23 November 2011

Subway Sleeper

I bet the sound of shoes clacking on the paving slabs penetrate into his dreams. At first I didn't notice him. I thought he was rubbish, an old sack that had been left to the side of Vauxhall Station's subway. But as I pelted down the stairs, my black ballerina pumps pattering two steps at a time, I noticed it wasn't a sack at all, but a royal blue sleeping bag that looked so grimy it could almost pass for grey. It seemed to have been thrown, uncared for into a heap at the bottom of the stairs. But in that brief moment before I passed, being just one of the thousands that would pass through the station that morning, I saw the sleeping bag had a hat.

The high flow of commuters carried me like a surfer on an almighty wave towards the ticket machines. People pushed and elbowed their way into a line, autonomously checking themselves through the barriers. I looked back briefly and wondered who was inside the bag and under the hat. Only two people were still amongst the clamour of the morning rush; the tired looking attendant in a luminous orange vest leaning inattentively against a metal rail and that person crumpled up in the blue sleeping bag, asleep on the concrete floor. I couldn't help but wonder whether the continuous beeping as people passed through the gates would piss him off, or whether it might be a comfort knowing there were other people around him.


After I'd taken the last telephone call and shut down my computer, I left the office, pulling the large glass doors closed behind me. I lifted my lapels up high around my ears and made my way home through the dimly lit streets of Mayfair. The wind had been bitter that day. It managed to breeze its way through my scarf and tie knots in my neck as I tensed up with the cold. I was looking forward to getting home, where a shepherd's pie supper was waiting for me in my snug little flat. I kept myself warm thinking of the candles lit on the coffee table, fleecy blankets to be wrapped up in, and an endless supply of hot water bottles. As I scurried through the subway, shivering, I noticed the blue sleeping bag had gone. I prayed he'd found somewhere warmer. The station cleaner was whistling, brushing away two squashed brown cardboard boxes that had been left grubby and ignored up against the concrete walls where the man in his sleeping bag had been. I contemplated rushing over, asking him nicely to stop, explaining that I thought they might actually belong to someone. But I was worried he'd think I was nuts, so I carried on walking to the escalators. The underground was crowded as usual, but for once I was rather grateful for the mass of bodies and closed my eyes as the warm, dirty air whooshed through my hair as the train pulled into the platform.


I knew it would be cold from the moment my eyes opened and I caught sight of the condensation dripping down the window panes. Wiggling my toes I lay there in the dim light for a minute, my duvet pulled up to my chin, enjoying having the warmth of someone lying next to me for a few seconds longer. A layer of morning frost covered the park as I trudged across it to reach the station. I still felt half asleep, awoken only slightly more by the cold biting the tops of my ears. The platform was full, and you could feel each person's sigh as they reached the top of the stairs from the ticket hall and saw the huddle of strangers crammed into the four metre spaces where the doors of the train were expected to stop.
Once aboard, the train jolted and spluttered its way towards Waterloo. I noticed after a few moments that a new announcement was being played over the loudspeaker in the carriage.

Due to network rail improvements, the subway connecting the tube and the train station at Vauxhall will be closed until March 2012. Passengers are advised to alight at Waterloo and use the Jubilee line to avoid congestion at Vauxhall station.

I woke up with a start and looked around the carriage. Commuters looked completely flabbergasted that their journeys were to be lengthened by around five minutes more that usual with a detour to Waterloo. I sighed, not because of my extended journey, but I wondered where the person in the blue sleeping bag would sleep now his subway had been closed. I decided not to follow the crowds to Waterloo and so I jumped off the train as it pulled into Vauxhall and made my way down the stairs. The lights were dim as I returned to the ticket hall, and the station seemed smaller. Possibly due to the wave of people being reduced to only a steady trickle, that wound its way through the diversions to find the route out to the tube. I had a longer time to glance over at the subway this time and had the space to stop and stare at the enormous blue chipboard blockade that had been nailed across the entrance to the subway. It was the same royal blue as the crumpled sleeping bag. As I pattered up the stairs and out into the cold morning air I hoped that he'd found somewhere else to sleep last night, a place that was warmer and where he might not have needed to sleep in a hat. I hoped he'd dream soundly tonight without those hollow clacks of heels on concrete that might have penetrated his dreams before.


21 November 2011

All Aboard!

