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Blackfriars underground station, mostly empty.

Picture by hanuman: Down in the tube station

Kenneth makes a sandwich last thing every evening, on a benchtop lit by overflow from the hallway: the kitchen’s fluorescent light is too bright for him after ten o’clock. He uses leftovers from dinner and bread from the freezer, then wraps the sandwich in cling-film. In the morning, he picks it up as he leaves for work.

He eats it at the station, waiting for his train.

Which is, of course, a violation of Tube Rules. When you’re crushed this close to a thousand strangers you have to forget that they’re real, that they have thoughts and intentions and physical processes just like you; you have to forget your own physical processes as well, if you can, subordinating them to the juddering movement of the whole. The few travellers who don’t realise, drunks and children and misplaced retirees from first-class cross-country sleeper cabins, are the only violations. From someone like Kenneth, his shirt ironed and his briefcase old-fashioned, the messy lunch—before most people have eaten their breakfast—causes a stir. A mild stir, of course; an extremely mild stir, so mild that it’s only barely distinguishable from no stir at all. Tube Rules again. But Kenneth notices.

He feels slightly guilty about it, especially when the platform isn’t too crowded and he can see people glancing at him sidelong and then looking away. He thinks of a new excuse every morning, preparing himself for confrontation. He’s a spy; his breadcrumbs and straggly lettuce drop in morse code, communicating secret messages to Primary Control through the CCTV cameras. He’s taking part in a psychology experiment; he’s been assigned to Blackfriars, but there’s someone like him at every station, biting into sandwiches across the city, monitoring reactions at stations both crowded and empty, from leafy outer zones to the bustling centre. He’s part of a Pret a Manger advertising campaign. He’s a food taster for the Prime Minister, testing fresh sandwiches and rushing them direct to Downing Street, certified poison-free (except he’s on the wrong platform for Westminster). What sandwich?, he could say, throwing it onto the tracks. Or: my wife died five years ago today; she always loved this station, and sandwiches, so I eat this in her memory.

Or the truth, of course: “I’m hungry in the morning, but I don’t have time to eat before I leave home; I feel uncomfortable using the kitchen at work; I like sandwiches, I don’t like fruit, toast doesn’t last overnight; ritual comforts me.” Or, perhaps better still, he could just look confused and walk away; if anyone ever does confront him then their violation of Tube Rules will be far greater than his own. Popular opinion will be silently but unmistakably on his side.

He doesn’t need to worry about it, but worrying has become part of the ritual too; a daily excuse to go with his daily bread. Sometimes he wonders whether he’s going to run out of ideas, sooner or later, but each morning he stands there and unwraps the sandwich (clingfilm into his pocket, to be disposed of once his journey’s over and he leaves the No Bins Zone of the underground); and he always thinks of something. I’ve got birds to feed at the other end of the journey, he thinks, and I need to generate crumbs. Or: I need the clingfilm to plug a hole in my shoe. Or: I brought it to share, I thought someone else might want half, but nobody ever, ever asks.

Posted in Circle Line, District Line. Tagged with .

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