The London Underground is my safe haven. Many people hate it; it is a mere Limbo-land necessity to get you from important A to even more important B. But for me, there is no other place that could give me the same, dependable experience.
It’s like the reliable Labrador that you come home to and you know will sleep at the foot of your bed all night, giving you the same comfort and, often, the same dank smell that most people wrinkle their noses at, but actually, after years of it, you find pretty damn comforting. It’s 5pm and I’m waiting (well, waiting to wait) to get the tube home after interviewing an elderly lady about her new fondness of guinea pigs. She’s introducing them to all of her friends as the new pets to have when you reach old age, immobility and potential solitude.
‘They’re small, see,’ she’d say, holding up one of four guinea pigs in her shrivelled-walnut-like hand, ‘and they don’t live nearly as long as cats. I’ve converted Bea, next door neighbour but one, the bungalow with the lovely rhododendron, she’s getting one from her daughter come summer. See, it’s the new thing deary.’ She patted my hand, which I found unnervingly soft, and said how kind and attentive I was as I made her another cup of tea and offered her a shortbread biscuit. (I’ve found that I’m pretty good with women – it’s one of the few positive aspects of growing up with four sisters and an absent father.)
It was an odd interview -with guinea pig lady – somehow surreal. For a moment I saw myself as my younger self might have – a disappointment surrounded by doilies and porcelain figurines. But that’s what I do most of these days; meaningless, unimportant chaff. Gone are the days when I interviewed the celebrities and the royals. I used to be the guy who’d say, oh yeah, Sienna Miller? I interviewed her when she was just starting out. Of course, I never actually interviewed her. I was the guy getting coffee for the guy who was interviewing her. Basically the same. However, this life unfulfilled, with its startling lack of Sienna Millers, has meant that my life’s turned out much milder than I would have liked.
Another tube rushes past me; I’m sat in a metal chair in an otherwise empty row of four that has warmed nicely under my lengthy presence. The carriages clunk past with occasional screams and yelps, as if turning the stiff corner at the entrance of the Piccadilly Circus northbound platform is horrifically painful. Bright white and blue sparks spray up from the rail like flecks of blood. The surge of people entering the platform at this time, the very start of rush hour (which spans something more like three hours), has reached its peak as they all swarm towards the edge of the platform, hedging their bets as to where the doors are going to land. Then, in less than a minute, the platform will return to momentary desolation before the crowds flush through again like water filling up an evacuated cistern.
‘Mind the gap, please.’ A voice calls out of the tannoy, caring yet threatening. ‘Let the passengers off the train first.’
Down steps a young, large-breasted woman. Yes, this is the first thing I notice about her. It’s her fault, not mine. She wears a tight white t-shirt with a very low (plunging, even) v-neck line and stonewashed jeans. As she steps off the carriage, over the cavernous gap, and onto the platform, her breasts joggle. I can see the outline of her white bra beneath the thin material of her shirt and I wonder what she might look like if she weren’t wearing a bra at all…her breasts would probably slap against her belly button, but it’s nice to imagine that they’d stay pert and plump.
She walks confidently through the crowd, almost arrogantly, expecting the waiting people to part as if she were Moses and they the Red Sea. Watching her do this, snout in the air, she becomes highly unattractive. She’s got a few things to learn; big breasts and an invitation to look at them will not get her everywhere.
Finally, the last people skip off the train – a teenage couple that appear to be glued together, hand to hand, begin to weave awkwardly through the crowd like young children on a school trip that are forced to walk two-by-two. The sea of waiting people flood furiously through the doors, soaking up every last inch of space. Then the doors close, some with difficulty as they catch on protruding elbows and bags, and it clunks forwards, slowly gathering speed. The tube tugs at my hair (what there is to tug, at least, I’m thinning) as it disappears into its dark wormhole. Then we are at desolation point once again.
I could spend hours down here. My respite. No signal, no way to be contacted. London could be burning and I’d be none the wiser.
Each time I go under, I check the transport notices for delays. It’s always sad when the train God calls omnisciently over our heads that, ‘the Bakerloo line is experiencing severe delays due to a person on the track.’ But, every cloud… right? If there are delays then I can push my time spent underground to well beyond an hour, meaning that I won’t be home much before dinner at 7pm. Sometimes I have to move things around to fit – I might have to tell my wife that I was coming home from a different area in order to fit in with the stated suspensions or delays. She probably thinks that the London Underground system is an absolute joke with the number of times I come home ‘late’.
