I spent the night at a friend’s place the other night, and we left for work together the next morning. It’s been a while since I’ve had to do this kind of journey, having surrendered my 90-minute slog from Surrey, just over a year ago, for a two-mile stroll into work every morning. You might think I’m crazy, but riding the London Underground every morning used to provide me with quiet pleasure. Since work is pretty close to the end of Met Line, I usually always had a seat. I’d grab a copy of the Metro, or get out a book, plop down, stretch my legs and kick back. By the time I’d finished with the paper, I was at my stop. No waiting to change lanes, no dickheads blaring their horns, no stressful left turns at busy intersections. I just zoned out, caught up on the news and before I knew it, my ride was over. It was quite nice.
A lot of it depends on what line you’re on, though. A mate lives way out east in Becontree, Essex, and his trains on the District Line can be notoriously unreliable. Sometimes the trains will run smoothly, and he’ll be at work in 45 mins. More often, the underground traffic jam gnarls, and his overcrowded carriage will be filled with grouchy commuters, sardined shoulder-to-shoulder, sweaty and cramped, for almost an hour-and-a-half.
The middle-aged women are always the worst. If you’re between them and an open seat, they have no qualms with elbow and shoulder-tackling you to get that seat. They’re sometimes even swearing and belligerent, with a rather frightening don’t-fuck-with-me scowl. It makes me worry about all the future of my female friends. Middle age, I suspect, is not kind to women.
This particular morning, I was running late. My friend kept me company. We had a few things to discuss and I was glad she was there. Sometimes the Tube is too quiet; I’m not the only one who likes to zone out. We hopped on at Woodside Park and swooshed downward, through Finchley, past Highgate, next stop Camden Town. We had talked and argued and laughed the whole time. We were in a good mood.
Like anybody else on the train, the man hadn’t caught my attention. It takes a lot to get me to notice you on the Tube. Usually, you have to be making some unnatural noise, maybe shouting, fiddling with your mobile, snoring maybe. The man was doing none of those.
He made a step toward us, an unusual movement. The train was not crowded, and it was a some way until the next stop. It was a measured, purposeful move. My head instinctively turned away from my friend and looked in his direction. There was nothing remarkable about him. Mid-thirties, light brown hair, slightly balding, wearing a brown trenchcoat, a pressed white shirt and tan tie. He was holding an umbrella, which tapped along the carriage’s floor, like it was a cane. Not a walking stick cane, mind you; he held it like a prop in a silent movie, tap tap tap, as if he were about to toss it into the air and break into song. But he wasn’t smiling, and he certainly wasn’t about to start dancing.
He took another step toward me and made eye contact. You’re not supposed to make eye contact on the Tube. Just one of those things.
As he came close, I noticed he was taller than I thought he was. But, honestly, that was pretty much it. He looked like every other guy on the train, a nondescript nothing, just more background fuzz. He kept coming toward us, focusing on me. It appeared he needed something, likely directions. I’ve been riding the Tube for more than a decade and take a good deal of pride in my mastery of the elaborate calibration of the London Underground system, so I’m probably a good guy to ask.
He stopped over us, a little too close. His eyes narrowed, his lips pursed, and he spoke.
“I want to talk to you about the law. What you’re doing is criminal. You should be arrested. You should know that I will be contacting the proper authorities.” He then shifted slightly to his right and lurked backwards slowly, almost floating, his eyes locked on us, his disgust and fury palpable. He stopped about five feet away, but his glare did not waver.
For a moment that lasted longer than I would have liked it to, I did a little internal inventory. Had I engaged in any criminal activities recently? Was I engaging in any of them now? I looked at my friend, whose look of confusion — not shock, legitimate confusion — presumably mirrored my own. I could tell she was doing her own inventory. She realised about the same time I did that, no, as far as we knew, we were not doing anything illegal.
We were silent for about 10 seconds. Then she spoke, in a whisper: “He’s still looking at us.”
And his umbrella was tapping… slowly.
Not that I’d ever been faced with a situation like this before, but it seemed like the wise thing to do was to carry on as if nothing had happened. I found myself chuckling, as if she had just said something funny, or as if a friend we hadn’t seen in a long time had just played a silly joke on us, ha ha, gotcha. I didn’t dare look over at the man. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I could tell he was still staring.
We began to quietly try to make some sense of what had just happened. She pointed out, with a bit of alarm, that this well-dressed man didn’t appear to be joking at all. I tried to minimise the situation, make her feel more comfortable, let her know she was safe with me. “He’s clearly a nutjob, obviously,” I said. I’m not sure that helped. Either of us.
I was getting off at King’s Cross, but her stop was Camden Town, the next one. We needed to formulate a plan. She suggested we both get off at Camden, and I could catch the next train, but even in my shock, that wasn’t feasible for me. I was running late already. I told her to go ahead and get off like she always would, and if he made a movement to exit the train, I’d follow. As if in a vice, his head remained stationary, fixed on us.
Her stop arrived. I said goodbye, with an eye on the man. He did not budge. She escaped unharmed. I theatrically took out a book I’ve been reading and pretended to study it intently. Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Off to King’s Cross. The umbrella continued to tap.
I had a plan of my own. I was carrying the rucksack I take with me everywhere, full of random notebooks and work stuff, and I stealthily unzipped the pouch where I would ordinarily store the book. The scheme: Make it look like I was staying on the train, then, at the last possibly second, throw the book in there and bolt through the exit doors. I’m a London Underground veteran. I knew exactly how long those doors were open.
The train stopped. Commuters filed out. The man did not budge. 3… 2… 1… now. With a flash, I dashed through the doors, onto the escalators. Halfway up, I got stuck behind two chattering students. I twisted my neck just enough to glance behind me. There were four people looking annoyed by the delay up the moving stairs… and then him. He was looking downward now, but, as if sensing the movement, his head snapped up.
Quickly now. I passed the students on the wrong side and whisked up the rest of the stairs around the corner. There is a Costa on the international station concourse and it was a bit crowded. I ducked in and feigned an intense interest in the dairy section. I idled there for about 15 seconds and turned around.
The man was gone. I loitered a bit, then ordered a coffee and left. Looking a bit suspicious, hunched over, paranoid, I shuffled back to escalators to get on the Met Line. My mobile rang.
It was my friend. “Oh, God, you’re OK. What the hell was that all about?”
I had no idea, I have no idea, but I can assure you: the next time I have to commute to work, I’ll be leaving on time, from now on.