TICK: Chapter 1 – Curiosity

There was no mistaking it: the London Underground map had his name on it.

And not just any old Tube map, either.  It was one of those big, framed maps that stood proudly near the entrance to Bank station, where all clueless tourists could gape blankly at its tangle of colours.  He wasn’t a tourist to London – anything but!  Yet here he was, staring at the map, his name looking back.

And it wasn’t just random graffiti with his name mispelt and barely readable.  No.  Even that wouldn’t have been surprising: he was none too popular in some quarters around the city.  His name was there, on the Northern Line, between Tufnell Park and Highgate, printed on the Map where Archway should be.

He blinked hard, glanced around at the empty streets soaking in warm yellow lights, and looked again at the map, following the black line upwards: Kentish Town, Tufnell Park…

Tom Verbrisser.

Tom shook himself down, loosening his tie and pulling his trenchcoat tighter around him.  A breeze rattled a smashed milk bottle in the kerbside, the stench of sour milk stinging his nostrils.  He’d had a drink, and a sip of that cocktail Muezza had bought him, but that was it.  A drink.  He definitely wasn’t seeing things, and he knew that part of the tube map like his own home, because Archway was his stop for home.  It had said Archway that morning when he’d left, hadn’t it?

Tom drew himself up: only one way to find out what this was about.  He’d find a guard and ask him if this was some kind of joke: yes, that was it.  A joke.  Everyone in London knew Tom Verbrisser.  Obviously.  With one more look at the map (yes, still there), he descended into Bank station.

The ticket hall, however, rang with the sound of silence, completely deserted.  Tom frowned.  He looked at his watch, the diamonds reflecting the buzzing strip lights.  It was Friday night, and this was Bank Station.  So where was everyone?  If this is a joke, it’s a very elaborate one.

Shaking his head, he reached into his silk-lined pockets, looking for his ticket, when he saw another Tube Map pinned to the wall.  His name was there, too, looking as inconspicuous as everything else on there.  Tom’s palms perspired.  He grabbed a handful of tube maps from a leaflet holder, flicking each one open.

His name.

Tom Verbrisser,

Tom Verbrisser,

Tom Verbrisser.

On every last one.

He forced a laugh, and tossed the maps on the floor.  He fumbled for his ticket, loose change clattering across the tiles.  Finally he found it, and charged through the gates.  His own laughter echoed in his ears.

He stared forcibly at his shiny shoes as he descended the escalators, stairs and pathways to the platform, yet from every single map of the Northern line he tried to ignore, his name leapt out at him, coaxing him, teasing him.

Finally, he reached the platform.  The stale breeze buffeted his mess of black hair and sent his trenchcoat flapping.  The sign on the other side of the tracks declared, all too clearly, that he was a station.

Kentish Town, Tufnell Park, Tom Verbrisser, Highgate…

Taking a deep breath, he reasoned with himself.  This was a practical joke, certainly, but it must’ve been an expensive one.  Then again, he knew plenty of people in the City who could afford this kind of thing, and many more who would want to make him squirm.  Jackson, maybe?  He’d never taken kindly to Tom’s outbidding of that old Dockland property, then turning them into flats.  Jackson had big plans for a Youth Centre.  Huh.  Good load of profit that would make, Jackson…

A bead of sweat trickled into his eyebrow, and he dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief.  A dark shape moved in the corner of his eye, and he jumped aside.

Just another person joining the platform.  That’s all.  No need to panic.

The man looked sidelong at Tom with curious beady eyes.  Tom bit his lip, forcing his stare forward.  Damn, he recognises me.  There was no chance of asking him if he could read the map now, not if he wanted to look sane.  What could he say?  ‘Excuse me Sir, I’m Tom Verbrisser: yes, the Tom Verbrisser.  Pardon my interruption, but I appear to be a Tube Station.’

It was that darned newspaper article that had been printed last month: ‘High Rise: Meet Tom, son of the late Gareth Verbrisser, who is taking up the family mantle of Real Estate development and already reshaping London’s skyline.’  Why oh why had he agreed to be interviewed?  True, a lot of people loved his relentless buying up of derelict land and crumbling buildings, wiping it clean and resurrecting it – but a lot of people hated him for the exact same reason, and now they had a face to put to the name.  Not helpful when out in public.  Just the other day he left work to find his beloved Porsche ravaged, with a note stuck in the wiper reading; ‘Homewrecker!  I lived for 26 years in that place you called a ‘hovel’, and what did you flatten it for?  A tennis court?’  And so on.  Fortunately that madwoman had left her name on that note.  Tom sued her dry, and used it to pay for repairs to the Porsche, and buy that pair of designer sunglasses he’d been eyeing up.  A happy ending if there ever was one.

