“The train approaching platform one is a Bakerloo line train for Elephant and Castle.”
The familiar monotone female voice cut through my sleepy thoughts as I struggled to stay awake on the near empty platform. The train sped into the station and pulled to a halt with the doors directly opposite where I stood: a kindly welcome to the early morning commute. North Wembley to Waterloo. Thirty eight minutes on the stuffy and noisy London underground. It doesn’t seem particularly appealing even at the best of times but throw in an early morning, then the promise of a dull 9-5 at the other end, and it would be more than understandable for me to dread this journey. However, despite its drawbacks, the tube journey is in fact often the highlight of my day. It provides the perfect setting for my favourite pastime: people watching and daydreaming.
This morning, like every other, I near collapsed onto my preferred seat in the centre of the carriage and glanced around at my fellow travellers. There was a woman with slightly greying hair reading “Sense and Sensibility” through a pair of spectacles at one end and at the other her polar opposite: a tall guy in his late teens tapping his foot along to the much too loud music blasting from his branded headphones. A few other sleepy heads had straggled on to the train with me and, as the doors slammed shut, they found their seats: as far away from each other as possible of course. The scent of stale cigarettes and alcohol drew my eyes to the young man sitting in the row opposite me. His tattooed arms and roughly kept beard stood out against the regular businessmen of the London commute like neon paint splattered on a white canvas. A worn black backpack was placed securely between his two equally as worn converse, and his attempt at an even composure was let down by his trembling hands. He stared blankly straight ahead, encased by the protective personal bubble everyone hides inside on the tube.
As the train drew in to Stonebridge Park the teenage boy got up, as though to leave, but instead of exiting through the first set of doors he carried on and stopped in front of the man. His lean figure obstructed my line of sight but in next to no time he had rushed off the train, leaving the man in clear view as he stuffed an envelope into his bag, which he hurriedly zipped up; apparently keen to keep any evidence of the exchange out of sight. These early stops on my route never usually introduced many interesting new faces to the mix but a girl of about twenty, who was very pretty and far too fresh faced for this early in the morning, caught my eye as she hovered for a moment near the man before deciding on the seat next to him. I noted this intriguing choice, considering the many vacant seats. Perhaps she knew him. Noticing her he raised his head with a sort of defensive curiosity that quickly dissolved into a hunger as he recognised her.
“Hey sweetheart,” was his greeting.
She gave a small smile of acknowledgment, barely even glancing at him.
“Aw, someone not feeling very talkative today? What’s the matter?” He reached out an inked arm and placed a hand on her knee.
“Dave, I’m fine,” was her curt reply, accompanied by a turn of her head so that her hair created a shield between them. Dave. Clearly she did know him.
“Hey,” he insisted, pushing her hair back. “Hey, there’s no need to behind to be like that.”
His soft conversational voice had a steely undertone like a thin layer of sugar attempting to hide a bitter taste. I averted my eyes; concern for the girl was not enough to burst my own invisible bubble.
As the train slowed down for the next station an older man with sunken eyes got up and stopped by the tattooed man, Dave apparently. I craned my neck and could see him hand over a sealed envelope and receive a small package. He stuffed it in his pocket with a quick glance around the carriage before swiftly jumping off the now stopped train. The blonde’s eyes were left filled with disgust and, as the doors of the tube slammed, it looked as though she was going to move but a hand on her arm, and a low “you stay where you are”, kept her in her seat. Her eyes avoided his widened pupils and remained fixated on his bag.
Two boys, around fourteen, who dripped with over-confidence stood out from the gaggle of excitable tourists who had entered the carriage through the other doors. I noted their well fitted blazers and clipped accents, typical of those travelling to public school, as they sat down at the end of the row.
At Queens Park a third blazer-wearing boy got on. His face fell when he saw the two other boys sitting in this carriage. Unlike them he appeared timid, walking with his head down so that his red hair flopped over his eyes as though to protect him against the world; or perhaps the other boys. He turned to sit at the other end of the carriage but he was too late; they’d noticed him.
“Hey, Gareth! Come sit with us, mate,” one of them shouted over the drone of the train’s engine, his “mate” dripping with sarcasm. It soon became clear that there was plenty of history between these three. The boys moved so that Gareth was trapped in the middle of them. He sat, rigid, staring at his lap where his hands were intertwined. The other two sat uncomfortably close to him. A bullying story, then.
The train powered on and a haggard looking woman moved to stand in front of Dave. I was unable to glimpse their direct exchange but she stayed there longer than the others. I strained my ears, attempting to decipher the inaudible mumbling that was passing between them.