Upon entering the tiny ticket office, I felt as if I had walked back in time. The early 1900s to be precise. Everything about the station was quintessentially British. Beautiful leather suitcases printed with bold black lettering, a bright red post box, checked tablecloths draped across the six tables laid out in the pretty yellow tea room. 1930's advertisements littered the picket fencing that ran across the edge of the platform, and lovely cast iron lamp posts lay dotted alongside. I only wished I'd worn a fur muff and a cloche hat. I heard the steam train before I saw it, clickety-clack and toot-tooting along the track. Billows of smoke rose from beyond the signals and the giant green beauty pulled into sight, more impressive and enchanting than any train I'd ever seen before. People leant out the train windows to watch the station pass them by, but there were no white handkerchiefs in sight, as I might have imagined there would have been around a century ago. The steam billowed around the station, and I pictured the gentlemen opening the doors, ducking as they stepped out onto the platform and holding their hands out for their wives. Closing my eyes for a moment, I could see young ladies' tightly buttoned gloves waving furiously to their beaus, who were looking proud in their uniforms as they set boldly off to war. I took in the sooty smells, the whistle from the guard. I was at once a leading lady in a quaint and romantic old black and white film; I was Laura Jesson in Brief Encounter, listening to the teacups rattle in the bustling railway tea room as the steam train flew by.

Taken on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in the West of England near Cheltenham. A short trip back in time on the preserved Gloucester Warwickshire Steam Railway.

17 November 2011

"Not on the escalators please, Madam..."

It's 8:12am or so. I'm zipping up the escalators at Green Park station. It's one of those days that I decide to stand to the right and wait, rather than trudge up the left side, mainly to avoid staring at the person in front's behind for around twenty five steps. Thankfully it's not too busy, so I leave a step or two between me and the little old lady in front, and as etiquette suggests, the man behind waits a few steps behind me. I've got Julian Casablancas Tourist blaring in my ears and I'm in a fairly happy mood, so I twist and look down at the people coming up the escalator the other side, bopping my head slightly to the beat. Then suddenly, I notice their eyes widen. As with all expressions in London, it's only a fleeting widen of the eyes, before dropping back to the usual deadpan look, but I notice it none the less.
I turn back to see what could be quite so shocking on a Friday morning, halfway up the escalators at Green Park station, that it could make a whole row of commuter's eyebrows raise half a centimetre.

The little old lady standing just in front of me is unashamedly - and rather energetically - lunging on the escalators

I blink to make sure she isn't an early morning apparition. No. There she is, quickly checking behind her for oncoming traffic, gripping to the moving handrail, placing her right foot up two steps in front of her, and before anyone looks twice, down she goes until her back leg is completely straight and her chin nearly touches her knee; one, two, three, lunge.
She must be in her late seventies, has short grey hair and half-moon bifocal glasses, a long waterproof maroon overcoat with all the buttons done neatly up the front. Through her papery skin, I notice the blue-purple veins protruding from deep concentration. As she steps back again with purpose and goes to lift her left leg I see the flick of a pleated tartan A-line skirt. I'd even go as far to say - I heard her puff.

Quite why she was lunging, I'll never know. Perhaps she had a stitch. Perhaps she was a champion lunger, back in the day.  But she continued to puff, stretch her legs out and bend her knees, right up the escalator until we reached the ticket hall. 

And the stitch I got from laughing too hard lasted all the way until I reached the office.

15 November 2011

Standard Delivery

The doors slide open slowly, as if they're not quite sure if they'd like to let me in. The room is wide and quiet. People are mostly keeping themselves to themselves. Someone coughs, but it's hidden discreetly behind a polite hand. I join the end of a queue of people staring at polystyrene ceiling tiles, and I wait. Green lights flash up on a black television screen - the only thing in this room that suggests we've moved into the twenty-first century. And like a God watching over us all, the voice of a robotic woman summons up the next waitee. In stark contrast, a nearby flip card clock clicks into place. I like how retro it looks. The flashcards with bold black lettering flick with a tick for each minute that passes. I wonder how long it has been flicking cards on that grubby magnolia wall. The line shuffles forward. Everybody resumes their positions and then pauses, as if part of a synchronous mime act. The sounds in here are most unlike any other. Whirring pages of official red, gold, orange and blue squares, being ripped along perforations. The occasional ker-chunk as something passes the stare of the woman behind the counter, then branded and inked accordingly. Nice and methodical. A tired ceiling fan hums faintly over my head, the blades spinning so slowly that I try to watch one whip around for a while. It makes me feel dizzy, so I lower my eyes down to the present I'm holding tightly in my hands. The paper crunches as I turn it over. I think of the soft woolly scarf I had made, now all snug inside three sheets of wispy black tissue paper, wrapped carefully within two layers of course brown paper and sealed with a good few cuts of screeching sellotape. I think of how she'll open each layer, how the birthday card might fall on her lap, the tissue paper will be left torn on the side. I hope she'll like it. My eyes trace the letters sprawled across the front of the package, spoken in my lovely familiar handwriting and a deep blue ink; all bunched together to create the whereabouts of my little sister. I stare at the letters long enough, until they no longer make sense to me; become a code, just a formation of unusual wiggles. It's the reverberating thud of a rubber stamp on a savings book that jumps me out of my squiggly stupor, just in perfect time for the God of the Post Office to call me forward.

