The train, already rolling along at snail pace, finally shrieks to a determined stop. Outside, the deep darkness of the tunnel, heavy and silent. The carriage is crowded, more so than normal on this day of delays, and one or two people let out a sigh. Others, used to such incidents, continue reading books and newspapers.
Without the sound of the train’s electricity, other sounds fill the gap. The buzzing of music seeping from headphones, the beeps of smartphones and snippets of conversation. One minutes passes. No announcements are made over the train’s intercom system, and eyes begin darting around the carriage. People put their weight onto another foot, and lean heads and shoulders against windows and doors. The temperature seems to rise by a degree or two.
“La fenêtre s’il vous plaît” requests one lady, but those nearby can’t open it. They’ve already tried and it’s stuck. People smile and scoff, but this is an older generation of train. Just one window in the carriage is open, and the oxygen is already starting to taste second-hand.
Two minutes become three and still there is no announcement and no movement on the line. People twist in their tiny individual spaces, trying to find an extra few inches of room. Conversations stop and faces turn to frowns. A quick look at watches, then mental calculations about missed connections and appointments.
After four minutes, suddenly there is movement and raised voices by a doorway. A girl is struggling for breath and looks ready to fall. She tries to open the door, but it is locked tight inside the tunnel. ‘I need air’ she says and people try to cool her and calm her down. A ripple of nervousness spreads outwards. All we need now is someone collapsing in here.
She is moved close to the single open window and drinks in the stale air of the tunnel. A problem averted for now, but who will be the next to panic if the train doesn’t start moving soon?
People now become acutely aware of their environment. We are now no longer in a train but instead closed in a tight metallic box deep underground. Without any visual clues, we don’t even know where we are. There is no immediate escape - all we can do is stand and wait.
And wait. Five minutes, six minutes, and the thin threads that hold society together are starting to strain. How many more minutes before they snap all together? Our mental barter for such close physical proximity is the fact that something is moving us forward to our destination, but when the movement stops, the odours, the coughs and the warmth of people’s breath become ever more intensified. We don’t even stay this close to our families for such lengths of time.
Seven minutes, eight minutes now, but what would happen if we were stuck here for 30 minutes, an hour, two hours? Look around at the faces. Who would break down and who would become a leader? How would our new micro-society organise itself? Would we make space for each other, let people take it in turns to sit down, tell each other about our lives above ground, and wait for help? Or would we instead silently form escape groups and frantically try and break through doors and windows?
Nine minutes then ten, and happily an unexpected rumble as the engine is engaged and the train shunts forward. Smiles and relief and a return to our individual spaces and routines. 10 minutes only, but time seems twice as long in the rarefied atmosphere of the Metro. 10 minutes, we tell ourselves, not 69 days, but we're still glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel!