Well, I’m not making any progress with anything new, so here’s something old.
The escalator down to the platforms was deserted. Ascending on the other side, however, was a substantial crowd. The contrast between the rush of people coming up and his solitude made him self-conscious, standing still, leaning on the handrail, wanting to dash down the left hand side but having no-one to impress by doing so. He stood and tried to find somewhere to rest his eyes that wasn’t a poster for a West End show or the onrushing stream of humanity climbing upwards, out into the light.
Stepping off the escalator, he heard a train moving, felt the rush of diesel-stained air. He turned left and ran down the stairs two at a time, to discover that it was leaving. In the same moment, he saw a silhouette. Head cocked slightly in front of the map on the far wall of the tunnel, she seemed puzzled. There had been no-one in front of him on the escalator; she must have been there for at least a couple of minutes already.
He passed behind her and took up a place on the platform an appropriate distance away, just far enough to seem anonymous, yet just close enough that if, as he predicted, she sought advice, it would be his to give.
In the event it took a couple of minutes, although whether this was because she struggled and gave up trying to understand the map herself or rather that she was working up the courage to admit her failure, he couldn’t say.
“How do I get onto the half… to London Bridge?” she asked him, in halting, accented but precise English.
Short, no more than five-two, she was wearing a long-sleeved black top made from a stretchy fabric that accentuated her slender waist. She’d paired this with a pale blue denim miniskirt, black tights, patent black pumps. The effect, combined with her black bob and pale, freckled skin, served to frame her eyes. They were brown and fringed with lashes like a peacock’s, impossibly dense.
He explained as best he could how the Bank branch of the Northern Line worked. He was stymied by the paranoia that grips native speakers when speaking to extraordinarily beautiful strangers from exotic climes, fighting the tongue-tied feeling and trying to use simple phrases and speak clearly all at once, thus achieving precisely none of those things. Eventually he managed to point out that she could catch the ones marked “Morden via Bank”. As he was doing so, it occurred to him that he was about to do exactly that himself, to get to St Pancras, so he followed up with an invitation to show her next time one of these trains arrived.
They talked, asked what each was doing in London, where they’d come from. She lived in Sevenoaks, was visiting a couple of friends, going to meet the second of these at London Bridge. He told her he’d been to a concert last night and was about to catch a train home to the Midlands. She had never heard of the Civil Wars, or the London Borough of Islington for that matter, and only grasped where Nottingham was after an extended description of Robin Hood complete with mimed bow-and-arrow action. None of this seemed to matter very much, somehow.
The train arrived, doors rattled open and he indicated that this was the one to catch. They stepped on together and took up a position by the door, most of the seats already occupied with people coming in from Finchley. They held the pole for support, standing in silence, obeying the unspoken rule that you do not talk on the Tube.
They stood, bisected by the bright yellow vertical, each finding places to look. From Kentish Town to Camden Town, Euston (Bank Branch) and then King’s Cross St Pancras, they stared into space, flicking their eyes at each other every few seconds. This reverie continued, each glance more laden with meaning. He pondered the impossibility of the moment, a list of things he could never do that included staying on till London Bridge to “show her the way”, handing her his card as he left or slipping his hand down the support until it met hers, looking into her eyes and trying to explain to her just what an effect she was having on his morning.
As the train pulled into King’s Cross a seat became available and she took it. He stepped off, looked back, smiled. She waved. He walked, climbed the stairs, two escalators, swiped his Oyster Card through the barrier and walked out onto the concourse. He raised his eyes to Betjeman’s “shadowless, unclouded glare”. Already, she was fading to caricature, smeared memories more blurry every time he tried to recall her face.