The announcer’s voice acts like a starting gun for the well-dressed, middle-aged, suited-and-booted office workers piling through the ticket barrier.
‘Ladies & Gentlemen, the train now approaching platform one’
On your marks.
‘Is the 7.51 Chiltern Railways train’
‘To London Marylebone’
Isotonic sports coffee in hand, we take our marks. Peter the Pin Stripe stands in front of the recently vacated bench, Holly Headphones neatly slots her feet into the faded mark of the largely-ignored yellow line, and I stand facing the fading graffiti mark on the other side of the track, my trusted partner in commuter crime for three years now.
We pretend to look at our phones, appearing nonchalant to the situation unfolding, almost like normal people getting on a normal train for the first time in our lives. But we’re professionals with hundreds of warm-up commutes behind us. We maintain a state of heightened awareness, our peripheral vision finely tuned to notice any new additions to our group, any one attempting to make a false start, anyone trying to gain an unfair advantage.
Just as well, too. Steven the school uniform arrives, over-stepping the mark and standing out of position. My competitors & I unite, signalling our disgust to the imaginary referee in the sky with raised eyebrows and inaudible tutting. Nothing brings people together like a common enemy, and we silently and telepathically agree to crowd him out as soon as the train arrives. It’s not our first rodeo.
Suddenly the train slides into view, shattering any sense of temporary unity as we enter the final straight. Eyes forward. Concentrate. This is important.
The penguin shuffle begins, our brains in overdrive as we calculate the speed of the train and the distance left for it to travel, and what this means for the final resting place of the gold medal button.
Never has a button meant so much to so many, had so much power over our lives. Be the one to touch it and you get free entry, permission from the others to step through the doors unchallenged and take your pick of the remaining seats. The ultimate fastest finger first.
And of course, being the commuter champion I am, the button stops right in line with my already extended finger, a sign of arrogance and confidence that comes with experience, Steven.
But then, disaster strikes.
The button isn’t lighting up. It’s not lighting up! What’s wrong with it?! I’m going to press it anyway. Keep pressing it. Press it harder. My fellow competitors looking at me like I’m at fault, like I’m doing it wrong. I’m not doing it wrong!
One of them is considering leaning in to take over the pressing. Is this a team effort now or a coup? Panic sets in, looking left and right. The other doors are working, people are flooding on to the train. We’re being left behind. We’re being left behind!
The group has no choice. The rulebook is ripped up. We disperse in all directions.
Now we’re running, the race turned on its head with the late comers – including Steven, with his youthful ability to move quickly through puddles without regard for the state of his shoes – now in prime position, picking off the remaining seats whilst us professionals are forced to raise an official appeal to please move down the carriage.
I’m on. At least I’m on. Sure, I’m next to the guy drinking Fosters at 8am. And yeah, he’s staring at me. Quite intently.
But it could be worse, at least it’s only a short journey. Headphones on, volume up. Tomorrow, we race again. I’ll just get there really early.
I really hope you enjoyed this short story whilst on a train to somewhere exciting. If you’d like more stories for your travels, pop your email address into the box on the right to subscribe.