It’s a daily numbers game – a balance of timing and logistics. It’s 6.40 for the 6.48. Fall back position is on the 7.07. God forbid it’s the 7.14… Wait any longer and the equation usually includes leaves; snow; signal failure – or suicide. Two God-given, one man-made and the other a public/private initiative.
Business booms in final journeys: there’s no recession in those finding one aspect of South West Trains’operations uncharacteristically reliable. Sympathy – like seats – is in short supply. Exasperation isn’t; it spreads like an al fresco virus – a low rumble of discontent that shadows pre-recorded proclamations of devastating insincerity from all-powerful loudspeakers. They might also be omniscient but if they are they’re not divulging the fact to anyone.
“Why can’t they travel off peak?!” Someone says – to no one in particular. As if a suicidal mind’s priority is an online discount. The comment is red rag to a lot of sheep. Taking time out from day jobs as internet trolls they begin to curse the dead man’s handle on the track. Remember this is serious… fifteen minutes here is an extra half an hour in town! Any more is exponential.
The waiting lines are four; five, six deep. Ribbons of humanity that drift into the distance: sometime disappearing in the autumn fog or burnished by the summer sun: exposed – like the aspect of all suburban stations it seems – to the bite of winter winds and the year-round whims of announcers with a lucky-dip of excuses beneath their desks.
The platforms host a catwalk show – the silent majority, London bound and with no time to pussyfoot around. Swathed in Nicole Farhi and Hugo Boss; Burberry, Nextand M&S: with matching accessories of bile and discontent. Savile Row is heavily outnumbered – but not outranked – by Designers at Debenhams. Brand cachet aside they’re all now fashionably late. And subject to a soft cloak of drizzle.
Stomachs grumble on a diet of anticipation, contemplation; resignation and All-bran: the roughage in a commuting serial that has the dramatic potential to last a lifetime. The unfriendly bacteria multiply with the corporate excuses. Many are running on empty; no time to cook: no stomach for breakfast; job – or life. The eyes have it – dull, bloodshot, piggy and distant: bodies somewhere else: at least in their heads. Or still lying in bed; wrapped by a warm duvet with a soft touch that lingers.
Reliability is not found in timetables… for that look to the orderly ranks of the grey demographic; stomachs lined in plenty of time: minds with thoughts as neatly pressed as their trousers. Digestion assured; there’s a window for reflection. Better days peer through the unseasonable mist – a golden age of civility on the 6.48 when seats were as relatively cheap as they were plentiful and one could unfold a quality paper to the limit of one’s elbows. This train had once been like a well-kept secret for early-bird building workers and those keen to build a career in the city. An unlikely social mix rivalling the cry of the songbirds in welcoming the dawn. It worked – even if British industry didn’t. Secret society – these two tribes in the know: these two nations under The Sun – and The Times. Class warriors circling each other warily but with a begrudging mutual respect: sharing the achievement of the early riser even if the muddy boots on seats created unspoken friction. Now misery was franchised. And everyone had shifted a train or two earlier to the limit of their patience – and their personal timetable.
These veterans of the slam-door era carry their loss staunchly: memories shiny as the shoes on their feet. Stiff upper-lip and starched personas: conservative suits of substance – if not style. Diffident; heroic – revering matinee idols like Kenneth More, Trevor Howard and RichardTodd – while quietly yearning for an era when men were men and women were secretaries. Both out of sync and out of pocket – many of their old certainties had hit the buffers – put there by the cold breezes of privatisation. Comfort blankets whipped around suburban lines along with the leaves and the fast food litter. Where was the past with its consoling sense of control? Excess seats were replaced by exorbitant fares: less personal choice; everything less polite. Where was the man with the flag with pride in his job who knew your name and called you sir and shut the door behind you and told you about his kids?
“As if a suicidal mind’s priority is an online discount.”
Control was now a master button: centralised; curse of the computer age; in the hands of a stranger on the train. The finger on the trigger left them staring down the barrel of a gun: redundant. Years of experience overridden – now counting for little in a cruel mimic of the office hierarchy at journey’s end. Eyes were distracted now – no longer on the prize – yet the habit remained: a seat – the same seat – the goal of years standing precise at a self-determined point aligned to incoming carriage doors. Their spot on the platform: measured by a familiar crack in the concourse, the edge of an advertising hoarding, a poo-pile flushed on the track against advice and decency, the station sign, that vandalised seat, the tough weeds resisting all chemicals; the brick line of the kiosk. The same precision and physical graffiti applying at Waterloo on the return leg. An unexpected change in the number of coaches or a new driver overshooting: these were the variables they could cope with. But now… why even their newspapers had shrunk; devalued – a dying breed. Grey temples shaking in worlds of their own making… Metros were free but scarcely a newspaper! Collected and folded, scanned, stowed and moulded: but seldom read. So much litter for an easycome, easy go generation: with minds that play hopscotch and headphones that play hip-hop in a harsh time they can’t keep up with.
