Pigeons pull open a garbage bag and fight over day-old pita bread. Or day-old something. A child reaches out from a stroller, babbling; her hand closes around air as the birds duck away.
In Pret they have nothing of what I want, except a place to sit for half an hour, so I buy a cup of tea and claim a table.
Across from me, a girl writes, annotating copies. Post-its and highlighters are scattered across the table. A lone tea cup stands amidst the chaos. Her hair is long and wavy. She wears a nondescript gray jersey and tucks black boots around a black leather handbag.
I take a sip of my tea.
To her right, a group speak in animated tones and Eastern European accents. They sound happy and relaxed. I wonder how long this beautiful experiment has left. Depending on who you ask, it could be days, or forever.
The main man switches between English and another language, or maybe I’m just not paying attention. Life is hard when you’re tired. He has a kind face, trimmed hair, a speck of dirt in the middle of his forehead which could be a birthmark. He wears neat clothing and moves his head from side to side when he speaks. He stands and types on his phone as the party prepare to depart.
Three women, two men, and a strong scent of perfume. After they’ve gone I examine their table: smoothies, coffee, and water. Outside, they exchange hugs and part ways. (The only other face I see is expressive; a woman with dark hair and large eyes; when she listens to you talk you really believe she cares about what you have to say.)
I sip my tea and the girl leafs through papers, clipping them into a ring binder, light blue, WH Smith.
A group of friends enter and dump their bags at the recently-vacated table. One has a picture of carrots on it, one is woven, the last is art-nouveau, some woman’s face that I should know but do not.
To my left, a couple natter, a fly in my ear. Loud enough to be annoying, but quiet enough not to be unreasonable. He leans back and she leans forward – then they swap. Lather, rinse, repeat. His hat is maroon, some company logo. Pretending to glance at the street, I still can’t read it, and so I lose interest. She gets up and goes upstairs.
One of the friends returns and stirs coffee with one hand, while navigating a phone with the other. She’s brought a T.K. Maxx bag, to add to the collection. She wears bright orange trainers to match the polish on her ring fingers; the others are a dirty gold. She is dissatisfied with her drink. When Friend Two returns she asks her to change it, calling out instructions across the room in a clipped voice, all the while playing with her phone.
The girl across from me highlights in green. The best colour. I am unable to tell what book she’s reading; it’s doggy and the edges are curled, which is the best way for a book to be.
Dodge the charity muggers and step inside. In front of me a group a French teenagers debate their order for minutes, looking at a five pound note and passing coins around. I wonder if they’re counting cash or just trying to figure out how much they can buy, with the least complicated order. I consider cutting in front of them in line, before they settle for French fries (or to them, fries). I am hungry from a forty five minute walk carrying a heavy case, so I order a lot of food.
The staff are slow but the get everything right. As I wait I scan the place. It’s dirty and rubbish is stacked on tables. I wonder when I’ll stop eating in places like this. Probably when I have better things to do and people to eat with. I hope that’s before the food kills me. I am addicted, you see Cycles of consumption and regret.
In the restaurant the young men come and go, talking of Michelangelo. ‘Yes fam, that new Ninja Turtles movie looks sick!’
I sit and eat. In front of me, a couple unpack food meticulously, squirt ketchup, set up for their meal. They talk quietly and generally enjoy the moment. A man walks in, dressed in what might be described as a punk get up, leather jacket with studs, quasi-political slogans scrawled across the back in twink; messy hair, heavy shoes with thick soles and craters carved into them.
A woman who looks reasonably kempt, leaves a wheeled bag with a jacket tied across it and walks over to ask for change in a low voice. Money for something to eat. If it’s her game, she plays it well. Normally I’m stern, particularly with a job coming to a close, but I find it hard to refuse, stuffing my face as I am with onion rings. But I don’t give away any of my pound coins. She circles the place and leaves before she’s kicked out. I wonder what she’ll buy with the money.
Band On The Run tracks back and forth through my head. Did Paul McCartney ever make good on his thought of giving it all away? Did he fuck.
