The train lurches toward London with what passes for acceleration. Tracks that betray their age connect the outposts of the stockbroker belt and the prosaic clusters of the advancing new estates of South London to a common purpose. Suburban stations of brief encounter and high rise halts that scream functionality sweep by in a mishmash of planning laws upheld, reviled or broken. Even John Betjeman would struggle to wax lyrical at a view screed by rain and framed by dirty German safety glass.
Late breakfast has other things on his mind like – where to now? A generous gut rolls over his trouser band like ocean breakers of bad living. Sweaty; puffing: seated passengers huffing at his indecision. Six-inch heels has sat down. One elegant leg is draped over another equally smooth and demanding of his attention. He’s thinking sun-kissed but settles on smooched to bronze perfection. S-m-o-o-c-h –yeh; that’s the word he’s after… it rolls off his tongue several times until he says it aloud to a gallery of pointed looks sharper than her stilettos. Swallowing hard he nearly chokes on his pasty pasty. When will he get his place in the sun? Time stands still and the train’s refrain beats again on the uneven tracks imitating his ragged pulse.
“And a tom cat with a penchant for papier mâché at that -“
It’s now or never… he cuts short his daydream and tries to place himself anonymously, surreptitiously, craftily, discretely, directly opposite her. Everyone nearby notes his failure including the young guns whose muscles fill the space. Failure… it’s not unusual for him: his hips swinging like an obese Tom Jones close to seizure he negotiates the next bay of seats. Sighing deeply he slumps and oozes – simultaneously wedging between two whose journey has just taken a turn for the worst. From keeping themselves to themselves they are now horribly part of him by heat and subsequent adhesion. It’s a three-seater that realistically is built for two but now is more like a nightmare one and a half. They twist – and roll their eyes at lumpy thighs that have no manners and a direct line to the fat controller. Beaten – but never shy of trying again – he swears like Arnie to return tomorrow. It’s a date…he mouths it under his breath as he peeps at the shrinking ankle view he’s afforded. S-m-o-o-c-h he thinks again but he doesn’t say it – compensation for failure is another mouthful of paper bag and greasy lips relieved by the back of his hand and the front of his cuff. If he has a handkerchief there is no way to access without murder breaking out. Flaky pastry falls like dandruff on his knees. He glances around between mouthfuls at his fellow passengers who all feel justifiably head and shoulders above him. Row upon row of high-tech lowbrow middle-class back-packed fills the carriage to bursting point. A podgy hand opens the laptop as he spreads like an oil slick and settles back against his two travelling companions resolving to get to the next level of Mortal Kombat and a further step with six-inch heels. He shoots up all who stand in his way. If only life were like this…
Ten minutes out and the toilet formation dancing begins. It’s the kids first. Eyes are rolled again: papers, laptops and A-4 burdens for those welded to the job shift in unison. Those who stand and wait – or sit on the carpet among the stains that puzzle momentarily before the decision that ignorance is indeed bliss takes over – curse silently; inwardly. Warm breath is exhaled slowly through nostrils like well-mannered horses to add to the fug that slowly strangles the collective will to resist the train rhythm and time of day. The heavy eyes have it. Strangers communicate, empathise and sullenly despise the steady flow of weak bladders, overactive prostates, the healthy craze for hydration, the non-prohibited sale of strong coffee and the pale unmade-up faces that still crave unmade beds over pan stick and mascara.
” ‘Hot beverages’ is a 1950s BBC announcement made flesh by the love child of Kenneth Williams and Donald Sinden…”
The button-operated excrement evacuation unit is on track to never lose the heat from its seat this morning. The wrap around door is as temperamental as ever: as traffic builds to a crescendo the risk of exposure increases. Some travellers dub it the Turd Tardis – a name that sticks less successfully than the door. Their creativity isn’t helped by the fact that the toilet is actually smaller inside than the outside suggests. That you couldn’t swing a cat inside it is of little consequence when it appears as if a tom has already sprayed its territory inside several times that morning. And a tom cat with a penchant for papier mâché at that – creamy white deposits slop among the fluid that is spread up and down the carriage and on the surrounding carpet to the pissed-off gaze of excess commuters who squat there among the bikes. The door continues to open when it shouldn’t and closes when it… shouldn’t – and the dance of inconvenience continues in tandem with the train.