“I believe this is your stop.” Dave raised his voice, keeping his tone even. She held his piercing eye contact until the bodiless voice alerted everyone to “stay clear of the doors,” pushing her to run off the train with a completely displeased expression. This less than smooth transaction left Dave distracted and his bag unzipped. I sat up in my seat, trying to have a better look and caught a flash of silver. A knife? I looked up at the girl, whose expression remained one of shocked fear, trying to gage whether she had noticed. Her lack of another attempt to move away suggested she had.
A glance across to the boys revealed that I wasn’t the only one to notice the tattooed man’s behaviour. The bullies had taken a break from taunting Gareth to stare down the row at the man, and his bag. I focused on them, trying to tune in to the muttered comments the two were directing at Gareth. Extracts floated down the carriage, only just comprehensible over the hubbub of noise generated by the now full train.
“That guy looks like he might be dealing…”
“Certainly looks like the sort…Hey, you know, I’ve just had the best idea.”
Gareth’s eyes were still focused on his hands but his head shook in protest to the bullies plan.
“Oh, come on. Just do it.”
“…and ask for whatever he gave to that hag of a woman.”
“Nah mate, it’s no use. Little goody, mummy’s boy Gareth wouldn’t dare…”
“…shouldn’t have even suggested it. Should’ve known Gareth would be a letdown.”
Sniggering, the two boys high-fived behind Gareth’s head. Their smugness was soon wiped away and replaced with complete shock when Gareth stood from his seat and walked down the row, almost falling onto an elderly woman as the movement of the train shook his balance. Stopping next to Dave he froze for a few seconds before announcing his presence,
“I, uh, excuse me.”
“Can I help you?” Dave replied with a protective politeness.
Lowering his voice Gareth explained, “I’m interested in what’s in your bag.”
The man stared neutrally up at Gareth, remaining silent.
“I want- what you gave, to that woman,” Gareth expanded.
The momentary panic which flashed across the Dave’s eyes was soon smoothed over with that same neutral expression.
“She’s a friend. I borrowed something from her and was just giving it back. I haven’t borrowed anything from you, have I?” His tone hardened on the last two words.
“No but- it’s just, me and the others,” Gareth said with a small gesture back to the others, who were still frozen in disbelief, “thought that you’d have something, something that sounds like mugs.”
“Look,” his calm act was slipping, “what the hell are you playing at?”
I was distracted by the train stopping at Oxford Circus, where a man got on and sat next to me. There was nothing out of the ordinary about his appearance but something about him caught my attention. Although his body was relaxed he seemed alert; his eyes flicking from one end of the carriage to next. His casual expression hardening to one of concern as he realised what was happening.
“Just ignore the kid, please. It’s not worth it,” The girl timidly spoke out with concern for Gareth.
“You can stay out of this, sweetheart.” Dave didn’t even look at her. “And you, well, I don’t know what the hell you’re on about. Absolute rubbish, all of it, okay? So you can just get that straight in your stupid head and make clear to your little friends down there that you were all mistaken and nothing else needs to happen here.”
“You’re wrong.” Gareth corrected him, quietly, “they’re not my friends.”
The man’s muscled tensed and with a voice that had lost all of its previous sugar coating he turned back to Gareth, “What made you think you could speak to me again?”
“Please, leave it…” The girl tried again.
“I thought I told you to stay out of this,” Dave snapped, turning sharply with a raised hand hitting the blonde across the face. A united gasp rang through the carriage followed by a tense silence, but for the rumble of the train against the tracks. All protective personal bubbles had been burst.
Before anyone else could move the man who’d been sat next to me was up and helping the girl from her seat, speaking to her softly but urgently. The little colour that Gareth had originally possessed had vacated his face and the other two boys sat in the background, looking, if possible, even more shocked than before. Dave reached quickly for his bag and began to stand, but before he could move a step the other man had turned sharply back round, pushing his hand onto Dave’s shoulder, restraining him. He continued to pull a small object out of his pocket which flashed fear through Dave’s eyes. I tilted my head and saw something reflective catch the light. A police badge.
“The next stop is Waterloo.” I looked up in surprise; I’d been too engrossed in the story to notice the past few stops passing. Shutting my notebook with a snap I stood up, taking a look round the carriage. The school boys sat playing games on their phones. The blonde girl sat with her head on the man’s shoulder, half asleep and perfectly content. The tattooed man sat reading the Financial Times and the policeman, well; he probably wasn’t a policeman at all.
As I stepped off the train onto the crowded platform I thought of the best writing advice I’ve ever been given. It was a few years ago, at a talk from some author whose name I can’t even remember. She said to us “Never try and tell me you have no ideas, or that you can’t create any characters. Just look around you! There are characters everywhere. Their stories can be your story, if only you pay enough attention.”