The girl across the street looks good in those sunglasses; you
wouldn't know she was wearing them to cover a black eye. Her boyfriend
hit her, four days ago, during a drunken argument. The next day they
talked and he cried and said that he was sorry, and he pleaded with her
not to leave him, and she relented because she is scared by the idea of
not being with him. He promised never to hit her again but she still
feels uneasy when they are alone together. In six months the same thing
will happen in spite of his promise, and she will pack her bags and
This morning she is replaying the alcohol-fuelled scene again as she
hurries through the streets, her shoulders brushing against the
shoulders of hurrying strangers. She is wondering if she could have
said something different in the moment before he lashed out. She is
wondering what would have happened if she hadn't been standing so close
to him. She is grateful that the sun is shining and her shades don't
look out of the ordinary, and that the man who sells her coffee at the
corner stand doesn't ask any questions.
The coffee seller has other things on his mind, like the kitten he saw
at the rescue centre at the weekend, the black and white one. He's
wondering if a pet would make his house feel the right size again, and
thinking about what his wife would have said if he had come home with a
cat while she was still alive. He has already picked out the corner he
would use for its bed but is pretending that he hasn't really made a
Before the end of the year the cat will have a name, Trixie, and a
smart red collar with a silver bell. She will have won the hearts of
all his neighbours and claimed their gardens as her jungle territory.
He will feed her scraps from his dinner plate against the vet's advice.
He is looking forward to having something to talk to besides his wife's
grave and the occasional extra-friendly customer.
The woman in the suit who stops to buy tea - black, no sugar - is
looking forward to seeing the man she met at the gym last week. She is
thinking about the conversation they had on the phone two nights ago,
remembering his voice and his lilting accent, and smiling
involuntarily. As she trots down the steps of the Tube station she is
wondering what dress she should wear for their date tonight, trying to
decide what image of herself she should project. Virginal?
The meal will be perfect and they will drink too much wine. He will
tell her that he feels an extraordinary connection with her and she
will feel it too, although the connection is not strong enough to keep
him in her flat for breakfast. He will leave before she wakes up, and
she won't see him again, and she will tell herself that she is not
As she steps onto the train she decides to wear her hair down.
The woman on the seat opposite always holds a book open during her
journey, but she never turns a page. She is worrying about her son, who
did not say a word this morning as she made him get ready for school.
She is trying to remember if she has said anything to make him angry or
upset. She will worry about this for the next three months as the
morning silences continue, convincing herself that her failure to
communicate is a sign that she is a terrible mother.
It will be twenty years before her grown son, with a child of his own,
will tell her about the months of bullying he suffered at school, that
stopped abruptly when the older, bigger boy moved away. She will ask
him why he didn't tell her at the time but he will not be able to offer
her an answer. Later, when she is alone, she will weep as she remembers
the mornings she spent agonising on the way to work.
At the next station there is a man on the platform wearing baggy jeans
and a t-shirt bearing the name of a now-defunct band. As the lights of
the train become visible in the mouth of the tunnel he contemplates
jumping onto the tracks. He wonders what the other people on the
platform would do, if anybody would scream, or try to pull him back. He
looks around but nobody is paying any attention to anybody else; they
are all staring at the curved billboards on the opposite wall. If he
jumped, would anybody notice?
He is not depressed or unhappy, he is just curious. He doesn't wish
himself dead; he will live a long life and raise a large family, and
every time he is at a London Underground station, he will wonder what
the strangers around him would do if he were to jump.
The man who is pushing his way off the train has never thought to pay
this much attention to the people around him, except to notice that
there are too many of them for such a confined space. He is anxious to
get to work, where he has his own desk which is separated from
everybody else's desk by a thin wooden partition that stands
shoulder-high. There are a hundred desks on his floor, the fourteenth,
all split into separate cubicles that look the same from a distance.
Close up you can see that his is personalised, with photographs,
emailed jokes and a plastic alien given to him by his girlfriend,
guarding his computer. In his lunch break he stays at his desk and
surfs the internet, gathering advice from websites on how to further
From nine o'clock to five thirty, one hundred people sit in this room
tapping at keyboards and talking on the telephone to people who are
tapping at keyboards thousands of miles away. At the office Christmas
party they will play a drinking game that involves trying to remember
people's names. One of them will apply for promotion in three months'
time, and will move to a bigger desk in an office with fewer people in
it, where he will have a nicer keyboard attached to a nicer computer. A
year after that he will move to another office with only one other
person in it, and after another year he will have his own office with a
comfy chair, enclosed by glass walls, and while he works a plastic
alien will sit on the edge of his desk, looking out of the window at
the strangers walking past, tiny dots on the streets below.