It is late. Nearly midnight. And yet the platform is busy – a Friday evening collection of office workers who have stayed for one too many, tourists exhausted from a day of museums and old musicals, and young people out on the pull. I wish I didn’t have to change tube at such a busy station, but here I am. Again.
There is a hum of drunken chatter over the sound of a train passing in a nearby tunnel. A young couple leans against the wall next to me and makes out – he has her pressed into the white tiles, her hands ride up inside his coat pulling him closer. Further down, a group of lads stand hooting and barking at each other like a troop of baboons.
Straight people. I shake my head as I unwind my scarf from around my neck.
In the summer it’s like a sauna down here – pressed up against each other, the smell of sweat and steaming human bodies unavoidable. Lauren says the Central line is like doing bikram yoga. I wouldn’t know about that, I had to Google it. But she goes to this yogi centre three evenings a week, so she must know. She always says to me, Sam, you’re so young, you don’t know anything. And I just nod and agree, because it’s true. Lauren doesn’t really like working, so she sits in the stockroom talking to me while I stack the shoeboxes at the end of my shift.
In the winter the tunnels are a shelter, where it is safe to unbutton your coat as you wait for the next train. Standing on the platform now, it’s hard to remember that summer heat.
I like to stand at the exact same spot every time. I know exactly where the doors of the second carriage will open almost directly in front of me. Sometimes, as I feel the advancing wind of an oncoming train, as I hear it burst from the tunnel into the station, I can feel a sort of gravity sucking me towards the edge of the platform. It is like the tug of a retreating wave on the beach, swirling around your ankles, softly, but insistently asking you to follow, to drown yourself in it.
My feet throb from standing behind the till and walking the shop floor for hours and hours – a throbbing that rises and falls like the tide.
Mum couldn’t believe it when I told her the job was on the other side of town – It’ll take you bloody ages to get there – she’d said. And she’d been right: forty minutes sitting on the train, changing at Oxford Circus, racing underneath the city on a red line that runs straight across it like an artery pumping red blood cells through the city. Mum says it reminds her of a slash, a scar, like someone once tried to disembowel the city, but failed.
She asks me why I can’t get a job closer to home, but she should know by now that distance is the point.
I pull the sleeves of my jumper down my wrists and hands again. The best thing about winter is that no one asks you why you never wear a t-shirt, why you’re always covered up.
Two minutes, the sign says. Still two minutes until a train arrives.
And then, I hear a shout to my left down the platform. When I look I see three women, arms over each other’s shoulders, stumbling towards me, weaving a little between the small groups of people. I try not to stare, but they are difficult to avoid seeing – sparkling dresses, high heels, big hair.
As they get closer I see that the two girls on either side are supporting the girl in the middle. She is barefoot, bare shoulders without any coat, her shoes held loosely in her hand. Then, with a laugh, she breaks free of them and sits down on the platform near me, collapsing, roaring with laughter, her legs folding beneath her. Her friends carry on walking, leaving her there.
You bitches! she shouts from where she has fallen.
I try to ignore her. No one else on the platform pays her any attention. The couple snogging against the wall next to me don’t break rhythm.
Fine, she says. I don’t care either.
And she swings her legs out from underneath her towards the platform edge and starts to shuffle forwards. I look around me to check that other people are seeing what I’m seeing, that this girl is actually moving closer to the edge, is now dropping her feet into the pit where the tracks are.
I realise, after a second, that she is climbing down, that this thing is happening right in front of me. And it takes another second before I start moving.
I step forward quickly – the board now says a train is due in one minute – and try to take hold of the girl’s arm.
Come on, I say, you can’t do this, come on a train is coming.
But she laughs, pushing me away. Fuck off, she says, laughing. Don’t touch me you little lesbian perv. Then she shouts – Is it really electric, the track?
Another woman is now trying to take the girl by the other arm. I look up and I see the lights of the oncoming train strike the bend in the tunnel wall.
I feel a panic rising, spreading through my body. My heart beats like I’m high, or falling off a cliff or something. I look at the other woman who is holding the girl by the other arm, and together we pull hard, jerking her up and back, her legs dragging back onto the platform just as the train erupts from the tunnel, arriving like a sandworm launching itself from the desert – its great mouth open wide, angry and dangerous.
I fall down onto the platform, still gripping the girl’s arm, surrounded by people getting off the train while others push past us to get on. She shakes me loose and gets to her feet. She totters a little, and looks around her – Where are my bloody shoes? – before shrugging and walking off, ignoring both me and the other woman who pulled her to safety. The doors to the train close. It leaves, and the platform is suddenly quieter.
Her shoes are probably down there somewhere, the other woman says, nodding towards the tracks. Are you okay? she asks.
I’m not sure I can speak, so I just nod.
Well done, she says, that was very brave. She pats me on the shoulder before walking off towards the Victoria line.
My heart is still hammering in my chest as I get up. It is only just calming down as I get on the next train, as I stand in a corner looking out the window watching the dark tunnel walls whoosh by.