Those who have had the dubious pleasure of commuting into London by rail, as I did for nearly ten years, will know what a strange microcosm this is.
When the train arrives in the suburbs it is half full and you can get a seat. As it gets closer to London, there is standing room only.
Commuters usually get the same train each day, so you come to know your fellow travelers very well – how they dress, what they read and how good they are at crosswords. But it is not done actually to talk.
The only situation in which we actually talk is when the trains are delayed, or cancelled, due to strikes, fog, snow, floods, signal failures or staff shortages. Then we talk, and you might even find out what their names are and what they do.
Most commutes are completely unmemorable, but sometimes there is one that sticks in the mind.
One summer’s day many years ago, the already full train stopped at Clapham Junction. Seated opposite me was a pretty and very well-dressed young lady. I guess that she was a receptionist at a bank or law firm.
At Clapham a young Englishman boarded the train and had to stand in the carriage. He was tall and thin, in a razor-sharp pin-striped suit, and I guess he was a banker. He looked dreadful.
As the train gathered speed, without any warning, he threw up. The arc of yellow liquid splashed across the young lady’s hair and the side of her face, down the front of her smart jacket, most of it landing in her lap.
There was an awful silence, with the screech and rumble of the train the only sound. By now everyone in the carriage was watching.
The young man composed himself, looked down at the young lady and said, “Oh, I’m sorry!” She looked down at herself, evidently shocked, then up at him. “Oh, that’s all right,” she replied weakly.
Nothing more was said, and when the train finally pulled into Waterloo we made for the doors even faster than usual, to escape the appalling stench.
So I do not know the end of the story. It is hard to see how she could have gone to work in that condition, unless she kept a change of clothes in the office. I imagine that she went home and rang in sick.