Body odour. Stale sweat mixed with cigarettes and last night’s alcohol. And occasionally weed. That’s the smell I associate with the tram and no matter the season, it’s always there, never letting you forget that you are part of the throng, another piece of cattle to be squeezed in and herded from A to B.
I used to take the tram every day.
When you live in the city centre and work on an industrial estate out on the edge of the suburbs, as I do, it’s by far the quickest and cheapest option. And the trams themselves are not the rickety, quaint transports of old. No-no-no. These machines are silver and slick, no doubt modelled on continental high speed trains. They don’t trundle, they glide, powered along by the invisible hands of complex electrical systems. But despite their modern trappings the smell is always there, loitering, reminding you that you’re part of the masses.
But I don’t take the tram anymore. I can’t, not after what happened that night.
The bulk of the day passed like any other; meetings, coffee, computer screens, more coffee, phone calls. I spent my time metaphorically racing up and down the supply chain, chasing lost stock and releasing new orders like some kind of digital huntsman.
Logistics, they call it. I always envision it as a dog tirelessly chasing its own tail.
I’d normally be done and out of the office by six, but that day dragged on and on. I found myself clocking out at half eight, mentally drained, animated only by caffeine and the desire to get home.
When I arrived at the tram stop it felt different somehow, almost expectant. Night had fallen and the only light came from a flickering orange bulb overhead. I took out my headphones and found the place completely silent. Not quiet, but actually silent. Even the sound of traffic on the flyover was absent, a sound usually as enduring as waves breaking on the shore. Perhaps the road had been closed for maintenance? Stranger things have happened.
The automated sign above the ticket machine blinked the words ‘City Centre – 2 minutes’.
I thought no more of the lack of background noise and replaced my headphones, getting lost in the beats and the melody.
Normally it’s possible to tell when the tram is pulling up. First there comes a gentle rumble through the floor, enough to make your toes tremble. Next, a set of bright lights will shine from the tunnel underneath the flyover.
But not this time.
This time the tram approached stealthily, dark save for the lights inside. It caught me off-guard as it drew up to the platform and came to a halt in front of me. I gathered myself and hit the small round button for the doors. They slid open and I walked through the carriages, looking for a seat I could slip into and disappear for the next twenty minutes or so.
At this time of night the tram would normally have a few regular types of passenger: a gaggle of students, merry from pre-gaming before a night on the town, an older couple or two off for a quiz night at a local pub, the odd suspicious youth, hood pulled down and hoping for a free ride, commuters heading for the train station and hoping to catch the last ride home.
As I nestled into a seat I noted the people aboard, all of them variations on the typical themes. But something wasn’t right. They all sat rigid, their eyes fixed directly ahead. I took out my headphones. Normally there would be drunken hoots or loud conversations into mobile phones, at least the tinny drumbeat of recorded music.
But I heard only silence.
The air in the carriage was thick with tension, as if everyone on-board had taken a deep breath in and nobody wanted to be the first to breathe out.
And then I noticed something else; the smell. A rich and earthy smell, like freshly turned soil now hung in the air, replacing the usual funk of body odour, tobacco and alcohol.
The hairs on the back of my neck began to stand up and away from my skin. A small voice in my head whispered to me that something wasn’t right.
We rushed past the next stop. No one had pressed the bell, so this wasn’t unusual, but I’m sure I saw people waiting on the platform as we sped by. And we seemed to be accelerating, enough to feel the unseen force pushing me gently but firmly back into my seat.
Still no one spoke.
A clunk at the front of the tram caught my attention, and I saw a conductor step out of the driver’s cabin. ‘Thank God,’ I thought. Maybe I could ask him why we were going so fast.
The conductor stood tall and thin in a fluorescent vest and a cap pulled down low so that I couldn’t make out his face. “Tickets, please,” he said to the first passenger he came to, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of another person’s voice. But the traveller continued to gaze forward as she raised an arm slowly, lifting up a small square of paper. The conductor took it, looked it over and then handed it back, apparently unbothered by the woman’s behaviour. As he moved on down the carriage I noticed her stand up and fall into line behind him, her head bowed down. The next passenger, an elderly man, also showed his ticket to the conductor before he too landed in step after him. A group of young women did the same, the tall man in the yellow vest leading his new followers as if in some solemn march.
We shot past another stop and the lights in the carriage flickered and dimmed. When they came back to full strength I saw a dozen or so figures now shambling behind the conductor. And they were getting closer.
The earthen smell grew stronger, climbing up my nostrils and making my head throb.
I pressed the bell for the next stop. I didn’t care where it came, I wanted off this infernal tram and away from these people. But the bell didn’t ring and the conductor drew ever closer, the silent parade growing behind him. I could see him more clearly now, his skin and what little showed of his face were gaunt and pale.
I nervously got up from my seat and headed towards the very rear of the carriage, hoping to find the emergency stop lever or at least the button with which to alert the driver’s attention.
As I passed the last set of seats the lights failed and I fell against the safety rail, winding myself. The lights came back on and I turned around slowly, gingerly.
All the passengers now stood squeezed into the last carriage, scores of them crowding around me on all sides. Old and young alike filled the space, in the aisle and crouched on seats, staring at me with dead, soulless glares. The conductor stood before me, his face mere inches from mine. I winced as he raised his cap and a pair of black and empty eyes gazed at me, through me. The wrinkled skin on his dishevelled face pulled tight across his cheeks as he grinned and opened his mouth to speak.
His breath smelled cold and fetid, like a freshly dug grave.
I reached into my pockets, searching futilely for my travel card. “I have… I can’t find…” I stammered.
“Please, just give me a moment…”
Cold, lifeless hands reached out for me as the conductor and the passengers all lurched forward as one. I managed to somehow twist and wriggle away from their grasps and reach the door, but I was trapped and then they were on me, pushing me down, their clammy flesh pressing against my body, suffocating me.
“Tickets, please,” they said in flat, monotone voices.
Black shapes swirled across my vision as I fell to the floor, my back pressed against the door. Gnarled fingers clawed and pulled at my face, dead weight crushing me.
I tried in vain to free one arm, hoping to reach up for the button which released the door, even though I knew it wouldn’t open whilst with the tram in motion. It felt like my only chance as the last drops of air were squeezed from my lungs.
With one last effort I squeezed my hand out of the wretched throng and caught the circular button, pressing down on it with all my might. The door opened and I tumbled backwards. “I have a travel card!” I remember shouting as I fell.
Time slowed to a crawl as the weight lifted from my chest, and I took a lungful of sweet, clean air. I fell downwards and sideways as the tram careered on through the night. I braced myself for the impact of the ground. At this speed my neck would surely snap the instant it struck the concrete.
But nothing happened.
I found myself laid out on the platform by the industrial estate, the steady sound of traffic in the distance, the orange bulb fizzing overhead.
‘City Centre – 2 minutes’ flashed the sign.
I think I walked home that night. I’m not sure. I called in sick to work the next day. And the next. All I could do was lay in bed, afraid to shut my eyes but equally afraid to keep them open.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m crazy, or hallucinating. Maybe I am. Maybe I was. But I will never take public transport again. I cycle to work, or failing that, I walk.
I don’t mind the exhaust fumes of the nose-to-tail traffic. There’s no body odour, no whiff of old tobacco or stale alcohol, no stench of freshly dug earth.
And there are two words that when uttered together fill me with dread, two innocuous little words that I never wish to hear spoken again.