She doesn’t challenge me though. She doesn’t question why a simple, 30 minute journey took three times as long. But she’s like that, she’ll have faith in me. Rather than berating me she’ll enquire after my work and ask if I’ve heard anything back from the Big Gun magazines. At the moment, I’ve told her that I’m down to the last two for a Fox and Hound feature with Prince Harry. There is no such feature. I don’t even think magazines have such a thing as an elimination style ‘last two,’ but she doesn’t know that. I’ll probably give it another couple of days then tell her that, unfortunately, the feature fell through so they’re sorry but they can’t offer me the job this time, no matter how much they’d like to, though they’ll keep me in mind for future events. That should satisfy her for a few months.
When we first met, my wife, Adrian (short for Adrianna but she hates that name), was a well-to-do interior designer who was only going to go up in the interiors world. Then she met a bloke who had the chat, a full head of hair, and a job that appeared to promise that he too would be going up in the world. His job seemed so desirable to her because he rubbed cheeks with the likes of Sienna Miller… and a man simply must be wonderful when he wants to marry a woman like her rather than the popularly admired women he’s interviewed and is, no doubt, going to interview in future.
But that life never materialised. We live in a house that we’re renting from her father who always thought that his little girl was far too good for a freelance man like me, who would probably develop a wandering eye and a drinking habit because that’s what happens to people who get the treasure they want without having to dig for it. He meant Adrian. I decided to prove my father-in-law wrong and have been stubbornly teetotal for the last two years and three months. Adrian loves it, she thinks that it’s my way of taking care of myself and being considerate of her, but I just want to piss off her pig-headed father. It’s amazing how motivating that goal can be.
Adrian doesn’t work anymore. She hasn’t for the last year and probably won’t for a long while, maybe never. She was pretty insistent on it and, really, we have no other choice. It’s a double edged sword – we cannot afford to make other arrangements yet I also know we cannot afford to lose her income.
I’ve been spending longer underground for the last ten months. It works out for us both I reckon – I get some peace and quiet away from the expectations and pressure of being the breadwinner, and she gets to think that I’m working later and longer to be said worthy breadwinner. I don’t tell her that we’re living off the rapidly decreasing £20,000 that my dead grandmother left me, and only me, in her will. (Told you I was good with women.) When that dries up, we dry up.
Another train pulls up. At least ten have come and gone with their human cargo since I’ve been sat here. I could probably give it another five before I ought to board. A cluster of carrier bags sag around my feet containing, largely, chocolate based goods and nappies. These are the two main demands from Adrian at the moment. She’s put on a few pounds, but I suppose that’s what comes with pregnancy – before, during and after. I, of course, can’t say anything about it. I’ve tried slipping the ‘lighter’ chocolate mousses into the shopping but she sniffs them out and says they’re just not so good when she needs a quick on-the-go bite. Apparently she’s always on-the-go, but she’s at home all day so I don’t know exactly what it is she does to keep herself so frustratingly busy.
The thing is, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a father. And why did it have to be a girl? Another girl in my life. I mean, I love her and everything, but I feel completely outnumbered and I am continually losing out to the females in my life. Last week, Adrian and I had an argument (in whispers, obviously, so as to not give off angry vibes whilst the baby was around) because she wanted me to wear a papoose. A. Papoose. I had to look up what this was before I could fully engage in the argument, but quickly decided that I did not want the baby continually strapped to my chest in this hippy scarf thing whilst we shopped in Waitrose. How can one do anything? Then, of course, Adrian says, ‘well that’s what I had to deal with for nine months,’ and what can a guy say to that? So, each time we go out, I have this silly, baby carrying scarf wrapped around me and the only women that look my way do so because I have a baby on my chest. I am one big, walking papoose.
I get it. This is what comes with fatherhood. But there are a lot of things I don’t want to give up that my wife and baby seem to want me to leave behind just because we are now a three rather than a two. I like having time to myself, but it seems like that has dried up like the plains of Africa and I can’t bloody migrate. That’s why I’m here, underground, in this safe cave of un-contactable mugginess. But it’s about time now. I won’t push my luck. The train in front of me pulls away. I gather the shopping and head towards the edge of the temporarily empty platform where the doors had landed. I’d better get a seat.