'Going Underground,' a Short Story by Adam O'Fallon Price
A woman contemplates hanging herself.
All photographs by Eva O'Leary.
This story appears in VICE magazine's 11th annual Fiction Issue. Click HERE to subscribe.
It had begun to rain on the walk home from Dr. Linväld’s office, but Alice would not take the Underground. Though there was a stop literally outside her front door, the Tube was, in local parlance, a nonstarter. She could barely look at the entrance she passed—like the waiting mouth of a blind, starving monster trapped beneath London—let alone walk into it. Instead, she’d entered a pub and had two quick whiskies, watching the weather. The dense gray outside seemed to mix with the alcohol, further muddling her already muddled state. A year on, Nardil had provided relief from the worst of the depression, but it had also soldered the writer’s block down at the edges, sealing off important neural pathways. Now she was off the pills, but it was no good. She was broken, alone, useless. She was fucked.
She continued on her way, the rain falling harder every minute. To the right, it swept through Hyde Park, dampening the crazies at Speakers’ Corner, slicking the black paths of bikers in translucent macs, wetting the stoic ducks that bobbed in the Great Pond. Oil, drawn by the rain to the surface of the sidewalk, shimmered in greasy rainbows. She wiped off her face. Across the bridge, the path she was on curved behind a curtain of trees, after which would come the Bayswater Road, then home. What then? The thing was, the thought of not doing it was worse than the thought of doing it. Or: Doing it would be hard, but not doing it would be impossible. That was the thing.
Her phone rang, and she stopped walking. It was her agent, Charlotte. Alice winced with guilt at the photo on the call screen, as though Charlotte, through some kind of new technology, could see her where she stood in the park, trying to decide whether to answer. “Hello?”
“Alice? Where are you?”
“Did you forget about the meeting?”
Charlotte sighed, long-suffering. As a general response, it was both justified and irritating, considering the money Alice had made her. “With Random House. With Mike and Lindsey, concerning your new project.”
“Listen, you need to give them something. You can’t just string them along forever.”
A nearby goose honked, and Charlotte said, “Where are you?”
“Can you pop in? We need to catch up, go over a few things.”
“I don’t know.”
“Or tomorrow, if you have other plans.”
A violent updraft, like an angry, careening ghost, hit the line of trees under which Alice stood, loosing a welter of fat droplets. “No,” she said. “I’ll come by now.”
† † †
The smallness and spartan décor of Charlotte’s office always surprised Alice. It looked more like the workplace of an uncreative middle manager in, say, textiles, than the office of one of London’s most successful literary agents. A withered succulent sat atop the file cabinet, and a framed Klee print hung at a slight angle behind the desk. Next to the print, a small window of thick tiled glass obliquely admitted the gray light of the building’s interior courtyard. When Alice had asked Charlotte why she didn’t move to a bigger, better place, she’d shrugged and said it suited her fine; considering all she really did was read and talk on the phone, she’d debated just working from her Kensington flat.
She smiled as Alice entered, and Alice smiled back, a reflex born of her good feelings for Charlotte and a childish desire to please her. Charlotte was ten years her elder and hard not to regard as a fantasy older sister: smart, stylish, and infectiously profane. But as the smile melted off her face, Alice realized this had been a horrible mistake. Charlotte was far too intuitive, would probe her in ways she didn’t want to be probed, not now.
“Jesus,” said Charlotte. “You look like fucking shit.”
“It’s not a compliment. You look terrible.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“I stopped for one, yeah.”
Charlotte’s phone buzzed. She looked at it and shut it off, laying it facedown. “Alice, I don’t know what’s going on with you, but you can’t get pissed while you’re supposed to be meeting with your editors.”
“Well, I can, clearly.”
“The reason I called was because your therapist, Doctor Lindbergh or whatever his name is, called me.”
“He’s worried about you.”
From their sessions, Linväld knew Charlotte was her agent, and he also knew she was one of Alice’s closest friends. The magnitude of this breach of doctor-patient confidentiality signaled the degree of his immediate concern. “I’m fine.”
“I think you need professional help.”
“I’m getting professional help. Dr. Linväld is a professional.”
“I’m talking about hospitals. I’ve been researching them. There are some really nice places in the country. One in Middlesex that looks like a bed and breakfast. They give you a massage every night—I’d like to go there.”
“The loony bin, you’re talking about.”
“What is this, 1950? A mental health facility. For a little while.”
