A mechanical voice said, “This station is… London Bridge”. I entered the carriage, eyes glittering at my fellow passengers as I found my seat. They all quickly averted their eyes, as one does, burrowing them into phones and newspapers. Except, perhaps, for the woman facing me, her face semi-buried in a book, when for a moment her brown eyes flickered up into mine as we sat down. She held my gaze for a moment. Her cheeks were sharp and her brow stern, though laughter had cut little wrinkles around her eyes. She frowned at me and lowered her eyes again. I did the same. I looked everywhere but at anyone’s face, as one does.
And then I saw the fly.
It was balanced on my knee, trembling like a boiling droplet of water. It was so small that I could barely discern wings from body. It might even have been a speck of lint, except that it flicked itself heroically at me, once, twice, and finally crashing onto my thigh.
I froze, goose bumps crawling up my neck as the fly lurched slowly towards my groin. I imagined its frantic life terminating as quickly as it began. After hatching, a fruit fly larva will pupate, grow legs and wings, and reach sexual maturity in the span of just two weeks. The mature fly will then sail off into a feverish month-long odyssey of feeding, fucking, and fending off death, before finally reaching its doom. There is no heartbeat to measure the moments of a fly’s manic existence. Its life is one long sprint, powered by a constant flow of oxygen, seeping into its cells via its little trachea.
My eyes were fixed on the little fly, when it again flung itself up awkwardly, like a sliced golf swing. Was it trying to fly? Two hops. Three hops. Four. Until, on the last hop, the fly gave up. It lay wriggling on my leg as if it were being burned alive. And it dawned on me that the fly might well be fatally injured.
Springing into action, I tested what I assumed must be its vital signs, placing a finger near the fly on my leg. It lurched a few millimetres away from my finger, half-heartedly, and stopped. I placed my finger on the other side, sliding it ever so carefully into contact with the fly. It froze for a moment as we touched, and then lurched half-heartedly a few millimetres more before collapsing on my leg. The little fly has a complex little brain in an electrical storm of mortal fear. Perhaps this explains why, upon summoning all its fly strength, the little insect flung itself once more into the air, crashing down the side of my leg and into the furry coat of the woman beside me.
I gasped softly. Glanced up at the woman. Her eyes remained averted. I don’t think she saw the fly. Feeling my heartbeat rise, I discreetly sank my fingers into her coat, separating the furry tufts for a better look. Her eyes were still averted. No sign of my suffering companion. I didn’t dare move, for fear of crushing its tiny body. Placing my hand carefully back on my leg, I let my eyes fall heavily onto my empty knee. If the fly were to fall into one of the cracks on the floor or seat, it might well linger there for many torturous hours or days, its little neurons flooding its little fly brain with urgent signals of distress. I raised my fingers to my temple. A mechanical voice said, “This station is… Southwark”.
When all of a sudden, there was a miraculous stirring at the side of my leg. It was no bigger than a speck of lint. It crawled slowly, heaving its body in measured, determined steps, one after the other. After what seemed like an eternity, the fly reached the summit of my knee once again. Having apparently spent all its energy, it collapsed on its side, offering itself to me, the fly’s tiny body writhing as if in Brownian motion.
I looked fatefully on my companion, the right side of my lip twitching downward. Someone in my position might have wished to extinguish the little fly’s tortured life before it became any worse. Someone might have wished instead to let Nature take its course. After all, who am I to decide the fate of flies? Myself, I simply panicked. No right decision came to mind, no reasoned will to act. Nor was there any time to deliberate. As my heartbeat pounded out the passing moments, I knew that not acting was already becoming a decision. I didn’t ask for this responsibility. I didn’t want the choice an act. So I decided to act as randomly as I could.
I felt my blood pressure rise slightly, and let my lips part as my breathing quickened. I continued staring down onto the fly. I would not let this go on for more than a few seconds, I told myself. The fly lurched forward a few millimeters. I felt my heart racing. I will take its life, or I won’t, I thought. It lurched forward again. A decision had to be made soon. I was suddenly aware of the rattling train on tracks, screeching as we rounded a corner. My ears were filled with the roar of the carriage. My eyes saw nothing but the fly.
Then, with a loud “slap”, I violently struck my knee with my bare hand. A carriage full of eyes flickered briefly towards the source of the noise, before quickly returning to their phones and newspapers. I took a deep breath. I exhaled a sigh of relief. A mechanical voice said, “This station is… Waterloo.”
My hand still resting murderously on my thigh, I raised my gaze a little. And there she was, the woman reading the book. She still sat facing me, but her book was lowered, her eyes wide, a shocked smile forcing itself onto her lips. She was a witness to my fall from grace. The man next to her stood up to exit the carriage, and I quickly took his seat beside her. I kept my guilty right hand on my knee, and placed the other one gently on the arm of the chair between us.
We spoke rapidly and easily. We spoke about the ethics of ambiguity, about suicide and the absurdity of life, about the glass tunnel with darkness at the end. We poured deeply into each other, asking for meaning and understanding, and offering both generously. After a few moments, when there was a pause, we just held each others’ gazes for a moment. A mechanical voice said, “This station is… Westminster”.
My station, and I stood up. We thanked each other and said goodbye. I looked back in her direction as I exited the carriage, but by then it was impossible to see her through the crowded throng. They marched together towards the escalator, eyes downturned. I wiped the crushed fly onto my trouser leg and joined them.
London, 6 June 2017