The breeze picked up, and a train rattled by, slowing to a stop.  He caught a brief glimpse of his reflection in the window: he looked tired.  And old.  Much older than eighteen.  Well, good.  It makes me look more like an adult.  Which I am.  No kid runs Real Estate.  Tom boarded, bombarded by the sheer number of maps plastered everywhere.  Every one of them with his name.  The doors slid shut, and they were off.  The familiar noise of the wheels thumping over the rails soothed him:

…clack-clack, clack-clack…clack-clack, clack-clack…

Tom looked around.  Five other passengers were scattered around the carriage.  A couple of them stared idly at the maps.  They didn’t look puzzled at the sudden changing of Archway’s name.  Were they seeing what he saw?  Perhaps he really was hallucinating.  If so, it was certainly a very realistic one: even the map he could see through the murky windows to the adjacent carriage had his name on it, obvious even from here.

Several stops later, they pulled up at Tufnell Park.  Tom looked at the familiar platform, and the station name on the gleaming Underground roundel.  As the doors closed and the train departed, Tom sat forward, bag on his lap, clammy hands clenched tight together.  The next station would be Archway: his stop.  Not Tom Verbrisser.  Archway.  He would alight and escape this stupid nonsense.  If it was a joke, it had long ceased to be funny, and if he was meant to be scared…well, job done there, he’d go to the office tomorrow, take it on the chin, and they’d laugh about it years from now.  He looked out the window, the black wall and grimy wires racing past in silence.  His own hazy reflection stared back.

…clack-clack, clack-clack…clack-clack, clack-clack…

The tunnel opened abruptly to harsh white light.

Tom Verbrisser Station.

Tom couldn’t hold back a weak, quivering gasp.  As the train slowed, it became all the clearer: the ribbon above the platform, the Underground roundel…all bearing his name as boldly as every other station he passed.  The layout and decor was clearly Archway, but if he hadn’t known better, he would’ve said this was Tom Verbrisser Station, and nothing else.

The doors hissed open, and he gulped back the lump in his throat.  He stepped gingerly over the gap, placing his foot carefully on the platform as though expecting it to fall through.  No, it was as real as anything else.  He emerged alone, and looked dumbly around.  Everywhere he looked, he saw his name.  His spine tingled.  The train pulled away, leaving him alone again.  He put a shaking hand on the nearest Tom Verbrisser roundel sign, and stroked his fingers along it.  It was real, and judging by the film of grime that came off on his fingers, had been there for a while.  That had said Archway this morning when I left for work, I’m sure of it.

Maybe the station had been renamed after him after all.  He was fairly well known, he reasoned, and he did live near here.  But if that were true, why hadn’t he been told?  And why would the powers that be suddenly alter all the maps in the space of one day?

He shook his head.  It wasn’t true!  It couldn’t be!  This…this was precisely what the joke was, of course!  It was no secret how ambitious Tom was, and many quipped about how heavily Tom was leaving his mark on the capital.  Many thought he was delusional.  Desperate to fill his father’s huge shoes.  What better way to prove that than making him believe a Tube Station was being renamed in his honour?  He looked up at the security cameras.  Maybe he was on one of those comedy shows.  Being watched by millions of giggling people in their homes right now.  It was just a matter of time before a camera crew and a smiley pair of showbiz presenters with tans in several shades would bombard him and tell him he’s been stitched up live, or something like that.  Well, either way, he wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of looking like a fool.  Whistling as casually as he could muster, he looked for the ‘Way Out’ sign.

No ‘Way Out’.  In its place, in identical black and yellow fashion, Tom Verbrisser, and an arrow pointing the way.  Still attempting to whistle, he followed the signs, leading him the usual way to the exit.  He fed his ticket through the gate, and emerged out into the cool, dark night.

Thank God that was over.  Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath of the smoke-tinged air and surveyed the familiar surroundings of the nearby factories and chimneys.  Only a short walk to home, now.  Nobody around to laugh at him or claim the joke was theirs, luckily.  It was over.  He took a step to home – and stopped, suddenly, jarring his knee.  One thing caught his eye that made his heart sink.