Alice got up to leave, and Charlotte followed. “Wait, wait. And I’d anticipated this reaction, too. So the other thing is, if you wanted to come stay with us.” “Us” was Charlotte and her boyfriend, Stuart, a talkative barrister and wine enthusiast. Alice pulled on her coat. It was the nicest, most unappealing offer anyone had ever made her.
“I’m really worried about you, Alice. Everyone is.” Charlotte was following her down the hall now, talking and cajoling, following her out of the building and onto the street, speaking in a strained, quiet tone about how many people loved her and how much she had to live for, and lots of other things like that. It was really quite dramatic, yet Alice still couldn’t shake the feeling of going through the motions, or playing something out that was already over. Everything felt like a copy of a copy of a copy. Charlotte’s voice faded behind her in a surge of pedestrians, then was blocked out entirely by traffic as Alice cut quickly across the road. Turning toward home, her phone rang again, and Alice tossed Charlotte’s smiling face into a nearby garbage can. This was all it was, she thought, just a discarding, a throwing away of it all. When you got down to it, it really was simple.
† † †
The simpler you could keep it, the better. That was her thinking, standing at her kitchen island, writing the note. She found herself mentally addressing it to Marie, whom she hadn’t spoken to in over a year. But that was who she had in mind when she apologized—not her sister or her nephews, though they were there, watching in a morose semicircle as she executed the words in her looping cursive; and not Charlotte, who would be terribly upset but whose ebullient toughness would carry her right through. It was Marie, Melbourne Marie now, bent over a salmon croquette en croûte with a small blowtorch, as Alice had most recently seen her on Instagram. “I’m so sorry,” she wrote, picturing that Marie. “I’ve tried to do better, but I’m just tired and don’t see any way forward. Everything seems over now. I hope you know, despite this, how really important to me you were, and that this isn’t your fault at all. Love, Alice.”
The writer in her rebelled against the maudlin quality but felt it was probably unavoidable, given the circumstances. She sealed the note in a plain envelope and stood the envelope in a crack in the island’s surface, supported at the back by an overripe, wrinkled pear. She didn’t want the note to get missed, lost in the macabre shuffle that would follow the discovery of her body, hopefully by her neighbor, a prim scold she’d never gotten along with. In the utility closet, she found a length of nylon cord she’d bought for tying up carpets in the last move. The iron chandelier overhead was obviously perfect, provided it could hold her. Her legs shook the chair beneath her, and she almost lost her balance but steadied herself with a hand on the chandelier. Tugging it first, then putting nearly all her bodyweight on it, she found it unfathomably secure, fixed to the ceiling with ancient screws of ferrous green. She tied the cord many times around the chandelier’s base and began looping a knot on the other end, the one where her neck would go.
As she did, it occurred to her that this was the first time in over a year that the crushing fatigue was gone. Her vivid aliveness in this moment was undeniable, as was the euphoria that seized her when she worked her head through the noose. If only there had been someone there to kill her every minute of her life, she thought—a great line and true. But even this would lose its novelty, become one more draining thing. That was it, then, all she had to do was kick out, it didn’t have to be graceful or practiced, and how could it be? Everyone was an amateur at this—another good line, she thought.
Standing on the chair, facing the gray square of her flat’s living room window, her view angled down toward Seven Sisters Road. An endless surge of cars interrupted now and then by people trudging through the drab wet. The pavement flickered blue, reflecting the snazzy signage of a new falafel automat named izmir. On the left edge of the vista sat the Tube station, constantly feeding on new victims while disgorging old ones. She looked away, at a picture of Marie on the wall, wanting that to be the last thing she saw. She pulled the noose tight around her neck, tensed one leg and prepared to kick out with the other. This was OK. This was good.
The doorbell rang.
The doorbell rang again. Using the cord for balance, she stepped down from the chair and answered it. “Alice?” Charlotte’s voice crackled up.
“Ring me in.”
“I’d rather not, if it’s OK.”
“I’ve been calling. This is ridiculous.”
“Charlotte, I’m not decent right now.”
She held her thumb to the talk button but couldn’t think of anything to say. Charlotte couldn’t come up, obviously, and Alice felt that the sight of her agent, damp from the weather and crowds she would have traveled through to check on her disturbed, errant client, would do her in. A passing horn split itself into two versions, one through the window and its staticky twin through the callbox. Charlotte said, “Let me up.”
“Goddamnit. Do I need to call the police?”
“And tell them what?”
“Come to the window, let me see your face.”
Alice went to the window and looked down. Two stories below, Charlotte peered up. Behind her sat the Tube entrance. Charlotte waved and Alice waved back, and Charlotte called up, “Come in on Monday.”
“I will,” she said. “I promise.”
