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I take my place at the end of a row of seats, using my jumper as a pillow against the Perspex divider, and prepare to watch the show. The Northern Line, a tableau of freaks, weirdos and preternatural creatures. It's a travelling circus with a constantly changing cast of characters. Occasionally, it's so bizarre it touches on the beautiful.
Jolie laides, as the French might say. Pretty ugly, to the point of fascination.
A pair of Goths plant themselves down across from me. They look like pasty-faced orphans staring through a rain-splattered window at a feast laid out in front of a roaring fire.
Their eyes are astonishing. She is no oil painting - more a crayon drawing, scored violently with the left hand across a sheet of tracing paper - but blazing from her milky face, framed by mascara portholes, are two electric saucers. One is green, the other blue. She looks like the upstairs of a house in winter. Staring back at me, she mutters something to her boyfriend who languidly lifts his head. Are they on Mogadon or is this part of the act?
They smile sarcastically. It all seems too much effort for them.
As they say, there's someone for everyone. He is one of life's great grotesques. His face, like hers, is chalk white but dotted with the spots of the seriously afflicted. Acne, however, is the least of his problems. His jaw is like an anvil, he has a boxer's nose and misshapen hair. Without a ruler it's difficult to tell, but he seems to have one ear longer than the other. His face doesn't fit. Clearly, they had to squash him a bit when they were putting him in the box.
His redeeming feature, again, are those windows to the soul. Sharp blue beacons, illuminating the sadness that lies behind them.
Suddenly, I realise what they're sneering at. I'm a distorted reflection of themselves - a kind of sinister, silent older brother, in my long black leather coat, black shirt and trousers. I feel like the political wing of a despicable terrorist organisation.
I look around, lest I be accused of staring. The seat beside me remains free, which is odd considering the amount of people standing. It suits me.
Apart from the Goths, there are another five people on that row of seats. Two of them are asleep. Mouths agape, catching flies, they snore contentedly, as though tucked up in bed. One over the eight.
The train has stopped at Embankment and those who want to get off do so, switching places with those who want to get on. It's a fair exchange.
We remain stationary. Then the driver jogs along the platform and approaches a heap on one of the benches. It's a body with a rucksack attached. She shakes him for a minute, shouting that it's now or never.
'It's the last train mate, wake up!'
The last train. It doesn't feel that late. I'm guessing, though, because it has been an eventful night and my watch can now be regarded as one of my former possessions, smashed as it is into a thousand pieces on a barroom floor.
The bundle with the rucksack stirs and raises his hands by way of protection.
'It's the last train,' the driver repeats.
You wouldn't want to stay in the Underground all night. The place is crawling with rats, with the Northern Line probably the worst offender. They scamper about when the train pulls in and people stand and watch, cooing as they would to a small dog. I once saw someone feed them chips. keep them ticking along until something more substantial came their way. No, you wouldn't want to fall asleep on the platform all night. Not with your mouth open.
Finally, the message seems to get through and the man springs into action. 'The last train!' He shoves the driver out of the way and charges onto the tube. The rucksack is stuck to his back. He wriggles and writhes, and his moustached face turns purple, before he gives up. He tries to remain standing, but it's an impossible task. He slides himself and his rucksack down the door connecting our carriage to the one behind. His legs stick out, straight ahead, as rigid as an Action Man.
Two feet from his face is the head of a girl. She is bent straight over from the waist, head facing the floor in the manner of a discarded doll. Juxtaposed, they're like cheap toys abandoned on Christmas day after thirty seconds.
She has bootlaces for hair, black and white, dangling on the verge of a puddle. If the guy with the rucksack opened his eyes he might think he was still at the party and that in front of him was the hemp curtain at the entrance to a hippy's kitchen.
Luckily, that won't prove to be an immediate problem. He has toppled over. Now, he's gripping the handrail beside the bootlaces and hauling himself up. He focuses on the girl's sinewy braids, and puzzlement flits across his face. Then he topples to the other side. You might think that someone would try to assist in some way or, at the very least, say something. But this is London and its population is weary. The spirit of the Blitz is truly from a bygone age, and this is what we call normality. Most people will have forgotten their journey by the time they get home.
I pick up a bit of newspaper. "Sun's rays to roast Earth as poles flip." I check the date, make sure it hasn't happened yet. Last week's Observer. Poles flip. First World War Two and now this!
