Friday, 11 October 2013
My first trip on the underground during rush hour was an experience. It was still dark at 7.40am when I closed my apartment door and faced the cutting wind and mist. Bundled up in a thick winter coat, cut too fashionably to be effective, I clip-clopped into the miserable November gloom in my killer heels. The sounds of the city are different than you might imagine, the constant road noise forms a backdrop to everything else. What is unexpected is how little other noise there is. Hundreds even thousands of people walk along in silence, the occasional buzz of music from ear phones or hushed conversation, but mainly just the sound of feet on pavement.
This silent throng condenses in places like train platforms or subway stations. Silent armies stand mute shoulder to shoulder waiting to launch themselves at the next arriving train. The High pitch sound of the electric motor whirring down under breaking followed by the whoosh of hydraulic doors springing open. At 'Mile End' only a few disembark, a great herd of humanity surges forward cramming themselves together. The only time you will ever find yourself in a more intimate position with another human being, you will be naked and entwined completely. This orgy of morning movers do so in complete silence and without ever making eye contact.
Whoosh goes the doors and everyone holds on, the carriage rocks forward and back as the electric motor takes the strain, the whine begins low building steadily to a welcome high hum. Clickety clack, clickety clack, clickety clack the tracks beat out the time of our progress. These are the sounds that let us know all is right with the world. Behind me a man's briefcase is rammed corner first into my rump, a arm pit (freshly washed thank god) curls behind my ear and grasps a handrail, all around I am hemmed in with human flesh, damp clothing and bags. I stand like all the others, uncomplaining, unmoving, in silent acceptance of this short enforced intimacy with the great unwashed.
Ten stops and twenty minutes later we arrive at 'Charing Cross Station', the doors open and the unstoppable tide of morning workers charge fourth, it is as if the train vomited multicoloured moving creatures. I shook myself mentally getting into the cool fresh air, ridding myself of the touch of others. Perhaps it was due to this unnerving and unwelcome closeness with strangers that I was so repulsed by the sight of the tramp sitting on a bench with his begging cup held aloft with little expectation. I could feel thick vapours of unwashed human drifting towards my delicate nose. I looked away and hurried past like everyone else. This twice daily baptism of humanity continued mostly undisturbed over the last six months. Every day, morning and evening, the dirty tramp was a permanent fixture.
This morning had begun just like all others. Working in a central London ladies wear shop for more than six months makes you a senior member of staff. With such lofty heights of achievement comes added responsibility which is the reason my trip home today has been delayed by an extra 4 hours. My manager has a delivery coming after closing and could not stay herself to take it in. She passed me the bunch of keys and the security code for the alarm like a royal bequeath.
"The truck will be here about seven, just check off the boxes and we will do the unpacking tomorrow," she instructed "I would not trust anyone else but you Christina," she said fixing me with cow-like vacant eyes. Truth was she would have trusted a semi competent monkey if she had one. At six we locked up and I went to a nearby wine bar to wait for the delivery. Two glasses of Pinot Grigio and forty minutes late they arrived. Ticking off the delivery was not straightforward either. The invoice was itemised individually and the boxes unlabled. In the end I was forced to open them all up one by one. It was nearly nine at night when I finally entered the code into the security panel and turned the key on the steel shutters. Feeling jaded and cheated I treated myself to one last glass of vino before catching the late train home.
Comfortably shod in my flat shoes I descended into the bowels of the earth to catch the tube. It was my first time here outside of rush hour and it was eerily different. The tiled walls reflected each footfall, echoing away into the distance with no soft human bodies to impede their progress. I reached the platform and the tramp was in his normal position but this time he had slipped to the side and was snoring openly. I walked to the far end of the platform away from him to wait on the train.
Around the corner came three men, all dressed in clothes way to big for them, puffy jackets and thick gold chains swinging in time with their exaggerated walk, two were dark skinned, one was white, but all wore baseball hats pushed high over spotty cruel faces and jeans hanging barely above the knee.
"Brov what have we got here, banging gyaldem," the middle one said to his minions as he sauntered up to where I stood. I tried not to look at them hoping they would go away and leave me alone. No such luck, he moved even closer with the other two heming me in against the curved tiled wall of the station. He reached out placing his hand on the wall over my head getting very close.
"You look like a bitch that knows a thing or two," he leered grabbing my breast through my coat. His touch broke the spell that held me.
"Leave me alone," I screamed slapping away his hand. More hands pawed me from all sides, grabbing at me and my bag. I held on tight, screaming and lashing out but I was alone on the platform and at their mercy.
