“FUCK THE GAP!” bellows a slurring, hoarse voice in response to the safety instruction. The laughter that follows is the kind a sober person might reserve for, say, the funniest thing he has ever heard in his life. But for the last Tube on a Saturday night, it is little more than an acknowledgment that words have been uttered, a last hurrah before the body takes its morning-after revenge.
The doors stay open. The girl’s eye wanders to a poster of Poems on the Underground. Her pupils twitch left and right as she reads. As the doors beep to signal they are about to close, the boy reappears. Like Indiana Jones risking his life for a hat, he rushes to the door, leans in, kisses her, and is gone. He leaves her stunned behind the closing doors. A few people gasp. The train pulls on and they pretend not to watch for the verdict. They are too loaded with English reserve to admit their excitement at the Tube Theater.
At the next stop, she smiles.
At the other end of the carriage sit two young tourists. They speak in rapid Spanish. They are dark-eyed, dark-skinned, and share a Lonely Planet guide to “Londres.”
A lad in his late twenties boards at Kentish Town. His pants are so baggy he could stuff a dwarf down each leg. White socks grasp at his ankles over tired Adidas trainers. His oversized baseball cap barely touches his head and rests at a hilarious angle.
He chooses not to take any of the free seats and towers over the seated folk, standing closer than good manners allow. For no clear reason his expression darkens; he grits his teeth and starts to huff. In a sudden burst of inarticulate rage, he turns to the tourists and coughs up xenophobic bile. “Wot the fuck you doin’ ‘ere? You dun’ speak my language, so ge’ aaht my cun-tree!”
The carriage is silenced. Jaws drop. Eyes are averted. One of the tourists rolls his eyes. The other frowns, confused.
“Que pedo con él?” (What’s the matter with him?)
“Es que no tiene cabeza.” (He hasn’t got a brain.)
“I’m not. I’m not,” the man replies blankly, resting a tin of lager on filthy jeans and an old, shabby trench coat. He is older than her, yet seems emotionally to be working his way through puberty.
“Stop lying,” she repeats. She curls into the nearest seat, crosses her legs and fixes her gaze on the floor. He sighs and sinks into the seat beside her, staring ahead blankly. She cradles her head, and faces as far away from him as she can twist. A silence passes. Stops come and go. The pause is so long many of the passengers stop eavesdropping.
Finally, he speaks: “I’ve got a girlfriend.” She gets off the train without word or glance.
A young couple sit, sparkling with melting snow. The boyfriend’s Hugh Grant-esque accent jars with his glugging from a bottle of cheap red wine. His teeth and tongue are stained. His eyelids are drunk.
“You shouldn’t drink on the Tube. It’s not allowed anymore.”
“Fuck the mayor!”
“You’re such a chav. And you’re posh. That’s worse.”
As they alight, bickering, at London Bridge, a thick cloud of booze gets on, with a group of men in their early 30s somewhere inside it. They ask each other, “Wazzuuuuuup?” No one answers very thoughtfully.
The Underground staff have turned up the volume on the pre-recorded announcements. Health and safety cautions rattle the antiquated speakers.
“Mind the gap.”