I had condemned myself to die and begun my journey to carry out the act yet the fact of my existence compelled me, because of my senses; to differentiate between the different conversations going on around me in the tube and so to observe those engaged in the conversing. Despite my mental pain I was constantly distracted by the flow of life.
At Dagenham a Kenyan man got on, he was dressed in a black track suit and white trainers and grunted as he sat down near me. He saw me look at him as I thought him unnecessarily loud and gave him a glare and he preceded to hold a conversation with someone on his phone.
Get washed and dressed yeah. I told you it’s Jermaine’s birthday today. Get washed and dressed, I’ll be there in an hour.
He then switches tone and person without appearing to redial,
Yeah we’re coming for your birthday, I’ll bring some stuff, Doritos and Coronas and shit, stuff like that yeah.
I saw the man look at me again as I had taken off my hat but he obviously thought I wasn’t worth a second glance. Then a girl with knee high boots, checked mini skirt and smart jacket turned quickly away from me just as I was turning back round. I caught her look floating up and down my body. She seemed wrong to be on the train in these parts, Richmond was more her style I thought. I wondered what she was doing, or what business she could have had in Upminster.
At Upney a middle aged heavy set man stumbled through the doors and swung himself into the seat next to me. He wore builder’s jeans spattered in cement, thick boats and a heavy jacket and he sighed heavily as if in pain. I took one look at his red face and guessed he’d come from a pub. Certainly he smelt like it. Perhaps because he saw me analyzing him a little unsympathetically the Kenyan man struck up conversation with him.
Real cold innit.
Yeah it is, it is. They say it’s going to get colder.
Oh man it’s cold though! I am not looking forward to Winter bruv, I work in a warehouse and it is freezing already.
You need your long johns mate, the Cockney jokes.
Already got them on bruv, already got them on.
Yeah, you got some? /Really? My mate was meant to get me some good ones
Yeah, I got the whole thing man. They all in one, the sleeves, vest, trousers; the lot. Primark cheap and cheerful, cheap and cheerful.
The tube pulls into Upney East and the Kenyan is on his feet.
You need to get some bruv, he says.
The Cockney stands up too and is shaking his hand.
Nice talking to you, nice talking to you.
Have a good day bruv, have a good day.
The Kenyan jumps off, immediately talking on his phone. The Cockney sends me a look as if to say, there I can have a conversation can’t I, someone does find me interesting even if you don’t.
By now the carriage is fuller but a sort of morbid silence has taken over everyone. At Upney the talk was cheerful, Jamaican couples gently teasing each other, Zimbabwean students and families in traditional costume on their way to church and talking at the tops of their voices about Zim but at Barking something happens. A couple of people board but they bring with them an air that is edgy and afraid. A small woman with hair pulled back sternly into a ponytail clutches a baby and a little boy. She crosses and uncrosses her legs continually and every time the baby cries she utters
Shurrup Harry, shurrup. The whole carriage doesn’t want to hear your bleeding noise.
But she wipes the baby’s face tenderly with her sleeve and wraps him more into her coat to keep him warm. Near her and standing up a 15 year old boy massively overweight and as conscious about it. He keeps throwing his glance around, checking to see whether anyone is looking and then returns to his nails; cleaning them one by one with his teeth. Opposite him a teenage couple pushing each other and giggling. The fat boy is distracted by them and momentarily stops cleaning his nails, gazing at the girl, his mouth open.
Hey! What you looking at?
The teenage boy is talking to him but he doesn’t realize, so preoccupied is he looking at the girl’s belly button.
Hey that’s my girl! Don’t look man! Hey! Hey, anyone at home man? He’s not all there Cheryl I swear.
The fat boy comes to himself, mumbles something and looks away. The teenage boy laughs with his girlfriend.
I asked but I didn’t get nothing Cheryl.
You’re so cheeky, he’s only looking in he.
They kiss long and hard, the boy’s hand trying to prise open her legs. She slaps him away.
No Danny, I don’t like it yeah.
Oh come on
Later yeah, later.
They look to see if the rest of the carriage has noticed but no one is watching. The Barking inhabitants have caused some change in the atmosphere but no one knows why. They sit at the back of the carriage not mixing with anyone else.
The little boy sitting with the mother speaks up.
Mummy I want to see Granddad.
Well we’re not going there Paul, he doesn’t open his windows does he and it stinks.
Can’t we go to Granddad’s mummy?
No Paul I told you it’s not safe.
But I like Granddad.
Yeah, she replies; as if ending the conversation.
I returned my attention to the girl in the checked skirt again. She reminded me of Kim Novak in Vertigo- there was something mysterious about her intensely blond nearly white hair and sparkling blue eyes. But like the elderly man in Death in Venice she seemed much older than she was pretending to be.
At Whitechapel the Cockney got off and he was replaced by a younger man in his 20s. He caught my eye at once, stepping into the carriage rather like a ballerina steps onto the stage, he gave everyone a contemptuous glance before settling opposite the blond woman. He was lean, had bleached blond hair and green eyes and dressed like a dandy. As soon as he locked eyes with the blond she was hooked. I realized immediately then what she was looking for and why she was traveling the whole of the line. The two kept looking away from each other and then looking back. This mutual gazing went on until Tower Hill where the boy stood up. He shot her an inquiring look, holding onto the hand rail. She looked away smiling and when he jumped off and the doors closed, he was still staring at her.
