Close Encounters

beware_of_trains

I am waiting in my car at a train station watching the rain and people come and go through the misted windscreen. My eldest son’s tall, pale form emerges, limping slightly and wearing shorts. It is 6 degrees.

‘Do you have any food?’ he asks me, as he climbs into the passenger seat, his bare legs wet and muddy from his run at school. Apart from sleep, hunger is his main preoccupation. ‘And something for my foot. I’ve got a massive blister.’

Like Mary Poppin’s handbag, the car is equipped for all sorts of emergencies. Thus, I magically produce not only food but a change of clothes and a large padded plaster for his foot. Sports kit flies around the car interior as he changes and demolishes three bananas, a yoghurt and a large packet of oatmeal cookies. Mindful of the time, I urge him to hurry but he can’t seem to find the socks I brought him and the ones he’s wearing are fit only for the washing machine. Everything he has staggered home with has been tipped out, transforming the car into a burglary scene. The socks finally emerge and he’s struggling to put them on when our train arrives. We make it but only just, my son adopting the moves of a sandpiper as he hops after me on one leg, clutching his shoes.

We spend the evening in London with my husband, younger son and friends to watch Billy Elliott at the Victoria Palace Theatre. The show is thrilling, a mix of humour and poignancy and when it is over and we have said our goodbyes, we head back to the station in high spirits. Our timing is perfect as a train is already waiting on the platform so we jump on and install ourselves near the front. Half an hour later, our mood a little flattened, we still haven’t moved. A tannoy announcement tells us that there has been a casualty on the line and to expect long delays. We exit the train in search of an alternative route but discover that all the trains are in the same predicament. ‘Probably a suicide,’ my younger son says resignedly, ‘They happen a lot on the school commute.’

It’s cold and there’s nowhere to sit so we return to our original train and wait a further forty minutes before learning that the train we need is leaving from another platform. Knowing that the whole world will now be on their way to this platform, my older son sprints ahead to get seats. When we catch up with him he is already sitting on the train. The doors won’t open, however, and I find my access blocked.

‘Please step away from the carriage,’ says a guard with an edge to his voice.  We all shuffle back and watch three hefty men attempt to hook a carriage onto the body of the train.

‘This is a joke,’ a man standing next to me complains. His bald head resembles a peeled egg. ‘I could have been home ninety minutes ago.’

‘Yes, but at least you’re not dead,’ I say, reminding him of why we’re in this situation.

He has the grace to look chagrined. ‘You’re right. It’s only that I’m so friggin’ tired. I’ve got to be back here by 7am tomorrow. Hardly worth going home.’

He has a point. It’s already 12.45am and tomorrow (well, today now) is a school day. The boys are going to be shattered.

The small train, only half a dozen carriages, finally opens its doors and quickly fills. Somehow I have got separated from my husband and younger son but my older son has saved the window seat opposite him which I take. The train jolts into life and pulls away. I notice a man holding a Sainsbury’s carrier bag. He’s staring at me from a few seats away on the other side of the isle. Mid-forties, I’m guessing, with a tall, powerful frame, his good looks are spoiled by a ruddy complexion that suggests a lot of time spent in the pub. My son and I read the freebie papers. Not much to hold my attention. It’s just nice to be out of the cold and finally moving. At the next stop a wave of people join the train and it suddenly feels like rush hour. A very drunk girl falls into the seat next to my son. Her standing friend strokes her hair and tells her that she is going to be okay but the girl appears anything but okay to me. Caked in make-up she looks very drunk and can hardly keep her eyes open. I have a bad feeling about this.

With so many people pressing onto the train I’m only vaguely aware of someone addressing me.

‘You don’t mind, do you?’ they say, sliding into the seat next to me, ‘there’s nowhere else to sit.’

It is the man with the Sainsbury’s carrier bag. The same man who, only moments ago, was sitting across the isle. I steal a glance at my son. Has he noticed? The man starts talking to me but my responses are short and I take refuge in my now riveting newspaper. Not having any joy with me, the man tries to engage my son. When he asks what stop we are getting off at, I shoot my son a warning look, but he’s already told him. I’m in the middle of texting my firstborn my concerns when the girl with the heavy make-up starts to heave and before anyone has time to react, she is violently sick. The vomit, which is copious and energetic, hits three of the standing passengers. There are shocked gasps, some in disgust. My son looks appalled. A couple of people ask if the girl is all right and offer help but most try, unsuccessfully, to move away. Her friend, while attentive, mouths an embarrassed sorry in my direction. The smell of sick fills the carriage and overrides all other thoughts. I use my shawl like a doctor’s mask to screen the worst of the smell but its not very effective. The man with the Sainsbury’s bag suggests using my son’s newspaper to cover up the worst of the sick on the floor. It doesn’t do much for the smell but at least we don’t have to look at it.

Several passengers get off at the next stop. My neighbour has given up trying to make conversation with us. All the same my son and I take advantage of the sudden space and move to another carriage where we find my husband and younger son. There are no available seats next to them so we settle nearby, relieved to be breathing normal air. I don’t notice right away that my admirer has followed us down and is leaning against the door, facing me just a few feet away. I avoid eye contact but can feel him staring at me. This is getting a little creepy. I can’t do anything about it; there’s nowhere else to move. I text my son – too far away to talk to discretely and with his back to the man – so that he is aware of the situation.

My husband and younger son get off at the stop before us as this is where they’ve left their car, giving us a wave as they go. I cast a quick look in my stalker’s direction. He knows we’re getting off next. Are we going to have to run for it? We step off the train, bend our heads to the rain which is coming down like needles, and walk quickly to where I’m parked. We are alone, I realise with relief, the train and the man with the Sainsbury’s bag disappearing into the night.

It is nearly 2am when we are all home and I finally fall into bed. I have five hours until I need to be up again. I close my eyes and let my tired limbs grow heavy. Images pass through my mind, of dancing miners and boys in pink tutus, my son hopping on one foot to catch a train, drunken girls with panda eyes, the impassive gaze of my stalker. Close encounters, I think, and sleep.

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Beware of Strangers Bearing Gifts

imagesI 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.