9 November 2011

Carriage 5601 to Wimbledon

I didn’t ever think that crocheting would cause me any trouble. It’s not the sort of thing that suggests dramatic times ahead, does it? However, dramatic they were.
I have been crocheting for years, ever since I'd sat up in the kitchen with Mum one rainy afternoon and she'd shown me how, proving to me that there is a quicker and ever so slightly cooler way to create things with wool than knitting. Recently however, I’ve been doing something that has mortified Liam and makes him reluctant to admit to the world that I am his. I crochet in public. In cafes, in pubs, at bus stops and most especially – on the tube. You wouldn’t believe the looks I get - double takes even. (Although, I’m secretly quite proud of that.)

I’d sat down on the tube all in a fluster. I’d gone the wrong way around the Circle Line and only just managed to hobble onto the train with all my bags before the doors skimmed my back and closed firmly behind me, beeping aggressively. There were a few seats free, so I chose one by the doors and leant rather pathetically against the glass panel. I was still recovering from my operation and so was consequently exhausted and slightly in pain. I sighed, thinking that maybe I'd overdone it by conducting a ‘getting used to the tube again’ trip into Central London at peak time. 

Reaching for my gigantic Mary Poppins holdall handbag, I pulled out my wool bag. I’d been working on an Afghan Squares blanket and could hardly see the crochet hook at the bottom for what seemed like hundreds of multicoloured crocheted squares littering the bag. An older lady with immaculate hair and a gold buttoned cardigan sat opposite me, watching curiously as I fumbled about in the bag.

I found the right hook eventually, after accidentally elbowing the man next to me, and put it carefully on my lap. The square I’d been working on had become caught up amongst three balls of double knit. I sighed and pulled the lot out of the bag, trying to untangle them. As I stretched out my arms to wind up the wool, I saw the lady with the gold buttons smiling at me. It's the same sort of smile I always get. The aren't-you-cute-and-sort-of-unusual look. I grinned back.

The train began to slow as we pulled into Earls Court. As the woman on the voiceover announced our arrival, the whole carriage jumped into life, shuffling towards the doors and eyeing up which seats would become free. The man next to me stood up quickly shoving his iPhone into his back jeans pocket. I leant forward to move my handbag out of his way to be polite, but completely forgot how my Great Grandmother’s crochet hook had been resting on my lap. In horrifying slow motion I saw the thin silvery hook roll gently over my knee, fall, hit the carpeted upholstery and slip neatly down the side of my seat.
I froze, as the hoards of people waiting on the platform at Earls Court station piled onto the train to Wimbledon, pushing and shoving for seats and breathing space.

Oh God. 

Leaning my head against the glass, risking looking as if I was sniffing it, I peered into the narrow gap down the side of the seat.

Black fluff. 
A few stray hairs.
Something unidentified - that I hoped was a bit of old chewing gum.
I knew that somewhere beyond that darkness was my crochet hook.
I shuffled in the seat to get a better look. I even braved sticking a finger down the gap. I came back with bits of crap in my fingernail, but no hook.

I wiggled in my seat and leant around the glass thinking that perhaps I could see it from around the other side. People were beginning to look at me funny - although in true London style, no one in the carriage said anything. They just politely averted their gaze and left me to my own weird little devices.

A man poked his nose over his newspaper.

"'Have you lost something?" He asked cheerily, in a light Scottish accent.

"Yes. My... Well - Um - something fell down the side of the seat."

He tucked his paper under his arm, and craned his neck to look down the hole.

"You'll never get that back." He said. "Though you might try taking down all the details of the carriage. Cleaners mind find it, y'never know..."

The man wished me luck and got off as we pulled into Putney Bridge.
I whipped out my phone and quickly punched in all the details I thought might be useful in remembering my location.

Carriage 5601 - second set of seats back from front of carriage - first on left if looking forwards - Edgware Road to Wimbledon - reaching East Putney at 17:11 - slipped between glass panel and seat plastic. 

Excellent. Now I wouldn't forget. Armed with all my information, the train pulled into Southfields and I jumped off, quickly counting the carriages to check I was definitely the second carriage from the front. I paused outside the driver's window, wondering if I should ask him to stop, before finally deciding on taking the stairs up to the barrier to find a station supervisor. The supervisor looked at me as I was particularly annoying as I launched into my speech. She was a short, angry-looking woman, with her hair scraped back into a greying ponytail on the top of her head.

"Hello - I've just come in on the train to Wimbledon - I've lost my Great Grandmother's crochet hook down the side of one of the seats - It's carriage 5601 on the train that's just left the platform - I'm sure it was the second back from the driver." I stopped to breathe. 

She levelled her glasses that were balanced precariously on the edge of her nose, and raised her eyebrows, taking her time to speak. 
"Well, there's nothing I can do about it."

