Strangers on the Train by Abiola Oni

A journey through central London by tube, full of flashbacks and loss, as well as the shadow of Lagos, and a meditation on relationships with strangers.



‘You alright, sir?’ the tube attendant asks.
‘Yes, thanks very much,’ he replies.
The attendant nods and darts off just as the train doors snap shut.
Crisp checked shirt tucked into straight fitted camel trousers. Well-cut navy coat, unbuttoned. Burberry scarf fastened around his neck, parting on the left side of his neat kinky black hair. Sunglasses.
He settles down and takes a bite of the baguette he has brought on the train with him. He normally does not eat on the tube, hates to think people are staring at his mouth as he chews, but he is starving. He makes a face. Mustard. He is almost certain he asked them to skip it.
He finishes the baguette and folds the four corners of its wrapper inwards until there are none left to fold. He turns to the person on his right, the unnerving whooshing of their train blazing past another almost drowns out his request.
‘Can you throw this away for me please?’
‘Um…yeah, sure.’ she says. She seems uncertain but takes it from him anyway. Her perfume is very strong, he can taste it at the back of his throat.
The train continues to snake towards central London from Knightsbridge where he boarded, its rhythmic swaying enticing him. He soon begins to move in harmony with the train, softly at first, he appears no different than anyone else, their movements being cajoled by the train. Soon though, his swaying becomes exaggerated. Back and forth. Back and forth. People stare at first but quickly lose interest and continue with mundane activities: reading books, listening intently to music, staring hard at nothing. Stranger things have happened on the tube. He stops swaying and adjusts his sunglasses as the train slows down.
‘This is Leicester square. Change here for the Northern line,’ a voice booms over the tannoy. Passengers surge out of the train and others climb on, taking their places, as if orchestrated.
Leicester Square. Sunny Sundays in Leicester Square. Father.
As a child, he only saw his father once a month, courtesy of the new wife, and always on a Sunday. His father loved cinema and so every visit was spent at The Apollo, followed by ice cream and people-watching in Leicester Place. Since its unveiling the year before, they always sat on the park bench closest to Charlie Chaplin. Pigeons cooing as they pecked at crumbs his father had scattered on the ground, he would recline and look up at the sky, undisturbed by the rays of the sun. His father would be rambling on about the film they had just seen, dissecting every scene, comparing it to the one they had seen the month before, while he craned his face towards the warm sun, imagining what Leicester square must have been like in the days Mr Chaplin walked its streets. He was not quite as keen on cinema as his father but anything was better than listening to his mother sobbing at home. The divorce had broken her, mentally. His mother would reveal this to him years later, when he visited her at the institution with Ola.
The train doors snap shut. The spaces around him fill up and he bounces lightly as their collective weight hits the seats. He marvels at the music of foreign tongue all around him.
Doesn’t anyone speak English anymore?
He doesn’t particularly care though, it makes him feel cosmopolitan. Amongst the cacophony of languages, one stands out – man and a woman, farther down the carriage, speaking to each other rapidly. He tries to guess where they are from. Spanish? Portuguese? He isn’t very good with languages. He strains to hear, in hope that more words might leap above the rattling train and mean something.
He is certain that word means Sunday in both languages.
The train continues along its path, he continues the rocking motion. He is suddenly aware that he feels very hot. He peels off his coat, unaware that he has dropped its belt in the process.
‘You dropped this.’ A man taps him to draw his attention and places it in his hand.
‘Cheers,’ he says and adds, ‘do you have the time please?’
‘Yeah, half three.’
He nods his appreciation.
Half tree – Irish. The wet weekend in Dublin. Ola. I love you but I can’t do this anymore. I’m moving back to Lagos.
She placed the ring in his palm. He grabbed her fingers and squeezed them, he couldn’t let go. How could she leave him now? How could she leave when he needed her the most? He wouldn’t let go. And then she screamed. It vibrated from deep in her throat, blood curdling, the memory of it makes him sick, even now. He had finally broken her resolve, to never let him see her cry, but it was his heart that was broken. He shivers, he hasn’t thought about that moment in months.
‘This is Holborn. Change here for the Central line.’
He loves being on the tube, even though he is sure he is the only one who feels this way. He never gets on at rush hour—that would be unbearable—but he loves the humanity of it. The tube was like blood, coursing through the veins of the city, paralysing the city when its workers were on strike, as they often were. He loves the idea that at this moment, all these people around him are dependent on it to take them where they need to be: to loved ones, to work, to play, and for him, to mocking silence of his flat. He suspects that he loves being on the tube because it’s the only time he spends with people who are aren’t paid to spend time with him. They are all riding along together, sometimes in complete silence, to their respective fates. He needs them, these strangers on the train. He needs them to remind himself that he is human and alive and that there is a world of people who he will never know, and will quickly forget, but with whom he would have shared this time in their history together, even if, like Ola, they would part ways at the end. So he bumps into people, knowing that they are there. They sometimes hurl abuses at him, words quickly replaced by stammering apologies when they take a good look at him.
But he also needs these strangers in a more urgent way.
‘This is Russell square. Alight here for the British Museum.’
He readies himself to get off.
‘Vood you need a hand?’ He turns to his right. He didn’t notice the heavily scented woman leave. He cannot place this other person’s accent. He considers asking her something else, something to get her to talk a bit longer but he quickly changes his mind. He is tired.
‘No, but, thanks,’ he says.
He is still proud. Though he has heard that will change soon enough.
The train stops and he adjusts his sunglasses. He can feel eyes on his back.
Nothing to see here, ladies and gents.
Or maybe they don’t even care. Maybe he is just used to thinking the worst because, for him, the worst always happens.
His feet find the solid concrete of the platform floor and he is sure he hears a carriage full of people exhaling simultaneously. Probably not – he has heard the paranoia will disappear soon enough.
‘S’cuse me sir, M’name’s Alan…’
Shit. There was probably someone on the platform patting themselves, having done their good deed of the day. It doesn’t matter that as a teenager he and his friends would race up the stairs, all 175 of them, because the loser had to buy everyone drinks. It doesn’t matter that his first kiss with Ola was in the curve in the wall, at the foot of the steps leading to the eastbound platform, where she had pinned him against its slick tiled walls. It doesn’t even matter that it was at this station’s gates that he had said goodbye to his father on that final Sunday, never realising that it would be his last. All that matters is that he is now blind and so everyone must help him, every time. And nothing would change that, not even all the stylish clothes he could buy.
He feels the tube attendant’s hand on his arm.
‘Thanks Alan,’ he sighs. ‘Thanks very much.’

Abiola Oni is a Nigerian writer, living and working in London. She has always loved literature, her earliest memories are of herself curled up on a sofa with an Enid Blyton book. She started with poetry, moved on to short stories, and is currently working on a full length novel. 



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