(luisfraguada [CC / Flickr])
The train doors slid open, inviting Zack to his first mistake. He tried to get on the train. What else was he supposed to do when a train opened its doors?
A torrent of humanity poured out. He’d thought he’d seen a crowded subway when he visited Toronto, but it couldn’t compare to this.
A shoulder caught him in the ribs. “Sorry.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he replied.
A briefcase knocked his shin. “Sorry.”
Zack couldn’t see the individuals he was apologising to in the swarm of people. It was like swimming against a river in spate. Five apologies later and he was backed up against the Bank Station sign. It was only then that he realised the tone of the sorrys he was hearing was far less apologetic than the sorrys he’d been giving.
When he’d told his friends he was visiting London for a week, they challenged him to find an answer to the age old question of who says the most sorrys, British or Canadians. Less than six hours in London and he had his answer. The British won because while Canadians said sorry to apologise, the British used it to mean ‘get out of my way’.
The doors rumbled shut and the train swept away. Commuters drained beneath the yellow ‘Way Out’ sign, expanding empty platform around him.
It had never occurred to Zack that there might be more to getting on a train than stepping through a door, but he’d just seen five hundred people change places between train and platform in half a minute. They couldn’t have done it without some sort of technique.
He’d only got off the flight from Moose Jaw this morning, but he’d already noticed London bristling with signs pointing a disorientated tourist to every possible destination. There were so many map boards that all he’d had to do was look around to find one. On the escalator down to the platform, an announcement had warned him not to slip because stairs got wet during ‘inclement weather’.
If London Transport didn’t trust people to navigate a staircase, they must realise someone would need to be guided through the far more complex problem of boarding a crowded train.
As the next train stirred the air, he concluded there were no signs because everyone knew the technique. You didn’t get to go home until you learned the steps of the six o’clock shuffle. From the voices Zack had heard, commuters from Albania through the alphabet to Zimbabwe all knew the dance. If they had learned it without instruction, so could he.
There must have been a couple of hundred people on the platform by now, all standing equidistant from one another. They reminded Zack of a shoal of fish holding position against a current, perfectly maintaining their separation without looking at each other.
It came to Zack that it was the second time he’d thought of rivers in a few minutes. He’d been in London for less than a day, so it was too soon to be pining for the rivers and plains of Saskatoon. Perhaps the tunnel was making him claustrophobic.
Or perhaps Londoners reminded him of fish.
The train screeched to a halt. People clustered on either side of the doors as though the flow pattern of the river had changed. Now Zack was looking for it, the choreography was extraordinary. Zack was so proud at having followed the footwork that he beamed at a man wearing a suit even he recognised as cheap.
The cheap suited man looked away. In the midst of several hundred jostling people, Zack had intruded on one man’s solitude.
The doors slid open and expelled a knot of people. More trickled out in ones and twos. People inside the car were moving around to let each other to the doors. When was the appropriate moment to get on? Would Zack be left on the platform again if he missed it?
A general lunge for the train answered Zack’s question. He staggered to keep his feet and almost put his foot in the gap between train and platform. A vision of the train grinding his ankle in two played in his mind like an amateur horror film. Perhaps it distracted him because he was jostled to the middle of the standing space between the doors before he knew what was happening. The crush made Zack envy a sardine in a tin. His feet were pressed so close that he’d lose his balance as soon as the train moved. Too late, he realised it was no coincidence that the novice had ended up furthest from anything to hold on to.
The rail over the doors was within arm’s length, but the man in the cheap suit was bent forward, moulded to the curved roof. If a smile was an intrusion, how would he react to Zack touching his head?
Zack would be thrown against a young woman who had slotted herself between bodies like a piece in a badly cut jigsaw. She wore plastic buds in her ears and a serene expression better suited to a deserted beach than a tangle of limbs under Bank.
Calamity was inevitable.
The train lurched forward. Zack knocked the woman out of her musical reverie. She lost her grip on a vertical rail and with it, her serene expression. She fell against the people behind her. Zack tried to flail for something to hold on to but if the passengers were no longer vertical, they were no less tightly packed. For a horrible moment, Zack thought he’d started a cascade of human dominoes. He tried to tell her he hadn’t meant to land on top of her, he was just a bewildered Canadian tourist, but his words were lost in the echo of machinery in a tunnel.
The mass of people dissipated his weight. Deathgrips on overhead rails kept anyone from tilting past the point of no return. Passengers pulled themselves upright, echoing Zack’s bodyweight back to him and setting him back on his feet.
The woman glared.
“I’m so sorry,” said Zack.
“Sorry,” she said.
Zack had never heard an apology sound like an obscenity before.
Her anger cut deeper than the cheap-suited man’s indifference. Zack steeled himself and reached for the rail. His hand brushed the man’s head. The man moved aside without looking at Zack. It was the same motion he’d made to duck under the doorway to get on the train.
Zack scanned the heads around him. Every pair of eyes was focused on a far horizon shared with no one else. With time to think, he began to see how it worked. People surrendered their physical space but defended their psychological space by pretending no one else existed. If he became a ghost among ghosts, perhaps no one else would bark ‘sorry’ at him.
The crush eased as the train moved away from central London. Zack breathed a sigh of relief when the man in the cheap suit got off, removing a key witness to his breaches of protocol. The music-loving woman found an empty seat. He faded into a comfortable invisibility.
As the music lover sat down, her phone fell out of her bag. The train’s vibration edged it across the floor while the woman closed her eyes and followed her music to a better place.
Zack had once seen a film of the Coronation, but the etiquette followed by Northern Line commuters made lords and archbishops before their queen look like toddlers at a birthday party. If there was a protocol for boarding a train and a protocol for staying upright on it, there must be a protocol for absconding phones. One more gaffe risked uniting everyone in the car to fling him off at the next stop.
The phone was seeking sanctuary under a folding seat, or rather under the sari of the grandmotherly woman sitting in it. In a few moments, it would be impossible to retrieve the phone without disturbing her, which would add another layer of etiquette to negotiate.
Zack looked for a cue but no one else was reacting. Was that because nobody had noticed or because it was polite to pretend they hadn’t?
Zack’s weight shifted from his feet to the rail her was clinging to. The train was slowing down. The woman edged forward on her seat, returning from an ethereal palace of her own construction. Only one thing could entice her back to a rattling steel tube haunted by a clumsy Canadian.
This must be her stop.
If nobody else had noticed, it was up to Zack to save her from leaving her phone on the train. If the done thing was to ignore it, a flying visit to anywhere called Golders Green couldn’t be all bad. Anything he said was bound to be wrong, so he kept his mouth shut as he picked up the phone and handed it to her.
Her gaze snapped out of her imaginary refuge and landed on his face. Zack held his breath, waiting for the worst.
She smiled. “Thank you so much.”
Zack considered her tone. No subtext that he could detect. Her thanks were sincere.
By the time he dared believe it, she was off the train and gone.