First: It could be worse. As commutes go, it could be a lot worse, and I must keep remembering this. Second: It’s worth it. I want to live in London; I want to do this; and commuting is part of the deal. It’s part of the London experience, like Tate Modern.
(Actually, it’s not much like Tate Modern. Bad example.)
My dad always says: If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay under the porch. And I want to run with the big dogs. That’s why I’m here.
Anyway, my twenty-minute walk to the station is fine. Enjoyable, even. The gray December air is like iron in my chest, but I feel good. The day’s begun. I’m on my way.
My coat’s pretty warm, even though it cost £9.99 and came from the flea market. It had a label in it, CHRISTIN BIOR, but I cut it out as soon as I got home. You can’t work where I work and have CHRISTIN BIOR in your coat. You could have a genuine vintage Christian Dior label. Or something Japanese. Or maybe no label because you make your clothes yourself out of retro fabrics that you source at Alfies Antiques.
But not CHRISTIN BIOR.
As I get near Catford Bridge, I start to feel a knot of tension. I really don’t want to be late today. My boss has started throwing all sorts of hissy fits about people “swanning in at all times,” so I left an extra twenty minutes early, in case it was a bad day.
I can already see: It’s a god-awful day.
They’ve been having a lot of problems on our line recently and keep canceling trains with no warning. Trouble is, in London rush hour, you can’t just cancel trains. What are all the people who were planning to get on that train supposed to do? Evaporate?
As I pass through the ticket barrier I can already see the answer. They’re crowded on the platform, squinting up at the information screen, jostling for position, peering down the line, scowling at one another and ignoring one another, all at the same time.
Oh God. They must have canceled at least two trains, because this looks like three trainloads of people, all waiting for the next one, clustered near the edge of the platform at strategic points. It’s mid-December, but there’s no Christmas spirit here. Everyone’s too tense and cold and Monday-morning-ish. The only festive touch consists of a few miserable-looking fairy lights and a series of warning announcements about holiday transport.
Screwing up my nerve, I join the throng and exhale in relief as a train pulls into the station. Not that I’ll get on this train (Get on the first train? That would be ridiculous). There are people squashed up against the steamy windows, and as the doors slide open, only one woman gets off, looking pretty crumpled as she tries to extricate herself.
But even so, the crowd surges forward, and somehow a load of people insert themselves inside the train and it pulls away, and I’m that much farther forward on the platform. Now I just have to keep my place and not let that scrawny guy with gelled hair edge in front of me. I’ve taken out my earbuds so I can listen for announcements and stay poised and vigilant.
Commuting in London is basically warfare. It’s a constant campaign of claiming territory; inching forward; never relaxing for a moment. Because if you do, someone will step past you. Or step on you.
Exactly eleven minutes later, the next train pulls in. I head forward with the crowd, trying to block out the soundtrack of angry exclamations: “Can you move down?” “There’s room inside!” “They just need to move down!”
I’ve noticed that people inside trains have completely different expressions from people on platforms—especially the ones who have managed to get a seat. They’re the ones who got over the mountains to Switzerland. They won’t even look up. They maintain this guilty, defiant refusal to engage: I know you’re out there; I know it’s awful and I’m safe inside, but I suffered too, so let me just read my Kindle without bloody guilt-tripping me, OK?
People are pushing and pushing, and someone’s actually shoving me—I can feel fingers on my back—and suddenly I’m stepping onto the train floor. Now I need to grab onto a pole or a handle—anything—and use it as leverage. Once your foot’s on the train, you’re in.
A man way behind me seems very angry—I can hear extra-loud shouting and cursing. And suddenly there’s a groundswell behind me, like a tsunami of people. I’ve only experienced this a couple of times, and it’s terrifying. I’m being pushed forward without even touching the ground, and as the train doors close I end up squeezed between two guys—one in a suit and one in a tracksuit—and a girl eating a panini.
We’re so tightly wedged that she’s holding her panini about three inches away from my face. Every time she takes a bite, I get a waft of pesto. But I studiously ignore it. And the girl. And the men. Even though I can feel the tracksuit guy’s warm thigh against mine and count the stubbly hairs on his neck. As the train starts moving we’re constantly bumped against one another, but no one even makes eye contact. I think if you make eye contact on the tube, they call the police or something.
To distract myself, I try to plan the rest of my journey. When I get to Waterloo East, I’ll check out which tube line is running best. I can do Jubilee-District (takes ages) or Jubilee-Central (longer walk at the other end) or Overground (even longer walk at the other end).
And, yes, if I’d known I was going to end up working in Chiswick, I wouldn’t have chosen to rent in Catford. But when I first came to London, it was to do an internship in east London. (They called it “Shoreditch” in the ad. It so wasn’t Shoreditch.) Catford was cheap and it wasn’t too far, and now I just can’t face west London prices, and the commute’s not that bad—