Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A Phonecall

It’s Thursday morning, between 6 and 7, and almost Christmas. I have only a handful of 2010 commutes left. Snow is on the way though. My flight home, for Christmas in Cork, is in jeopardy, work is busy, time is running out and I have a performance review this afternoon. Luckily I’m reading a good book, cooked my best ever chilli last night (still burned the pot), and am sitting in my favourite seat on the train. I’m a little stressed but things could be worse I think.

Enter a twitching man.

There’s something about him. I don’t know if it’s the dreadful trainers, the very blue jeans or the gold chain that’s dangling from his neck but there’s definitely something about him. He boards the carriage and like a jerk looks for a seat. He plops alongside me.

He smells of cigarettes.

The smell of fags mixed with morning damp is revolting.

He leafs through his Metro like he’s inspecting legal documents. He’s back and forth, fidgeting with himself, up, down, cough, sniff.

I can’t read like this. It’s Thursday morning, how did I end up spending what should be the most civilised part of the day in the company of halfwits like this?

His phone rings, blessed relief for the poor bastard, finally he has something that’s easy to concentrate on. It’s a dreadful ring tone; commercial dance/hip hop, the kind you’d hear in a niteclub for the thick and the lonely.

“Alright mate” He’s faux cockney and a shouter.

It appears the caller is returning an earlier missed call.

“I was just checking if you were still on for tonight”

It’s only slightly after 7 am.

The conversation continues loudly, and infuriatingly. His friend is still able to meet after work – at least 8 hours from now – but is unsure about how to get to their previously agreed rendezvous point. Bad news for those within earshot, in this case the entire carriage, I’m bearing a fair brunt of it though.

“You need the get 9-1-9 mate”

“Nah, it’s easy. The 9-1-9, right by the chemist. You know the chemist on the Bells Road, it stops right outside there”


“You there?”

He looks at his phone. I notice his screensaver is a woman in a purple bikini. She looks pretty. I wonder if it’s his girlfriend. Some girls have dreadful taste in my experience so I wouldn’t be surprised.

He calls back.

“Yeah mate, it went crap I don’t know why.”

I don’t know why a man with a voice as dreadful as this one gets to talk on the phone.

He continues…

“The 9-1-9…”

He has a way of saying that number. I want to scream at him. Can I stress again that it’s about ten past seven in the morning. PHONE HIM AT LUNCH TIME YOU FUCKWIT, I want to scream.

To othersI must look like another listless passenger but on the inside I am full of rage.

“You know where you work”

Moron, moron, moron.

“Well, you turn right, go onto Bells Road, keep going, yeah, and you know the chemist on the right, the bus stops right there”

He listens.

“Yeah, the chemist, on the right the bus stops right there, just get on the bus”

Honestly, I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.

My book, long forgotten, is put into my bag and I myself begin to get fidgety. What station are we at? It’s too dark and there are too many people blocking the window. The time on my phone tells me it’s almost time to switch to the Underground.

I get up, train still moving, and squeeze past the offensive one. He’s still blathering.

“So we’re going to the King’s Crown, well the 9-1-9 stops right outside…get out there”

As I pass him, I have the urge to squeeze his head and shout in his face, but I don’t, because there are certain things one shouldn’t do on a train or tube.

The review goes well and later that week my flight leaves on time.

Happy Christmas.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Tuesday evening

The Teacher is at book club. The fridge is empty. The plastic storage box we use to keep the ironing in is full of ironing. These things all involve my home life, but I haven’t switched that part on yet. I am still at the office.

Finally I leave, in a mad rush. My grandmother is arriving on Friday morning. The spare room needs to be prepared. We call it spare not because it is spare space but because spare things that have no place to go, go there.

I am going spare.

The trains are a nightmare. This is not unusual. When the weather turns, train companies seem to go into meltdown. The rain, the leaves, the cold, the shock of it wasn’t this dark yesterday morning.

Oxford Circus has closed its gates. As they do every evening. A lazy admission of failure; Oxford Circus cannot handle its passengers. Oxford Street; close your shops, the system isn’t working.

I am working though and so am forced to stand like a sheep in the rain, huddled next to strangers, some smoking, some smelly, some pretty, for long minutes and minutes while the Underground sort themselves out.

