Friday, 12 April 2013

The tube has no memory

I came onto the southbound Victoria line platform at Kings Cross at about 9.20 pm this Friday night. I thought I was too late to catch the tube train that was sitting there, because the doors near me were all closed, but then I noticed a commotion further along the platform that offered some hope.

Several Transport for London staff and maybe some transport police were standing half in and half out of the doors of one carriage dealing with some kind of situation, and as I approached I saw that the next set of doors further along the same carriage were also standing half open. Unlike other people hanging back on the platform, I slipped in...

The officials back along the carriage were in the process of deciding whether to detain some dude who was fervently protesting his innocence regarding whatever incident had taken place. I gained a picture of the scene in half-heard snatches as the staff rapidly made up their minds:

"I'm the victim in this!"

"Leave him alone!"
"You stay out of this!"
"I'm his mum! She bit him, he was just standing there!"

Within a remarkably short space of time, the officials made up their minds and withdrew, presumably with some female aggressor already in custody. With that, the familiar warning beeps sounded out and the carriage doors slid shut.

At this point the central part of the carriage was unnaturally empty of people. It wasn't entirely empty: there were the man and his mum, trying to pull themselves together, and one other young dude lounging back with his leg cocked nonchalantly over another seat, looking like he hadn't moved a hair during the whole goings on. And scattered across the floor of the carriage were the crushed remains of a burger and chips complete with decimated foam packaging, making the scene look like that of a low-end food fight gotten horribly out of hand.

The unfortunate young man was now examining an impressive instant bruise about the size of a £5 coin on his upper arm, having removed both a hoodie and a lightweight jacket to inspect the damage. The skin was scraped and ragged but looked unperforated, and there was no sign of extracutaneous blood.

I considered the situation. Both ends of the carriage were fully populated with seated people but largely empty of standees, whereas my central section was mostly empty of seated people but very crowded with somewhat shaken-looking standees. Reasoning that the danger was over, I excused my way through the crowd and sat down opposite the young man and his mother, just now themselves regaining their wits. One other man also took a perch at the far end of the section, but aside from he and I everyone else remained standing as the train pulled away.

I surreptitiously glanced at the man and his mother from time to time as the metres slid by. There were some quiet enquiries as to wellbeing from one to the other, but they were surprisingly low-key considering what had happened. The mother found or regained an Evening Standard from somewhere and directed the main force of her attention its way, although the hands holding it trembled. The son simply sat trembled and wondered where to look and what to do.

I looked at my feet, at the squashed chips, occasionally at the tube map and occasionally at the poor people opposite me and those still standing by the doors. Who knows what terrible scenes these people had witnessed, and why they were still so unwilling to sit down. Perhaps blood had been spilt after all - or not only spilt, but sprayed wildly across the seats, in Tarantino-esque reproduction of the ketchup smeared across the floor. I couldn't see any, though.

And then the tube reached Euston and the carriage doors opened and people embarked and, not knowing any reason not to, pushed past those still standing and filled the empty seats, pausing briefly at the sight of tattered foam and mashed potato, but not letting it stop them from claiming their deserved rest. A pack of teenage girls in skin-tight jeggings and faux-leather jackets squeezed on, squalling and laughing and drinking wine straight from a bottle, and suddenly they were the thing to contend with, the place not to look, the thing people wanted to be over.

When the man and his mum left the carriage at Oxford Circus, the only sign that anything had ever been amiss, aside from the stray chips and burger patty, came when the man who had perched on a seat when I took mine advised the fellow who had been bitten to perhaps see a doctor in the morning, to which the bitten murmured his quiet thanks.

The tube has no memory.

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