She watched as Charlotte crossed the road and walked carefully down the wet stairs, disappearing into the dim glow of the station. In the bedroom, Alice pulled on a pair of old jeans and a cable-knit sweater. She tied her hair back in a rough knot. Into a shoulder bag, she threw a bottle of water, a granola bar, a legal pad and pen. The apartment door creaked open with a surprised, rising note, as though it hadn’t expected her to pass through it again.
As she crossed the street, the canvas Toms she’d quickly thumbed on plashed in a rut, soaking through instantly. The Tube entrance was in front of her, breathing out heat. She held her breath, grabbed the handrail, and forced herself down it, one step at a time, passed by a stream of Londoners who regarded her, if at all, as some kind of cripple or defective. Well, what if she was? Her heart thudded wildly in her chest as she reached the bottom, but she pressed on toward a fare kiosk embedded in the tile wall. She managed to get her credit card in but was unable to make sense of the machine’s buttons—hieroglyphic squiggles she stabbed at in vain. A rough terror seized the nape of her neck and pulled her toward the white tile ringing the exit. But she couldn’t go back, she knew what was there: the noose swinging in the empty room. She slumped against the wall.
She looked up. It was a Sikh man, his silken hair wrapped up in a pink turban. He said, “Are you OK?”
“Do you need some assistance?”
He let her use his card and gently led her through the gate. “Where are you headed?”
She hadn’t thought to answer this question beforehand. Which way was Charlotte’s? Was she even going to Charlotte’s? She shook her head, stumped. “Where are you going?”
He cocked his head. “Me? I’m going to work. Lewisham.”
“Right, me too. Lewisham.”
She clung to his arm, and he helped her down another flight of stairs to his platform. On a wooden bench, they waited, and she felt like more of a child than she could ever remember feeling. A train’s faraway approach shook the platform, and her heart was the same, juddering at a remove. A wet spot had condensed around her feet, and the tracks she’d made on the platform’s dirty concrete were already vanishing. “What’s your name?” she said.
“Good to meet you.”
“Thank you for this.”
“No worries.” He took his phone out, then sighed, seeming to remember it didn’t work down here. “You OK now?”
“What do you do, Phil?”
“I’m a med tech.” She’d noticed the green scrub pants, but everyone wore scrubs these days. “University Hospital.”
“Is it interesting work?”
He laughed. “It’s OK. Mostly getting the OR ready for surgery or whatever. You?”
“I’m a writer. Was, anyway.”
“I ever read you?”
“I don’t know. Alice Emmenthaler?”
He shook his head, the long delicate nose tapering to nothing at the tip. “Sorry, I go in more for sci-fi, stuff like that. You famous?”
“I was shortlisted for the Booker four years ago.”
They sat in a silence broken by the whine of metal scraping metal. Phil opened his mouth, then paused as though trying to decide whether to go on. He said, “Let me ask you something, you being a writer and all. Tell me if this sounds like a book. Me and some of the other techs about two years ago started keeping a photo collection of objects that got pulled out of people’s bodies in surgery.”
“I don’t just mean from out of their asses—pardon me—though that does happen. But things people swallow, or get stabbed with, impale themselves. We have to bag and dump the stuff, and me and my mate Keithsey decided, hey, let’s start taking photos. Like, this one woman, older bird, comes in with a stomach complaint, right? Turns out it was this tiny toy xylophone. Must have somehow swallowed it when she was a kid, had it in there for 40 years, no worries, then one day the high C starts jabbing her.” He looked up at the distant glow of the train’s headlight in the tunnel, a moment before Alice saw it. “I’d be canned if they found out. It’s pretty out of line.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
He grinned and leaned in. “Thing is, we started an anonymous Twitter last year, and we’ve got like 10,000 followers now. So I’ve been thinking, what if we made a book out of it, like a coffee table book.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m serious. I’ve got some of the photos on my phone here, if you want to see.” He pulled them up. Pictures of small objects, lovingly photographed, covered in the murk of the human body: a whistle, a can of grapefruit juice, an Army figurine. “What do you think?”
“I think it’s disgusting,” she said. “I think it’s great.”
He smiled at her reaction, at the smile on her face, and she realized he’d been worried, that he was reaching out to someone who seemed in need of help. “Hey, if you’ve got time, you could even come by the hospital, and I could show you our little collection.”
The train emerged from the tunnel, its yellow light cupped in front like a gift it was bringing from stop to stop. For the first time in so long, the moment she was living in was a new one, and the stale air she breathed was fresh, fragrant as spring.
“Yes,” she said. “Show me.”