The man opposite me relaxes into his call as the train leaves the station. I stare directly into his face, willing him to hang up. He acknowledges me by shifting his gaze to stare out the window, while his mockney accent booms around the carriage, producing sweat beads on my forehead. My gut tells me he’s the sort of person who talks through the best scenes in films. This is not an urgent call. It is a banal account of the previous night’s pub.
My morning commute used to be packed: armpits against faces, dirty looks between strangers, an orgy of London’s bacteria. When my company introduced flexi time, it enabled me to start later and finish later, to miss both the morning and evening rush hours. It’s amazing the difference twenty minutes makes. The carriages are still full, but at least I get a seat.
Yet, every solution brings with it a new set of problems, and with emptier carriages, almost without fail, at least one other passenger thinks this is the appropriate time to make that dull, personal phone call. I don’t mind, or I can tolerate, a necessary call if it’s kept short: checking on a sick relative, letting work know you’ll be late, think you’ve left the oven on at home. Whatever these are, if they’re short and at a considerate volume, I can endure them. What I can’t ignore are accounts of the night before, some blab-fest to their best friend, or some work hard and play hard gobshite running over the day’s itinerary. These people don’t care that they’re in public spaces, surrounded by people. Some of whom, me, want to enjoy the quiet.
These phone monsters all get fixed with dirty looks. I enjoy giving dirty looks. It’s soothing. But the majority of the recipients couldn’t give the sweetest of fucks. A girl once asked me what I was staring at. When I told her, she shrugged and called me a dick to the person on the phone.
If another commuter told these people to be quiet, I’d back that up. Or better still, if they smashed their faces in, I wouldn’t care if the battered was a man, woman, child, elderly, infirm, I’d tell the police I saw nothing, or that the person on the phone started it. That’s not true though. The sudden shared reality would shock me into doing the decent thing. Protect the attacked, even though later I’d reflect that they deserved it.
Once, I heard a girl, who sounded like she’d split up with her boyfriend, try to organise a time to go round and pick up her stuff. With her hesitant, clipped speech: one word, two words, an occasional short sentence, it was obvious she was holding back tears. ‘You still there?’ she kept saying. I’d be too self-conscious to have that conversation in public, but Londoners seem to feel every space is their own. It’s the anonymity of the city, so many people you’ll only ever see once, even on a regular journey. She caught my eye after she’d hung up. I looked away. I hadn’t been eyeballing her. But I’d noticed commuters giving each other looks. I assumed they were concerned looks, but I’d no way of telling. Being upset let her off the hook, at least in my view. I never saw her again and have only thought about her a handful of times since. If I ever learned the conclusion of her story, I don’t think I’d particularly care if she and him got back together, if she left London the next day alone, or even if she did get in to collect her stuff.
I got so sick of phone calls I took to recording the one-sided conversations on my phone, just out of curiosity, to listen back to them in the quiet of my bedroom and see if they were as irritating as they’d been on the train. I suspected no but found yes. Most of them were poor quality recordings, unless I was sitting right beside or directly opposite the person. I was blatant about what I did. None of them ever challenged me. Maybe they reckoned me an oddball. Maybe they didn’t expect someone to do that. Joe Orton used to record people on London buses to help him perfect dialogue. My reasons had no artistic intentions. Maybe I’m secretly lonely. I used to listen to the better quality recordings at night and imagine what the people on the other end of the phone were saying.
‘Hey! How are you doing?’
‘Why are you calling me?’
‘Yeah, just on the train. Another shit day at college ahead.’
‘I thought I told you I hated you.’
‘Hungover and my assignment is late. Lecturer is going to kick my arse.’
‘It will be nothing compared to the kicking I give you when we meet.’
Yeah, out last night with the boys.’
‘Next time I see your face on the street, I’ll smash your bones’
‘Nah, playing football. 5-a-side. Scored a brace.’
‘Who cares about football? No one does what you did to me.’
‘Just went to that pub down from Islington. You know the one gave me the loyalty card?’
‘I hope your family disowns you.’
‘Yeah the one Owen Jones got a kicking outside. Too many beers. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too many. That barmaid you like was working.’
‘Never call me again.’
Other times I think realistically about what’s being said by the person I can’t hear. My attempts don’t last long, and I drift back over into threats and insults.
Leaving Grove Park, I thought I had a clear run, but this commuter, who looks like he takes pleasure hiring and firing people, got on at Hither Green. He’s still on the phone.
‘No one knows yet about the redundancies. And we need to keep it that way.’
‘What has this to do with me?’
I take my phone out, press record and set it down on my knee, eyeballing him the whole time, but he ignores me.
‘The only one in HR who needs to know is Eileen. You know how the rest of them like to gossip.’
‘Don’t come in today or I’ll ram your head through a wall.’
‘Nah, between me and you they’re a bloody sewing circle. Especially Sandra. She should be in the next round of redundancies.’
‘I’m going to use your bare hand as toilet paper.’
‘We’ll announce them next week and tell them there’s no more planned. That’s the important way to word it, because we don’t want everyone clearing out before we figure which departments will be effected.’
