The light that lit the tunnel grew fainter as the first person stepped onto the Waterloo and City line platform, starting it all again. The clock read 4 MINS.
Hands gripped mobiles and bags. Arms clamped papers and umbrellas, making a calamity of a sudden change in direction. Lines of people drew scrawling, agitated patterns on the platform. Those closest to the tracks stood with knees bent and eyes darting. Had they each, by a blend of good fortune and strong, crafted memory skills, managed to choose the right spot? Sharply, 3 MINS. Time but no room for changing minds. The lines thickened behind them and daylong, fought-for space lost its status as a chief priority. A hundred heads shot the day’s stresses and desires into the air above them to grey the walls and make them murky. 2 MINS. The front line was still, in position. Those behind twitched and peered. Some paced a few steps here and a few steps back. The more choice, the more the panic. Thicker still and the lines wove into a tangled, tight mesh. To see, across the tracks, was a family at breakfast, a child in Nepal, a hotel on a beach at sunset. 1 MIN to go.
At the front, a man tried to blink a new light from his eyes, the effort of which marked a break in his particular spiral of decreasing conviction. Would he get on? Did he have the time to wait another 4 MINS? The swing of his head triggered a Mexican Wave of nose, beard, glasses, lipstick. Bodies followed on automatic until the solid mass had robot-swivelled to face the light. Squinting, blinking, shifting. Some further to the back went on tip-toes as though for a photo. The train curved into view and they were shot, white-faced, framed in black.
The train blocked the wide grins and palm trees as it tore through the vacuum, affirming that the first line had indeed gambled with the skin of their noses. The whoosh, shriek and urgent pound of train on track left them swaying and as it slowed their heads detached from their necks like helium balloons. For a moment they were eyeball to eyeball, head-butting on the ceiling. The train stopped, hailing a jump-reach-thump which brought heads back to shoulders. The task snapped back into focus.
For those who faced the doors the trophy lost its shine the instance it was held. The victory came with the heat of a new challenge: maintaining the title with so many usurpers for neighbours. The doors juddered open in a pull of the wool that unravelled the mesh and the strangers were freed only to bind back together in clumps that forced into the carriages. The marginally perceptible victors led the charge but all contenders were freshly motivated by the prospect of a seat.
To enter was to wedge inside like a 4D puzzle, nose to armpit, employing the flexibility usually reserved for a yoga class. All seats won, the losers stood, irritable and with parts touching. The platform was empty and the train waited for no reason. A last woman ran, crouched and slotted in to render the rest resentful. A man read the paper and in doing so swiped its corners across several faces. Eyes met and one person smiled. The other was caught off-guard and pretended not to see. The first looked down and shifted the position of his feet. Someone coughed, the doors shut and the train pulled them away.