Hollow People

by Ali Mulaga

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           So I’m standing on this bus crouched next to the door, anonymous in a sea of commuters. My headphones are on at full blast so as to annoy the poor sardines next to me (kidding– I just like my bass loud). It’s so typical, the buses are full, the trains are full, but other than the turning of the wheels and the low roar of the engine, the only socially acceptable sound to emit is the occasional heavy breath or annoyed grumble.
           
During the lull of a song I think I hear someone speaking, so I pause the music to listen.
           “Why is everyone so sad?” a man asks to no one in particular. “I’m lookin’ around at everyone on this bus, and you all look so sad.”
           It doesn’t take long to identify who it is. He’s the only person on the bus talking, and loudly. He stands on the bottom step of the staircase, perched up and facing the crowd, speaking to everyone as if we’re there for him and not just going wherever we’re going. No one is reacting. No one even seems to be listening, but they must be because even with the Gorillaz playing at full volume I could hear this man preaching. Look, the dude is clearly a crackhead so I get why no one replies, but his monologue is probably the most profound philosophical tangent I’ve stumbled upon in real life and this is the reaction. Not that I’m about to tell him that.
           The bus is in standstill traffic. I can feel everyone around me wanting this guy to shut up, I can almost see the fantasies about telling him off. The cheers that would follow. But no one does. We all avoid eye-contact, and he carries on, undeterred by the lack of engagement from his audience.
           He digresses from his rant to comment: “This kid is looking at me like I’m weird, and that’s making me feel weird.”
           I stand there on the bus with my headphones over my ears and no sound coming out, fully attentive. He rambles on without pause and goes on to talk about economic class. He shouts about how taking the bus is so middle-to-low class. Everyone with money is out there driving their nice cars, their nice Mercedes and BMWs and here we all are standing on an overcrowded bus with metal rods that are hollow inside.
           Just to check, I give the light blue rod next to me a little tap.

           On my way to my friend Knot’s house later that night I’m sitting on the silent tube. Couples stare vacantly into the distance in opposite directions, categorizable only because they get on and off the tube together, not because they’ve actually said any words to each other. People give wary looks to the weird man reeking seventy percent of beer and thirty percent of pee but maybe they avoid him more because every few minutes he mumbles to himself and starts coughing up what seems to be both lungs and probably his stomach too. A woman asks the girl next to her to turn her music down. It’s really loud. Some people flip through the newspaper. Flip through, not read. I’m sitting on the silent tube, and I start to think maybe it’s not just the metal rods that are hollow inside.

           Isn’t it weird how people stand on escalators? It’s doing half of the work already, so just… walk up. It’s seems like more effort to be walking and then suddenly having to find footing, stop for a while, read advertisements, entertain the self, and then be aware when the top approaches, only to walk about fifty meters and do it again. Just walk up. It’s the same with moving walkways and people who take the elevator at the gym–  why?
           
I guess it’s none of my business.

           Some would say I’m late. I say time is an illusion; what is ‘late’ anyway?
           
“Late is when you show up after 10:30 and it’s no longer free entry,” is Knots’ smartass answer.
           Fine. So long as there’s still enough time for me to smoke a spliff before we go I’m not bothered.
           “Do you even have your ticket yet?” he asks.
           “Ticket? Where are we going?”
           “There’s this club in Camden. Koko,” my friend Matangi says. “It’s in an old theater.”
           “A club?” This comes out as a drone. “I say ‘let’s do something fun’ and you guys want to go to a club?”
           “Yeah, the website says they’ve got some good music on. Cool indie, alternative dance, eclectic pop…”
           None of this sounds appealing (what is ‘cool indie’?). I guess it’s clear from my face because my so-called friend says, “Come on, don’t be so… yourself. New year, new you! It’ll be fun.”
           “I’m sure it won’t.”
           Matangi smiles knowingly. “They said there would be bubbles.” She shows me the page when I call bullshit.
           Grudgingly I agree to go. But somewhere not that deep down I know there’s something better I can be doing with my life.

           I lose my friends in record-setting time. We don’t even make it onto the tube platform before I don’t know where anyone is or where I’m going. Vaguely I remember that my personal hell tonight is in Camden, so that’s the direction I go in. There’s absolutely no certainty this will work out. For all my crusades and rants about technology there are situations where yes, perhaps it would be useful to own a phone.

           When I find my friends standing in line outside Koko I can’t tell whether or not I’m relieved because now I have to go in. It takes me a while to cut through the line and when I do Matangi is waiting by the bouncer.
           