It was a road sign: one that read ‘Flehmen’s Junction: 1 mile’.  At least, that’s what it should’ve said.  Tonight, it read Tom Verbrisser, with an arrow pointing into a dark, weed-strewn alley.

Tom ground his teeth.  This was ridiculous!  It was late, he was tired, and he had a long day of planning ahead of him tomorrow.  I won’t play this game any longer!  He turned away from the sign, and headed the way for home.  Mere steps later, he stopped again, turned, and glared at the sign.

Tom Verbrisser. 

His breath rose before him as a plume of steam.

Try as he may, he couldn’t walk away: his curiosity was too strong.  What was all this about?  He wouldn’t find out if he walked away, that was for sure, and surely the signs wouldn’t be there in the morning?   This was his only chance…

Stupid, stupid, stupid, he muttered under his breath.  He plunged into the alley, tripping over the weeds and loose concrete slabs.  The distant hum of rushing cars on the nearby A-Road and Flehmen’s Junction gave him a reassuring sense that he was still in reality, though he half-wished he wasn’t.

The alley ended, bringing him into a loading yard.  Freight trucks loomed around him, flecks of mist licking around the corners.  Where now?  Then he spotted his name across the yard, in old rundown letters, over the boarded up entrance to the Old Dairy factory, long since abandoned.

Tom snorted, and made his way towards it.  Of course.  Now it was beginning to make sense.  He’d brought the rights to the Old Dairy some time ago, with plans to sell it on to the highest bidding budget supermarket when the chance came along.  Rarely, for Tom, it didn’t go as planned: a big supermarket opened up just down the road shortly after, ruining his chances.  It wasn’t a big loss, though, and the building came cheap.  Something would come up for him one day.

So what was all this about, then? he wondered as he used a rusty crowbar to pull off the chipboard covering the door.  Perhaps it was some airhead environmentalist or activist with an axe to grind, to show him he’s leaving this building to rot instead of doing something useful with it.  What do they want me to do?  Turn it into a rainbow-making factory? He chuckled at his own thoughts.

Part of him, too, was angry.  Truth was, all this buying of property wasn’t him – not directly, anyway.  Try as he may, he couldn’t escape his age, and had gone through his Dad first, who guided him.  Business had frozen over since he’d passed away and they sorted the will out, but still: the Old Dairy was just a project.  He didn’t ask to be given it.  Whoever cobbled together this joke spared no expense but neglected the research.

The chipboard splintered apart and clattered to the ground.  He threw a cautious glance around the yard.  He was alone, that was for sure.  He grabbed the door handle, and with a creak and a groan, it opened, and he stepped inside.

The stench of sour milk hit him hard, making his eyes water.  Rubbing the tears away, he noticed it wasn’t as dark as he thought it would be: the huge windows lining one wall let in the glaring floodlight from the 24-hour factory next-door, making the dusty milk bottles glimmer.  What shadows there were, though, were inky-black, and shifted and shimmered with shapes that were darker still.  Perhaps he wasn’t as alone as he’d hoped.  He cleared his throat.

“Hello?” he croaked.

Light flashed fleetingly from the farthest, darkest corner, followed by the sound of glass rolling over the rough, debris-covered floor.

“Who’s there?” Tom demanded, more confidently, “I should warn you; this is private property.  Get out now, or I’m calling the police.”

No answer.  Tom bounded over, blood pumping in his ears.  He didn’t care who was behind this whole charade, or why: whoever it was would pay dearly for wasting his time.

He reached the edge of the shadow, where the darkness seemed to stretch on forever.   The sound of the rolling bottle still chinked away, finally coming to a rest when it tapped his shoe.  Tom leant down, dusted his shoe with his cuff, and looked at the glass bottle.  It was covered in dust, save for one space where it had been pushed: a cat’s pawprint.

“What?” Tom mouthed.  He peered into the darkness.

Two cat’s eyes, green and wide, stared back.

With a heavy blow to the back of the head, he was gone.  Images swam by in dissolved, confused waves: the silhouette of a man, the caterwauling of many cats, headlights and a blasting horn rushing towards him:

…clack-clack, clack-clackclack-clack, clack-clack…

 

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