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.



  1. This is a thought provoking blog about how we perceive the homeless and How we get so caught up in our own busy lives that we can at times perceive them as a bag of rubbish that we lose sight of our human side. The descriptive words evoke emotions that perhaps we tend to ignore so as to block how we are as society.
    Really powerful blog you should be really proud of your work, if TFL put this up on the trains or on the passageways maybe we might act differently as humans...Ahmed

  2. Awww thats a beautiful lil tale that resonates with me on a few levels...
    over the road from me is a homeless drop in centre and i often see people sleeping on the steps there, swaddled in sleeping bags, fighting off the cold and noise...its kinda shameful how we let people slip through the cracks..
    trains...dont get me started on those 'we apologise for your inconvenience...but we are making it deal with it' announcements ;)

  3. That's a lovely tale. I remember a couple who used to sleep on a double mattress in the subway near the IMAX. I used to feel so sad for them in winter. How bad must things be, that you end up sleeping there? Strange thing is, that was in 2005, and I still see some of the same homeless folk when I go back into central London each month.

  4. Nice of you to think of him, and I hope he found a place similar to his usual flop. I know that when I move to a new place, it takes a long time to get used to the new noises, even if that new noise is silence.

  5. i had a long conversation with a lady on the train who advocates for the homeless and we talked about how sleeping on concrete ruins the spine, causes them to walk hunched over. we talked about the strangeness of the police giving tickets to the homeless for various offenses from an open container to sleeping in a park...(besides the inhumanity, the utter waste of time in ticketing someone who is obviously unable to pay)...and the systems and processes that keep the homeless from getting out of the situations...the years it took to put one public toilet in our city...what are we doing to help our fellow citizens? not enough. have the conversations, find out where the red tape is, open our homes, give someone work. there's much to do.

  6. Beautiful. Not just beautiful, it's perfect... it's brilliant.
    My favourite line: "The high flow of commuters carried me like a surfer on an almighty wave towards the ticket machines."

  7. A very honest and thought provoking piece of writing. I felt I was right there with you seeing it all through your eyes. There were so many stand out lines and the ending was was spot on.

  8. Well done. I love how the scenes moved and flowed from one to the next, with your concerns growing and the story unfold. The details of each scene made it come alive. I felt like I was walking with you and feeling the biting cold.

  9. A touching and beguiling little story here. You did a good job of developing interest, and it's well-written. So yeah, good job.