by Sammy Chen
To Xing right now, the world is but a series of doors and windows, windows and doors. She
exhales softly to compose herself, feeling the coolness of the expulsion against her rounded lips. As she stands a little behind the yellow line, the black screen blinks to
Epping 1 min
Xing closes her eyes, and listens to the familiar rumbling of the approaching train. The eastbound Central line in Tottenham Court Road Underground Station always sounds the loudest to her. She imagines a lumbering beast hungry for prey. She imagines a ghost ship caught in the merciless peaks and troughs of a tempestuous sea, its pirates whooping in equal measures of ecstasy and panic. Perhaps these are the cries of souls who are lost to human history, bound to wander indefinitely beneath the thudding of mortal feet. Usually she wouldn’t bother with such poetic outlooks. After all, this is just the tube. A tube - like toothpaste. Like a bottleneck, or the naked cardboard roll exposed when the last square of tissue falls away. It is cold too down here, down in these mezzanine depths. Here, Xing is invisible. Just one of many who await the beast, the pirate ship, the spirits.
The tube screeches into place, sending with it a cutting wind that pushes the world to the right for a few seconds. Xing doesn’t wait to watch the doors align and instead tightens the grip on her cotton tote bag, half-frozen fingers curved in a secure lock around the wrinkled straps. Around her, people much taller, much sadder, and much busier edge forward to the call of the tannoy.
It is a rallying of troops. Troops that trudge through mud. She slips almost feline into the corner, and tucks her tote bag in one motion between her feet, bracing herself for the inevitable jolt as the train - no, this Spanish fighting bull - digs his front cloven hooves into the sand. War. This is how the rest of us go to war.
Across from her, Xing allows herself a blank open gaze at the unfortunate stranger caught in the lights. The man wears a suit, steel grey against a cotton pink tie, and he has one hand on the top rail while the other clutches a briefcase worn at the bottom corners. Xing’s eyes dart away disinterestedly, and lands on a woman’s leather Mary Janes with beige stockings and old, old knees. When she glimpses a small sickle-shaped scar around the ankle Xing quickly returns to her own shoes, as if she had seen something intimate of this stranger that she wasn’t invited to. A past pain that she does not share. The suit of a man shifts his feet, and coughs a grunt. Or grunts a cough. In what seems like another universe, the scarred ankle tenses and relaxes.
Tannoy. Pulled by gravity to the right- and back center. Doors open.
Xing closes her eyes as one person leaves and more than one alight. She imagines she is home and resists the smile of nostalgia. No one would notice either way, but she was taught to be considerate in kindergarten. Other people’s nostalgia do not settle well into the air of a moving underground train. It lingers instead, like the way a hospital smells. Hostile and not hostile all at once. So, Xing keeps her eyes shut and lets the train take her back-
“Ah ger! I’m home! How was your day?”
Xing’s heart lifts as she hears the front door click open and close, the rattle as her father deposits the keys into a glass bowl and relieves his shoulder of its paper burdens. He brings with him the unmistakable aroma of fried chicken, and (bingo!) the white styrofoam containers of zap fan - takeaway mixed rice. Her stomach whines for her to draw closer, and she does, hands reaching to help with the plastic bags.
“I’m okay. You?”
Her father has turned to empty his pockets onto the wooden countertop and Xing watches each one unearth like treasures. Wallet, loose change, loose change, squashed receipt, smartphone. His wrist wriggles loose from the watch, and at this - his work is done for the day. He is home, and home is where you can rest.
“Mmm - hai gam lah, normal normal.”
From the living room, Xing’s mother pauses the TV show with the remote and turns to look at her daughter and husband. The back of her hair is slightly pushed up from the way she had been reclined on the couch.
“Good! Normal is good! Eh, my boss give me a job to hon gok, sap mm hou.”
The spotlight turns onto her, and Xing and her father happily oblige.
“Wah! A trip to South Korea? Mom, you’re so lucky! I’m almost jealous…”
Xing pretends to pout and narrows her eyes, bursting into giggles when her mother smirks in a mock victory. Her giggles trail along as she goes into the kitchen, untying the plastic bags and opening the styrofoam cases, transferring the food into three separate plates. A large bowl for the white radish soup. Three glasses of water. Six chopsticks, three forks, three spoons - and voilá. Dinner is served.
As she re-emerges from the kitchen into the warm yellow glow of the living room with her parent’s plates in each hand, Xing observes their appreciative smiles. Their cheeks are splattered with the glow from the television screen. Once everything was set out on the coffee table Xing settles with folded legs beside her mother, ready to share the details of her school day in tandem with the Cantonese drama unfolding before them in HD.
“Eh, mi, today I got my test paper back for
This is the Central line train to: Epping. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.
The world pushes to the right. Open your eyes, Xing. London again. Not home.
Her parents are nestled in her coat pocket now, their good nights and good mornings occasionally in the wrong order because they are on the other side of the Earth. Xing is back with her windows and doors. Back with the tannoy for lost people, back with her tote bag of groceries for one.
Hoisting her burdens back onto her shoulder, Xing inhales the staleness of strangers.
Resigned, she folds the memory into a neat little paper swan, and stores it beside all the others as the her stop rolls into view in the form of lime brick pillars and metal benches. Xing thinks about the dinner she will prepare tonight. She considers her schedule for tomorrow, making a list. She finds herself making many lists since she got here.
As she nears the escalators, a busker’s voice croons out from the rushing chill, his raspy baritone vocals flooding her lungs with a sudden unexplainable ache.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
And aaaaahhhh think to myself-
Her phone buzzes and Xing checks the notification.
Dad: Remember to eat nice dinner yah
- What a wonderfuuuuuuul world.
Give yourself some time. Give London some time.
Another buzz in her pocket.
Mom: Good night girl. We know you can handle it and we love you so much.
Surfacing from the underground into the night, Xing glances at her wristwatch and coaxes the loose strings of herself together once again to face another night and then another day of windows and doors. That’s right. No wars. No beasts. No pirates and ghosts.
Just windows and doors.
That’s all it is.