All clear. This train is ready to depart.
I glance at my watch. 7:32. For once, it’s going to leave on time.
With a voice that loud the conductor could – should – be on stage.
I settle back into my seat for the hour-long journey to London. The tannoy chimes and the driver announces, in a pleasant tone, that we’re about to depart and there’s no rain forecast. His airline pilot manner gives me the urge to click in a seatbelt and ready myself for takeoff. If only they would offer a trolly service to go along with the pretence.
A quiet, hassle-free Monday is all I ask for. Stress and me have never mixed well. It’s not even the stress but the inevitability of it, due to a lack of planning as everyone rushes around. Later this morning, my boss will smile as he brings forward project delivery dates to make him sound decisive, and pepper in all the latest buzz words from a bestselling business guru. Likely he doesn’t even know what day of the week it is.
A minute passes but the train remains as still as Nelson’s column. My foot is tapping away, my fingers are drumming my mobile. The carriage is silent yet buzzing with expectation as we all sit poised like Olympic sprinters awaiting the whistle. A minute delay might well be a first world problem, as my wife likes to remind me, but it most definitely is a problem if you happen to live in the first world.
I sneak a look around the carriage and smile at the sight of the usual glum faces. In the corner of my eye there’s a moving blur. I turn and see a man running this way – his face looks determined, like a Hollywood action hero. To miss this train means thirty long minutes of standing around like an idiot. He’s rapidly gaining on us.
As decisive as machine gun fire, the whistle screeches. Our train eases off. The conductor stands tall, shaking his head and wiggling his finger but Mr Hollywood is sprinting even faster. The train glides along and soon clears the end of the platform. I press my face against the window and catch Mr Hollywood stop abruptly, slam his rucksack onto the floor and shout at the conductor. As the train accelerates away I make out a blur of swaying arms.
I know it’s wrong, but I smile.
Suddenly there’s a lot of shuffling in seats and numerous zips being pulled as the seasoned commuters now consider it safe to open bags and remove iPads, books and any other amusements for the mundane trip. ‘Safe’ as the train has not been cancelled this morning. The naive passengers already unpacked their belongings, but they will learn.
There’s an ensemble of yawns and you can almost hear the virtual sigh of relief as bodies slump into seats. A shared sense of calm at the so-called me-time none of us got over the weekend. Instead, it was two pulse-raising days of looking after defiant kids – Lucy demanding she be let travel to France with her hippy, college friends. I said no. Emma said yes. Now I’m the evil father and Emma the cool mother. And with one yes, she went.
I feel sorry for the younger travellers on this train, who look absolutely exhausted, no doubt after a weekend spent partying hard in the hope of finding a partner to create defiant kids with. Someone needs to remind them that there’s no thirty-day refund.
Amusingly, as zoned out as we all might be, by the time the train pulls into London Victoria station each and every one of us will display that ‘commuter expression’ – as psyched up as Rambo as we plough through the crowds. Ironic, as the office is actually the last place any of us truly want to be.
In fact, there’s nothing more sobering than the prospect of an entire week of work. It’s the thought of the countless emails that await my arrival. One colleague even volunteered for the army to escape the boredom. But these fellow commuters have forgotten that Monday is also the only day in the office that’s, unofficially, accepted as thought-free. A demanding request will be greeted with a raised eyebrow.
Except, that is, for Mr Banker Man – as I’ve nicknamed him due to his look-at-me pinstriped suit and pristine white shirt. He’s one of those odd people whose sole reason for existence is to work. He’s even taking pride in just how neatly he’s folding his jacket on the seat next to him. In commuter-speak, this means ‘no, you can’t sit here’. He undoubtedly considers himself superior. Financially speaking, he probably is more successful. A lot more successful. Medically speaking, he’s a heart attack in the making.
He glances over.
I smile and nod back. We’ll do the same on the return journey at 6:02PM – a guaranteed mirror image layout. Us regulars have our preferred seats, which, in my case, is forward-facing and window. The most seasoned travellers opt for the first carriage, to allow for a sharp exit before the meandering crowds block up the ticket barriers.
Mystic Meg has caught my gaze – I nod at her, too. I think it’s her black eyes and wavy grey hair that inspired her nickname, but she looks like a sweet old lady.
