On Tuesday morning at 8:17 am, Rasheed Hamilton looked up at the clock radio on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen of his family’s 3-bedroom council flat in West Norwood and silently mouthed the word fuck as he reached with his right hand to open the refrigerator and grab a Ribena, and with his left to snap up an unopened packet of crisps lying on the countertop.  He called his younger brother and sister, still upstairs, typically unconscious of the time, most probably lost in some imaginary game of theirs as they so often were:  Jerome!  Alicia!  His bellows were met with the familiar sound of two pairs of size 5 shoes pounding down the stairs.  The three of them rushed silently past their snoring uncle and his wife, still sleeping soundly on the pull-out bed of their grandmother’s sofa, and out the door.

At precisely the same time, Dr David Moore stepped out of his own 3-bedroom flat on the opposite side of the city of London in Belsize Park.  As he was about to lock the door, he noticed a scuff on the outside of his left shoe and silently mouthed the word fuck as he reached down to rub it with his saliva-wetted index finger.  Satisfied it had more or less disappeared, he stood up straight, straightened his tie, straightened his jacket, locked his door, turned on his heel and proceeded down the six steps that led from his front door to the street.

‘Eh!  Slow the f—…slow down, you lot!’  Rasheed bit the inside of his cheek, admonishing himself for allowing such a slip of the tongue.  He knew better – it wasn’t only that his twin siblings certainly would divluge any of his verbal discrepancies to his and their powerhouse of a mother. More importantly, it was that he treasured this walk with them, away from a flat with too much shouting, too many odours from too much cooking, too many shoes left in too-crowded hallways from the too many people calling their tiny flat ‘home’.  These precious moments were the few when his breath came easily, when his focus was on his brother and sister, twins, aged 8-and-three-quarters.

‘Doctor!  How lucky that I caught you!’  Dr Moore cringed at the sight of his elderly neighbour.  ‘Good morning, Mrs Davidson.  In a bit of a rush, I’m afraid’, he replied with a smile that betrayed worry, shame and aggravation.  And perhaps if he’d hesitated with the first step he could have come back on this assertion, but after the second one it was simply too late, too awkward and too late, so he turned back to face forward, picking back up his pace and making his way toward the tube station, daggers in his heart because, after all, he could have spared a few minutes, because he was, after all, a doctor, and she was, after all, so very old and sweet.

‘Did you do your homework?’ Rasheed asked as they sat on the bench at the bus stop, where someone’s likely drunken rampage had shattered the glass all around them the night before.  They nodded, mouths filled with salt and vinegar crisps and Ribena.  ‘And you lot better start focusing in class.  Miss Richards already spoke to mum, you know’, to which his little brother rolled his eyes as high as he could, ultimately landing squarely upon his little sister’s, resulting in the two of them doubling over in giggling fits and complaining about Ribena and crisps coming out of their 8-year old noses.  At this precise moment the 159 bus rolled up and let off exactly six passengers, each of which were forced to squeeze through the myriad armpits and breasts and hips and briefcases and backpacks and bags.  The back door then closed, but instead of the front door opening, the bus began to roll forward toward the red light just up ahead.  ‘Oy!  Mate!’ he shouted, slapping the side of the bus, which he knew pissed drivers off to no end, and normally got him no where at all, which was precisely where it got him today.  He began to fume as he watched the driver continue toward the red light, but his nerves nearly got the best of him as a second bus with plenty of empty seats in its upper deck passed by, the driver impervious to his silent pleas for a bit of humanity, to the fact that he was responsible for getting these kids to school on time, to the fact that if they were late, they would get in trouble at school, he would get in trouble at home, to the fact that he seriously did not have time for all this rubbish because he needed to get to work himself after he dropped them, and he couldn’t be late because he could get fired, because he couldn’t stay late, because he needed to be at college ten minutes after his shift ended, but this driver couldn’t see that, and wouldn’t care if he could.

The doctor noticed the barriers blocking his path before he paid attention to the announcement blaring from the speakers in the station: The Northern Line is delayed between Edgware and Camden Town due to signal failure.  As the reality of it finally came to him he inwardly cursed, stopped the part of his brain that urged him to continue on the same route he took every day, and forced the part that knew how to get around London when it wasn’t 8:30 in the morning on a weekday to jumpstart. Once again he turned on his heel and joined the exodus from the station toward the nearest bus stop.  Click-clack-click-clack went his shoes as he walked as quickly as he could, knowing fully well that he’d miss his first client by a long shot, knowing fully well that he should have bought a car long ago, but still questioning if that would really get him to work any quicker anyway, what with the traffic, and then of course there was the cost of it all, still difficult to stomach in spite of his comfortable salary with its London weighting.  And then it occurred to him that he should really call the office to let them know he’d be late, and without missing a beat he pulled out his phone and dialled work, still keeping up his pace, click-clack-click-clack with all the other humans moving like very nervous cows toward that bus stop, knowing that their chances of boarding the first one that came were slim-to-none.  And just as he realized he’d dialled his own empty office (why did he have that number stored, anyway?) and pulled his phone away to look for the number to the front desk he felt a gust of wind pass by his ear and in an instant a teenaged hand grazed his own and then his eyes were on the bottoms of the boy’s trainers as he expertly manoeuvred his way – weaved, really – in and out of the 80-plus commuters, the brand new owner of Dr Moore’s old phone.