‘Alright, “affected”. Bloody hell, a Spaniard correcting my English. What age did you learn to speak English?’
‘The same as the number of stitches you’re going to need when I kick you down a flight of stairs.’
‘Great stuff. Well, I’ll be in the office in twenty minutes. Let’s go straight to the meeting room.’
At this point I realised I’d enough recorded to cause this guy some problems. My reason for doing so wouldn’t be because he’s firing people, or his crack about Spaniards, or even because he seemed like a dick. And it would make a great urban myth. Watch what you say on trains because someone recorded me and sent it to my bosses. That would be a huge deterrent for these noisy bastards. You see I’ve emailed the train companies, tweeted them too, and none of them care how annoying these calls are.
The commuter hangs up as the train pulls into London Bridge. I usually stay on to Waterloo East, but, thanks to flexi time, I can detour. I pick up my phone and follow him, putting on my earphones to listen back over his call. He mentioned two names, Eileen and Sandra in HR. Sandra’s the important one, the gossiper he wants fired. I’ll follow him to his office, find out who he works for, then see if I can find an email address for Sandra on the company website. Even if I can’t, I could phone the company and ask for her, pretend I’m calling about a position.
There’s a steady stream of us going down the escalators off the platform. To get through the growing swarm between me and him, I have to blank people in that London way, by not looking at them and moving forward as if I don’t care if we collide. That’s the only way people move for you.
He stops at Costa. If he means to be in the office in twenty minutes, it must be for takeaway. I line up behind him and ask for the same coffee, a white americano; my usual cappuccino could take longer to make; then I’d run the risk of losing him.
He stops at the sugar counter beside the exit, which is handy because the barista didn’t put enough milk in my Americano. This gives me time to ask for more and catch him at the door. I even hold it open for him. That’s the first time we make eye contact. Although I’d been eyeballing him the whole way through the train journey, he ignored me the entire time.
From here he’s easy to follow, exiting London Bridge station onto St. Thomas Street and turning left. I let him get ahead of me; this is a long straight uncrowded street, and most of the turn-offs are long and straight. Road works jam the first set of traffic lights, so traffic only moves in one direction at a time. There’s no way to avoid catching him without looking suspicious. There’s only me and him at the traffic lights. I stand beside him, positioning myself so the pole is between us. He glances over and catches my eye for the second time. We sip our coffees waiting for the lights to change. I fiddle with my phone, ignoring the green man, as I will him to cross first. With my peripheral vision, I watch him move. I look up and follow. He’s pretty slow. To avoid overtaking, I stop to tie my shoelace. Even that doesn’t help. I switch feet and tie my other shoelace. If I need to pass him, I’ll take the first turn off, then double back and follow at a distance. His slow lazy walk doesn’t match the image I got of him on the train. I stand up and follow, maintaining the same distance between us. When he reaches the corner, I hear his feet slapping off the pavement as he legs it.
I almost run after him. Was I that obvious? Maybe he’d a different reason. Maybe he saw one of the many people he pisses off on a regular basis. Maybe he’s pissed me off in the past and remembers me and recognised I was following him. If I could remember the face of everyone that’s pissed me off, there wouldn’t be room in my head for anyone I liked. I’m amused to have given him a fright though. That’s enough for today.
I turn the corner to walk round towards the Tooley Street entrance but change direction and head down an alley to the Tesco Metro. I can buy my lunch there. A solid punch lands in my stomach, doubling me over. A fist smashes into the side of my face, dropping me hard onto the pavement. A foot stomps on my back; the heel will leave a bruise. I cover my head with my arms, as I curl into a ball, tucking my elbows across my ribs.
‘You work for my ex-wife? You working for her dad?’ he says, leaning over me. It’s the commuter.
‘Who? What the fuck?’
‘I spotted you on the train,’ he says. ‘You’re hardly subtle.’
‘You tell her to do this the decent way. I’ll be telling my solicitor about this.’
He runs off before I get to my feet. I don’t see where he’s gone, and I’m not following. My coffee has spilled on the ground under me, staining my white shirt. I sit on a low wall and hold my head. The bastard caught me on the side of the eye. I’m going to have a bruise. My legs are shaking, as I struggle onto my feet, then drop back down onto the wall thinking I’m about to pass out. I look at the back on my hand and can’t tell if it’s really that pale or if my eyes are tricking me. My hand goes to my stomach. Was that first punch a stab? I can’t feel blood, and when I look down my hand’s clean.
I pull out my phone and see the screen is cracked. Should I go in today? Should I take a day off and say I got mugged. Work would expect me to have a crime number. I could say I fell down the stairs. That sounds like a battered wife’s line. Was this prick also a wife beater?
Back at London Bridge I get another coffee, and take a seat on the platform, debating whether to go in. Googling Sandra HR London brings up a long list of LinkedIn profiles. No chance I’m going through them all, trying to guess which one is the correct Sandra. I listen to the recording again on the train home. Now cracked, my touchscreen responds slowly, needing double taps for each command.