The gates open. The concourse is clear but the platform is a mess. A train is held, full of people. The platform is full of even more people. I find space, put my bag between my legs and wait. People shove past me in every direction. The sign still says ‘Held’. I wait.

Ten minutes and three full-to-the-brim trains later and I am on my way, squashed between two Italian twentysomethings, a weary businessman and faceless others. Between stations 2 and 3, the train stops. The driver announces something. We wait. The young Italians don’t know the rules and talk to each other, like they’re at the beach or something.

We move again and then stop again and so it continues. Until I am at another platform, off the tube, waiting for a train; this platform is also very overcrowded. I manoeuvre for position. I need to get on the next train; the house needs to be prepared for Granny Sheila.

I am on the train. The train stops, again not at a station. There is a simultaneous frustrated intake of breath, an indecipherable driver announcement and then deadly silence. It moves again. Repeat thrice.

Finally, the train begins to empty. I sit down, check my phone and breathe out. I take out my book, Big Sur by Jack Kerouac, I’m two chapters in and struggling, I love On The Road but I’d forgotten how long Kerouac’s sentences can be.

Anyway, I’m finding it difficult to concentrate – the evening of cleaning and the thought of showing my almost 80 year old grandmother around London is distracting me. The guy sitting opposite isn’t helping either.
In his forties, with slightly curly hair, he looks like a geologist, a pretty successful one. He has an air of confidence about him and is sitting with his legs crossed and has papers on this lap. His dangling foot is in my eye line.

His fold-up bike is also blocking the seat and I nearly fell over it when I was sitting down; minus further commuter points.

Maybe because the train isn’t packed or maybe because I’m off tomorrow I don’t fill up with rage. He’s annoying but has a certain friendly charm too. I forgive him and try to get on with my book.

Two minutes later, I look up. The geologist is staring at the papers in his lap. He has an odd, bewildered look on his face. He has a pencil in his hand. He’s making a list. I love lists. Reading them and making them. Watching someone make a list is something I am very interested in doing.

His manly geologist legs are folded in a peculiar way that is restricting my view. I can see though that the list is half printed half written, in pencil. This list was so important it was started at work and then printed it off to be continued on the train. This is no shopping list.

I adjust my position for a better view but still can’t read anything. It’s a list of sentences not words or names. What list is made of sentences? It could be a brainstorming list of ideas I think but his pensiveness makes me think otherwise. The train begins slowing.

I like this man and am disappointed as he begins to make leaving movements. As he uncrosses his legs and faces me more directly he looks less like a geologist. He could be anything really, he’s a middle-aged man who isn’t poor and doesn’t wear a suit to work.

As he gets up and begins to fold his bike, The List is revealed for a quick second, it’s enough time for me to see number one.

Every day is the same.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Monday morning

It’s a Monday morning, and despite this being the first work day since the clocks went back, and therefore brighter than last week, everyone at the station is pissed off. I have a dread about me. Another weekend has passed me by. The week is ahead and soon the train will arrive. For the rest of the week, I’ll be a passenger.

I fail to grab my usual seat and am forced to sit on the other side of the carriage door facing the other way. I’ll never break my Brick Breaker high score looking this direction so I take out my book; Theft by Peter Carey.

The train departs and by the third stop the carriage is almost full. A woman has sat opposite me. Early forties, attractive with short black hair, she’s wearing a black dress, with a black jacket and a red scarf. She’s also wearing black tights that are semi see through, a small birthmark above her knee is visible. She is reading the Daily Mail.

I go back to my book. Peter Carey is probably my favourite writer.

The woman gets a phone call. It’s not yet quarter past seven so it must be important business or something gone wrong with the family. She answers a quick hello, listens for a bit and says, with an absence of emotion, why? A moment later she presses the red button and puts the phone back in her bag.

She returns to her paper. I try to get back to Mr Carey but the tension that’s coming off this woman has me mesmerised, who was on the phone?!

As the train pulls in to another station I notice on her paper the headline ‘CAN WE EVER TRUST THE FRENCH’. Fucking Daily Mail I think. My interest in her gone, I adjust and get comfortable for the last ten minutes of the journey.

