That it should end like this, friend,” spoke the old man to the sleeping cat, “I, the King of Ithaca, conqueror of Troy, the journeyman, the voyager, the clever, that I should end my days here, with only a small lost creature to comfort and accompany me on my path.”
The old man felt the last of his strength seep out of his bones and into the cold earth beneath the tilted floor. He hugged close the creature under his coat, it too was losing the fight for life.
The King of Ithaca, the sly deceiver of the Trojans, closed his eyes; he was beyond weeping, beyond grief. He had never reached home, never seen her face again, never watched his boy grow to be a man; all were the fanciful marvels of an ancient poet.
“Sleep,” he said, still with his bright eyes of fire closed, as he felt the body of the little creature go softly into the eternal night. He longed to join him there, to stop wandering, to end all days, but he knew better.
The old man died, just an old man, a tramp, a destitute human, a lost nameless soul in the big city. But somewhere, in another place far away, the King of Ithaca was reborn.