Their ghost dance is invisible to hard-bodied young corporates with guns bulging – busy checking muscle mass in the straining seams of crisp white shirts. Standards like protein shakes are easily swallowed but with less discernible effect. Jackets are for wimps: like breakfast. Suits fight seasonal battles with jeans and cargos and daily fashion farragoes reflecting how far tolerance goes on dress-down Fridays; or any other days of the weak. There’s chinos; and shorts on the brave – or the stupid – as rain that’s now persistent as a dog in the distance clings to hairs plastered flat on goose-flesh.
The ghouls are silenced as a death is confirmed… Some hear a lone cry in a dark tunnel and shiver: some don’t. A crackly announcement that seems dispatched from the afterlife talks of the resumption of normal service. “What’s that?” asks a would-be comedian testing his audience. But another dog day has run away with their funny-bone. There follows a few seconds silence from embarrassment and a humour by-pass as cutting as Beeching :anything other than respect. Then the air is heavy with recrimination at tardy timekeeping: normal service has resumed. And heady with perfume… Chanel Number 5waits for the first class section of carriage four; Issey Miyake and Giorgio Armani bond and air kiss at the eight car stop; oh, and Britney Spears is wayward again between coaches; travelling today…
Scenting victory an Alpha male struts hands-free, glistening from shower gel and self-importance – sniffing weakness he barks key decisions on business: profit and loss; no quarter given to PR or gloss. The world turns all around him. Booming language disturbs quiet meditation – he’s still not quite thirty but nearly at his financial destination. Heels are clicked; imaginary dogs kicked… Time waits for no man – only South WestTrains.
Halfway down the platform three sombre schoolgirls sit cross-legged in equally sombre uniforms. They’re boarding early for a better education far away. Moody teenage magnificence as long hair is twirled and tossed and lips pout by default: each wondering intensely how getting up an hour before their friends was going to improve their life chances. Defiant of the rain and school conventions one rolls up her skirt to flout the reach of distant teachers while scratching her tights into a ladder more punk bohemian than celebration of social mobility. Her friend bangs an expensive pink tablet on the ground in mindless communion to the pulse from her music. The third gives in easily to distraction: three lads from the local school – out this early but not for anyone’s benefit – shout and wave suggestively from the opposite platform. Inveterate station groupies – casual with nothing to do – one lazily sprays clouds of Lynx under his school jumper as if it’s the answer to a young man’s prayers.
There’s business as usual… talking heads bent slavishly to the great gods of technology: coffees are sucked like polystyrene breasts by new borns. A bleary-eyed executive as far from thrusting as he is from Waterloo sniffs his armpits as if the commuting crowd bestows anonymity on his actions: no doubt the kind of man to pick his nose in his car with impunity; or his index finger. No matter, when the question is – did he pick up that new shirt in the dark as his wife reminded?
Then a burst of popular music: neither ghetto nor genre niche; as six-inch heels click the platform like morning maracas. The stiletto’s owner has a fierce propulsion that’s mainly vertical as her fashion sense betrays forward motion. Horizontal hold is supplied by the guys: whether not quite thirty; Lynxed-up lads or grey knights of the suburban order. Many male heads turn matter-of-fact as is the way of the world this time of the morning. Part of a cunning plan: that is neither cunning – nor plan, but a predestined reaction that puts good taste in traction. Discreetly indiscreet – if there is such a contradiction they exhibit in spades – shifting gaze and feet from economic forecasts in heavyweight papers to a series of figures that truly inspire. Deals known only to them are considered in the eternal numbers game. Necks crane again as a further ploy to suggest disengagement – to information boards that don’t live up to their name. Collective groans and headshaking – that suggest a national sport ripe for Olympic success – provide cover and excuse for the now fully wide-awake club. One ‘jokes’ about making up the deficit with as much success as the would-be comedian. One talks of rampant inflation until a friend winces – while others scowl. The guilty face reddens quicker than an express that sweeps through on the down side ransacking carefully constructed hairdos in its wake. Two women tend the damage by compact and take the opportunity to touch up lips that mechanically pucker. With no need of a mirror to confirm his discomfort a prematurely bald man agonises at his misplaced comb-over. Fooling no one at all the dilemma is his alone: a private hell for his public hair.
His anguish burns short along with his pride as mantras informing of potential terrorist attacks and weekend engineering detonate across the tracks. They turn on a daily loop while entreating customers to refer any worries to non-existent staff or phantom police. Office girls with unaccountably resilient faces chatter to each other about the alcoholic excesses of last night. Of mid-week bravado the detail astonishes pushing off a game of moral dominoes in the rows of blank faces that eavesdrop and secretly admonish and envy.
