I am on a train heading for London. I’m trying to focus on my novel but am distracted by the man sitting opposite me who has spread his three mobile phones out on the table like a deck of cards and gazes at them with a worried expression on his face.
Beyond him, in the next row of seats, a group of women dressed up for a night on the town are drinking champagne and sharing a monstrous-sized packet of cheese and onion crisps. Much of the conversation is inaudible except for an occasional and rather startling, snorty laugh. As the train gathers pace so does the volume of their merriment and they are soon encouraging everyone to join in with a rowdy rendition of Happy Birthday. Most oblige in order not to look unsporting. I take refuge in my book.
At Victoria I join a wave of passengers heading for the exit barriers. I realise, as I reach the underground entrance, that my ticket only covers my train journey not my tube fare so am forced to join one of several long queues for the ticket machines, something I haven’t done in years. I am conscious of all the foreign dialects being spoken around me and despite having spent half my life in London, feel suddenly like I am in a strange and unfamiliar land. When my turn comes the machine informs me that a return journey of three stops is now an astonishing £8.80. As I’m processing this information, I become aware of a slender man of Middle Eastern origin standing a little too close for comfort.
‘Take it,’ he says, proffering what looks like a tube ticket under my nose.
“Sorry?’ I say.
‘You need ticket, you have mine.’ His accent is thick and I’m distracted by his bloodshot eyes. ‘Give me £5.00, just £5.00,’ he urges, taking advantage of my hesitation. ‘I save you money. Please, you take it.’
I look around in a ‘who is this guy?’ sort of way but there is just a throng of hats and bags and rushing bodies and when I look back the man is walking quickly away. Somehow I am holding his ticket and I automatically follow him, forgetting that I have now lost my place in the queue. He appears not to hear me call out to him and is quickly swallowed up by the crowd.
A second man appears before me, blocking my path. He looks purposeful.
‘Excuse me, Miss,’ he says, in the first English voice I’ve heard in twenty minutes. (I’m too taken aback to be flattered by the Miss.)
‘Did that man just try to sell you a ticket?’
‘Erm, yes,’ I say, cautiously. He holds up an ID card and I catch the words London Underground Staff emboldened across the top.
‘Did you give him any money?’
‘No.’ I feel like I’ve done something wrong.
‘So, no money was exchanged?’
‘No,’ I repeat and explain about the Middle Eastern man wanting me to give him £5.00 but who walked away before I could return the ticket.
The man surprises me by suddenly smiling. ‘Then we’ve got him,’ he says, with feeling. ‘Would you mind giving me your details?’ All politeness now. ‘We might need you as a witness.’
He escorts me to a room near the ticket barriers and it’s like walking into mission control there’s so much gadgetry. There are screens everywhere. The two other men who are in the room grin so broadly at me that I feel like I’ve won a prize.
They tell me that the Middle Eastern man is part of a growing scam of immigrants who use unexpired, stolen travel cards to fund their drug habits by selling them on at discounted rates to commuters travelling into town for the evening. They’ve been after the Middle Eastern man for months and now, thanks to me, they’ve got something on him that will stick.
As a reward for my cooperation and for delaying the supper I have come up to London for, they give me a ticket that will take me round the city as many times as I like. They shake my hand and wave me off like royalty as I slip back among the masses.
Later, on the train going home, a teenage boy and girl join my table and sit opposite one another drinking beer out of cans. The girl begins to text furiously and loud, tinny music leaks from the boy’s earphones. I conceal my irritation. The pair exude a latent, dangerous energy and instinct tells me it wouldn’t take much to provoke them.
I stare at my book but think about naive tourists having their tickets snatched from their hands as they wander out of tube stations trying to get their bearings. I imagine myself in the witness box, the Middle Eastern man with the bloodshot eyes glaring menacingly at me from the dock as I recount what took place between us today and while I’m thinking about this I make a mental note to buy a full day travel card in advance next time I take the train up to London.