This is the very first short story I wrote, back in 2009. I entered it into the Western Districts Short Story Competition and was amazed that although it did not place among the 18,000 entries, it did get a highly commended award. Each of the observations in the story are, more or less, true events that I witnessed during my time living in London. When it was published, many of my friends didn’t quite get that it was written from a metrosexual male’s perspective, rather than my own female perspective. So perhaps I failed to communicate that adequately. I think I’ve come a long way in my writing since this piece, but I’m still very proud of it, as it signifies my first real success as an author.
I am a commuter. I am many things, but like 3.7 million other people, I spend a couple of mindless hours every day commuting through the metropolitan region of London. Most days I will use the London Underground for at least one stage of my journey, if not the entire way. Other times, I might get on a bus, or go overland on Brit Rail. It all depends on how I feel and where I am heading.
Provincial visitors to London often comment on how bored the commuters look.
“They wear a glazed expression.”
“Nobody talks to anybody, not even to pass the time of day.”
Visitors are mystified as to how people can become so glum.
“Perhaps it’s the weather.”
Truth is, most people simply use this time to zone out, to catch up on the daily news, to go over their plans for the day or to relax before going home to the relentless kids and nagging wife, ahem spouse.
I use the time to think up plots and create characters in my head. Maybe I’ll commit them to paper later, or maybe I won’t. I don’t use my laptop on the train. It’s the one rule I have. I can’t bare to have people reading over my shoulder.
I do not get the luxury to write during the workday either. I’m a travel consultant with a corporate travel agency on Cannon Street in the City. The phone rings off the hook. My days are mad and lunch is always on the run except the odd occasion when I get to take the clients out. Our clients are usually secretarial or support staff from stuffy firms. They are uniformly dying to let their hair down, and I’m just the man to help them. In fact, I consider it my duty … but I digress.
My usual tube trip is a short walk to Bank station where I get on to the Central Line and arrive at Shepherd’s Bush in the shortest time. But if I don’t feel up to the crammed carriages, I may pop across the road to Monument Station and get on the green District Line either backwards to Aldgate East where I can change to a Hammersmith and City pink tube to Shepherd’s Bush Market, or I can head directly west to Hammersmith leaving me with a brisk 15 minute walk home. If it’s raining, I take a bus. But it doesn’t seem to rain here nearly as much as people think.
Today, I have decided to take the pink line. Yes it means changing trains, but the final station is the closest to home, and I’m not in the mood for walking. Oh, and I can’t be bothered fighting the crowds for the next train at Bank Station. I’ve had a hard day. One of my loveliest clients complained about my last invoice. I had thought she might be a prospect.
I file past the flower barrows. I don’t have anyone special to buy flowers for, so I ignore the ubiquitous street cries and flip my Oyster-card into the turnstile. Just as I do so, the strap on my laptop bag comes loose at one end, and I momentarily stop while I gather it back up. A kid, maybe 20-something, grabs the opportunity, going through on my card and pocketing it afterwards. Flabbergasted I look around to see if anyone else saw it happen. The commuters are annoyed that I am blocking progress and push past. I decide to head towards the ticket office and see a ticket
collector beckoning me from the manual exit.
Apparently he saw it happen and escorts me to the ticket desk where I am fortunate enough to get a replacement. While I’m waiting for my temporary ticket I give a description of this thief, this gate-crasher. But my description fits half the population under 25. Dirty blonde, thin, average height, several facial piercings, black trackies, black t-shirt.
I head down the escalator, keeping a lookout for the guy. I have no plan of action if I do see him. The familiar pervasive ozone smell greets me but I expect it and don’t react anymore. Neither do I stand looking for the train. I will know when it arrives, by the cold wind which proceeds it and the familiar wooshing noise. I head to the end of the platform because I know that the stairs I need to take at the next station will be near the back of the train. Two minutes later I get on. It’s not that crowded, although all the seats are taken. I’m standing with several others. We all find neutral spaces to stare at and I settle in for the short dual-step ride. “Stand clear of the doors.”
Suddenly there is shouting. It is not the ordinary sounds I expect to hear and I peer out the windows to see what the commotion is. The train is starting to roll forwards. “Stop the train! Stop!” People on the platform are shouting. I can see them mouthing these words and waving at us. An obese looking woman standing in front of me thinks there is a child caught in the doors further up the carriage. She is giving us short sharp updates on what she can see. I look around wildly for the stop lever. The train is speeding up. It will be too late. I am clambering over to the lever. There is no time to issue instructions. A pinstriped suit gets there first. The train screeches to a halt and we are flung forwards into each other. I manage to grab a handle to steady myself. The doors open and I peer over the obese woman’s shoulders. She turns and says loudly. “Look at the poor wee laddy. Nearly met his end, I’ll wager.” Relieved, I smile and agree. The child’s mother is rocking her son back and forth on the platform. Staff members are running towards the pair. People are crowding around. Our view is blocked. I turn to the pinstripe and congratulate him. The obese woman begins to clap. Unexpectedly everyone starts clapping, even the pinstripe himself. I reflect that occasionally London commuters do communicate.