Late breakfast has finally finished eating. Unlike the disarray of the rest of his life his toilet habits are spot on. He will visit the Tardis three minutes from Waterloo. He does it every day. He’s not paying 30p a pee on the station concourse: Jeezus that’s a pound-fifty a week! Six pounds a month: seventy-two pounds a year! Just for doing what comes naturally! The two pounds a pop that he gifts to Greggs for the grease stain in paper is justified expenditure in his mind as what goes in is significantly more important to him than what goes out.
On today’s trip he stops momentarily, squeezes his sweaty girth through the gap to the neighbouring bay of seats and pretending not to glance at the thigh that perches six-inch heel’s laptop. He envies the proximity of its hard drive and shakes his head: it’s a shame he can’t do this every day – it also comes naturally to him. His temporary distraction lifts as the refreshment trolley approaches. Shit! The Polish blonde is absent. Hell! This is no trolley dolly: he’s in his fifties. His height is the only thing that’s short about him. He takes the mike by the toilet and the subsequent exercise in pronunciation suggests an out of work actor. “Drinks and snacks” is emoted beyond all conceivable syllables. “Hot beverages” is a 1950s BBC announcement made flesh by the love child of Kenneth Williams and Donald Sinden: the words relationship pregnant and overripe with erotic potential. To say late breakfast preferred the awkward enunciation and shy demeanour of the Polish blonde was to state the bleedin’ obvious – something this prick full of received English would never contemplate. He daydreamed of a trip to Warsaw – shame she came from Lodz – her polite good humour was cause for hope and an antidote to the griping passengers that were the bane of his life.
The trolley and its subsequent progress were as slow as a BBC information film from the same decade… “Anything to eat from the trolley this inauspicious morning Modom?” O-M-G just listen to that! “No thanks!” The kids have drinks from Tesco, crisps from Morrisons and packed lunches all thanks to Mum who thinks the tickets are quite enough at this hour. Those who got up too late – or live beyond their means – are open to offers. Those unable to deny the caffeine fix that is usually satisfied in Café Nero or Costa console themselves. They buy the overpriced beverage reluctantly – like addicts they have no real choice in the matter. Sipping the hot excuse brings no relief – there’s only so much that appropriated brand packaging can deflect and fancy vowels also only go so far. Poor man’s coffee – a sentiment that was probably attributed to Alanis Morissette commuting on a bad day – describes the taste but does little to address the indigestion of the financial deficit.
“If he had his way he’d programme them to reject all children – and out of work actors – until 9 am.”
Late breakfast has found a spare flake of pastry settling in the fold of his shirt. A bit of meat is still attached. It might be kidney? His wait to use the facilities has brought a double bonus as there’s also an attractive woman opposite he hasn’t noticed. It must still be summer he thinks. Quite apart from the rain – rain that he is reminded of by a damp shirt even though it furiously streaks the windows beyond his attention span – she’s wearing a summer dress. It’s a long floaty creation from Laura Ashley – or is it Cath Kidston? He didn’t know. He’s not good at such things. If he had a wife she’d tell him so every Birthday, Christmas and Valentine’s Day and on their Anniversary – though he wasn’t averse to just shacking up with someone if they called it that these days? He only knew he’d seen something like it in a glossy magazine he’d picked up on the 9.15 out of Waterloo craving distraction after working late yet another night. He should be grateful to be employed – that’s what they told him. If that was the case he was one of the grateful dead. Seasons tended to float by: he left in the dark and came home accordingly most of the year. He was getting fatter had a bad back from the small seats and a job that starved his ego. So grateful…
He risked another quick look – his reticence wasn’t motivated by good manners – but the need to take his mind off a now urgent need to pee. Christ! There was room for Laura and Cath underneath that floral tent. Pot: kettle: black. One of the passengers might have said that if they had been either aware of his thoughts or his presence as the furious packing and jockeying for position began – prompted by an announcement of the last halt before arrival at Waterloo. He preferred six-inch heels: she barely left room for self-containment but allowed for all the workings of his imagination. Hippy only had an ankle on display. His mind wandered… imagining a time when a well-turned ankle turned a man’s head. In his head he repeated oaths of wonder to himself. How would a Victorian gentleman react? His smirk prefigured another public utterance that exited like a debutant: “My word madam!“ – she glared at him puzzled and annoyed but any comeback was cut short as the ticket inspectors approached. Little thespian bastard! The trolley was shifting to let them through!
