I hate the tube. I hate slithering underground each day, twice a day, to squeeze inside the foetid air, and duck under the radar of the shifty looks of not looking at people. I hate the scramble for seats and the looks of triumph people give when they beat you to the prickly cushioned thrones of privilige. I hate getting stuck in the clanking darkness underground. I don't mind the nutters, the weirdos, the chanters, the dreamers. (And I like to sneak looks at what people are reading, watch the concentration as three people play snake on their mobiles.) It's the stale-sweating suits that piss me off, the ones who never notice the people who really need a seat. It's the open-mouthed gum-chewers and the burger-scoffers that scatter their detritus across the stained floors.
In recent mornings the trains have been speckled with mother-and-daughter tourists. The elegant mother, with a neatly tucked yellow wool scarf, adjusting her cuffs and then flicking anxiously through the guidebook while her daughter stared up at the ceiling with teenage ennui. The most beautiful girl, cramped tight with awkwardness, rubbing her brown-booted feet together and shoving her hands deeper and deeper into the pouch pocket of her fuzzy pale blue fleece. Her face so smooth, and sparkling with energy, despite the arias of bored sighing that accompanied each sideways glance at her mother's comments.
The tube is my favourite zoo. I turn the pages of my book with careful regularity and eavesdrop with delight. I watch people in the ricocheted reflections, and try to store away the scraps of their lives that I can catch. the leather trousered stickboy explaining marxist history to his grandmother, who tutted him and told him he was a tory at heart. The gold-earringed girl giggling into her hands as she whispered the name of her secret crush to her schoolpal (twisting the strap of her book bag into spirals). The woolly-jumpered old man reminiscing about his long dead wife, pausing, and the exhaling so fondly, "by god, that woman could snore!"
The tube stank of rotting flowers, old piss and stale beer. A double assault--two dozing tramps, one at either end of the carriage, each with their heads falling forwards in the heaviness of boozeclouds, but their fingers gripped with tight urgency around the unnerving gold of the Special Brew cans. (The beer that dissolves the mind and smells like old death when sweated through layers of all winter long clothes.) White hogbristle beard growth breaking through the paintpink flush of face. The bare ankles corned beef toned with failing circulation above unpaired shoes. A sudden stumble lurch as he aims for the closing door, escapes, and stunned, stock still on the platform, watches the vanishing train with amazement.
And at the next stop, this one is replaced with a more jovial drunk. the small space between his pulled down green hat and the voluminous black birdsnest beard is alight with amusement as he gawks showily at the tired and bleary commuters. Holding up his can in a toast to all those who meet his eye, you can see him measuring the fear and shrinking embarrassment around him. Leaning forward, he started to regale the woman opposite with some tale (sadly, out of earshot) and, amazingly, she listened. And she laughed. This is one of the rarest moments on the tube--a chance conversation that provokes a smile between strangers rather than a shrinking back or a hostile glare, or a wall of invisibility.
So often you can overhear that chanting thought-voice from all around you, "no, not me. Don't come and talk to me. Don't notice me. Don't tell me god will save me. Don't tell me your children are lost. Don't ask me for money. Don't sing 'Hey, Jude'. Don't look at me. Don't talk to me. Pretend I'm not here. I'm not here. I'm not here. I wish I wasn't here."
Those closed off mornings when it seems every passerby crashes against your shoulder in the tunnels, and everyone stands too close against the door, and if you dare to sit down, squeezed between outstretched thighs, your face is too close to a forest of besuited crotches, and you focus very hard on your knees. and everyone is staring into nowhere and wishing everyone was somewhere else.
I wish I could walk to work.