Saturday, September 02, 2006

Making a stand

Friday night commuting has its own special qualities. There's something about the end of the week that makes everyone that much keener to get home, to cast off the shackles of working life and relax into the weekend. So yesterday, furiously scribbling in my notebook as we cantered through the Hertfordshire countryside, I found that I was not the only passenger glancing impatiently at my watch every five seconds and wondering why I was not yet home. The journey actually seemed to pass remarkably quickly, as it does when one has one's mind firmly on something else, and as the train pulled out of Stevenage I rose from my seat to retrieve my bag from the overhead shelf, having reached a natural break in my writing. Suddenly I noticed that I was not the only one standing, and looking around me I realised that I had inadverently inserted myself into an orderly queue that had already formed along the carriage ready to get off at the next stop - even though it was at least 5 minutes away.

Sitting myself back down, my bag hugged to my chest, I pondered what it is that makes people get up and stand by the door, or as close to it as they can, when the train is nowhere near stopping. Looking at the composition of the queue, it was a thoroughly representative bunch - businessmen in suits, scruffy-looking media types in jeans, twenty-something women in short skirts, all standing with that expression of grim determination obligatory for entering or exiting a train - "I've got elbows", it seems to say, "and I'm not afraid to use them."

Now I understand the logic behind it - the nearer you are to the doors when they open, the faster you can get out and the likelier you are to avoid getting caught up in a bad tempered jostling mass of humanity trying to force itself through a doorway barely big enough for a single person. The impulse only becomes more insistent if, like me, you have taken pains to identify exactly which set of doors on which carriage stops nearest the exit to the station. But the fact of the matter is, unless you're first or second off - which means being the very first to get to your feet and take up your position - it's going to take ages to even get off the train, and by the time your feet do touch the platform, it will be too late because the first disembarkees from the other carriages will have got there before you anyway.
So you may as well just sit down and enjoy/endure the rest of the journey in comfort, adopting the alternative commuter-getting-off-at-the-next-stop expression, a kind of smug "I'm still sat down and you're not" lop-sided smile.

You'd think that there would be a race to be first in line, that as soon as the train pulled out of the previous stop, passengers would leap from their seats and charge down the aisle towards the door. This does not happen. Instead, it's a kind of collective reflex reaction to the first person (inevitably a middle-aged businessman in a suit) standing up. I know from experience that it's very difficult, once somebody has set the thing off, to resist the impulse to move, just because you don't like anyone to get the better of you. So what happens is that everyone gets up, retrieves their coats and luggage (preferably dragging one or both over the head of the person sitting next to them in the process), and steps determinedly out into the aisle, whereupon they put their bags down so as to cause an obstruction and make absolutely certain no one can get past them. All this, of course, happens without anyone making any kind of eye contact. Then, with impeccable timing, the train grinds to a halt in the middle of the countryside.

After a minute or so, people begin glancing at their watches. Again, this is a kind of domino effect - borne of innate commuter suspicion that everyone else is in on a secret. Some people might start folding papers, emptying pockets, even unpacking and repacking bags - all quite unneccessary, but just to create the impression that they meant to do this all along, which is why they got up. By now, all the empty seats in the carriage have developed hallucenogenic properties - they all seem a lot bigger and more comfortable than in reality, teasing the leg weary commuters with the prospect of exquisite comfort, and maybe even a nap, if they will just sit themselves back down. I always succumb - in fact I don't often get up at all anymore - but the majority just take on an even more resolute expression, fix their eyes on some point in the middle distance, in classic theatrical style, and wait.

Eventually, the train rumbles back to life, and we slide into the station, whereupon the doors open and everyone troops out, hunting though their pockets for tickets and train passes (despite the fact that they have been stood waitng for ages and could very sensibly have found them then). This routine never changes, and in fact I think I would be fairly sad if it did.

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