The route home Lloyd assumed he was taking was never advisable after dark, and many even made alternative arrangements before dark. But the piss-stained, cracked and cocained subworld of the underpass of the underclass Lloyd was about to enter was the only option if you lived south and wanted to avoid the swaying, shouting cab queue at Turpenton East station, or the night buses rammed with swearing, sweating and shouting knife wielders with forked tongues, or the unpredictability of the illegal cab drivers who plied their lecherous trade up on the surface.
Lloyd descended into the subway, recalling it had been the scene of several murders in the last few years. He couldn’t remember if there’d been three in the last four years, or four in the last three. Either would have been enough to send a chill down his spine, had it not been enveloped in his beer jacket, that cloak of warmth and invincibility that embraces the drunk.
As Lloyd’s steps echoed through the subway, he tortured himself with visions of shining knives wielded by dirty hands being thrust into his meaty flesh and slicing through a pulsing artery, giving rise to a fountain of blood. He thought about those murders (it was three in four, no, four, definitely four in three), the murderers apprehended and jailed now, their places, their sleeping bags, their blades in this subterranean hostile hostel taken by murderers-in-waiting who used the underworld as a pisser cum shitter cum bedroom cum lounge cum training ground.
Lloyd glanced at sleeping bags stirring like writhing slugs in the dank recesses, the grey and graffitied concrete pillars serving as resting posts. A man was sitting with his back against one pillar, his head tipped back, eyes watery and vivid, watching a lane of liquid slowly make its tearful way down another pillar from the surface. So entranced was this man by this trickle from the sky, he didn’t notice Lloyd walk past, mentally prepared for an approach or attack from one of the urchins. Lloyd felt armed and invincible, his beer jacket fashioned from chainmail, the house keys he gripped in his pocket poison-tipped daggers ready to be swiped at an addict’s throat, and swiftly followed by a winding blow to the gut and a knockout knee to the chin. Lloyd was ready to teach the losers down here that not everyone who lived up there was easy-pickings.
As he walked unchallenged, Lloyd felt the haze of inebriation bowing before the irresistible force that was the hangover. And Lloyd knew the hangover that awaited him was an express delivery from hell. He squinted at the path ahead, recognising the steps that led up to street level ten metres in front of him. Their familiarity relaxed him, but as he approached them he froze. Someone was behind him. Running towards him. Shit. He felt an inexplicable thrill. This was more like it. Finally, some action. The subway was about to live up to its reputation. A drug-addled assailant was preparing an assault. Maybe a fifth murder in four years (or would it be the fourth in five?)
Lloyd steeled himself for the shouted ‘Oi’, swiftly followed by a profanity-filled threat, spat with bad breath through a matted beard.
Lloyd imagined the runner wielding a pick-axe, ready to bury it in the back of his skull, Trotsky-style. Lloyd considered turning to pre-empt the assault, catch the assailant by surprise with a stab to the chin, but that would risk taking the pick-axe to the forehead.
He slowly walked up the first few concrete, phlegm circled steps, knowing each could be his last. Whoever was behind him, their heavy breathing was now audible. Lloyd clenched both fists, wishing one rock-like super-powers that would fell the mightiest foe with a single blow, wishing the other bravery and accuracy as it gripped the keys.
His assailant-to-be took another step nearer and Lloyd swivelled, clenched fist ready to connect with a jaw or gut. Instead, he saw an ashened-faced man in a pin striped suit, shirt undone to his waist and stained chilli sauce red all the way down the button strip, carelessly folded tie leaking out of his trouser pocket like the head of an abducted snake. He appeared to be running for his life, or home to his wife (both equally serious), taking the steps up to street level three at a time.
Lloyd watched the guy, admiring him for risking the subway alone and in a suit, as red a rag as you could dangle in front of the tramps down there. Lloyd ran up the final few steps and called after the guy, ‘Hey, what you running from?’ But the guy’s head wasn’t for turning. Lloyd looked back down into the underpass but saw no one.