7.45pm The main concourse at Victoria station isn’t a good place to be at this time of the evening. Especially when the National Grid has just pulled the plug on the entire London underground system and most mainline stations.
A harassed sounding customer relations administrator (ticket guard with a microphone) has just informed us that absolutely nothing is going anywhere in the foreseeable future and he strongly recommends that we all go away. He also triumphantly announced that none of this has anything to do with Connex. So that’s all right then.
I’m about six bodies deep into the crowd and surrounded by lots of red-faced business people who are thrashing about after an attempt to breach the lifeless ticket barrier ended in failure. The problem is the man who led the first assault was also the first to get stuck in the barrier. He’s still stuck and now shouting at the people pushing into him. A tiny woman caught in the flotsam has just come to rest against his backside and is also shouting.
‘Got to laugh innit?’ a guy next to me chuckles and then suddenly sings ‘we are the cheeky girls’ and stops smiling. He has a long sweaty face and very bloodshot eyes and I think I may want to go somewhere else now. As I thread my way back against the flow of the crowd I’m aware he is following me; the mass of bodies closing in behind him like water behind a sharks fin.
‘You got any change, only I need 50p for the bus to the hospital, innit?’
‘No sorry, sorry about that.’
‘Only I need it for the bus to the hospital innit?’
‘Yes. Sorry, I don’t have any.’
“We are the cheeky girls’ He sings it in a sinister fashion and I remember my wife telling me that one in eight people living on the streets is an ex-soldier. I find myself fumbling through my pockets for 50p.
‘There you go.’
The coin is checked for signs of counterfeiting but obviously passes muster because he is suddenly away and giving chase to a small bald man in sandals.
When I left Oxford Circus I had anticipated none of this. In fact, I confidently expected to find myself at home early for once. The advertising agency I’m freelancing with booked me for another week, I found a crisp £5 note in my shirt pocket when I was only looking for my lighter and even the sun put its hat on and came out to play. Still, mustn’t grumble. I’ll just grab something to eat in that burger restaurant. After all, the next train probably won’t leave until next July.
8.15pm I’m curious to know why most of the people around me are eating ice creams. They’re the sort you’d normally expect to get from pink vans driven by stubbly faced men called Mr.Ploppy or similar and I always imagined you had to be very little or mental to want one. Maybe there’s an ice-cream parlour full of people shoveling burgers and fries into their mouths somewhere in the station.
I must confess that I quite enjoy crowd watching these days and this little restaurant in Victoria is as good a seat as you’ll get anywhere. Things you should know about London Victoria in a power cut:
1. It’s big. The largest mainland station in London, in fact.
2. But not that big. Every working day thousands of people walk, elbow, dance and trip their way through Victoria, so when things go wrong things soon fill up.
3. Dead people are buried here. Some historians believe Queen Bodacia may have been laid to rest under platform 12 (but it wasn’t Connex’s fault).
4. You can watch the staff at Aunt Ann’s pretzels fling bits of pastry around and tie them into interesting shapes while you wait for your train.
My attention drifts as I realise an enormous man with a ZZ-Top beard on the table to my left is staring at me while he sucks his ice-cream cornet dry. He pushes the last of the soggy wafer into his mouth with a sausage finger, munches thoughtfully, wipes his hands on his faded Iron Maiden t-shirt and then seems to arrive at a decision.
“Hello! Got a problem or sumfink?”
I can feel his hard piggy eyes boring into me and pretend not to have heard anything.
“You’ve got a poncy bag, mate.”
Countless heads are swiveling around now, probably thinking a good old punch up will break the tedium nicely. Either that or they want to know what a poncy bag looks like in case they’ve got one and fatty spots it.
“You listening to me?”
As a child, I once had to perform “Wandrin’ Star” before a group of sour-faced primary school teachers. Despite continual reassurance from my mum and all sorts of confidence building by my lovely class teacher, the moment I stepped on to the stage I knew precisely how it would end. My throat choked, sweat trickled down my matchstick legs, the audience started to swim before my eyes and I only managed one tinny verse before I stood frozen and silent in the terrible spotlight. Eventually, a pink haired judge who smelt of face powder held me to her bosom and led me away saying ‘That wasn’t too bad now was it?’
