The train doors open and like the shuffling automata in ‘Metropolis’ we trudge towards them. People get primal when they’re using public transport. Those in pairs and groups use unspoken alliances to gang up on the rest, making blocking manoeuvres to secure maximum space. Those alone (i.e. me) have to take what scraps they can after the ruck. Still, there’s one fundamental flaw in the hive-mind that evolved sensibilities can take advantage of. Most drones are programmed into thinking that getting a seat with a table is the ultimate train travel goal.
If you’re on your own, or even in a couple, the table seat is one of the least comfortable options available. A person on their own will inevitably find themselves trapped into a corner, doomed to read the same sentence in their magazine for mile after mile as the usurpers stray into and then successfully steal all their personal space. They will lay out a picnic on your table, use your armrest without fear of reprisal and pile their bags onto your lap. However, the plebeian lust for a table seat can be turned to your advantage. As the crowd lumbers aboard the train, fixated on their Formica grail, you should plonk yourself in the first available seat that points in the direction of travel. If possible, you should secure the aisle seat. If this means sitting next to a seat that’s already occupied, accept the inevitable and take it anyway. The aisle seat facing in the direction of travel offers you a full two feet of space on one side of your body (commonly referred to as the ‘aisle’), giving you the freedom to leave your seat without interacting with others at any time you wish. Another desirable characteristic to look for in a seat is its proximity to lavatorial facilities, usually situated at the end of the carriage. This position is also ideal for when the journey terminates. While your table bound fellow travellers struggle to locate their belongings, treading on one another as they try to uncork themselves from the corners they’ve been squeezed into for the last four hours, you’ll already be halfway down the platform.
Last week, following my successful acquisition of an aisle seat facing in the direction of travel and in close proximity to lavatorial facilities – I made a fundamental error. I got too cocky. Domestic travel has become so routine for me that my senses, once sharpened to predator levels by phobic anxiety, are now muffled in a cotton wool of apathy. “Nothing to see here,” my adrenal system says, “move along now…”.
The train to London from Leeds was packed. Every seat was filled, every space occupied. Passengers continued to shuffle down the aisle looking for available seats as I settled in and arranged my things around me. In my eagerness to secure a seat I had forgone comfort, deciding I could wait until I was on the train to use the toilet. When it finally lurched forward and began its slow rumble out the station my shoulders involuntarily dropped a couple of inches, such was my relief at knowing I was about to unload the contents of my stretched bladder. Waiting until we cleared the platform, I made my way to the toilet at the end of the carriage. Across the door was a strip of tape with the words ‘Out of Order’ printed periodically along its length. Continuing past the people standing in the aisle of the next carriage, I thought about how much demand there was for adhesive tape that had ‘Out of Order’ printed on it; enough that someone was able to profit from its manufacture at least.
The toilet in the next carriage was working. I knew this to be true because it was engaged and several other people were waiting for it to become free. With a film of sweat developing over my entire body, I resisted the urge to buckle at the knee and clasp my hands around my swollen tummy. My bladder, hard and distended, was pressing against jeans. It was with a sense of relief beyond proportion and an inane, cross-eyed smile that I put an end to my pain some ten minutes later, sitting on the pot so that I could squeeze out every last drop.
Waiting had been the long part. Doing the deed can’t have taken more than three or four minutes, including the ‘washing your hands dance’ that the motion of the train forces you to take part in. Still, when I left the compartment a weasly man waiting outside gave me one of the most disdainful looks I’ve ever had from a stranger. When I was safely out of earshot I muttered ‘arsehole’ under my breath and navigated back through two packed carriages to my seat. I sat down with an exaggerated slump; a gesture of satisfaction in a job well done and as I did I caught the eye of a woman sitting across the aisle from me. Feeling at peace with the train, the landscape flashing by outside and the world in general, I smiled at her. “What a thoroughly OK world we live in,” I was trying to say, but her fixed scowl told me she didn’t get the message.
I mentally shrugged and continued to settle in to the journey; pulling down the tray in front of me, retrieving a can of pop and a copy of GQ from my bag. It wasn’t until I relaxed with the magazine in my lap that I noticed the top button of my trousers and my belt were still undone. While my T-Shirt covered the small patch of hairy belly poking through the gap, I had walked all the way down the train with my belt flapping around my knees. I may has well have bunny hopped through the carriage with my pants around my ankles. The guy next to me was reading a newspaper, holding it high in front of his face, doing that thing that people do in movies when they’re trying not to look at you. I fastened my belt as quickly as possible, wondering what was more embarrassing; walking about with your pants down or drawing attention to the fact by doing them up.
Across the aisle from me were an old couple, grey haired though robust, who had managed to commandeer a whole table to themselves from Grantham onwards. She was clearly in charge – doling out sandwiches from a Tupperware container, vetoing his request for crisps (the salt content would be bad for his high blood pressure) and giving him updates on their itinerary for when they would arrive in London. Her tone was strident and insistent and his replies were mumbled, delivered in middle class clipped English. She had him reading out crossword clues, running errands to the buffet car and retrieving items from their bags stashed overhead.
About three quarters of the way between Grantham and London, she got up, presumably to use the toilet. “Keep an eye on my handbag,” she said sternly as she left the carriage. The old man said nothing, staring straight ahead as she went through the automatic doors. Then half a minute after the doors had shut behind her he started to speak;
“Bullshit,” he said “bollocks, fuck, fucker. Bitch. You fucking shitter. It’s all bollocks, it’s all shit. It’s all fucking shit.”
A few moments later his wife returned to the seat.
“There’s was nothing to dry my hands on in the toilet except toilet paper. Go and tell the conductor.”