Like a cat she licked her lips and stretched out her legs. She caught my eye and shifted her body away from me. I knew what her look said. That I couldn’t do that. Yet what did she know?
By this time the tube had pulled itself through Embankment and Victoria. The teenage couple and mother and children had got off at Victoria. The fat boy still remained, staring at the floor.
At Sloane Square a very sleek tall woman stepped on. She had high cheeks bones, long flowing hair and a finely sculpted face and I guessed she was Russian. She had about her a quiet seriousness and projected a sense of a deep internal life. She sat down in the Cockney’s seat and as she did so her mobile rang. She answered with a quick
and then hung up. She stared out of the window. I imagined her to be from the Royal Court and to belong to their group of international writers but when she got off at the next stop she dropped a business card- it had on it a long name in Russian I could not pronounce and a title: Retail Manager for Beauty and Cosmetics, Harrods.
Now the tube was approaching stations like Earl’s Court, Baron’s Court and Hammersmith. These were the stations where usually the happier families boarded bound for Kew Gardens or Richmond Park. At Earl’s Court I always felt rather edgy, I always associated it with Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying and expected Gordon Comstock and his girl to come running along the platform. Instead though a very elderly man wearing a suit and a poppy dragged himself into the carriage. He sat himself away from everyone else but not because he was hostile or inconfident but because he sought solitude. He seemed distracted and held his forefinger in his mouth between his teeth and kept blinking his eyes. I wasn’t surprised then, although I was upset; when after a while tears suddenly coursed down the old man’s cheeks. He tried to blink them away but they kept coming. He looked around to see if anyone had noticed and caught my eye. He held it for a second before looking away. This had a peculiar effect on me. I wasn’t feeling so good myself and the sadness I had been trying to contain suddenly bubbled to the surface and threatened to break ground. I bit my lip, squeezed my fingers with my hands, crossed my legs and clenched my body hard in order to hide my internal struggle. However the old man was looking, and he, quite recovered; gave me a little smile. I thought, isn’t it funny how one’s emotional state can suddenly be made better through empathy with someone else also in need, even if that person is a stranger and the interaction brief and no words are exchanged? For I realized the old man had perceived some of my empathy for him and feeling not so alone had immediately cheered up. I too, upon receiving his small smile; felt instantly better. If only we could always heal each other in this way! We came to Gunnersbury and the old man got off but he stayed with me for a long time after. I often think of him.
By this time the carriage was full of young families- professional women and men in wax jackets and wellies with Maclaren pushchairs. The men tended to rucksacks and bottles of water and bananas, the women fitted gloves on small hands and boots on small feet.
There was one woman who, holding her baby; kept flashing little smiles at her husband. He however sat morosely, feet planted firmly on the floor and staring out of the window. The second child danced between his legs and bothered him calling
Daddy daddy daddy
Joey get up here, come on be quiet.
The father lifted up Joey onto his lap and he quietened. He took a glance at his wife who just at the moment raised her hand to her forehead to brush away a curl. He pursed his lips, angry. They had argued about something. The wife glanced over at him balancing Joey on his lap and for a moment looked tender. Feeling her look he turned his eyes to her in a hard stare. Not giving way, she looked crossly back but couldn’t prevent a wave of sadness starting in her womb- for that was where he had been- rising up through her and swelling up her face. Just at that moment at Turnham Green a tall black Ethiopian man in a beautifully cut suit leapt on clutching a bible. He shone with confidence and began to address the carriage.
Ladies and Gentleman I have come to save you! Yes! I have come to save your souls.
He goes up and down the carriage.
Do you know God lady? Do you know God little man? Do you know God little woman? Why not? Oh why not? You are missing out! You do not know what you are missing! For God loves you. God loves you all! And he forgives you for not loving him for God has enough love for everyone, including himself!
The wife and the husband exchange little smiles as this little speech is addressed to them. The wife suddenly to the preacher,
Thank you, she says.
No problem lady, no problem at all. If you so fancy come along and hear me preaching! Prince Ez al Herin at the Banqueting Hall in Brixton. I’ll be there tonight at 6.30! Come along! Come along!
He hands her a leaflet and steps off as the tube stops at Kew. He makes his way to the next carriage,
Ladies and Gentlemen!
The wife and the husband exchange a few words. Laughing he takes the leaflet from her and puts it in his pocket. They get ready to get off at Richmond.
I look around for the girl in the miniskirt but she got off at Kew with a Japanese man. The fat boy is still here though. He too was brightened by the religious man although he pouts quickly. His phone goes off.
I’m nearly here Gran, don’t worry. Yeah we’ll go to The Garter and Stars. I won’t be long, don’t worry.
The boy reddens with having to speak out. Everyone piles off at Richmond, the next load of passengers ready to get on.
I move after everyone slowly and I think about what I have brought myself here to do. As I approach the park I am not quite sure of what I will do. Things have changed. That is not to say that the dark persistent black dog will not visit me again. It will. But perhaps being able to look outwards, to focus myself on the stories and experiences of others and be distracted by the flow of life my save me yet. If I want to be saved.