Let me tell you the worst thing you can possibly say to me about my tattoos.
I have this one tattoo. Black across my lillywhite gypsy skin. Down my forearm, that reads “this is not for you”. If you're interested, it's the opening lines of the first book I was given by the first boy who can say he had my heart. The first book that blew apart all the previous rules of writing. My own and otherwise. To say this sacred tome has haunted my life since is an understatement. It's the one book I keep passing on, giving away, falling over, being spooked back too. I currently have two copies, one that I consciously remember buying, the other that came to me I don't know how; and the oddest thing is that when I got this tattoo I became even more of a collector of it's stories. This book, THE book, it has a life of it's own. Someone was in a cottage in the middle of nowhere, and it fell through the remote front door, cover ripped off. Someone else regained their fear of the dark after reading it. Another guy....well it goes on. You get the idea.
These days I to hold onto my faith in the general public. I try to brush off their strange remarks as nervous attempts at banter, but when you point at my tattoo and say “aren't you going to be alone forever?”, this is a button pressed. Especially when it's three minutes after the train home was supposed to arrive to the calm of my sky-palace sanctuary and my little black cat. So, I hit back, facetious, maybe I want to be alone forever. I don't, but I'm an angry child thrust in the face of a stupid question, my sass and sarcasm the last shields I throw up when I'm knocked off key.
It's just, I'm frustrated. I've been sick forever, in so many senses of the word. Sore-throat sick, soul-sick, body wants a baby sick, Saturn's return sick,; that I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep. Possibly in someone's arms, although that last part is optional. I probably need some Erythromycin and an Uncrossing Spell, but who doesn't these days? I'm on the platform at Shepherds Bush and the crowd is growing thicker and thicker and the train is getting later and later, so when the train arrives my conscious mind is off in the liminal space I reserve for storytelling and vivid-dream premonitions.
And the train is rammed. Instantly, I'm squashed up against four bald men, all fairy-tale giant ginormuos. Every single one of these men has seen me thirty seconds earlier get accidentally punched in the tit by a yammering lawyer, so they shuffle their feet and lean back politely. I'm grateful for the extra space, because I can feel four types of material unwillingly pressed against lower parts of my body; it's just that busy. The dawning summer brings thundering with it a muggy sense of urgency, one that's transformed in the Overground carriage to thick air. Nose-neck thick, hot-body sex thick, Mardi Gras thick, meat-sweat, cat-breath thick. Echoing through the whole train. This many people this close, the air conditioning might as well save it's sweet time and join the hot-air party. There's one, only one advantage to a train packed this close. No-one's gonna steal your stuff at least. No-one can even move. Let alone make a bid for your phone. Basic rush-hour logic, and I guess at least the men are being kind. I guess.
By the time this train gets moving, everyone's off in their own special place. This is how they deal with the chaos of the packed train. Music, books, diving into WhatsApp, each small little versions of their own private nirvana. No-one is really all the way there, but we all have the rush hour to deal with. When most of the passengers drop off at the next stop, our aching communal heart takes one harsh beat, pressing itself against our paper-thin chests in one clear air gasp. Clean god-damn air. It'll be the last for a while, but we don't know that yet.
I have this moment where I'm staring at the fresh air come crashing through the doors with this knowledge I need to get off. In life, but mostly of this train. Whilst I'm negotiating the impulse the door swooshes close and I have one clear thought break my rush-hour mantra. Oh. Oh well.
Then the train pulls off. Speeds up. A little faster than usual, but we are late. I'm off somewhere else in my head, swaying in the soporific lullaby arms that it hits my body first. Like I've been punched in the stomach, a cramp, it staples my stomach together with a sobering jolt. How many stations have we passed? Sometimes I phase out for what seems hours and it's just seconds, and I'm god-damn sure it's just that, right? But there's still that feeling in my stomach, like a cigarette burn through my oesophagus, an unknown stab. Maybe it's just stress. Maybe it's just cramp. Maybe I kicked the wall in the night and pulled a muscle I didn't even know I had...or maybe it's something esoteric I haven't worked out, or codeine withdrawal. It could be that. My options, I'm cycling through like a bullet train when someone further down the car realises before me.