They were mob-handed but singularly curt. Oooh… someone’s been caught – the young lad travelling before his time on a saver ticket? That’s par for the course. Then there’s the really brazen ones who never had any intention of buying tickets and get caught in slanging matches and four-letter refusals to give up their address. Nobody looks but everyone watches. Secretly enjoying his pain – after all he’s the one with the hip-hop ring tone with parent advisory content – in a quiet zone. I’d like to advise your parents that their son’s little more than a thief – do you realise how much South West Trains loses every year to fare dodgers? Late breakfast dons the uniform… Are you listening you little shit? You advert for everything that’s wrong in our something for nothing society: my ticket wouldn’t be nearly four grand a year if it wasn’t for the likes of you! Of course it would. This is South West Trains. Hope they throw the full letter of the law at him and…oh, just a twenty pound fine… oh, the threat of a twenty pound fine. They’re curt but human and let him off with a warning. Hmmph…
Late breakfast has griping indigestion as well as an urgent need to pee. He always burps quietly to himself whenever the train goes through a tunnel or there is an announcement but it’s more self-delusion as everyone can hear. Unlike the guard – who mumbles and stumbles in some North Country dialect while thanking everyone for travelling South West Trains and talks of some estimated time of arrival as if it’s a bloody Jumbo jet! “Don’t forget to take all your belongings with you…”
Thankfully Mum remembers the kids – everyone forgets the Metros. Most forget their manners. The three schoolgirls are long gone having alighted morosely at their leafy private Surrey hell. Late breakfast has for once left his move too late. He can’t get by the trolley wedged in the aisle as Mum packs the kid’s toys and the out of work actor muses to her. At Waterloo his public and a restock awaits. Late breakfast curses under his breath then aloud for all too hear. He doesn’t care anymore. If he had any wind left and if it was safe to relax with this urgent need to pee he’d conjure up a loud burp and fester the air with stale half-digested pasty. Damn! Yesterday he was able to squeeze – very slowly – by Agnieszka.
They’ve arrived – that slow anticlimactic glide to the buffers. He leaves the carriage and the train slowly as a condemned man. He remembers when tickets were checked by human beings: he could remember when he knew some of the guys by sight. Now it was electronic barriers and magnetic memory strips that remembered nothing – at least in the queues he joined. If he had his way he’d programme them to reject all children – and out of work actors – until 9 am.
On Waterloo concourse Mum tries hard to contain the kids’ excitement – so many trains! And the underground too! Six-inch heels has disappeared into the frenzy along with the exaggerated sexuality of her rolling gait. She plods flat-footed in trainers for the Tube to the West End. Young corporates stretch and fire their guns in all directions. Once more for the City and CanaryWharf! Alpha male cuts an aggressive path – London A to B – using his free hands to intimidate. Hippy’s ankles are concealed in billowing wafts of fabric like a sand storm in the oasis of humanity.
Late breakfast pushes past the shopping opportunities and the destination rubber-neckers who always stand in the bloody way toward the gentlemen’s toilet in the left-hand corner of the station. He winces at the pain from his bladder and slides his hand beyond damp shirt into a crevice in his belly where he hides a pocket and teases out 30p. This is more painful. He drops down the steps past the machine that seldom pays out the right change into the subterranean howl of hand-dryers and a smell of piss that is overpowering – and wilfully taken… 30 pence!! That’s a pound fifty a week … six pounds a month…