That same sense of inevitability is sweeping over me again now only this time I don’t think there are any big bosomed ladies preparing to whisk me away to safety.
Fatty is standing up and dear God, he really is massive.
“You deaf or wot?”
He’s scowling and fingering the wildlife in his beard as I turn around and raise an eyebrow in what I imagine to be a ‘I’ll have your testicles for earrings if you don’t watch it matey’ manner.
“HARHARHAR! Awight mate. Catch you later, you ponce.”
With surprising deftness he tugs at an earpiece concealed in his hair, produces a mobile from a pocket, gives me a strange look, and with one mighty hitch of his jeans lumbers out of the bar. He wasn’t talking to me. He was on the phone. I can hear a small girl giggling and feel the need to leave.
8.50 Incredibly, there is one train preparing to depart (presumably powered by batteries) and it’s mine. I do that awkward half walk, half skip thing down the platform searching for anything remotely resembling an empty seat and spot one. Inside the carriage, the air is wonderfully air-conditioned and not as packed as I thought. In fact, there are several free seats and I choose one by the window. It’s glorious. I’m sitting in the only window seat left on the only train running. And it’s a very big seat, a lot bigger than usual actually. Just the sort you’d get in the First Class carriage…
9.05pm By the time I rejoin the peasants in Standard Class (not Second Class you understand) the only available position is an aisle seat opposite a pasty faced young man with a runny nose and teeth like gravestones. He’s been grinding them ever since I sat down and it’s starting to get on my nerves. The bloke sitting next to him looks equally unimpressed and I’m pretty sure the woman on my left is tapping her feet in time to it.
After a few weird thuds and clunks we’re finally off and kangarooing our way down the barely live tracks. I can remember when all trains felt this way. A time when diesel still ruled the civilised world and smelly, bumpy old carriages were simply things you had to accept – like strikes, warm lager, boil in the bag curries and Jimmy Hill. It makes me feel curiously nostalgic and I can’t help wondering if we haven’t left something important behind.
9.50pm We’ve been travelling for 35 minutes and are approaching Herne Hill when the refreshment trolley smacks into my knee and wakes me up. “This is a fast train to Bromley South ONLY. This train will NOT be stopping at Herne Hill” shrieks the Tannoy. Having made this fact absolutely clear the train stops at Herne Hill and I watch with some sympathy as the bewildered people outside prod, push and bang the locked doors in a hopeless attempt to get in. The lady next to me manages to give an “I understand your pain” look to a bedraggled woman with a pram before we slide past her and out of the station.
All the excitement has roused the bloke opposite me and he’s started gnashing his teeth again. He obviously isn’t very well and my initial euphoria at finding an empty seat has turned into sullen resentment. Surely a hanky isn’t asking too much. He’s wheezing in between grinding and small flecks of highly contagious spittle have appeared at the corner of his mouth. I’ve been trying to breath in when he does to minimise the danger but it’s just making me feel dizzy. Suddenly his mobile goes off.
“Mum? I can’t stop me teeth chattering and need you to pick me up… or call an ambulance”
“I’m not well. I’m shivering and got a raging temperature. Oh and I’m delirious.” Marvelous. I’m in a sealed air-conditioned room sitting a few inches away from someone carrying the bubonic plague.
“Or we could stop off at Tescos and get some aspirin”
I get the idea poor old mum has heard this before.
“Well don’t be late, they close at 11.”
Tescos and a cuddle it is then.
11.20pm ‘The next stop will be Faversham…’ The golden digits scroll across the announcement strip and bathe me in their wonderfulness. Just a few more minutes and it’ll be over. I feel that I may have been a tad harsh with some of my travelling companions and want them know that as far as I’m concerned we’re all friends together now. I smile warmly and am delighted to see that even gnasher manages a toothy grin back.
Jacket, bag, cigarettes and car keys. I’m ready to rejoin the real world. We pull in to Faversham where a large bear clutching a charity bucket waits to board the train.
“God I’m knackered” the bear tells me as he gets on and I get off.