Aagh. Chuck challenged us to do a non-fiction piece about ourselves. I thought of a few more entertaining incidents in my life, but frankly, I didn’t want to share them. I’m trying to forget they ever happened! This one popped into my mind, though. It’s 1200 words.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Actually, it was mostly the worst of times. My mother had been in a home with dementia for just over a year, and she had developed a gangrenous foot. She could have had her leg amputated, but how can a woman of ninety with advanced dementia understand that? My father made the choice, and she was dying. Maybe a week or two, the doctor said. Tony Blair was developing a penchant for invading other countries in the name of anti-terrorism, and my colleagues were sorting out plans for demonstrations, pumping up the volume and the energy as they warmed to the campaign.
Then a train on my tube line careered off the rails on one of the bends into Bank station, and the Central Line was shut down for repairs. The whole of the Central Line. Can you guess what that was like for approximately half a million commuters? Up our end the alternative was to take the overground from Liverpool Street station. It went to a couple of stops only about five miles from where I lived. Only five miles. No bus connections, of course. The Central line was a big red artery that connected us with central London, and we spent our lives on it.
And it was January, and it was snowing.
On the fourth day of the disruption, I walked the two miles from my office to Liverpool Street, because the tube connections were so packed. They had decided to lay on temporary buses from Chingford to get us to the main stops at the end of the tube, to save parking chaos at the overground stops. Up until 7 pm. With a three-quarter hour journey from the centre, that meant getting the 6.15 at latest. I don’t know what planet these people live on, but most London commuters don’t finish work officially till 5.30, and many people work later – to avoid the crush. I remember standing on Bank station once, preparing to squeeze myself onto the next train, when a family with four young kids, aged, say, three up to ten, and a push chair, and suitcases, stood waiting for an empty one. The father clearly said, ‘we’ll have to wait for half an hour till the rush hour ends.’ I hate to tell you this, I thought, but you’ll have to wait till at least 8pm to get that lot on board.
Commuting gets you angry. You have to fight for your corner, and protect yourself from gropers. There is surprisingly little pickpocketing, but maybe that’s because the staff are alert for it, the pickpockets can find easier pickings above ground, and anyway, getaways are harder down below.
At Liverpool Street station, a major terminus, waiting to hear which platform would get the next train to Chingford, people were getting more than angry. Every time a train came in, there was a surge up the platform to race for an open door, and squash in with all your belongings intact. If you were on the wrong side of the platform as you saw it approaching, you joined the rush down to the gateway to flow past the buffer zone and up onto the arrival site. People with years of experience of fitting themselves into tiny areas, around carriage fittings and across seats, crammed themselves in, and then were crammed further in by the people pressing into the coaches. When the door closed, you just had to hope you were completely inside. I saw many coats sticking out from between the doors as the train set off through the tunnels into the cold dark night.
By the time four trains had gone, people were getting desperate. An announcement that the next Chingford train would be on platform 5 sent people scurrying up the platform, hoping it would be a twelve-coacher and not an eight-coacher. Wiser people stayed at the 8-coach limit. As it happened, they weren’t any wiser. The yellow-mawed front of the train approached platform 2.
Hysteria set in. This was the last train scheduled to meet the relief buses. I stood in my thick red coat, watching as people climbed down off the edge of platform 4, crossed two sets of tracks and climbed up onto platform 3, shared with 2 at the other side. The station staff went mad as they announced an approaching Enfield train on platform 3. I swear to you, I seriously considered trying for it. I stood looking at people pouring down and up the other side, wondering whether the Enfield train would… I am cold and trembling as I write, my mouth is dry and my last coffee is rising up my throat. I nearly did it.
Then I thought of the ridiculous sight of a middle-aged woman trying to climb up the other side, and came to my senses. Nothing was worth the risk – although everyone was safe that night, so was it such a risk?
Ten minutes later a train came in to platform 5 and we got on it, destination Harlow. A six-mile taxi ride the other end, but maybe we could share it. I got a seat near the front, and sat with three young people, maybe students, maybe City traders, you can never tell. The relief of being in a train released the tension, and they were giggling almost uncontrollably. Once we set off, and emerged above ground, the customary cacophony of phone updating began, some phoning loved ones – it’s okay, I’m on a train at last – or to book a taxi at the other end. My young companions started aping each conversation, practically rolling on the floor in their mirth. Frankly, it was very funny, and I hid my face, staring through the window at the darkness outside as I tried to smother my giggles. You don’t interact with other passengers, except in extremis. Maybe we were in extremis, but I didn’t know them; they weren’t regulars on my line.
Finally we got home, and the shared taxi cost £15 each because it was after hours – and because the driver could get away with it. I phoned next day to say I was working from home. Over the weekend I worked out if I was working from home, I might as well work from my parents’ home and look after my dad while I was there. My team supported the idea, and so did my boss, so I avoided the rest of the chaos, and the marches that told Tony Blair his invasion of Iraq was Not In Our Name, and looked after my dad until mum passed on, four weeks later.
The Central line fiasco carried on a while longer, but they’d got the buses sorted out by then, in fact, they had the bus links sorted out so well after that they could swing into relief bus mode for any disruption whatsoever. They got a lot of practice up our end of the line.
But I never forget the madness that night. If it hadn’t been snowing, I think we’d have gone for the train roofs. Electrified overhead wires or not. Madness and desperation. Just another aspect of commuting.
© J M Pett 2015