Short Story – “The Line”

It’s been a while since I did any new creative writing and this is my first attempt in a while; something vague and dreamlike, written more to evoke a mood than much else. I feel it could go into some more concrete direction, but that would be another story for another time.


The city stretches in rows of silhouetted rectangles along the line of the railway like a crazy histogram, and as the train bounces you’d almost think the buildings themselves were moving in time to an unheard beat. Below the track, under the bridges that criss-cross between fifth-floor windows, there’s streets and alleyways that you’d never visit, the lost suburbia, the flyover districts so to speak. The city has grown inwards on itself. Ingrown urbanisation, people preferring to build up and add new crazy networks of bridges than accept that there’s a city out there of people that aren’t interesting.  This isn’t one city any more, it’s dozens of towns that share a space, and you’re part of one of them.

Of course, any people deemed uninteresting are going to be significantly more interesting than the right sorts. I’m looking up when I should be looking down, seeing the dancing bars painted onto a pink sunset and the lines of fog scraped into the sky by passing planes – but that’s all they are from this distance. Sterile, lifeless bars. Secondhand life, the signs of a city but not the people. But down below – there’s people in the street, windows close enough to see into. In a small flat, crazily L-shaped to squeeze it into a building that has had a chunk removed to let the trains pass, I see a cat pawing at a window and get a brief glimpse of a small kitchen where a woman in an apron is cooking. Another window opens into a gleaming white hall where a class of middle-aged office workers are doing aerobics. And below that still I can see a small park where there’s the trademark blue blazers and tartan stripes of skirt of school uniformed students enjoying the sunset.

Soon we will be deep enough into this lived-in, ignored city that the train will find it hard to reach its rattling top speed before stopping to let people on and off. I’ve been riding it for an hour or so, from the clinical, deathly out-of-town exchange station through the suburbs towards… what?

Why did I leave? Well, because there was nothing where I was, that’s why anyone leaves anywhere. Imagine a road scratched haphazardly around a mountainside above a lake-filled basin, and then a few more, and some concrete stairs to help you get from one to the other, and the rest of the space filled with ugly, boring buildings that eat away at what beauty the old town, precariously close to the top, might have to offer. I’m not chasing prosperity, as nice as it would be. I’m chasing a life that has anything at all going for it beyond school, then a dull commute to a dull college, and then a crushing lack of opportunity. And so the town that hangs over the lake is just this morning’s memory.

Next stop – Northside Avenue.

New life, here we go.

The station is a city centre platform, it’s a spit of grimy concrete with a rusty metal fence and the oppressive hum of the power-lines. There’s out-of-date posters, paint chipping from the stair rails and people exist on it while trying to ignore their surroundings. It’s the end of the working day. The platform is a sea of black and grey suits, and the blue-pink glow of headsets and phones. I’m going where they’re getting away from, that much I know. Go against the flow.

Pushing past, trailing bags, I take the stairs up to the walkways two at a time, and then the ones down to the street more slowly. The roof of the stairwell might have once been transparent to light it. Now it’s murky, speckled with moss or mould in black sprays, and throws a dim dusk light that’s just uncomfortable to the eyes. They called sunset on the lake the golden hours back where I was born, because the water burned from vivid autumn gold through the colours of fallen leaves as the sun slowly sunk behind the mountains. This isn’t that. It was a dramatic pink from the train as the evening lights of the city started to pollute it, but down here it’s a characterless orange. So again I look down towards where I’m headed, and see a line painted on the wall. It twists and moves like a ribbon in its own way, a deep, inky black that clearly disabuses you of the idea it’s some unintentional aberration. Someone drew this.

With nothing better to do, no idea of where to go, I’m going to follow it.

The painted line trickles along the wall of the bridge support, and I assume fairly soon following it is going to be a fool’s errand – after all, if it’s painted as a decoration around the pillar I’ll just come back to where I started. Except now I know what I’m looking for, I see those lines fanning out from every junction. It’s like someone’s traced out their walking routes building by building in indelible black ink, inviting me to follow.
And when there’s something like that, isn’t it natural to ask why isn’t anybody else following them? Do people not look down? Or am I the only one who can see them?
Streets pass. The lines are so obvious now, even when they loop up and around, skirting higher floors. The sun is by now deep below the highest buildings and murky half-light has replaced the blinding, burning sunset. It would be the yellow-grey of twilight, but this is a city, and it is a mess of colour from the signs of buildings. The same lurid lightscape that tinged the sunset sky pink now makes the streets daylight-bright. And the black line remains a constant.

Until it stops. I’m so used to looking for it that its sudden absence jolts me back into reality, a neon-lit convergence of alleyways walled with tall buildings full of restaurants, bars and shops. This was where the line I followed took me. Someone, something wanted me to be here.

Well, here I am.

Nothing is out of the ordinary. People enter and leave the buildings, there’s a dense roar of music and conversation all around. In this one square there are more people gathered than I’ve seen together in my hometown for years. Is this it? Was this all just some misconception? I turn. And, in a sea of suits and blazers, of the people of a city’s uninteresting parts, I see colour. Deep, vibrant blue. Not the dull uniform navy of schoolchildren, but a royal blue that catches the eye. Royal blue and deep, artificially black hair, standing out in the natural tones of the crowds. The sort of black that sucks the gaze in. The sort of black that-

The line. The woman’s hair in the evening breeze picks the line up again, drawing me upstairs, up past the point where I’m sure the building should have stopped. It’s the same greenish-tinged electric light, humming and sparking and flickering, the same concrete stairs spiralling up, as if the building is naturally extending as far up as the memory of the flowing black hair wants me to go.

And then there’s a door. There have been doors on every floor, at first welcoming entryways to shops, and then the entrances to small apartments, but none of those have been right. There has been no line encouraging me in. I’ve followed it so far, so I’m not stopping. But this door? It has a night-black sign in neat calligraphy on it. Come in.

This morning I left home not knowing where to go except somewhere else.

The door is unlocked.


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