The carriage is full now and the beeps are beeping, just before the doors close, a young woman runs onboard, apologises to the men she bashes on the way in and finds a corner to stand in, right next to the tense lady and in my eye line.

She is a fat young girl. I wouldn’t say very fat but she’s definitely chunky, she has glasses, a young white face and red cheeks from dashing to the train. Her hair is still damp, her clothes a little ruffled, her coat untied. She’s slept late and needs a coffee.

She finally relaxes and begins to read her Metro. She looks pleasant and happy to have made her train. She doesn’t look great though it has to be said. Between our new arrival and my glimpse of the French headline I have almost forgotten about the tense lady but she’s still on my radar and still looks stern.

She shifts in her seat. Maybe coughs. Her face is bitten. She looks up at the pleasant girl. Looks again. Catches her attention. Her face changes. I realise what she’s doing. Don’t, I think, but it’s too late.

“Seat?” the older woman having a bad day says to the girl who made her train.

The colour goes from pleasant girls face. Her face drops but she maintains eye contact and tamely refuses.

I see beneath her coat as she attempts to cover herself. She’s wearing a tight fitting blue dress and I can see the bulge of a belly. Not a great choice of outfit but does she look pregnant? No way.

The tense lady settles back into her seat and paper. I look at her, it's like nothing has happened. Behind her the young girl has forgotten her paper and is subtly clawing at her clothes with the limited space and free hands she has.

More people board the train and she moves further down the carriage, beyond my seat and out of my line of vision. I turn around and catch her surveying her mid-section and looking distressed. The week hasn’t even started.

We’re approaching Finsbury Park. The lady opposite me and I ready ourselves for alighting. I look at her again, still slightly unsure; misplaced kindness or a horrible venting of frustration?

The shuffling begins and soon I’m off the train and on my way, hoping both their days improve and promising myself I’ll have a salad for lunch.

Friday, 22 January 2010


I have a job. That’s why I spend so much time on the tube and other forms of public transport.

My contracted hours are 8am to 4pm. I get one hour for lunch. Sometimes I have soup from Eat (Italian Ragu and Chicken Noodle are my favs), sometimes I walk around Central London doing chores for various people (mostly L) and sometimes I have a huge sandwich, a packet of crisps and a Diet Coke. 2010 has seen me kick the sandwich habit though and I have been enjoying flame grilled chicken breast, bayleaf and beetroot salads (also with Diet Coke) at my desk. It saves me money and is healthy. If you ignore how boring it is, it’s a delight.

Colleagues have asked if I’m on a diet. So far I have responded with either a curt no or a mumble and a leaf choke. Beetroot, it’s well tasty but Christ it gets everywhere. I think I may smell of it too. Do I prefer being referred to as the obese guy who eats all those sandwiches or the guy who smells of beetroot? I’ll take the beetroot.

My hours are 8-4, not 9-5. I write for a living you’ll be flabbergasted to learn and I have always felt at my most lucid and creative in the morning. In the afternoon I get a little sleepy and turgid, something to do with all the sandwiches I reckon.

So I get up early. Earlier and earlier, it becomes strangely addictive. Eventually I’ll never go to sleep. Just lie down and get up again. I arrive at the office at either 7.10 or 7.30. I turn on the lights, am the first person to dip an undersized stirrer slash spoon into the generic industrial sized tin of decaf, and the first to slightly burn their fingers on the hot water machine. I then, after reading the day’s gossip column, either get right down to bashing out some serious gold standard copy, plan my day or browse the guardian and telegraph websites while muttering swearwords about Carlos Tevez, Jermaine Beckford or right wing media types like the disgusting fatty Jan Moir.

Speaking of bitch, remember Moir’s awful piece about Stephen Gately? Why the hell wasn’t that scandal referred to as GatelyGate? It could have really been the nail in the coffin to the Gate suffix. You can probably find a watered down version of the column on the Nazi rag’s site (I refuse to link to it) but if you want to know the truth and have a laugh see Charlie Brooker’s take on it here;

Back to Friday morning time. Sooner or later 8.40 arrives and my charming and erudite colleagues start arriving. I work in retail/fashion and the majority of my workmates or attractive women, the rest are men, straight mostly but with a higher than average straight/gay ratio.

