Updated: Sep 7, 2022
As I reached the last four steps leading down to the platform, I noticed a train waiting there as droves of commuters exited and embarked. My lucky day! Then I heard the unmistakable loud pings begin, signalling that the train doors were about to close. So I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do on the Underground (but what every self-respecting Londoner would do) – I ran and dived into the last carriage, getting my whole self onto the train before the third and final ping.
My head swelled with a deep sense of smugness as I surveyed the area for a place to sit. As luck would have it, there was one chair available and I made a beeline for it while concentrating on not smiling or showing any signs of victory. As I reached the vacant chair, I realised that another fellow had the same plan. We glanced at each other momentarily and then back at the seat. I took a step back as if to offer him the space. He did the same thing. The train lurched into action and I grabbed a nearby handrail to stop myself from falling over.
I found myself in one of London’s most awkward situations – two people, one seat, in a culture of politeness. I would not take the seat I decided, on account of the ‘ladies first approach’ being against my feminist principles. The fellow seemed adamant to stand now too, not wanting to be fickle. We both continued to stand, as the empty seat became a weird symbol of illogical politeness. I looked around to see if anyone was watching our psychological battle unfold. Not a single person was looking in our direction. Most had headphones on while they read newspapers or were engrossed in content on their phones. One woman sat quietly with her hands folded and her head down. I decided I was safe from public judgement, as I jumped into the seat and dumped my bag on the floor at my feet. I glanced over to the man, who was now distracted by things on his phone and facing the opposite direction. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, while I was comfy in a seat, I’d lost somehow.
After a couple of stops, the train became busier but not uncomfortably so. I got lost in my mind thinking about how lucky I’d been that morning. I’d managed to get a slightly earlier train from my station in Surrey, than I’d planned. I’d got through all of the entrances and exits without my ticket getting stuck. Throughout my trip I’d escaped hearing a single ‘tut’ aimed at me. I felt invincible.
I was soon distracted from my internal victory parade by the sound of sobbing. While I heard it, I kept my gaze downward. It would be rude to look around to shame the person brave/broken enough to ignore the unspoken rule of maintaining silence on the London Underground. Soon the sobbing turned to wailing. I couldn’t stop myself, I looked up. I noticed that the lady with her hands folded and head down, now had tears streaming down her face as her body shook slightly.
The South African in me immediately wanted to head over and give her a hug. But seven years in England had taught me to hold myself back: 1) because millions of people are unnaturally thrust together on the transport system daily, which doesn’t allow privacy and we should allow people as much space (physical and emotional) as possible 2) because in English culture you don’t touch other people unless it’s absolutely necessary (and invited!) and 3) because us South Africans have no concept of personal boundaries and I’ve slowly developed an understanding of this after being on the receiving end of odd looks, uncomfortable giggles and retracting feet.
The crying continued as we passed two more tube stops. Through the drumming of the train’s motion ‘clack-clack, clack-clack’, her wails seemed to synchronise with it – creating a weird piece of painful music. Eventually, one commuter gave in.
“Are you ok?” asked a Southern English accent.
Though not a single tut or eyeroll was made audible or visible, the judgement was visceral. Our fellow commuters were not pleased with this infringement of the rules.
“I just found out that my partner’s been cheating on me,” responded an accent that sounded American. “And I moved all the way from Canada to be here with him. I don’t know what to do!”
Mysteriously the whole energy of the carriage transformed. You could see faces soften with empathy and memories of past hurts.
“You should chuck him!” called a woman from the far end of the carriage.
“Are you thinking of resolving it?” asked the original inquirer.
“I am,” replied the Canadian, “I love him.”
Almost every person in the carriage let out an audible sigh.
Next a lady a few seats away hopped out of her seat and moved closer to the Canadian.
“My sister had the same thing happen to her, you know. And she forgave him. And then he did it again – didn’t he? And then again. Your fellow is a bass-stid. You can do better.”
“Hear hear,” agreed a gentleman a few seats away.
Soon numerous people in the tube were giving her support and advice. The woman on her left had put down her newspaper and had one arm around the Canadian and was holding her hand with her other hand.
When the train settled at my stop I didn’t want to leave. What would happen? Would she go back to Canada? Would she chuck the guy? Would the carriage join together and find the cheat and tut at him while rolling their eyes? I’ll never know. I climbed up the stairs and hopped on the escalator at Euston Station feeling warm inside. One of the things I love about London, is that despite it being a bustling international city where people stay to themselves and stick to cultural norms, when someone steps out of the hustle and calls for help, people always show up. I’ve had strangers go out of their way to help when I’ve been lost, and I’ve had Londoners physically carry me when I’ve been unwell. No matter how busy people are, when they’re needed, they’re there.
As I reflect back on 2020, I think about how insular I became when things felt hard. I’ve decided that moving into this busy year I’m really going to try to be better in this area. Every time I’ve asked for help, people have showed up, so I shouldn’t be afraid to ask – and I shouldn’t feel a sense of defeat either. When I don’t ask for help, I’m hurting myself and depriving others the opportunity to extend kindness (which helps them feel good too). I’m hoping to turn 2021 into the year of accepting help, showing gratitude and being kind.