Late Sunday night is the quietest London gets: empty seats, empty
platforms, an eerie feeling. People watchful, on guard. I walk alone on
silent feet, not too quickly, through the quiet echoing subway. A face
watches me in silence from a pile of blankets against the wall: a surprisingly
clean face, young, with dark cropped hair. He's smiling. His eyes look very far
away, vacantly smoking his cigarette. He makes eye contact as I pass, but does
not ask for spare change.
I emerge in the mainline station, empty of the usual crowds. The shops are
closed, the snack bar staff are packing up the stale pastries. Burger King,
still open, is king of the station: the few knots of people scattered around
clutch tokens of its presence. I hesitate, and then buy mini apple fritters
with butterscotch sauce. My train, when it arrives, is almost empty but for a
fiftyish couple who seem to be Danish. I sit where they can't see me, open
an abandoned newspaper and greedily scarf the scalding fritters while reading.
I lick sauce off my fingers. It tastes oddly chemical, but it's all right.
Next stop, a girl gets on, about fifteen or so, fair hair, a crumpled
camel coat and a small suitcase, which she keeps beside her on the seat.
Halfway to the next station the door at the end of the carriage opens. You can
hear them coming. Rough voices, shouting, kicking seats as they pass. I freeze
behind the paper and go into invisible mode. Young, white but with
ghetto Ali G voices, cheap street clothes, skanky little moustaches. They kick
the bins out of their holders, sending a flutter of Burger King packaging across
the floor. Then they turn round. I hide behind the paper, not looking at
"She's a bit old for you mate," says one.
"Nar wotcher mean, old?
I'm sixteen," says the other, and they head my way again, giggling, pass me,
to my utter relief, and sit down behind me by the fair-haired girl. They start
up a conversation. I tune out as we pull into the next station: when I tune
back in again I am amazed to hear that the girl, who has crisp clear BBC tones,
is telling them about boarding school, and they're asking her questions.
Where is it? What is it like? Are you allowed out?
they ask, still sounding like Ali G. She answers them confidently and
precisely. It's in Kent, in the country. It's good, she explains, because you make very
close friends. Families send children there so they can get better grades.
She is utterly calm. She treats the boys I feared with level composure.
She patiently explains that she's missed the train back to school, and has
decided to go back home. She says a firm but pleasant goodbye to the boys and
strides off collectedly and unhurriedly into the dark cold depths of Lewisham station. I can't
help feeling admiration. Perhaps there's something to be said for a boarding