The insult that really sticks out from Saturday’s shift is “Fascist.” I work as a steward, and this particular ten hour shift was at Alexandra Palace for their annual fireworks display. I was inside palm court, enforcing the one way system into the beer festival hall when a petit, attractive woman spat this at me. I turned to my friend shaz who was on the other side of the door and we both creased with laughter; I had also been called “fick” (which I presume means thick) and “bib-wearing cock” but the context in which this particular insult was thrown amused us both more than anything else had in the short time we had known each other.
We agreed, Shaz, myself and a handful of the other stewards I have met over the past month, that the customers were, in two of three cases correct. The one way system was stupid, it was frustrating and I was definitely wearing a bib, but doing what we are told for just above minimum wage hardly makes any of us fascist. By seven thirty, the barrage of insults had become too much and I sneaked outside to watch the fireworks. They left me extremely bitter. I stood behind the few people who had paid for the evenings display, and the vast majority stood on the VIP viewing platform and watched the event through their cameras. The connection is thin, but after witnessing this at countless gigs and street performances, I wonder if most people have lost the ability to enjoy a direct live communion. I wonder if the majority have been pacified by television to the point that they cannot function in the outside world without the safety of a screen to look through. I wonder if this is why theatre is more often a spectacle than an engaging pillar of the community.
It may have been seven hours of work without even mention of a break, but the firework display depressed me as much as its audience. The crackles and the booms of each individual explosion were lost behind Robbie Williams crooning, “Let Me Entertain You”, then some Disney theme tune. The biggest cheer of the evening came when the opening bars of “Thriller” accompanied the display. The music obliterated any chance of community or of shared experience. The oohs and aahs were replaced with the cock sure arrogance of pop stars and false idols. The show, to use Jerzy Grotowski‘s term, was, “Artistic Kleptomania” and the music detracted from the incredible visuals as much as the exploding fireworks detracted from the clarity of the music.
It is strange that community builds in the most unpredictable places, and at times when, although you are unaware, you need it most. Having woken up late, I had not eaten all day, and being the average student, I could not afford to eat. As I covered a friend as he took an unofficial break, the man behind the pasty counter offered me a cup of tea. And then, without him even hearing my stomach rumble, he asked me what pasty I wanted, free of charge.
“A steak slice would be unbelievably good right now.”
“Sure.” Said with the shortest of smiles. He had no idea how much he was helping me, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that to get through the last few hours I had been eating sugar out of the packets. So instead, I said this;
“You have no idea how unbelievably grateful I am for this. This is amazing.”
“I was a steward once,” he said. “it was shit.”
He passed me the pasty and I realised that we were all in this together. Every person in this building wearing a shirt and tie formed a community on one simple fact that only we truly knew, because we had to keep this from the public at all costs: We fucking hate this job, but we need the money.
The shift passed a whole lot quicker after eating, and half an hour later than scheduled, I signed out and headed outside the palace. I walked to the station as the bus was packed, and was on the Piccadilly line for twelve o clock. Half an hour behind schedule. Before now, before twelve hours on my feet, I hadn’t realised how comfortable the tube was. There and then in my half full carriage my body was in ecstasy. At each stop I would jerk awake, and after three stops I realised this pattern and let myself drift into slumber, until I had to change, and then alight at waterloo for my train. I missed my train, by about two minutes, and I hung around in the steely dark cage of waterloo for twenty minutes for the next one. My stomach was stabbing at me now, the pasty had been digested hours ago and I knew a shepherds pie, a sofa, and my two best friends and girlfriend were waiting for me just two stops away. I couldn’t afford burger king. I would have killed for a burger king.
Platform 13 flashed up, In my own little world with my noise cancelling headphones I made my way to the train thinking, what’s all this superstition around 13? And ladders? And I thought other half baked thoughts to forget that I was not at home.
Departure was at 1.05, it was 1.00, and I was sat next to the radiator and it was blaring heat directly in my face. It’s okay I thought, ill be home in fifteen minutes.
1.04 came, and a lady sat next to me eating burger king. At this point I was ready to cry, its okay, ill be home in…hmm…..11 minutes!
1.20 came. We hadn’t moved.
1.21. I stood up, excuse me I said, I can’t sit next to this radiator any longer.
1.30. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I apologise for the delay, there is a signalling failure between Queenstown Road and Clapham Junction, We will update you as soon as we know any more.”
A collective groan filled the carriage, and I took a walk, the smell of burger king was too much, so I walked down the platform, found myself a spot on the floor next to the first class compartment and rested my numb legs.
1.50. I rolled a cigarette. By the time I had smoked this the train would be moving, or at the very least we would have a projected time of departure. The conductor walked past, a gentleman in his late fifties with a heavy dutch accent. A man in a beige leather jacket, (The Jacketed Man) walked after him.
“Mate. Can you fucking tell me what time this train is leaving. People want to know, why aren’t you telling anybody any-fucking-thing.”
“I am sorry, I really am - this is my train home too. I don’t know when it is leaving, I will let you know when I am aware.”
And this was the strange thing, instead of the Jacketed Man kicking off, he placed his arm on the conductors and said, “I’m sorry mate, it’s been a long day and I had a fight with the missus and I just want to get home.”
We were all in this together, it turned out.
I talked to the Jacketed Man, I told him about my shift and he sympathised with me, he said, “fuckin ell you must be knackered”
“Yeah, it’s all right though,” I let him know, “when I get back im just going to sleep through Sunday.”