I scoff the food and play with my phone for a while. The punk has finally been served, after ten or fifteen minutes. He slumps down in the table behind mine, all arms and legs, and takes a phone call. He sits with his boots sticking out into the aisle, shaking one foot back and forth.
I dump the rubbish in the bin and return to the street, zipping my coat up against the summer wind.
18:24 to London Waterloo
The sun is sharp in their eyes as they disembark; unhurried, their feet clomp across the platform extension towards the old building and the ungated exits. Aboard the train the usual assortment of newspapers and chocolate wrappers flap in a gentle breeze, which does not reach my face or cool me. Shadows warp between window and wall, displays thus by the last rays of a golden evening. The sky dips toes into a river brown and blue, and rippled.
The boy wears spotless trainers and a disdainful look, placed on his face automatically. He wants to be a man but does not know how, so he acts angry all the time and holds strong, unresearched opinions. Behind him, a man in a neat grey cardigan peers through thick spectacles, examining the Examiner and snuffling regularly. His grunts sound like those of a mildly-annoyed pig or one of those muppets who makes sounds that aren’t quite speech.
The train rocks gently, calming itself along familiar tracks with unfamiliar bumps and bruises. The boy stares out of the window, knowing there’s nothing to see but seeing it anyway. The man swallows another throat full of sticky snot, sucking it down as if it tastes of ambrosia.
At Thames Ditton chinos and RP get on, all twenty of them, disciples of the sun and easy money. They squash together on seats; their clothing is the essence of conformity – but they don’t care, which is the essence of nonconformity. Is white privilege the new punk?
Trains make me hate people. Or is it just writing about trains?
An Englishman explains to a Frenchman about twenty-four-hour supermarkets, and the Frenchman marvels; the triumph of Britishness, or something. Maybe the Americans won after all. If I can get pancakes at 3am, it’s not all bad.
In front of me a girl or a woman sits, headphones half the size of her face, which is hidden. She picks the label off a Sainsbury’s smoothie. The Anglo-French division discuss the finer points of London transport, and depart as loudly as they came. The woman – or is it a man with long hair? – or is it a woman with big hands? – holds the bottle up; yellow juice sluices down like lava and lands in his/her mouth.
Three young girls are excited by crisps. (Old enough to ride the train alone, young enough not to know how to avoid being obnoxious.) I wonder if they’re tourists or just home-schooled. I see large eyes and wide mouths, bright teeth and a subtle scent of fried chicken. Locals, then.
The plastic bags they carry crackle and pop and sway to the beat of the train. There are orange handrails, reflecting light, and there are seats, all bright red, with yellow and blue. The colours and patterns hide dirt and grime. Why persist with fabric when plastic wipes clean? Rumour is, the comptroller’s wife suffers from haemorrhoids.
Wimbledon hasn’t changed and it never will. Bright sunlight closes eyes to slits. There are at least five people wearing chucks in this carriage alone. But there are also three Yankee caps, and I have two of those. I think about glassless glasses as a fashion statement. Not for myself but as a thing that exists. Consider, alternative disabilities made trendy. Did it all start with Nelly’s plaster?
A Kardashian poses in a wheelchair (as I type this, MS Word autocorrects the lower-case k in Kardashian, and I nearly punch my screen). What next? Fake orthotics? Bedazzled neck braces? Crutches with a phone holder and a Wi-Fi hot spot? Perhaps an outbreak of Tourette’s across Dalston and Hackney. Mind you, there already seems to be one, some of the shit that’s spewed around there.
What’s the opposite of gentrification? A fashionable fade that the quinoa markets and deconstructed coffee houses don’t see coming. Unfashionable is the new fashionable. Shit is the new cool.
In the window I see she has a full beard. I kick a bottle of aloe juice under the seat, and study the smudges reflecting nothing back at me. Toffs embark; their newspapers mention a boy taken by an alligator, but they discuss instead the Premier League fixture list, in voices that rake spit along the sides of the mouth. One tears out the pages with deliberation, obstructing the aisle: ‘they’ have West Ham first up, and I hope they lose.