Yes, here they all are, strutting into the office without a care in the world, making all sorts of noise and ruining my rhythm and reason in an instant. They’re a nice bunch in fairness though and by the time they get in I’m ready to share things. When they sit down and I feel they’re settled, I quickly blurt out what I had for dinner last night, tell them how great this book/film/album is and pontificate on Stephen Baldwin and Heidi Fleiss.

That’s how my morning goes. Though there are exceptions. There is another option. A later bus can get me to the station in time to make a train that will get me on a tube that can take me to the street where I can walk to the office and be at my desk for 8.05.

I rarely take this option. The roads are busier, the tube is fuller and the weather is worse – honestly it is. No, the early bird routine suits me. My ancestors were farmers probably. Rich, land owning ones.

This morning I took the option. For a combination of two reasons, first reason. My good friend Robert P. He’s a pest. Here I am buying a house, struggling to make ends meet, thinking of new romantic ways to impress The Teacher and up at the crack of dawn and there he is, betting and drinking, and harassing me to do one or the other, or both.

Last night I wilted and we met for pints. He brought me a copy of The Yellow House which was most appreciated. We had some beers and chewed the fat, discussing wide spread ignorance, travel plans, French films (he discussed I listened) and our mutual friend Neal C.

I didn’t drink much and certainly wasn’t drunk and even managed to catch Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 4 +1 in bed.

Digress, digress, digress. In summary; last night I had some pints. This morning L rolled over and said she was getting the later bus. In a split second my brain computed; wet outside + not loads of work to do + beer last night + Friday today = roll over too.

I rolled over and slept for four minute periods until it was time to get up. Why people have a mini lie in but choose to have that gifted time interrupted by beeping every five minutes is as foreign as eating sheep’s eyeballs to me. Turn off the damn snooze button please, thank you.

So we got the later bus and arrived at the station at a time when a lot of people are at the station. There they were, standing there without a care in the world, dressed in overcoats and high heels and all plotting how best to deprive me of a seat for my journey.

L was wittering on about some educational initiative or other when I saw it. I double taked and took two steps forward towards the track, almost going beyond the yellow line as I did.

I looked down again. “What in Christ is that?” I said. “Jesus, in Christ” I repeated. There was a sharp intake of collective breath.

A man was on the tracks.

He appeared to be young, with a slim build, dark hair and was wearing a brown shirt. His head was on one track, his feet on the other. Is he alive or dead I thought, my head was racing. L grabbed my arm. She was staring at the man. As was I, as was everybody on the platform. Only 10 seconds had passed since I had first spotted him.

He was breathing. Thank heavens he was breathing. A train was due in three minutes. My phone was now in my hand.

“Who should I ring?” I whispered.

It was a very odd atmosphere, everybody was whispering. Very undramatic. Very British.

“The police” a young girl replied.

“What’s the number?” I said thinking I could hear the train approaching.

I did not want to see a man run over by a train. I did not want this man run over by a train.

A man pressed the emergency button to speak to the station security or whoever.

Is it safe to get on the tracks I thought?

A man who was closer to the lying man shouted at him. There was no response. He just lay there, like in Radiohead’s video for Just only a track with a train due.

Two men quickly jumped onto the tracks and tried to pick him up. He struggled and shouted but they aggressively and unsympathetically got him to his feet. Their curtness can be excused due to the expected train I think.

The man was lifted to the platform. He wasn’t as young as I had thought. He was smartly dressed in a brown shirt and a dark tie.

The man said something to him. He let out a scream. A woman whispered he was drunk.

He broke down and cried. Right there on the platform He sobbed deeply. The adrenaline induced from drama subsided and his distress became clear. A very private moment was being played out in front of a platform of commuters.

He was picked up and brought downstairs. The poor fella.

Whoever is on the other end of the emergency button machine finally responded. The gent who had pressed the button didn’t know what to say. The platform was silent.

“He’s not on the tracks anymore” he said.

The train arrived and we went to work. I got a seat but it didn’t seem as important anymore.

Illustration by Gemma Luker