“You pay ten pound yeah?” says the bouncer when we get to him.
           “Isn’t it free entry?”
           “Until 10:30,” he says. “It’s 10:31.” Of course it is.
           “Let’s just go to the Blues Kitchen,” I suggest. “Or anywhere else.”
           “Everyone’s already inside.”
           Once we’re finished being robbed at gunpoint we walk inside and immediately have to start yelling at each other because there’s a Drake remix more shit than the original blaring over the speakers.
           “Where are our friends!” I shout.
           “What? I can’t hear you!”
           “What is this music?”
           “What’d you say?”
           “This already blows!” I complain, at this point talking at rather than to her.
           “Should we find the rest of them?”
           They’re on the dancefloor trying to dance. The DJ’s playlist must be titled something along the lines of “how to make people sway awkwardly” because that’s all that’s happening. Occasionally there’s a huge silver beach ball people tap around. No one seems to question the fact that we are not at the beach.
           After about twenty minutes I can no longer take the mindless shuffling and head upstairs on a quest for bubbles. The club being an old theater is labyrinthine and in seconds I have lost track of where anything is or where I’m going. I start to ask around but no one seems to have seen the bubbles. Someone suggests that it’s the large beach balls people are throwing around.
           “But beach balls aren’t bubbles.”
           A shrug is the only reply.
           Somewhere above I look over the edge and into the pit I earlier escaped. From up here it looks nothing like club scenes in the movies with the strobe lights and the good times. It looks more like the floor has gotten so sticky that moving around feels like molasses. They all look like zombies, aimlessly staggering around to a beat. And same with everyone upstairs, sitting alone at tables nursing warm beer. They stare at their phones, with the occasional look up to confirm that no one is paying any attention to them.
           No one seems to question the fact that it doesn’t look like anyone is having fun. Here they all are, hollow people in a hollow room, trying to figure out what mix of uppers and how much will it take to not care about how much fun they’re not having. Well, at least it isn’t just me. Except, I don’t take uppers because I like to know exactly how much fun I’m not having. Kind of like how I know I’m too high to deal with the bullshit of being here and somehow simultaneously I’m nowhere near high enough for it.
           In the bathroom I roll a joint. Retrospect is the realization that a grinder would have been a good idea.
           It dawns on me that for the second time in a few hours that I’ve completely lost my friends with no way of finding them. It must be something about the way I tend to wander off without saying where I’m going, but who can say really? At least finding them will kill some time. I check the dancefloor first, and it doesn’t take me too long to find the main staircase. When they aren’t where they were when I left I weave through the throng of bodies and see no sense of familiarity as I pass face by vacant face on my way to the opposite stairwell.
           Eventually I find them on the first floor, leaning against the railing looking out into the stroby abyss.
           I announce my presence. “Does anyone else really feel like smoking a joint?”
           “Oh god,” says Grace, looking over at me. “Please.”
           Over his shoulder Knots tells us,  “If you leave I don’t think you can come back in.”
           “Well, I’m convinced. Let’s get out of here.” Grace and her boyfriend, Mute (not his real name– I’ve always wanted to ask but his name is also the problem) are the only ones that want to come with me, so the three of us make a hurried exit for the door. We get lost in the labyrinth for so long I eventually become convinced that they’ve done this on purpose and there is, in fact, no exit. And then we see the glass doors, push them open, and draw in the freshest breath of crisp night air.
           The closest station is literally in front of us on the other side of the street, but we turn and walk down the other way. A kind stranger lets me borrow their lighter.
           “Well thank fuck that’s over with,” Grace sighs when I pass her the spliff.
           “Oh thank god, I thought it was just me. I felt really lame for a second. How is this thing that everyone says is fun so actually horrendous?”
           “I can’t believe we were there for so long.”
           “Yeah,” says Mute.
           “I knew I didn’t like clubs,” I say. “Don’t actually think I’ve ever been to one and now I know why. I should just stick with my gut, this is exactly what happened to me with pickles.”
           “Pickles?”
           “Pickles are wack, don’t let anyone tell you any different. I did, and I regret it.”
           “So why did the rest of them stay?”
           “Matangi and Knots are all squeamish about smoking in public after the police searched them that one time on Matangi’s birthday,” I explain. “ But look at how not arrested we’re getting!”
           In fact, there’s no one on the street we’re walking down. Gone are the beats manufactured from synthetic happiness, replaced by the random hum some buildings make, the wind rushing in the spaces between. London at night carries its own life, the subtle yin to the day’s boisterous yang. The streets empty, there is no roar of traffic, no stench of gas, but the conversation of people who pass by on the other end of the street carries its melody over.
           Grace and I chat– I feel personally victorious when Mute contributes a full three sentences to the conversation– and for a while none of us realize that we have no destination in mind.
           “Let me find a route home on my phone,” Grace says, mapping it out. When she gets it, we follow her, our conversations dancing around the world and back again. I learn about travelling in Morocco, how creative and cool a city Bristol is, and dream about living in the consistently beautiful Italian countryside. No one seems to notice how bad at directions Grace is until she says we should be at Kings Cross station and all we see is some chicken wire fence blocking off some construction.
           “Oh shit, I typed in Kings Cross the area, not station.” And then we’re on our way again, Grace apologizing for the mishap.
           “Don’t worry about it,” I tell her. “This accident has been much more enjoyable than something I didn’t actually pay ten quid for.”
           “I know what you mean, I actually really like walking around London at night.”
           “Me too. It’s a shame I only do it when I’m trying to get somewhere.”
           “Yeah, same here. I should do it more, we live in such a beautiful city.”
I look around, breathe in. “How lucky are we?”

           The platform on the night tube is alive. People are buoyant and vibrant on their way home with some friends with beer cans no one bothers to put in paper bags. No one looks sad, though there is that one guy passed out on the bench.
           The chatter is so overpowering it’s almost a strain to hear the train coming in. It’s full enough that we can’t sit down, but Grace scores the perch seat next to the side door.
           “Ah hey, you got the best seat on the train!” I tell her. The guy on the other perch spot looks over with a small smile.
           “You’re right, it really is the best.”
           “Trust me, the seats are overrated. Not even that comfy.”
           He laughs. “Do you wanna sit?”
           “Yeah, why not.” I perch and introduce myself. “What’s your name?”

           You know, come to think of it, I never did find those bubbles. Talk about false advertising, huh?

 

 

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Ali Mulaga is a full-time creative writing student, part-time hooligan. She Writes poetry and the ocassional disgruntled letter about vegetables. You can find her in her hammock somewhere.

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