Someone famous once said “Write about what you know” and this week I have been given the opportunity to do just that. This week’s brief came from Huw Lloyd Jones on Facebook, and was aboutsomething I have had plenty of experience with myself, the Northern Line of the London Underground system. So here you go, Huw. ‘Observations on the Northern Line.’
2014 – A Year In Stories
Mind the Gap
“Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.” Amina could hear the announcement taunting her over Highgate station’s public address system as she clattered down the escalator at full speed.
Her way was fraught with danger and she narrowly avoided tripping over a stray suitcase whilst trying to avoid a fellow passenger whom had clearly not received the unwritten memo about not standing on the left hand side of the escalator.
As she reached the platform level she hurtled round the corner to see the train doors shut a mere couple of seconds before she could hurl herself through them. She looked up at the information board to see how long it would be until the next Bank service. Eight minutes. Balls.
This was the third time this week that this had happened, and it was only Wednesday. Every time she had got to the station she had emerged, thoroughly out of breath, on to the platform to catch the tail end of the driver’s ‘ready to depart’ announcement.
Amina had been living in London for three weeks now, and her tube-fu certainly didn’t seem to be improving at all. Once she was on the darn thing she was fine, but she had yet to master the art of timing her arrival with that of the relevant train.
She had taken to leaving for work 10 minutes earlier than she really needed to just so she wasn’t late, continual tardiness in your first fortnight on the job not being considered a desirable trait in an employee, after all.
That morning Amina made it in to work with seconds to spare. She vowed that tomorrow, TOMORROW would be the day that she conquered the Northern Line.
The next morning saw Amina up bright and early and ready to go. To make sure her timing was perfect she had downloaded an app for her phone that told her when the next trains were due to depart.
She sat on the small sofa of her studio flat in Muswell Hill and stared intently at the screen of her phone. She knew that it was a 20 minute walk door-to-door from her flat to the station, so she waited until the app told her that there was a Bank train in 22 minutes time and set off along Muswell Hill Road with some considerable purpose.
The world seemed brighter somehow. Amina put this down to her renewed vigour for getting to work more than 5 seconds before she was due to start for the day, but nonetheless the sun was shining, the air felt fresh in her lungs and when she smiled at people, they jolly well smiled back.
This feeling lasted right up until she got to the top of the hill that lead up to Highgate station. As she rounded the corner she spotted dozens of grumpy looking commuters milling around by the bus stop at the top of the hill.
“What’s going on?” she asked one of the people at the back of the queue.
“Northern Line is down both ways between Camden Town and High Barnet. Signal failure or something,” they replied, and went back to their John le Carré novel.
Amina would gladly admit that it was only the distraction of the arriving bus and the clamour of nearly 100 people trying to cram on to it that stopped her from exploding in an apoplectic rage and turning the Archway Road in to a nuclear crater to rival that of Chernobyl.
To make matters worse people were arriving from down the hill and jostling psst her to try and get on the bus. Of course not everyone could get on and the doors closing were met with a tirade of comments about the bus driver’s upbringing and propensity for intercourse with farmyard animals.
It was another ten minutes before Amina managed to squeeze on to a bus, and she was nearly 15 minutes late in to the office that morning.
The next day was the same. When she left home her app happily told her that the trains were all running hunky dory, but by the time she reached the station all hell had broken loose.
When she bemoaned her situation to one of her friends she was rebuffed. “You shouldn’t have moved somewhere on the Northern Line!” her friend Ashley berated. “It’s called the Misery Line for a reason!”
Every morning something else would go wrong. She would just miss the train, or she would show up on time and the station staff would shrug their shoulders sympathetically as she showed them the TfL app that said the Northern Line was running a good service, despite no train having shown up in twenty minutes.
She began to become paranoid that people at work didn’t believe why she was late. None of THEM ever seemed to be late, or even perilously close. It made no sense. Old Street, where she worked, was only on the Northern Line, so everyone who worked there that got the tube must suffer the same fate, surely? Seemingly not. She wondered how much longer management would accept her cheerful-if-strained chiming that “the Northern Line was buggered again!” before she got called in for a disciplinary hearing.