We’ve all been nodding in recognition for the last few decades. Over what must have been thousands of journeys, Meg’s hair has steadily become wilder while Banker Man’s has steadily receded. Unlike his waistline, which has increased faster than the gravity-defying price hikes of the train fare. Occasionally I have a moment of sympathy for him, until I realise he’s exactly the type of person coordinating the ridiculous number of pointless team meetings I’m obliged to attend.
The train accelerates harder and through the window the usual rows of white terraced houses turn into vast green fields. The trees and hedges blur into a pleasing Impressionist painting, but I yawn, bored at this all-too-familiar scenery. I pull out the book – a novel I’ve been carrying everyday for the last decade or two but am somehow always too exhausted to read. A present from Emma, probably in the hope I might become more eloquent. I carry it just in case I experience a flash of mental clarity and opt to engage my brain, but mostly to make me look intelligent. It also usefully doubles-up as a surface, as the pull-down trays in front are invariably stained with coffee or some other brown substance I prefer not to know about.
The train is already winding around the corner, my visual prompt that in precisely one minute we’ll be making the first stop. Those commuters will be stood there, bodies angling over the track and eyes locked on the horizon, awaiting the first glimpse of our train. Those poor folk have the added fun game of ‘seat lottery’: first prize is choosing a seat; second is getting a seat, any seat; and losers stand the entire journey.
Us more successful folk bought properties in Brighton for its glorious seaside and, crucially for commuters, it being the train terminal. We are guaranteed a seat. There’s a price for everything in this world and some things are just worth paying for.
I could have gone for a top managerial post and, predictably, like all the others, burnt out at forty-something. Instead, I opted for middle management, with a lower salary but, crucially, lower stress levels. Lower, that is, until the day I explained this concept to Emma, who refused to speak to me for the rest of that week. Unlike the train driver, I have no desire to be an airline pilot or any other delusions of grandeur. Life may not be rock ’n’ roll – in fact, it’s as ripple-free as a soothing piano concerto – but year by year I’m getting closer to retirement. And this is the long-term destination of all of us here. Then, the only train journey will be a weekend shopping trip to Paris.
The distant dot of the station grows large and we stop to a dense, fidgeting mass. But the usual ping of opening doors doesn’t sound. I gaze out and see a woman with a psychotic stare repeatedly pressing the button on the door, like she’s frantically tapping out SOS in morse code. My stress levels shoot up. She presses harder and faster.
Finally, the doors open and the tidal wave of commuters rushes on. I place my belongings across the spare seat, to really make it look like it’s occupied, and close my eyes, pretending to sleep. After five seconds all the shuffling and mutterings have ceased and I gingerly peer to my right to see if somebody quietly snook in there. But I needn’t have worried – I’m too far up the carriage for most folk to risk walking all the way on false hopes. It took me a whole year to realise that nifty trick.
There was one bag which was moved, however, so a certain lady could sit there – the cheating couple to my right. Each morning, she asks if the seat is taken, he offers an apology, then calmly lifts his bag and she sits. A moment later they’re gazing into each other’s eyes and the kissing begins. Both married with kids. You pick up a lot over the years. But what happens on the train stays on the train. Emma and me were once like that, but nowadays her eyes only gaze lovingly at our shared bank account.
We wait the dreaded minute before the train can leave – sixty long seconds when the driver might spring one of his special announcements on us. They all begin with the same two words, ‘Sorry, folks.’ Over the years, he’s come up with a whole suite of reasons for a cancelled service, from a plausible failed signal to leaves on the track to the conductor having gone missing. Such creativity makes the Lucy’s excuses for missing homework sound positively boring.
The train moves off. I breathe out, now the peak of excitement for the entire journey has passed. The rest of the trip will be a silky smooth ride and I take the opportunity to stretch my arms, turn my head from side to side to crack loose all those little tensed-up neck muscles, followed by a gentle wiggle of fingers and toes. Not real yoga but it never fails to relax me.
Tinny beats fill the carriage. I already know it’s the annoying teenager but peer up anyway and see her head bobbing away with her stupidly large headphones. If it was a pleasant piece by Beethoven then we’d all ask her to turn it up. Occasionally, she gets really carried away and drums her hands on the pull down tray. I feel a sense of duty to inform her that she won’t perform at Albert Hall, or anywhere else for that matter. Or maybe I could drum on her head to see if that brain has indeed rattled itself free to all but a single molecule with the absurdly loud noise. Instead I give her a virtual slap right off the train and into the passing green fields.