I stared at her in disbelief. 

She continued. "I'll never get through to Wimbledon - they never pick up the phone, you see. The only thing you can do, is get on the train to Wimbledon that's pulling into the platform right now, get off at Wimbledon, find your train, ask the driver.... "

But I didn't quite catch what I'd have to do after finding the driver. I'd already hurled myself down the stairs two steps at a time and launched myself through the train doors, risking splitting my stitches to save a crochet hook.

The train took off and clattered lazily down the track. I picked at a scratchy fingernail and leant up against the doors, praying there were no delays. I stared out the window, feeling useless.
Once at Wimbledon, I pushed past the crowd, looking desperately up and down the eight or so lines at Wimbledon for the train that had arrived from Edgware Road. I stopped halfway up the platform out of breath, there were people and underground tube trains everywhere. I clutched my stomach - it was really hurting now - and I looked desperately about for the train that could have been mine. 

"Where's the train that's just come in from Edgware Road?!" I yelled at some poor unassuming station cleaner. He shrugged and continued picking up paper coffee cups off the floor. I took a chance, and raced to the platform right at the far end of the station. Then I saw the yellow sign change on one of the trains, indicating it was off to Edgware.

I knew there was a turnaround of about ten minutes at the end of the line at Wimbledon. I didn't have long. I pelted down the length of the platform to the driver's carriage, dodging commuters. My legs felt like jelly, my heart was thumping and the blood flushed to my cheeks. I hoped to God I wouldn't faint or pop a stitch. 
I reached the driver, hysterically out of breath and rather erratically explained the situation. 

He was a young guy around thirty and he clearly fancied himself. He had dark black wavy hair, thick and slicked with gel. He wore cologne so strong it nearly knocked me right over.

"Okay, yeah. Didn't I see you at Southfields a moment ago? To be honest love, I thought you fancied me."

Irritated and still hyperventilating, I brushed away a strand of hair that was all sticky on my neck and tried to catch my breath.

"No." I replied, perhaps a little too curt. "I had lost my crochet hook under a seat."

Then I remembered my manners and a little less aggressively asked; "You can help me get it back can't you?"

He grinned at me and winked, reached in to turn the train engine off and grabbed a large set of keys. We walked to the carriages at the far end of the train, as he whistled and jangled the keys (I swear to annoy me). A few minutes late in leaving Wimbledon, the carriages had now become quite full, and much to my mortification, in carriage 5601 every seat was taken.

"It's this one! I was sitting right there..." I said, pointing to my seat and making sure I'd counted the right number of carriages down and seats back.

"Okay, love." He swung himself into the carriage and announced loudly; "Caaaan everyone on these seats please stand for a moment, this young lady's lost something under one of the seats!"

I cowered behind him, my face turning a brilliant scarlet, hovering near the seats, getting ready to grab the offending crochet hook before anyone could see it and I might embarrass myself further.

As everyone collected their bags and newspapers and stood up as if their legs were made of lead, the train driver reached under the seats to unlock them, before winking at me again and lifting the four seats up just like Popeye.

Seeing a glint of silver, I rushed forward.

"Got it!" I sung to the carriage and quickly hid the hook up my sleeve before scooting the hell out of there as soon as I could.

"Thank you everyone! You can all take your seats again!" The train driver announced before following me out.

"Go on then, let's have a look." He asked me.
"At what?" I said.
"The hook, or whatever it is you lost."

As requested, I lowered the slim silver 4mm hook from out of my sleeve cautiously, as if I was offering him some illegal substance.

"Is that it?" He said. "Oh well, love. Each to their own." He clipped his keys onto his belt, nodded at me then whistled his way back down the platform to the driver's carriage.

A little bashful, but over the moon I'd got my hook back, I waited a minute until I saw him disappear into his compartment before I strode quickly to the back end of the train. I slipped into one of the carriages unnoticed, making quite sure it wasn't carriage 5601. Exhausted, I fell into one of the last seats available. I didn't dare get out my wool bag, it was only a few stops, and that wool bag had seen quite enough for one day. To think that a fifty year old crochet hook could stop the 6:20 from Wimbledon. Quite impressive, no?

6 November 2011

100 Word Post : Bonfire

Sighing young flames heave up to the sky, stealing hot oxygen kisses to fly great heights. Trembling and fluttering, they command and spread a wood burning frenzy.  

I watch them twirl furiously, spinning wondrously, until they cut into tiny tornadoes lifting right up and soaring through the raucous blaze, speeding uncontrollably before scattering out into a clear open night.

Whispering frantically they flirt with the wind; entrancing, enticing, spitting with desire. Below these roaring obsessions, I just can’t help but to stare. My eyes are transfixed, my face absorbing the blaze sparking from two unearthly dancers, both immersed and unaware.