Actually, this sounds serious. Earth's magnetic field is playing up and could disappear any minute. This could be a prelude to the poles flipping over, north to south and vice versa but fear not, we'll probably be fried to a crisp already, as radiation bursts from outer space will turn us into another Mars. It could happen at any time, lying in the bath with a big toe in the tap, or sticking on a line at the bookies. It could happen right now, while we're sitting on this old charabanc. Deadly stuff. And if we did survive, Christ, we might have to do this journey all over again.
Rucksack guy is in trouble. He is unable to clearly and confidently state his name. Nor could he confirm that you are holding two fingers in front of his face. He is pale, and his head lolls around as if on ballbearings. He has now assumed the appearance of the degenerate. The badge around his neck states that he is Pat McKenna, communications officer at the American Embassy. Laud that if you will, but this man is the enemy of a yob-free society. Undoubtedly he is going to be sick, an occurrence as unwelcome as the police turning up at a party. It may well be time to move.
Further down, the carriage is also busy, full of those out for the high life creeping their way home. Back to a tasty cup of bitterness and recrimination, before settling down to a comfortable night's nightmares. Sure, there are people laughing and shouting, but most people are in a world of their own, concentrating their memory on a better part of the evening.
On the big padded seats that face each other, three nuns are kept company by a tattooed man. If the nuns are real, then I would imagine that this is quite late for them to be out. There is the possibility that they are non-nuns, just some jovial youngsters coming back from a fancy dress party or the singalong at The Sound Of Music. Yes, maybe, but they have that ineffable piety, which is as much a giveaway to their religiousness as the 'Cut here' tattoo on the neck of their travelling companion signals a dangerous person.
Nuns with guns! Who sat down with whom?
The man obviously has some issues. The all-over design might not have the subtle intricacies of the woad-covered Celtic warrior, but he deserves a nod for perseverance. It must have taken many years of pain to look like that. If I squint at him, he reminds me of one of those old Paisley pattern lobby carpets that were common in the Seventies, 3D and come to life.
Imagine being introduced to him over the vol-au-vents. Hello, I'm Geoffrey, or Cyril, or Forbes. Whatever. I'm a policy advisor for the Liberal Democrats. What? This? Oh, I got drunk on my stag night. Slight aberration.
No, I don't think this guy would be waxing lyrical in the bar at the House of Commons. Where do people of his type go? There must be meeting places for like-minded individuals, an exclusive club. Hell's Angels or jail, I guess, are the ones that springs to mind.
Whoops, there goes Mr McKenna, the communications professional. He's opted to maintain a certain equilibrium, by utilising all fours. Crowds part to let him off the train, that innate sense of danger drawing them away from the creature as it prowls along the platform. A howl emanates from McKenna. Parking the tiger, as they say.
Difficult as it may seem, that vomiting motion may prove to be the high watermark of his evening. It could all be downhill after this. Good old Pat McKenna, for getting off the train and removing any need to help him.
The new arrivals take up position. Vikings with kebabs. Leering, sneering, salivating, shouting. Some of them spend a couple of seconds too long looking at me. I let them know that staring isn't permitted. They turn away.
The Goths get ready to leave. It's good news. They catch my eye and hold it. I nod my head. They know that I know that they know I will bang their heads together if they don't fuck off.
Abe the ground, the dark skies clear and the land spouts forth a myriad of flower and vegetation. The world has returned from the shadow.
I hadn't realised how much pressure those two had been putting me under, sitting, chewing gum, their open mouths like a vandalised graveyard, tombstones chipped and broken, leaning to the side. Always peering with those brilliant eyes.
Two girls take the Goths' place. Scant regard is paid to norms and customs as regards covering up in public. Flesh is fighting cloth, straining to get out, eating away at cotton and man-made fibres. The girls could be 15 or they could be 25. Smoke and mirrors.
A whole new cast has arrived. Australians. And probably Kiwis too, with the odd South African thrown in. The blokes are wearing Hawaiian shirts - zany, man - and again the girls are wearing very little. I'm drowning in arses and legs, bare arms and belly buttons. It could be an interesting way to go.
I guess they must have been at a beach party in Leicester Square. One thing, among many, that I've never understood is: why bother? Why save up the money to go to Europe, only to bump into your next door neighbour in the toilet of the Walkabout on Shepherds Bush green?
