The underground train judders, then slows with a series of alarming clanks and hisses before coming to a complete stop. We are still inside the tunnel. People glance up from phones and books, their faces blanched in the harsh light.
In this hot weather passengers are reminded to take a bottle of water on the tube.
I don’t need reminding. I have mine. It’s tucked inside my leather-look shopper, double-bagged in plastic. I’m not taking any chances.
A quick scan of the carriage confirms for me that most of the passengers have ignored this sensible advice from London Transport. I count the people in my carriage: Twenty-five? What if we’re delayed here because there’s a disaster further up the track and we end up trapped inside this tunnel for hours? My bottle of water wouldn’t go very far.
Some of the passengers are standing, lolling against one another, heads sagging in the heat, like neglected marionettes. At least I have a seat. I live on the outskirts of London, far from the mess, the noise, the crowds, the dirt, so, when I board the tube, it’s at the beginning of the line and I can always get a seat. Except that I don’t sit on the actual seat, of course. I’m sitting on a plastic bag. I never deposit my bottom directly onto the grubby upholstery. It’s quite common for passengers to leave all sorts of bodily fluids behind – urine, spit, vomit, and worse. Besides which, I just don’t like the idea of sitting down in a place which has been host to so many other bottoms. But, even with this excellent precaution against contamination, the small of my back is unpleasantly moist, pressed into the sweaty residue from the seat’s previous occupant. I lean forward.
The fact is, I rarely travel on the tube at all. I mean, let’s be honest, it’s basically a metal cylinder filled with dirt and germs. But I’m visiting my allergist and his consulting rooms are on the other side of London and there really isn’t any other feasible way to get there. If I took a taxi, I’d be stuck in traffic, inhaling lead fumes and paying a fortune for the privilege.
The man next to me sneezes twice in quick succession and I’m tempted to put on my protective face-mask. But the last time I did this, some curious Americans asked me about potential superbugs in London and I had to engage in conversation through the air holes. I nearly hyper-ventilated. Besides, it’s now so hot in this carriage that the mask would probably become permanently fused to the lower half of my face.
I peek into my shopper, trying not to draw attention to the fact that I possess the only supply of water, stored in a chilled phthalate-free bottle. The shopper also contains my other requirements for travel on the tube: the face-mask, money, travel card, lip balm, tissues, antiseptic wipes and antiseptic spray, dental floss, inhaler, paracetamol, cough sweets, rape-whistle and a small box of organic raisins in case my blood sugar drops. The raisins could prove vital if we’re stuck in this tunnel for days. It may be the only source of food on this entire train. I’d better make sure nobody finds out about them, either.
My leather-look shopper also contains a paper fan decorated with tiny sinuous orange and gold fishes, a gift from my Aunt Trudy. It’s a souvenir from her trip to Tokyo. She says Tokyo is very clean. There’s no litter there at all, she says. She wanted me to go with her. But I’ve read that the air there is terribly polluted. So I didn’t go. I’m glad she brought the fan back for me, though. It flicks open beautifully, but it’s a real fiddle getting the bamboo and paper segments to accordion back into their pleats properly. It can take ages, but I don’t mind refolding it. I find it quite satisfying.
Last year, Aunt Trudy gave me a box of three lemon-scented lemon-shaped soaps from Sorrento. Sorrento is famous for its lemons. But not for its hygiene. Probably because it’s very old and shabby. So I didn’t go there with her either. The soap was a useful gift, although it didn’t last long. In less than a week those luxury bars were all used up, shrunk to brittle yellow slivers on their porcelain soap-dishes. The fan is also a lovely gift and useful, of course. It’s ideal for fanning yourself on the tube.
My cheeks are throbbing. A trickle of perspiration slides down my neck. I reach into the shopper for my pretty little fishy fan. Then I stop. I withdraw my hand and glance around the carriage. Everybody looks hot. My fan is something else the rest of the passengers might covet.
A fat man in a suit stands up and shoves at the fanlight window between the carriages. It’s like opening an oven door and we’re scorched by a blast of hot air. My throat feels sandpapery. I swallow but my saliva has dried up. I long for just one gulp from the phthalate-free bottle. I keep it in the fridge, so the water is always cold. Just one icy slurp is all I need. But I dare not. I’ve got to keep the water hidden. Who knows what sort of bacteria would be left by the lips of other passengers if I were forced to share? The mouth is the dirtiest place on the human body.
Ladies and gentleman, we apologise for the delay. We are being held at a red signal due to – Waaaaaah!
The baby in the arms of the woman across from me lets out a howl, drowning out the tinny announcement. The passengers look around, miming exaggerated queries about what was said. The baby’s face is red and scrunched. His mother starts unbuttoning his baby-grow to cool him down. Her face is also red and scrunched. I hug my shopper to my chest, protecting my supplies.
A trail of perspiration is snaking from my drenched hairline, tickling my forehead and running into my eyes. The carriage smells like stale McDonalds and ammonia – the odour of vintage urine, warmed up. My eyes are stinging. I imagine splashing my face with the chilled water, gulping it down my burning throat. But I dare not move.
My vision is starting to blur. The carriage is steaming up from the revolting virus-suffused exhalations of all these people. Or is it smoke? Dear God, it’s smoke. That’s why we’ve stopped. There’s a fire in the tunnel. Or even on the train. We’re all going to die down here. Unless I douse myself top to bottom in water from my bottle. Then I might just survive the inferno. But my arms have gone completely numb and I’m stuck to the plastic bag under my thighs.
The line of faces opposite morphs into a single pinkish-brown smear. The passengers are melting. The heat in this carriage is so intense that their faces have dissolved, features blurred and dribbly. I must be melting too. I can feel my face liquefying, running down onto my chest. I cling to my shopper for dear life.
A sharp pain smashes both knees and my cheekbone whacks against something hard. I blink and see the toe of a grubby white trainer with black laces done up all wrong. Its owner has missed an eyelet, the fool. And why is my cheek on his nasty shoe? In fact, I can see a line of shoes, none of them very clean. That means I’m on the floor. The disgusting tube train floor. The smell is much worse down here. My stomach heaves. Oh dear, I think I might be about to make my own contribution to the collection of human stains ingrained into the interior of this carriage. I need my antiseptic wipes. And my antiseptic spray. Urgently. But I can’t reach them because I’m lying on top of my shopper, still clutching it with both hands.
I hear voices above me. The vultures. They’ll have to kill me before I give up my supplies.
She’s fainted, poor thing.
It’s the heat.
Somebody fan her, quick.
Here, use my magazine.
She needs water. Help! Does anybody have a bottle of water?
Philippa Hall is co-editor of Funny Pearls.