Secretarial: The Temp - Travel troubles

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The Independent Culture
SOMEONE GOES under a train at Kennington, and you can see from everyone's faces that the first thought that's come to their minds is not, "Oh, poor them", but "Damn!". It's the first word that comes to my mind, followed by the uncharitable thought that suicides always happen at points where they will cause maximum disruption for the maximum percentage of the population.

And it's always during rush-hour. At least, it's the evening rush-hour this time. I was once stuck in a packed train in a tunnel for 45 minutes. It was so packed that it wasn't even possible to move enough to shrug off my winter overcoat. It was like being trapped in a tin of polar bears. Tonight it's six o'clock, and all I have to do is get across London in time to get to bed.

It takes a couple of seconds for anyone to translate the Aramaic that rattles over the speakers, then a collective groan rises from the crowd. "Tchuh!" says the girl next to me. "Why do they always do this when I'm in a hurry?" "Urr," says the suited gent beside her. "So selfish." I grunt, haul my enormous bag (Of course, today was the day when I impulse-purchased a decent dictionary) to my shoulder, and make for the escalators.

This is, of course, also the day when I've also decided to break in my new fake-Gucci loafers. I've had them off under the desk for most of the day, but there are still two tender spots on the knuckles of my big toes. As we come into the fading daylight, the air fills with the beep-beep- beep of mobile phone key-pads. The people around me take three options. The ones with Hermes Scarves, tied to the handles of their leather laptop bags, gesticulate wildly at taxis, whose lights went off the moment the news that the Northern Line had gone down hit the airwaves.

The Lads dressed in Burton and Tie Rack light fags, and head straight for the lighted window of the Station Arms over the road, to wait it out until the bits have been scraped onto a stretcher, and the trains are running again.

I make for the nearest bus stop, accompanied by several score of women with Sainsbury's bags. In situations like this, the British reserve breaks down and people start talking to each other. Well, at least furnish each other with gory details. "I hear," says a woman with grey hair, "that they hardly ever die instantly. They're probably going to have to get in winching equipment to lift the train off him."

The woman on my right launches into a story about how she had been on the District Line platform at Victoria once, and there had been this man who had become so fascinated watching the mice on the tracks, that he'd failed to spot the train coming in. "Got him right on the head," she said. "Did he die?" said greyhair. "Dunno. I didn't stay to watch. He certainly wasn't moving."

Five buses go past, people hanging from the poles, and the conductors trying to prise their fingers free and kick them off. The queue only goes down as people give up and start walking towards town. I look at my watch, seven o'clock, look at my shoes.

A cab goes past and someone hails it. "Anyone going to Chelsea?" she cries. I jump in. It's like the Blitz: five strangers wondering whether a shared taxi is like a lift, in which case we mustn't talk. Eventually: "Third time this week," says the girl who hailed the cab, and everyone bursts into conversation: "Can't believe it..."; "Stuck in a tunnel for an hour and a half..."; "My boss went under a train after our Christmas party. Lost an arm..."; "Why do you think they never do themselves in at suburban stations...?"

"Ah, well," says the girl who hailed the cab. "I should be home for 7.30 anyway." "I'm getting a takeaway and going straight to bed," says someone called Dawn.

Just north of Covent Garden, the traffic grinds to a halt. By quarter past eight, we've moved maybe 100 yards and the meter has almost hit pounds 20.

We've run out of conversation, and are sitting there, clutching our bags and gazing out of the windows.

The driver pushes his window back. "Sorry, ladies," he says. "They've just been on the radio. Apparently, there's someone under a bus at Shaftesbury Avenue. You might as well all get out and walk."