Two of them try to eat each other's head. Ah, the romance. One of the sleeping people has miraculously woken up and been displaced by a guy covered in shit. It's all down his shirt and suit trousers. It certainly looks suspicious.
'Chocolate,' he says, smiling nervously. 'Don't ask.'
I wasn't going to.
'You know those chocolate machines?' he asks. The answer to his question is that no I don't, but he doesn't wait for that. 'Loads of us in the pub, having a laugh, and suddenly my mate tries to run my head under the tap of the chocolate machine and we had a fight and knocked it flying. He's in a worse state than me.'
The general public! We're in it, like it or lump it. It's a closed shop. Human? Join the Union.
It's a crazy hall of mirrors, concealed in a maze; a baffling, warped concept unique to every individual, and yet hidden to most. By now, with the Antipodeans on board, I would say that most people here wouldn't recognise the prevailing madness even if it walked up to them and laughed in their faces.
What does the paper have to say about it? Poles flipping, Earth roasting. seen it, done it. "Tube stuck in tunnel for three hours." Desperate stuff. Panic stations, people fainting. A safety officer thinks it would make passengers think twice about stepping on a tube. Well, that and everything else. And if it happened here, right now? We'd need a brass band to wake some of these punters up for starters, before walking hand in hand through the tunnels in some procession of the damned. We'd never make it.
'This is Camden Town, northbound line to High Barnet,' says the tannoy. 'Passengers for Edgware should change here.'
A few seconds pass before it hits me. Camden Town. This is where I get off. I fly out of the seat, leaving my jumper stuck to the window. It's done, anyway. You'd need more than a Stain Devil. You'd need Satan himself and all his little helpers. Fuck the jumper. I'm pushing my way through the crowds at the door, plus the people trying to push on. Then the multitude suddenly clears, parting as the Red Sea did for Moses.
They appear shocked, girls particularly. Agog, they let me pass.
I could ask what's up, but there would be no point. People on London transport don't speak to strangers and, hands up, I guess I look like a stranger. I've only got one eye for a start. The other one is artificial, as they say. It doesn't bother me, but I do get funny looks. It's probably the cut head that's causing the hullabaloo. Most of the blood is congealed, like some sort of sickly dessert, but I think it must have started bleeding again when the jumper was removed. I can feel something trickling down my neck.
No problem. It's fine. In actual fact I did it myself. And it's not the first time I've had to get my head attended to. I'm covered in all manner of scars, from knives to machetes and whatever takes your fancy.
This latest one? I got into an argument because I spoke to someone's girl. He seemed to think I was being belligerent and smacked a bottle off my nut. Obviously, it's not the first time that's happened, but the bottle didn't break. I took it off him and smashed it over my head - I've got quite a hard head, you see. It's a bit of a party trick of mine - but unfortunately I ran out of luck and picked up a bit of a cut.
All hell broke loose then, but that's another story. I think it's safe to say he'll be drinking soup for a while.
'That needs stitches,' a voice says.
Yeah, right, a stitch in time saves nine. Off the train now, and the driver wants people to stand clear of the doors. He's agitated by the lack of progress.
A tramp comes hurtling up, straight towards me. I assume he's going for the train, but the whole bearded bundle of rags stops right in front of me, pointing.
'You're dropping your chips!' he says.
I scan the ground where a trail of chips leads back to the door of the train. It certainly seems to have something to do with me. I raise my bloody left hand, and there it is, a chip poke with the contents squeezing out of the gaps between my fingers. How on earth have I got chips? Where did I get them?
'You're right. Perhaps I'd better dispense with them, in that case.'
The tramp agrees. 'Dispense, yes. It's a bad night when you can't finish your chips.'
HA HA HA HA AH HA HA HA AH HA HA! It tickles me, for some reason.
The tramp boards the tube just as the doors close. All the faces are looking at me now, as the train begins to move off. 'All the fun of the fair,' I shout. 'All the fun of the fair.'
I zigzag up the platform, bouncing off the walls. My head is spinning. I sit on a bench and gradually fold over until my head is resting on my arm. I lift my feet and close my eyes. There's an intricate light display going on, followed by the slow, sure, nauseating image of those Goths coming into focus, their crazy eyes bouncing around their faces like a psychedelic game of pinball. The station is deserted, the tube screeching and clanking in the distance, the gears of the earth grinding as the poles begin to switch.
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