There were eight shopping days left until Christmas, but the shabby black youth making his way down the escalator to the northbound Bakerloo Line platform at Oxford Circus neither knew nor cared. He was sleeping rough and shopping wasn't a priority. His head was spinning. It had grown colder in the last few days and, earlier, he couldn't feel his toes. He was muttering rhythmically: "Don't think, don't think."
At nearly 11pm, the young man stood on the platform crowded with high- spirited homebound Londoners, none of whom noticed how their exuberance further depressed the lone figure.
Looking up he gazed at a poster. A beautiful girl selling something for pounds 19.99. Might as well be pounds 1,999, as far as he was concerned. His head was spinning faster now. He shuffled forwards, as if to board the approaching train. Don't think, just do it, like the Nike ad. He smiled. The train was only beginning to pull into the platform as he stepped out in front of its headlights. His suddenly illuminated body flew forwards from where the driver gazed in horror, slamming on the brakes by reflex. No one heard the noise of the impact.
Someone hit the blue emergency button at the trackside. Almost at once, the Control Room knew there was a one-under; what I heard called in New York a track pizza. But there were still passengers arriving on the platform, unaware. "I want to get home tonight not tomorrow," shouted an overweight man wearing a woolly football hat that made him look like a Belgian peasant condemned to damnation in a Bruegel painting. Another man was tapping on the driver's window. Inside, the driver didn't hear, but kept rocking slowly back and forth. Then, all at once, a density of whispers and shouts made everyone realise that someone had died, and a hush descended.
In the morning, I was shown the exact spot where the young man had died. I thought I could see a trace of blood, but it was only a KitKat wrapper, discarded on the scattered sand. Something drew me to return to this spot again and again that morning, as if trying to surprise an elusive clue as to why someone might choose to die in this sad place.
Chatting to a Bakerloo Line driver, I mention the incident. He tells me that he knew the driver involved; he has been given compassionate leave. "Lucky bastard!" he says, "Wish it had been me!" But I didn't believe him.
SMALL BOYS were forever asking me if they would die if they touched the rails. I told them they would roast at once, end up like a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Stopping occasionally to answer these and more mundane questions, I would walk up and down in the confined yet high-ceilinged space, about 100ft under ground.
This was my workaday world, never far from Platform 6 at Oxford Circus Station, from 7.30am until 11.30am. Only four hours of work each weekday, just 20 hours a week. An ugly uniform fashioned from man-made fibres and a 3M Scotchlite orange high-visibility vest advertised my function: I was there to serve the travelling public.
In another sense, I was there because I was broke. A decade before, aged 26, I had given up my career as a lawyer to travel the world, having accepted the wisdom of Kipling's "What should they know of England who only England know?"
Since then, I had lived in a dozen countries, from the Americas to the Far East. Now I was "home", and the money I had saved while living in Japan had finally run out. I needed a job - and one that wouldn't distract too much from my many unpaid interests. Start early, finish early was my strategy. Time I would otherwise spend asleep seemed ideal: deadtime not dreamtime, for I never remembered my dreams and felt sure I could catch up on being dead later on. So I answered an advert to work, part- time, as a Station Assistant, or SA, on the London Underground. My confidence was not high: I had been turned down as a street sweeper the week before, "We think you're a little over-qualified," they'd said on the telephone without knowing anything about me. …