The Commute; My first experience of London rush hour was an awfully uncomfortable affair, awfully uncomfortable indeed. Within the space of 20 minutes I had become more intimate with several strangers than any previous lover. You get so close to your fellow travellers that metaphorically speaking I’m pretty certain I have fathered several ‘tube love’ babies. A vogue crotch insistently pressing against my leg, an unwanted armpit stroking against my neck, some girl’s big hair flicked across my face. Who’s goddam arm does that belong to anyway! Well, congratulations are in order because you have just been introduced to the daily commute on the underground. Mentally and physically this will be one of the hardest challenges you face. To be able to hold what can only be described as the teapot position or some other ludicrous yoga ‘stretch’ for over 20 minutes is no mean feat, especially when you consider this is done in a tin box sauna. Actually, holding isn’t really a fair representative of the act, it’s more like manipulating oneself like play dough into any available space. And don’t forget to hold your breath because some people have a difficult odour to swallow and your nose will be insulted at some point. There really should be some sort of travel friendly rules but that might be slightly totalitarian and probably its own topic entirely.
Once entrenched into the grind there’s a daily string of thoughts every commuter has. Why am I doing this? Is he really going to try and read that now? Gawd her music is awful! When did it get so damn hot in here? I’m definitely sweatier than when I got on. For some the commutes’ a ritual. They put in their headphones, lose themselves in the darkest corners of their imagination and recreate those rock star dreams. Perhaps there really were six members of the Backstreet Boys after all. But always, always ready to put their best elbow forward for the impending and chaotic charge out.
So as a young inexperienced London I learnt the hard way that getting on a tube station in rush hour, especially rush hour on the Northern line, is full blown warfare.
Although there are no formal rules to boarding, there is a gentleman’s agreement, a mutual understanding that runs deep within a commuter. A silent nod indicating that it is indeed your turn to load onto this roller-coaster of fun as it snakes through London. I learnt my lesson on a particularly fine autumn morning as I arrived at Clapham station and once swiped through the turnstile took my place among my fellow desk jockeys. A sea of white shirts with the occasional splash of colour from a media type who looks to be lost.
I patiently waited while carriage after carriage pulled into the platform, each absolutely bursting full with no conceivable space. That was until some acrobatic routine was performed by the waiting magician. An unbelievable daily performance which I still struggle to comprehend is possible. As the tides drifted I found myself edged to the front of the que ready to provide the tube boarding gods the sacrifice they demanded. After waiting for what seemed an eternity I saw my opportunity and leaped onto the carriage edge, precariously balancing on a knife’s edge between sanctuary and failure. So many variables to calculate; could I hold the position until the next stop where I might get a slight rest? Would I be able to read my Kindle and stay entertained or I even be able to breath?! While I worked through my calculations the familiar sound of the closing doors began confirming I would be on my way. Phew! (as usual I was already several minutes late).
However, just as the doors began to shift disaster struck! Perhaps my sacrifice had not been worthy for Zeus himself reached down and with a firm grasp on my collar yanked me backwards off my perch. Just as a side note I spend a good time ironing my shirt so the thought of creases was equally upsetting to the unwelcome presence behind me.
Dazed and confused I searched for the cause of the commotion only to see the back of an elderly woman as she leaped onto the carriage to replace me. Had what I thought had happened really happened? Had she committed this crime against tube etiquette? Had I just been bullied off the train by a frail old lady? Surely not. But in any event, could I recover my cool? Alas the sniggering from the rather pretty young thing behind me confirmed my worst nightmares. My muscularity had not only been challenged but crushed with such force I would most definitely have sleepless whimpering nights. So many unanswered questions ran through my mind. Had this been some initiation into London life, or perhaps a show of authority like in prison, a way of teaching me the tube pecking order? No. It turns out I had just been duped by an old lady in a rush to get to her church group.