This is my cue to join the madness. I put on my headphones and grab my iPad and choose from the downloaded TV shows I never got to watch over the weekend. My small but absurdly expensive headphones, likely with more electronic wizardry than early computers, block out the teenager’s noise pollution. Another gift from Emma, but one I actually use – every day. I tap play, smile and let my brain drift.
Things are looking reasonably bright this Monday morning: sky is overcast but no rain due; a nearly punctual train; and I’m sat relaxing to my favourite TV show. And, of course, a lovely, quiet Monday in the office. I find myself calculating the years left to retirement and the forecasted pot of gold that will be sat waiting. I visualise walking across a golden beach up to a white villa. Life will be hassle-free then, except for minding the grandkids – when they pop up a few years down the track.
A red warning flashes up – low battery. I close my eyes momentarily, realising that Lucy must have stolen the iPad and probably binge watched Netflix shows in her bedroom before flying off to France. I stare out at the blurred vista and take solace in the fact that at least she doesn’t do drugs or anything else silly.
Undeterred, I grab my mobile and scroll through the various social media feeds. Only a couple of years ago I called such people ‘the scrollers’, like it was some cult. Now, I’m one of them. There are ‘stories’ from people I don’t care about but my brain catches the occasional Facebook post – recommended for me. In our advanced times, my social interaction is being determined by some geek’s piece of software. An algorithm which is supposedly so smart it knows me better than myself. Then I realise, at this time in the morning it probably does.
I feel a prod in my shoulder. The exact sensation when Emma forced me to sit for her acupuncture training, saying it was a husband’s duty. I turn around and see Susan beaming at me, her mobile phone held up.
“Hi,” I offer, swallowing after realising my voice is hoarse. I force a smile, as it’s necessary to be on good terms as her and Emma are best friends. And she lives only two doors along.
She holds her phone close to my face. “Look.”
I can’t quite decide if it’s her manner or her voice which is most annoying, but I comply and squint at the bright screen. I’m distracted by the stains on the casing and the smudged finger prints dotted all over the screen. I feel an urge to pull out a wipe from my bag but through the layered muck I make out a video with some kid.
“Earth calling Leo.” She waves her hand an inch from my face. “Look.”
My brain hurts with this forced, pre-coffee concentration. Staring harder, the talking head in the video becomes familiar. “It’s Lucy.”
Susan rolls her eyes. “Great what kids can do nowadays. I’ll like the video for her. Such a good actress.”
“Go back to sleep,” she says, patting me on the shoulder.
I silently curse her and settle back to gazing out at the green stuff. The grey clouds are parting way to a bright blue sky. It occurs to me how we’ve all become so dependent on our little electronic devices. Pre-internet days – a completely incomprehensible concept to Lucy and her mob – this carriage would have been full of banter and laughter. Today, the only discernible decibels are electronic beeps. All heads are bowed into screens. A carriage of probably seventy passengers but seventy separate bubbles of existence, each exuding an air of ‘don’t even bother attempting to strike up a conversation with me’. Right now, across the planet, there are probably three billion of us staring at mobile or tablet screens. Three billion of us just wishing to be left in silence.
I realise I’m going off on one again and, far more importantly, that we’re passing the huge car showroom, my visual cue for stop two in exactly thirty seconds. Jokingly, I once broached the idea of putting all my rants into a Youtube channel, so I could join the revolution and get down with the kids. Emma responded flatly that she would divorce me, on grounds of me being a public embarrassment. To be fair, she had a point, and what judge would possibly disagree?
I can’t help but wonder what all the other passengers are watching. Maybe they’re also having little internal conversations. The very first time you make this journey it’s a joy to take in the constant visual stimulation. Now, after you’ve seen one green hill you’ve seen them all. Everything is so predictable, with the same stops, the same faces. Little has changed over the years, apart from the ever-degrading service. Only last month, another Monday, I actually had enough time to watch a whole movie and even do a bit of online shopping. It’s feasible to run a small business during these bloody commutes.
The train pulls into the next station and I’m consciously breathing slowly and deeply in preparation. No hesitation here, these determined people pile on, eyes darting from one seat to another – powers of observation worthy of MI6 agents. Behind the rush of grey suits is a laughing group of lads all wearing Hawaiian shirts – undoubtedly a stag party on their way to Gatwick Airport to jet off to somewhere exotic. They have sun and sangria waiting; I have limp coffee from a machine and dozens of spreadsheets.
