Basic rules of public transportation; stay on the right of the escalators, don’t make eye contact, don’t leave anything behind. The station is a mix of ancient and new, stone statues and plastic signs, coffee stalls and Gothic arches. I walk past pinstripe warriors, ‘don’t objectify me’ shoes, and the old lady with luggage that weighs more than she does.
I find the quiet carriage, no phones, no music, no talking. Everyone takes a seat as far away from someone else as they can, bags and jackets guarding spare seats like towels on sunbeds. There’s a magazine left on mine, I flick through it. There’s a story about a homeless person written by a homeless person, it starts off slow and the guy turns out to be a stray cat at the end. I feel a little cheated.
“Sorry, please excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, I am so sorry… I’M SORRY!” A man just got on the train; I looked at him and understood instantly why no-one else did. Tramp. In company I would have said ‘homeless person’, but I meant tramp. “I am so sorry. It’s really offensive to share this carriage with me. You have the unfortunate experience of it and for that I am deeply sorry…” He sat down then, looking to see if anyone else would object. He looked from side to side and started to rock the chair. I smiled and I realised I was staring at him. “I’m sorry,” he said again.
“It’s okay… it’s a train. We share it,” I said, reassuringly, nodding, trying not to sound like I did voice-overs for charity ads.
“No. No, it’s not okay. If I was to hit someone, to really hit them, they could hit me back, it would be fair, it would be assault… but this… this smell, it’s like assault. We hit each other… I think that’s what separates us from animals.”
“Oh… okay,” I said, smiling. I pretended to read the magazine again.
“We get angry,” he said, taking a breath. “Humans get angry, assault each other, we have so much… hate. Animals don’t do that… in animal society, they live peacefully. I know this. I lived with monkeys, a monkey family in Peru. They accepted me as their own, no hate, no mistrust, just love.”
“Yes, well…” I wanted to tell him that he probably meant apes, not monkeys.
“YES, you get it? It’s about sex. SEX. We all need to have sex. In animal society, if you see a female and you want to have sex, you have sex, it’s NATURAL, only natural. Here, here it’s unnatural and it causes tension.”
“Okay. That’s complicated…” He was going to follow me. It didn’t matter where my stop was, he would follow me. He would get off and walk with me as I walked, then he would assault me, he would bash me over the head and kick me until I stopped moving. He would then take both £5 notes in my wallet and my Tesco club-card while I was bleeding, give me one last kick and then move off to find drugs or maybe another idiot who would look at him and decide that it was nice to talk.
“No…” he said, pained. “No it’s not… it’s… look at this way. Society, it’s all wrong you see. We want things but we don’t take them. We do things because we’re told we’re supposed to. We don’t tell the truth, we LIE… we aren’t animals.” He looked at me, eyes locked, pleading.
“Okay… but people don’t tell the truth for good reasons sometimes… they’re scared, sometimes it’s rude… society’s rules are there for a reason… sometimes.”
He looked at me, unblinking. “You have a job, don’t you?” he said.
“I had a job once, I worked… do you know the phone directory, the number you call that tells you all the other numbers there are? I worked for them.” His eyes widened and he started breathing excitedly.
“Hmm…?” Hmm. Stupid, stupid bastard. It’s always the same, a yes, a nod, I’m interested in what you are saying and want you to keep talking at me. A lie. What I want to say is that actually, I want to read my magazine about homeless cats, I want to play with my phone, anything but talk to weird tramps about animals, sex and monkeys.
“I was good, really good, then one day… one day this woman started. She was… there were all sorts of things said… she got promoted… she did things, disgusting things, you understand?” I nodded, I couldn’t help it. “So then she starts to go on at me. I’m not good enough; I’m too slow, me! She starts throwing things, getting really aggressive with me. So…I’m not having that, I tell her off, wrote it down in an email, sent if off to the big boss. The next day, I’m the one who is being done for bullying. I’m the one?!” He was agitated, he moved closer to me, as I backed into my seat…
“That sounds really unfair…”
“UNFAIR! Yes… yes… well… well, I don’t work there anymore…”
“Sometimes, sometimes things happen that are really unfair,” I said, slowly.
“Yes…” he said, nodding. The train was at my stop. I got up and so did he. “Yes, that’s true.”
I was walking, I had grabbed my bag and was off the train. Home wasn’t far; if he followed me I would lose him by the ticket barriers. He called out to me, I moved faster. “Wait…” he said, panting. He reached out to me. “You dropped this.” He handed me back a black leather square… my wallet.
“Thank you… I…”
“Thank you for… talking. How do you… I mean, how do you do it? Cope with the lies… everything?”
“I — it’s… not easy.”
“No. No it’s not. Thank you.” He smiled, and pulled his hat firmly over his ears before marching away.
“Thank you…” I said.
Hashim Hassan lives in Aldershot, which is most definitely not London but it isn’t 100 miles away. He spends his working days reluctantly playing with numbers in a spreadsheet and his nights dreaming of abandoning numbers for words and letters. So far he has written only short stories and flash fiction, but he disappears into a room with blue walls to work on his ‘secret’ book project from time to time. His dream is to convince his partner Bekki to play a Dungeons and Dragons game with him, which she has agreed to do only if he ever gets a book published.