I don’t use the trains so much these days. One of the joys of being in a relationship with my fiancée is that it finally spurred me, at the then age of thirty-one,to learn how to ride a bike. So, most mornings and evenings I can be found weaving amongst the crawling traffic on the Old Kent Road.
I find it hugely satisfying. Riding is cheaper than the train, usually more reliable, almost always quicker and thirty minutes of heart pounding exercise each way will be the main reason that I’ve dropped several trouser sizes in the past couple of years. (Although, drinking less beer, eating less motorway service station food and not spending all day, every day sitting down has probably helped – and even then, alas, the withdrawal of my stomach seems to have stalled and I need to recognise that the benefits of the 16 mile daily cycle have hit a plateau and I no longer have an excuse for a second breakfast).
There are, however, a couple of things I miss about commuting by train. I lose about ninety minutes reading time every day, which is sorely missed, but I also miss the company. Riding is a solitary activity. Not that I previously commuted with friends, but there was always a bit of the city in the carriage with me. Long term readers of David Marston Writes will, no doubt, remember how snippets of dialogue or stolen images glimpsed on the railways between Brockley and London Bridge used to add colour to my posts. You might think that cycling would allow me to see more of the city, which is kind of true, but it all passes by in an instant and, anyway, I’m focussing on the lorry turning right fifty metres further up the road.
Most of what I saw and overheard was either amusing, in a smug superior way, or socially awkward. Nothing serious ever really happened, except that one time, years ago, back when I still lived up Honor Oak Park way. There used to be this big bear of a man I saw regularly on the trains. He got on and off in Honor Oak too and was easy to spot from his height, girth, sports casual jacket, over-sized unlaced trainers, big grey beard and enormous headphones. He always stood out and back then the signage around London Bridge was even worse than it is now, so I was always reassured by his presence that I was on the right train.
One early summer’s evening I strode down platform fourteen heading to where I expected the front of the train to be once it finally came in. I picked him out from a distance, bobbing his head while he waited on one of the benches. The sun streamed in through the glass roof and played its way through the green iron rafters. Out beyond the end of the platforms the railway lines criss-crossed their way out south and the city dropped away to either side, skittling around the base of the Guy’s Hospital tower. London looked beautiful in the way it tends to do, a couple of times a year: Lovely and serene and filled with new possibilities.
As I got closer the speed of his head bobbing increased steadily to the point where I remember wondering what on earth he was listening to. At the very moment my feet passed his chunky shoes he sprang up. Instinctively I turned to face him. His mouth was torn wide in a silent scream, his eyes pooled, glassy and lost. There were flecks of spittle in his beard as he keeled forward hitting the ground with a surprisingly soft thud.
I was frozen to the spot for what seemed like an age, but can only have been a second. I couldn’t think what I should be doing; the young me completely failed to react.
‘It’s all right,’ a woman said firmly brushing my useless self aside. ‘I’m a doctor.’ And with those reassuring words the station came back to life. I could see a guard running down the platform. Someone else had their mobile phone out and was already calling an ambulance. I hovered in the background, still not being of any help, until, eventually, I left them to it, feeling guilty at how little I had to offer, but not wanting to get in the way.
I hadn’t thought of that evening in ages until Tuesday.
My bike is out of action for a couple of days. The rear derailleur inexplicably snapped clean off as I dropped down the gears to get over Vicar’s Hill and home so I’ve been commuting by train again. Tuesday evening, I’d left work promptly to get to the bike shop before it closed. As I said, I don’t normally use the trains anymore and when I do it’s when I’ve been out of a drink so it’s usually dark. Ten to six in April and the station is bright and full of spring. I was also taking a train to Honor Oak Park, where the bike shop is, for the first time in years - these days I tend to go to Lewisham or Ladywell – so I had to change in London Bridge.
It was an annoying gap between the trains. A ten minute wait for a departure with the shop closing before too long. I walked down to the end of the platform, the front of the train, closest to the exit at my destination. It was a Victoria loop train, one of the ones that chugs out south to Crystal Palace before banking west and back into the city via Battersea, a painfully slow route from London Bridge to Victoria, but you usually get a seat.
No-one else was on the platform so I thought I was the first one on the train, but in the carriage I found someone else. A guy, about my age sat with his head down, cheeks flushed violent red, feet up on the seat opposite, not moving. Underneath his outstretched legs was a torn Primark paper bag and, I assumed, his mobile phone, crashed to the hard floor, the back pinged off and the battery next to it.
‘You all right, mate?’ I called, but he didn’t stir. I moved closer. His knuckles were scuffed, some scabbed over, some still bleeding. ‘London Bridge, all change, yeah?’ He still didn’t respond, his chin pressed hard into his chest. I shook his shoulder gently and then more firmly.
Someone else had been more decisive than me and collected a guard from the platform.
‘Sir! Hello,’ they tried to no avail, even going so far as to blow their whistle in his ear, but the body would not stir.
The guard was stood by the open doors muttering coded messages into his walkie talkie and I saw the closed sign being turned over in the shop window, when suddenly a voice said: “Fackin ‘ell, this ain’t Vauxhall.’ The voice’s owner woozily gathered its belongings, including the scattered phone components, lifted the Primark bag from the bottom clutching the contents to its chest, staggered into the hand rail pole and wobbled up the platform, still swearing.
Three or four years after the man collapsed in front of me in the station, and six years ago now, I was tending bar in the Brockley Jack one evening when I saw a ghost. The man walked in through the door, big floppy trainers unlaced, headphones around his neck, same grubby jacket, same stripy jumper underneath. I’d never known that the platform incident had been fatal or otherwise, but for some reason I’d just presumed the worst.
For a ghost, it was thirsty. He drank three pints of lager and ate two bags of dry roasted nuts in about forty minutes, propping up the bar, glancing at his watch and the door as though waiting for someone and then he left. I kept meaning to ask him how he was, to say that I’d been there, but I didn’t know how to begin.
Probably best to keep it that way; probably best to keep all these people as just stories of the city half known and half imagined.