Magazine article The Spectator

A Customer on the Line

Magazine article The Spectator

A Customer on the Line

Article excerpt

I was a good Saturday in London. I spent the day at a lecture on Caravaggio, exploring the artist's use of intense light and dark which evokes so much about the brilliant but pitiless society he moved through. After that I went to the theatre followed by dinner at Groucho's.

Those are the kind of things I came to London for, and I've never tired of them. But after my day of cerebral pleasure, I had to join the wild-looking crowd shoving its way down into Leicester Square Tube station. Once on the platform, I moved away from the throng, to the far end. I often do this as it gives me a chance to look for the famous metro-mice who live alongside the trains. There are about a million elegant black rodents (actually brown but suffering badly from smuts) living in our underground, many of which have only half a tail, as a result of unfortunate encounters with train wheels.

I was disturbed from this pleasure by a young man. He looked like an immigrant from Eastern Europe and was fiddling with a locked door, obviously hopelessly drunk. Like many Londoners I combine within me a Mrs Flog'em and Send'em Home and a Mrs Very Kind to Individuals. But watching him I felt particularly irritated that anyone would try to catch a train in that state.

I was just assessing how dangerous he might be when he stretched one leg out and simply flopped off the platform on to the track. He didn't fall, it wasn't an accident; it seemed to me like a sort of half-hearted, pissed attempt at suicide. I couldn't believe it. I looked around for help but the weary-looking LT employee who had been picking up litter with a long prong a moment before had vanished, and the train was coming.

I had the idea of finding the garbage man and getting his help, but as I went into the crowd I couldn't make myself understood. I was trying to talk too fast, pointing and stammering. After a few seconds, though, other people saw the body between the lines and pandemonium broke out. A chorus of mostly female voices wailed, 'Stop the train, stop the train.' But there was no one to hear us and the train kept coming on towards the platform. As it drew near, everyone shrank back and fell silent. Now my Londoner's dual identity split, and I became Mrs Bigoted but Brave, the kind of spirit that got us through the Blitz. I moved towards the platform's edge, thinking that I should make one last effort to get him up, even if the train minced him in front of me.

It seemed as if I spent a long time screaming, 'Get up, you stupid bastard.' But the man didn't move. Perhaps he had knocked himself out. Maybe, lying between the lines he might have survived, scraping through between the wheels, but I didn't fancy his chances. It seemed hopeless and, at this point, too late even to haul him up.

Then, by some miracle, the train screeched to a halt. By some invisible communications network, someone in the tunnel must have warned the driver, who reacted quickly and slammed on the brakes. Men in LT uniforms appeared, including the type of benevolent old boy, the George Dixon sort, who always appears at scenes like this to calm things down. I was very pleased to see him, I must say.

Between them the LT uniforms pulled the prone man up on to the platform, right in front of me. I've never seen anyone so white; even his hands seem to have blanched. Then he turned a livid green, at which point a group of youngish women, all in glad rags from their evening out, gathered round, petting and soothing him as if he were an injured soldier. …

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