Good morning, folks, Mr Airline Pilot decides to inform us all. A good service on all lines this morning.
I detect the faintest note of surprise in his voice but am distracted by a waft of freshly ground coffee. The smell is so potent I can almost feel a caffeine buzz. A guy two rows ahead is gulping back his coffee dramatically like he’s on a TV commercial. There’s a strong temptation to run over and yank it out of his hand, but I curse him instead.
I pick up my phone and stare hard at the screen, flicking through the social media feeds. Susan’s face pops up with a notification that she’s liked a video. Mr Geek has definitely screwed up there, thinking I give a monkey’s about that. I’m about to close the message when I notice the title, Murder, I Like. I tap to play and see Lucy sitting, looking glum. But that’s kids for you – glum is the new happy.
Drama students used to learn the art of captivating an audience face-to-face with the wonderful works of Shakespeare. It’s a shame our education system has taken such a distasteful path. A weird title and a weird project for kids to do, but at least it’s not a patch on the blood-thirsty computer games they all play and at least they’re actually using their brains to create something.
I flick to BBC News instead, to see what platitudes the politicians have been spouting out over the weekend. Lucy could learn a lot about acting by watching these folk. The whole cabinet deserves Oscars.
A prod in my shoulder again. Stronger this time.
I turn and face Susan, but it’s a pale, worried Susan.
She raises her hand and points to her phone.
I wait for her comment but her open mouth remains fixed. I take her phone and notice Lucy’s dull video is playing. “I know, I know, the education system these days,” I offer and hand the phone back.
She shakes her head and points again.
“Stupid kids.” I waft a hand and laugh, to hopefully get rid of her before all of the precious me-time is used up.
Her finger remains pressed against the screen.
My brain hurts for the second time this morning, both occurrences caused by this annoying neighbour.
Then it hits me. Lucy’s in France. On holiday. What on earth is she doing making a video? I slap my cheeks to bloody-well wake up and strain my brain for a possible explanation.
Susan comes round, moves my bag and other items and sits down next to me. She’s staring. It feels uncomfortably close and I wonder if this is a come-on. I’m a happily married man with a daughter, the last thing I want is some secret love affair. I also don’t do spontaneous – my entire life has been carefully mapped out: marriage, kids, retirement fund. As subtly as possible, I inch away.
She drops her hand on my shoulder.
I gulp and consider standing up. My body tenses. I offer a fake laugh.
She’s still staring and leans closer and whispers, “It’s live.”
I bite my lip to stop myself saying ‘Oh, that’s nice’.
Her hand clamps and presses. “Leo, listen to me.” Her voice now has the self-assuredness of a dentist but her face resembles a terrified patient. “This is live.”
“Live? As in live, live?” I offer, as if that makes it any clearer.
“As in it’s happening right now.”
“You can do that?” I find myself shouting.
She shakes my shoulder. “Leo. Look.”
I lean back as she lifts the phone close up to my face. In the video, Lucy’s sitting, as glum as before.
“Oh, not that again! Some arty project. Not very exciting, is it?”
Susan’s expression doesn’t alter.
I shift in the seat and briefly glance out of the window to try to defuse the weird situation, and to give my brain time to comprehend what this neighbour is on about. Trees give way to a broader vista. It looks like it will be a lovely sunny day.
Her hand rubs my shoulder.
The only way to get rid of her is to watch the stupid video. Lucy is still just sitting with her head bowed. No dialogue.
Susan points at the screen.
I see her finger pressed below the video ‘like’ counter. Surprisingly, it has fifty-eight thumbs-up. But the world is one strange place and people go in for all kinds of stuff. Nevertheless, I smile, feeling a sense of pride in my daughter becoming popular. It also strikes me that there might be money in this video stuff. Perhaps my pension will be more luxurious than planned.
I hand the phone back and smile.
Then I realise, Lucy doesn’t do drama. She can’t even act. She doesn’t even know the first thing about video and neither do any of her college friends. And they’re all in France, on holiday, which I keep forgetting at this stupidly early hour.
I jolt up and yank the phone out of Susan’s hand and stare hard. Lucy’s acting suddenly seems convincing. I read the title again – Murder, I Like – and shiver at the revelation that this might not be a college thing at all.