How Far Down Does Down Street Go?

Published in Eyesore Magazine, September 2016

Last autumn I passed under oxblood-tiled Victorian arches and through an unremarkable padlocked door, to slip into London’s subterranea. Down Street tube station was closed to the public in 1932, ceasing the pulse of human bodies that rang through this now-chthonic world. The spectral grime of Victorian commuters, Blitz shelterers and millennial workmen remains, comingling down here in the gloom. I pass by Churchill’s bunker bathtub, like a photographic negative with the streaky white hand prints on its soot-caked surface, through wartime typing pools and committee rooms, and onto the abandoned platform.

My industrial torch is the only source of light in this interstitial in-between, until I feel the vibrations of an approaching train and hastily click it off. This is the Piccadilly line service rumbling between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park. A passenger’s face is lit from below with the glow of her phone, her eyes rapt and unaware of my invisible presence beside her for this instant. We are all someone else’s ghost, anyway.

As the lights of the train dwindle away, a tsunami of invisible soot rolls and breaks through the tunnel, human exuviae of hair and skin-dust bouncing like tumbleweed. I breathe in the ancient grime, slowly and steadily so as not to splutter. It gathers in my eye corners and nasal passages, a disturbing respiratory convergence of myself with Londoners past, the ghosts made tangible in my living body.

Time down here is measured out in the flaking surfaces of chemical decay, with objects held in half-stasis: the telephone exchange forms an excitable paroxysm of exploded wires, its dynamism made surreal by a thick grey blanket of dust; scabbed and mildewed walls peel, offering a geological showcase. The generations rub up against each other, whispering behind me as I ascend the stairs to the upper-world and emerge again, blinking, onto the street.

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