Both kids had a hand – Jerome his right, Alicia her left – wrapped tightly around the yellow bar below the window in the part of the bus reserved for the disabled, while their other was dug deeply into the opposite pockets of their big brother’s jacket.  This had become their routine, their tradition, their magical way of braving the over-crowded and sometimes deeply moody atmosphere of the 159 in the morning, the twins sharing their gazillion private jokes, in which no more than a look or a grunt would result in a cackling and symphonic duet of 8-year old hilarity.  Rasheed loved this part, because so long as there were no accidents, so long as the bus didn’t break down, this was when he knew the kids would make it to school on time, thereby getting his sequence of daily deadlines off on a good foot.  In spite of the two missed busses, the third one got there in the nick of time.  From here it always felt easy-peasy:  disembark at Jubilee Primary.  Walk/run the remainder of the distance to Brixton Station.  Board the train.  Get off at King’s Cross St Pancras.  Change platforms to the over-ground.  Easy as American pie. And so that day it would be.  But in that moment, his breath no longer was.

In spite of having just lost his phone, Dr Moore didn’t miss a step.  Though he was outraged, though he wanted to shout, Thief! he simply didn’t.  There were too many people.  Though he yearned for the time to report the theft to the authorities, he simply didn’t have it.  He had too many patients to see.  But he fumed with the unfairness of it all.  And when a fellow commuter said, ‘Mate, he just ran off with your phone’, he positively strove to keep from punching the stranger in the face as a well-deserved punishment for stating the bleeding obvious to a man so clearly powerless in the situation.  He instead stared straight ahead, intent upon being one of the lucky few who caught the first bus heading his direction.  Out of the corner of his eye he saw the 168 approach, and by some miracle the driver stopped directly in front of him.  And although he found a seat, and his trip to Camden was smooth and traffic-free, and his transfer to the number 46 took mere seconds, and although he found himself walking up to Kings Cross and St. Pancras only a few minutes later, the cloud above his head felt heavier and heavier with every click, and his blood seemed to rush more quickly with every clack.

Of course she’s standing on the left, Rasheed thought as descended the escalator, staring at his platform, where the sign informed him that his train was due to arrive in exactly one minute, and where the crowd assured him that finding a place was going to be next-to-impossible.  He mustered his nicest sounding, ‘Excuse me’, which just so happened to be his quietest as well, so of course she couldn’t hear him above the hum and echo of voices, trains, and announcements filling her ears.  And by that point they had reached the platform anyway, so Jerome endeavoured to gracefully pass her, but of course he pushed her along the way, and in spite of this really being her fault for not knowing the rules of public transport, he managed to half turn and mutter, ‘Sorry’, as he joined the smallest crowd of savvy commuters who had chosen the spot along the platform upon which they stood because they stood there every day, because they knew that when the train stopped, a pair of doors would meet their weary noses, and there would be no rushing to the left or to the right to get onto the damn train that just carried them to the very places that made them weary to begin with.

Leticia?  Larissa?  No – Lucille?  Dr Moore pressed himself to remember the name of the woman at the front desk, who would at that precise moment undoubtedly be carrying out the unenviable task of explaining his absence – with a massive gap in the way of an explanation – to his patient, who most certainly wouldn’t be giving her an easy time of it.  Linda?  The blessed sound of the approaching train – 22 full minutes later than the one he should have taken – interrupted his thoughts, and in spite of the crowds awaiting the same train, he felt a bit of calm overtake him, assured a place on the train by nature of his secure positioning at the front of one of the crowds surrounding one of those magical places where the doors always end up, and it wasn’t so much the approaching train that calmed him as it was the return to his rhythm, albeit 22 minutes off, that reminded him that all was not lost.

The First Capital Connect train arrived at the platform mere centimetres from where it normally would, but even this lent a fraction of difficulty to Dr Moore’s boarding attempt as he was ever-so-slightly too far to the right, and therefore had to edge uncomfortably close to the stranger on his left in order to board an already-overcrowded car, filled with passengers seemingly sneering at the new boarders for consuming the precious little space remaining (although that was impossible because no one looked directly at anyone else), and for a car that felt full before they boarded, squeezing on an additional 14 people was no small feat, except that it was the same feat they all accomplished every day.  Rasheed pressed his way forward as the beeping and the woman’s canned voice informed that the Doors were closing, and with nothing to hold onto, he pressed his hands flat against the doors in an effort to keep his balance.  He looked up at the names of the stops scrolling past, then he looked down at the mobile phone of another passenger who’d found a blessed space of pole to grasp with his left hand whilst he texted away with his right, and saw the time, and realized he wasn’t late, and felt the rush of anxiety leave his body, overtaken by the confidence of a day well-started.  And in spite of the countless bodies pressed against each other, Dr Moore, who also had both palms pressed against the flat surface of the opposite side of that car, looked down at his shoe and noted that he had indeed fully removed that annoying scuff mark when he left his house.  And just as he looked up from his shoe, Rasheed looked up from his neighbour’s phone, and on that train where no one looks at anyone, Rasheed and Dr Moore – both in the spell that magical moment when one’s tension releases just so, when one’s blood pressure and breathing return to normal – looked at each other, each truly looked into the eyes of the other – and in that tiny, fleeting moment, both were quite at ease.

7 thoughts on “Commute

  1. Alex says:

    So, I finally got to finish this story. Enjoyable reading indeed ma cherie :o) But you still haven’t changed Victoria station to Brixton. An everyday routine walk/run from Tulse Hill Elementary to Victoria is just not possible… XX

  2. Colleen says:

    Wow! You’re an amazing writer. You have no idea how impressed I am. I wasn’t born with the fiction gene. Your descriptions, dialogue, internal monologues, everything is so good. I love this story and those fleeting moments of connection with a stranger always make me feel less alone in the world.

    1. Ann says:

      i dunno about amazing, but you got me blushing 🙂
      and me too…many’s the time it got me through the day.
      thanks for reading me, lady.

  3. ron says:

    ann, once again characters i care about. it is at once the beauty and difficulty of short fiction that so much is left to the readers imagination…you strike a wonderful balance of detail – implication. i am so enjoying reading these stories.

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