“Is he gonna stop?”
I crane my head around to see the screen. Blank. I sigh. Stare out the window, warp-speed blurs of nature's beauty all star bursts of lines, and a station goes past.
We're on the Overground, aren't we?
For those of you that aren't keeping up, the Overground stops at every station.
I catch the gaze of this Chinese dude. I say dude because I didn't catch the gender. On the verge of asking for help, headphones twisted in hands like claws. Burning confusion, but unsure. As though they're not too sure their question is valid, cautionary innocent weakness. So I start the conversation.
“Is he gonna stop?”
By now I'm not the only person wondering. My new-found confidant catches the name of the next station to shudder by in a blur so unrecognisable that the concept of passing another station vanishes like smoke in my consciousness, and the swallow is so audible that I'm sure they can hear it at the other end of the world.
The panic spreads like an STD. This guy ain't stopping. No way. There's a small group of mild-mannered men in suits debating the emergency stop alarm, arguing the semantics of a train driver hell-bent for leather on driving us into the fiery abyss at the end of the line. As the panic waves lash harsh on the few people who haven't quite caught on yet the more vigilant of the suits makes a good point; the emergency stop requires the dybbuk-possesed monster now driving our train to certain defeat to act on the signal, to pull the break. This guy already turned off all the screens and some of the lights, he probably wouldn't, he proposes, act in our favour.
To say were fucked would be an understatement. The panic of being entirely at the mercy of our ghost-possessed driver saturates limbs, shaking hands, furrowed foreheads. Little scratches too hard down forearms and angry red-faced fat little ancient ladies yammering into ancient mobile phone relics. The unspoken fear the train might have been hijacked binds us strange situation fellows. My Chinese friend has gone from banging on the doors to staring at me with a wide, vacant look in their face, expression begging “help!”. Another woman with waist length white hair and a Stevie Nicks coat asks me if I know what's happening, giggling quickly to herself. These faces, staring at me. Well, I have to say SOMETHING, right? All the while our metal cage speeds and speeds and speeds and sparks through more stations, past blurs and blurs and blurs of pink and brown and yellow and green and orange we once called people.
“I guess the track's got to run out at some point?”
Maybe I should have thought of something better to say, but it works. The train pulls into Gospel Oak. Doors slide back knife-edge swipe. The crowd moves as one angry herd, I'm swept up in the current of the welcome escape. I've seen kids run slower from illegal raves. Safety and the chance to grab the soon-to-be-departed next train back in the other direction leave Gospel Oak a sea of thundering footsteps too large to think through and this time, I trust my instinct and stop to read the screen everyone else has ignored.
I've amassed a bunch of followers who obviously think my Zen translates to navigating public transport. What fools. The train on the other platform pulls off as half the travellers realise they're off in the wrong direction. Pandemonium rattles on the door, my little army of the Chinese dude and Stevie, a nurse and a few faceless stragglers thanks me for stopping them jumping on the wrong train.
“Are you going back in the other direction?” says the nurse. “Can I just...follow you?”
Together, we navigate our journey down the hidden stairs. Together, we stop for complaint forms for Stevie and the Nurse and for a few seconds I think I've lost the Chinese dude, but they turn back up as we're all, all ten of us, climbing the platform to the train in the right direction. Together we board the right train. The Nurse likes my hair. Stevie lives near my house. We stand, bound together in a group of otherwise ignorant 6pm commuters, strange friends as we make our weary way home.
Just before I get off at my stop the Nurse thumbs her form.
“You gonna complain?”
“Nah.” I say. “Makes for a good story. I'm going to go home and write it down...”