I’m beginning to wish I’d taken the Central line, but soon we are underway and pulling into Aldgate East in the middle of Whitechapel. I swap trains uneventfully and easily find a seat on this tube. We head back into the City. My mind is filled with images of the boy’s near miss and remembering a previous incident where the child wasn’t so lucky. Before long we pull into King’s Cross station and I watch as tourists enter. I can tell they are tourists, because of their suitcases, which could either indicate they’ve arrived from the airport on the Piccadilly Line or it could be they’ve arrived overland at St Pancras Station. It soon becomes clear that they’ve come directly from the airport.
“Look at all the sad and lonely people. Why don’t they smile?” an overly loud voice carries easily over to me. I cringe and frown disgustedly as I recognise the accent to be a fellow Kiwi.
“Look at that man. He looks so angry,” one whispers to her friend. I glance up out of the corner of my eye to see them looking at me. “Hello,” she tries to engage me in conversation, but I won’t be assuaged. I glare at her and look away. “How rude. These Brits are so rude,” she exclaims. I sigh, remembering my first impressions of London when I arrived six years earlier.
“They are all so pasty, that’s what I don’t get,” says the second girl, far too loudly. Again I glance at them sideways, noting their tanned skin, bare arms and the rubber flip-flops or perhaps I should be calling them jandals.
The doors open at Baker Street and we wait while the girls maneuver their luggage out of the carriage. Two teenage Japanese girls get on. I stand up to offer them my seat, feeling ashamed that I hadn’t thought to offer it to the Kiwi girls. Although on reflection, they would probably have preferred to stay near their luggage. The teenagers take the seat without even a second glance at me. I roll my eyes. Yes I was expecting a simple thank you. I’m ashamed to admit that in spiteful retaliation I stand right beside them and lean in towards their seat slightly, making less room for them to sit. For the next two stops the girls spend the entire time giggling and speaking their unintelligible language, their heads bent over handheld gadgets. Finally these interlopers get out at Paddington. I quickly drop back into my seat.
Leaning forwards I rub my temples. It has been a trying trip home today. I think about the chilled bottle of Marlborough Sav Blanc waiting in my fridge. I am still another 40 minutes away from it’s welcoming embrace.
Someone slips into the seat beside me. At first I ignore her, but a very slight fragrance catches my attention. I slyly steal a look and find an attractive woman dressed in a tight black suit with a sexy top revealing an enticing piece of cleavage and a gold chain necklace. I decide she is perhaps a little older than myself. She catches me staring and smiles slightly before delving into a magazine. I consider breaking into a conversation, then dismiss the idea as ridiculous.
To take my mind off her, I glance around the compartment. I find the usual kind of commuters. I note the train is getting quite crowded, yet people still squeeze in at the next stop. A couple stand in front of the glass dividing wall to my right. The woman is leaning against it. Her companion is kissing her neck. The commuters standing around them have their backs to them, but I can see them through the glass. Unbelievably I spot the man slip his hands under her skirt. She is making an unmistakable grinding motion against the glass.
Embarrassed I look away towards the opposite seats. A man, perhaps in his 30’s, catches my eye and nods almost imperceptibly tilting his head back towards the couple. Is he telling me that he has noticed the goings-on too? The attractive woman beside me looks up and inhales sharply. I turn to her as if to say, yes I’ve seen it too. But she is flushed scarlet and has returned her eyes firmly onto her magazine. She leaves the train at the next stop. I glance around the rest of the carriage, but everyone else seems otherwise busy—reading or whatever.
As the doors open at the last stop before mine, the couple run from the carriage laughing. Only a few are standing now. A man wearing Arab dress gets on, followed by five women wearing black hijabs. He fusses around looking for spare seats. Again I stand up. After all, I am about to get off anyway. The man gratefully leads one of the women to my vacant seat. The 30-something man I’d made eye contact with across the carriage also stands up for them. The Muslim man ushers a second veiled woman to this new seat. The first woman he had seated gets back up and follows him back to the remaining three women. Like a mother hen trying to lead her chicks, he turns and with a lot of hand gestures and flustering, returns this first woman back to her seat, only to find the second woman has also returned to the group.
I lean back against the doors and watch this fascinating charade continue. By now, most of the passengers at this end of the carriage are watching with interest too. The train pulls into Shepherd’s Bush Pink Station.
It’s time to leave them all behind me. I step out onto the platform, my broken bag under my arm and trudge back to my little flat and my welcoming glass of world famous Kiwi plonk.