The annoying thing was that it seemed to work fine in the evenings. When she came home from work there was never a problem, bar the odd ‘customer incident’. If she was going north the Nothern Line seemed content to play ball. Perhaps it had some kind of aversion to taking people in the opposite direction to its name, as if going southbound offended its very nature.
It became such a bugbear of Amina’s that for a while barely a conversation went by without her friends enquiring about her plight. And she would answer, oh yes she would answer. Eventually some learned to stop asking, at least if they didn’t fancy being subjected to a 15 minute tirade about how TfL was out to get her, but those she hadn’t seen in a while would inevitably fall in to the trap and have their ears bent about how it was all a big conspiracy.
It had become an obsession. None of her friends or family really understood her drive or determination to get one over on a transport line. Words like ‘irrational’ and ‘silly’ were bandied around, particularly by her parents.
But Amina didn’t need them. She was unwavering in her devotion to the cause of beating the Northern Line at its own game. She spent her evenings posting on forums where others in similar predicaments wrote long rambling tales about how they were being victimised by the District Line, or how the DLR was entirely designed to make their every living moment a waking nightmare.
She felt better knowing that there were others out there who were in the same predicament, that shared the same single-minded desire to stick it to TfL right where it hurt.
She regaled the forum with her tale and her thread got dozens of replies offering advice ranging from getting up half an hour earlier than normal to full on camping under her desk at work. With a sleeping bag and everything.
As she read more and more of the posts she began to realise that perhaps she wasn’t akin to these people after all. Some of the stories spoke about years of battling against one of the tube lines in an attempt to best it. She had only been trying for a fortnight.
Amina stayed up late in to the night and read these tales of woe and hardship and she made a vow to herself that she wasn’t going to become one of these people, whose entire lives are dedicated to achieving something that really they have no control over anyway. Some people were just naturally gifted in the ancient art of tube-fu, and could guarantee that they would be on time wherever they went, whereas others, such as she, were not so blessed, and were destined for a life of tardiness.
And so the next day, feeling sanguine about her late night epiphany, Amina deleted the TfL app and walked to the station footloose, fancy free and with a smile on her face. And sure enough, when she walked through the station doors she was greeted with a mob of angry commuters, who were not being let down to the platforms because there was a broken down train in the tunnel between Archway and Tufnell Park.
She was 15 minutes late for work, but this time she didn’t care. She had not let the tube get the better of her, and that was enough to keep her in a buoyant mood for the rest of the morning.
Amina sat in the break room at work and munched on a sandwich. Gerald, one of her colleagues, walked in and started fumbling with the buttons on the coffee machine.
“Hi Gerald!” Amina said chirpily.
“Afternoon, Amina,” he replied as the coffee began to pour. “You seem very happy today.”
“I am! Last night I had an epiphany and now I have found inner peace with regards to my commute. No longer will I worry about whether or not the Northern Line is going to be down, or if I’m going to be late to work. Que sera, sera and all that.”
“Well that’s good to hear,” Gerald said with a smile on his face. “I used to live in Muswell hill myself, you know. The Northern Line really is a bugger, isn’t it? You know, after a while I realised that it was almost as easy to get here by going to Finsbury Park, getting the Victoria Line to Kings Cross and then getting the bus. You have to change more but it only takes a couple of minutes longer and the Victoria Line is almost never down.”
Amina stared at him, mouth agape. She couldn’t believe it. In three weeks it had never once occurred to her that she could simply go a different way. For the last 20 days she had been infatuated to the point of mania with the idea of besting her nemesis the Northern Line, but not once had she just thought about changing her route.
“Thanks Gerald,” she finally managed after what was probably far too long a silence, “I’ll give that a try.”
And sure enough Amina was almost never late for work again. And she could hardly blame those hangovers on TfL now, could she?