” ,a poo-pile flushed on the track against advice and decency,”
Suitcases for business conferences and airport-bound holiday fun stud the platform. Brought to abrupt halt with their wheels whirring, spraying water as they park the yellow painted safety line – casters trilling as if in distress. A well-dressed man kicks the ticket machine and calls its pedigree into question. Such animation and violence are out of place at this hour. Shoulders are shrugged. Better not to get involved seems to be best advice although one of the young corporates just knows he could take him – you can see it in his eyes. The credit card is replaced to be thrown on the mercy of the guard with finger on the button and the power to confer social financial disgrace. Two crows exit noisily from the rails. A weak raft of early sunlight kisses their wings like a blessing then disappears behind a cloud now blacker than they are. A gust of wind rattles the station sign. The waiting room is locked again and the underpass closed as the staff work the office hours that these office workers now only daydream about. The route to the Promised Land is a long one. A biblical stream negotiate the bridge and station gates to reach the platform. Raincoats flap under the ranks of black mushrooms that spring up out of the streaky downpour flecked by car headlights and the selective rays from on high. If Turner had painted the mundane he’d have grasped the inspiration.
The Latvian-run coffee kiosk on the up side does a brisk trade that will later extend brinkmanship and dexterity to insane levels of tension. Coffee or the train? A seat – or the near certainty of standing for an hour – revolving on the formation of milky froth and the 6.45 handicap chase over language barriers.
Then suddenly it happens… the worst nightmare; the doomsday scenario. Death, leaf-fall timetable, snow and cable theft are but a mere bagatelle. This is unspeakable… A mother with young children – at this hour! Here are those who don’t know how to play the game… those who aren’t commuters; children to whom all this is novelty: exciting trains, seats to be clambered on noisily and with no idea of the true character of this grim exercise in A to B. My God we’ll have to listen to them talk all the way to Waterloo! It’s a realisation that’s written on faces but unsaid. Teeth grind; mouths grimace; fingers redden as papers are gripped tighter and escape routes are plotted. Anxious plans are formulated on the hoof as the childish loose cannons scurry around the platform splashing in puddles. Their intentions are unclear as mum struggles to impose order… the dilemma – where and when to line up at other doors on other carriages. But which?!
No more excuses… South West Trains’ daily audition for Guinness records style-cramming finally meanders into the station. Schedules are mentally ticked and the indispensable make last minute calls to lessen the blow their absence will bring. Commuters limber up, folding umbrellas and peering anxiously as the train shudders to a halt. Breath is deep and pockets deeper as objects are stowed for the task ahead. Exhortations to mind the gap and of doors closing thirty seconds before leaving the station go unnoticed. One-upmanship, child avoidance and shoving overtake. It’s game on. It’s a jungle outside and in. Window seats are already taken – almost throughout. Solitary protests against the crowd while second seats provide comfort for cases and laptops and damp umbrellas that are begrudgingly removed every day. For frantic seconds it’s every man or woman for him/herself – stereotypes are reversed in the fervour – children hah! You got no chance. Nearly all on… the quiet zone carriage buzzes with dumb talk on smart phones. An elderly lady nurses a well-thumbed paperback of Fanny Hill: the creased pages match vertical lines on the mouth of her papery face. It has been years since she’s read it but her well-thumbed liaisons come flooding back with the youth it represents. She was reading it slowly this time and she didn’t care who knew. The scandal that surrounded it was as old as her hat. Who needed fifty shades of grey when you could get it in black and white? Although by Woking her face is a slow burning pink. Memories like adventurous sexual technique prove somewhat difficult after all this time.
One woman is baring her soul in a loud voice. All aboard the carriage are now intimate to her personal despair. She glowers accusingly at those with the temerity to eavesdrop: which is everyone. A trouble shared is a trouble multiplied. Alpha male still talks hands-free while waving them in crazy compensation. His eleven o’clock will never happen today.
” – one lazily sprays clouds of Lynx under his school jumper as if it’s the answer to a young man’s prayers. “
Then as inevitable as a Monday morning queue for tickets – there he is… late breakfast in his pin stripe. It may come from a select London tailor but he has the knack of returning it to a roll of cloth. He’s late every day. Arriving with his tie askew and thinning hair like a Harrier Jump jet off on a sortie: the argument with his head refuses to respond to any attempts at mission control. Breakfast is in his hand and some on his tie. There’s some of yesterdays’ still on his shirt. A brown paper bag that looks like a baseball catcher’s mitt betrays a spreading oil stain in one hand. The other holds a laptop.
Six-inch heels climbs aboard in her tight A-line skirt. Her buttocks talk of languid strides from long legs. Oh, how he’d like to engage them in conversation. The thought process brings on a compensatory bout of hair plastering that becomes more pronounced – he drifts in momentary reverie as she clicks the carriage floor. Each step flicking at the on switch in his brain that begins the journey that finishes in his trousers. He remembers abruptly why he’s there when the whistle blows sharply. The platform’s now empty -wiped clean by economic necessity and rain that sweeps horizontally like a giant Etch-a- sketch…