From nowhere a dirty hand punched the middle thug sending him flying. It was the tramp from the top of the platform he pushed the others back and stood in front of me blocking them.
"Brave boys ait you against one little girl," he said in a surprisingly cultured accent.
"Kotch brov this ain't your beef, sketch or it be dred, in-it," the downed yob snarled at the tramp. God knows what he had said but I prayed it would not mean I would be alone with them again.
"Then dred it will be," said the tramp. He was buried in an avalanche of fists and feet, striking back for an instant but soon he was overpowered. The steel of the blade flashed bright as it arched towards his body, glinting in the cold light of the florescent bulbs high above the platform. It thumped into the soft giving body of the tramp. I screamed but could not run, I screamed and no help came. The blade pulled out and a fountain of red splattered my legs and coat. The next time the knife sunk into its hilt is was the covered in the ruby blood of this poor man. The high whine of an approaching train filled my ears and the hoodie scum faltered and ran.
I kneeled beside the old tramp, I was a sobbing mess of snot, tears and blood splatters. I tried to hold back the flow of blood but it came from everywhere. The tramp looked at me with clear eyes and did the strangest thing. he smiled.
"Help is coming," I told him "help is on the way."
"It is alright darling, everything is going to be alright now, I have made it right again," he said in a weak voice but still smiling at me. The lake of blood was spreading across the tiles at an alarming rate. I waited for help that would never come in time. I cried as he closed his eyes and watched helplessly as the growing puddle of blood reached the edge of the platform and cascaded away.
That had been three days ago, I had spend hours answering questions, looking at photos and filling out statements. I could not move from my bed since I got home, I was sick, I cried, I was terrified, I was scared. Today I watched the park from my window and knew if I did not leave the flat today, I never would.
I walked slowly through the surprisingly quiet mid morning streets naturally ending up at the train station, I had let my feet go where they would. I boarded the next train and it started its journey like it always had but today I got a seat. Counting down the stops I neared my destiny and my nightmare, at last the train slowed, I saw the signs reading 'Charing Cross' flash past the windows of the train. The doors opened with their customary woosh. I steadied myself before stepping out on the platform. I looked to the left expecting something different but the platform was unmarked, as if nothing had ever occurred and a life had not been taken so savagely.
I was pulled to the spot by an irresistible force, no stains remained, no mark of a man passing or a life destroyed, nothing except a single shirt button nestling against the base of the wall. I collapsed to my knees and dug the button out with cracked unpainted nails. I dont know if it was his or not, but seeing that button so innocently sitting in the palm of my hand broke the last string of control I had.
I don't know how long I sobbed, lying on the cold tiles, but the warmth of a hand stroking my hair invaded my desolation."There there darling," cooed a soothing voice. I wiped my eyes on my jacket sleeve and looked into a kind but greef drawn face a few years older than mine. In her hand she held a bouquet of flowers which she laid against the wall, a card sellotaped to it said 'Dad Xxx', she kissed her fingers and brushed the card with them, all the time holding me loosely with her other.
"You must be Christina, the girl my Dad helped," she said with a sad smile. I nodded searching her face for some shadow of the tramp I had passed time and again, her face was vividly clear to me but his was a blur of sideways glances half remembered.
"I am so sorry, it was all my fault," I sobbed "He would be alive if i had gone home earlier." I said giving words to the feeling of guilt that I was suffering, no matter how irrational.
"My Dad, died years ago," she said "you only brought him back to us at last.- Thank you."
"I don't understand," I said.
"Fourteen years ago, Dad was coming home after working a double shift and fell asleep at the wheel of his car. He woke up without a scratch, but the car had crashed through a bus stop. He killed a young nurse who was going in for a night shift at the hospital, she was waiting at the bus stop. In Court he received a suspended sentence but he would have preferred if they gave him life. Dad never would or could forgive himself. Outside the court house was the last time I ever saw him. He took off his tie and hugged me, he told me he loved me very much and I would be fine. He said he hoped I would understand one day, he just had to make things 'Right Again'. He walked away from me and left everything behind. All he had was the clothes he was standing up in," she recounted the story like she had practiced it thousands of times in tellings without end.
"He said that to me before he died," I said putting the pieces together "he said 'he had made it right again'."
She bent over me and kissed the top of my head, she whispered in my ear "You are his angel, you gave him peace, thank you, thank you from us all." I cried again but this time it felt different, not coming from such a dark place. This woman whom I had never met before but who I owed so much helped me to my feet. Together we took the first steps on my new journey, a journey to live up to a brave man's sacrifice.