“I wish I could, I’ve got football.”
“A Match, or training?”
“A match, but its only poncey Sunday league so I might just fuck it off.”
I didn’t know how to reply to this, it would mean a lot to me to play in a Sunday league, and I’m sure it meant a lot to him, otherwise, why would he be fretting? It never amazes me how, (and I am guilty of doing this myself) people find it necessary to impress total strangers: single serving friends.
2.20. We are not in this all together, well, they may be, but I am outside underneath the London Eye looking for a bus. After ten minutes I realise they all finished twenty minutes ago and I run back to the station and on to the train. I can wait.
2.35. As I smoke off the carriage I hear,
“Oi. You can’t smoke that.” I carry on smoking, he isn’t wearing a uniform. He swaggers from his double doors to mine and breathes onto my face, “You can’t smoke that. Unless you have a smoke for me.”
2.40. He seems quite a nice guy, I have to make a weak judgement because I can’t hold a conversation with him, all his energy is focused on standing upright and rolling the cigarette. In his state, a momentous task. I had asked him his name, he replied, I am Turkish, so whether that is his name or not, he will forever be known to me as The Turk.
2.55. The Turk turns out to be not that nice. Less hilariously sarcastic gentleman, more worryingly sodomistic lager lout. “Oi sweetheart,” he croons, quite obviously not at me, “you as lovely legs. You got Facebook? Wanna go, (he raises his hands to his mouth) for a drink some time yeah?”
3.00. Another cigarette, another stranger. This gentleman, as he informed me with delight, was fifty two today, and what a day he had had. He had come from Twickenham, where had had watched the rugby, (and so he will be know as Rugby Man) and had been drinking all day since in central. He was a true gentleman, even when echoing the sentiments of the Turk, which he did accidentally and constantly:
TURK: You as to have Facebook, some pictures of those lovely legs.
LEGGY GIRL: I don’t.
TURK: Am I annoyin you?
LEGGY GIRL: A bit, yes.
TURK: that’s the price you pay, innit. That’s the price you pay for being so sexy, you with me?”
RUGBY MAN: It is true. You do have smashing legs.
The girl smiled. It turns out that on your birthday you really can get away with anything.
3.20. I am off the train, I am quite close to tears and I am considering walking home. I text my flatmates and they have sorted out a route home for me, take the blah blah from blah, change at blah, then change at blah and alight at I have no idea.
3.25. Waiting for bus.
3.40. Fuck this. I sprint back into the station and find that everybody is being shepherded back on the train. I sprint and before the first doors I hear a familiar voice gently heckling, “quickly now everyone, we’re going to move you know.”
I smiled very broadly, and so did the Rugby Man.
“My friend!” He beamed, “Where have you been?”
I explained my moments of doubt and he began to laugh and sway on one foot. I had been on and off my feet for near eighteen hours, and I couldn’t help but smile back. As people piled on the train, The Jacketed Man came on. He smiled,
“I thought you’d abandoned ship…” and he was interrupted by a flurry of blonde,
“You don’t say one fucking word to me.”
“The wife.” he said, “Married life is bliss.”
As if the party was not complete, the final person to stagger on was The Turk, who incredibly was already acquainted with the Rugby Man. A drunken embrace between them and then the doors closed. We talked, of what I have no idea because I was vibrating with relief and then, incredibly, the train started to move.
“Wheeaaay!!” sounded the cheer, not just from myself, The Turk, Rugby Man and The Jacketed Man stood in the doorway, but spontaneously from the entire carriage. When we stopped in Vauxhall we all sang happy birthday to the Rugby Man, every tired soul in the carriage. The Turk followed this by shouting, “speech” repeatedly until Rugby Man stabled himself by leaning on a chair and made his profound statement:
“When I get home, I am going to drink a bottle of wine.”
The cheer that followed this was louder than any before. It woke somebody. Stumbling into the circle created by this story’s protagonists: Enter Tracksuited Youth.
“Fuck me, you look bleary eyed” Said Jacketed Man.
“I’ve been asleep. I was meant to get to waterloo. Are we in Southampton?”
He had slept through it all, he had slept through it all and more. He had been asleep on that train since eleven o clock, and had been to Reading and back unconscious. It wasn’t strange on a night like tonight, it was heroic. Deservedly, Tracksuited Youth got a handshake from each of us in the doorway.
I left, with Tracksuited Youth into Clapham, after smiling broadly goodnight to the carriage and its unique, indescribable atmosphere. Walking the tunnel alone, reality and sobriety dawned on my friend,
“I need to get a night bus to Paddington, ah man, this is one to tell the kids one day!”
I laughed, I told him he was a nut job and then saw that platform 10, at 4.50, there was a train to Victoria.
“You could get a bus from there no problem mate,” I told him.
“I don’t have a ticket, only oyster.”
“Have my ticket.”
“You’re a fuckin hero.” and with that we shook hands and went our separate ways. It didn’t occur to him that he wouldn’t need a ticket, nor to me, giving him the ticket just felt like the most ‘right’ thing I had ever done. It was the weirdest night of my life.
I don’t know who they are, I don’t know their names and within a few days I will forget their faces, but I will never forget that evening. I will never forget the unison that I thought fast paced London life had made impossible. I’ll never forget my single serving community.