Swapsies – Gerald Cole

For an Underground station Putney Bridge is peculiarly ill-placed. For a start it’s around thirty feet up in the air. The District Line, of which it’s part, only becomes subterranean ten minutes or so up the track to Earl’s Court. Between there and here it’s an aerial ride through the rooftops, roof terraces and loft conversions of trendy Fulham. A moment or two southward and it even leaves the tiles and slates behind and sails over the grey waters of the Thames, past flickering bridge struts and glimpses of the river’s broad sweep towards Wandsworth.

No wonder the platform was so bloody cold.

That February, damp, icy blasts funnelled in from the Thames, merging with blasts from above and below in a bone-chilling maelstrom. Even the commuter huddle couldn’t fend off the cold. The waiting room was packed, the windows steamed. Not that I was ever early enough to find a space in there.

It was a poor introduction to London, made worse by the fact that the service was terrible. Endless unexplained delays and cancellations. Sardined carriages. Hours, it seemed, between trains, while the platform filled to bursting and my numbed fingers gave up trying to thumb distracting mobile apps.

I don’t know how many days it had gone on for before I spotted the man.

I say, ‘man’. There was something curiously asexual about the dark scurrying figure in the street below.

Squeezed against the railings in my usual spot, in the frankly non-existent lee of a Tube map, I had a bird’s-eye view of the roadway leading to the station entrance.

At this time of the morning, of course, passers-by were always moving briskly. But this figure seemed to have a special urgency, a visible edge of panic that was completely at odds with his, or her, bulk.

People who are essentially cubic really shouldn’t run. Not that his – we’ll say ‘his’ – progress amounted to that. It was more of a hyperactive waddle, a kind of weaving stumble that seemed to devote as much energy to moving from side to side as it did to going forwards.

The dark clothes – some kind of ankle-length overcoat – and the dark shapeless hat didn’t help, either. They seemed designed to impede movement.

But I was always amazed at how quickly he covered the distance to the station entrance. One moment he’d be waddling down the street, apparently expending huge effort in getting not very far at all. Then suddenly the edge of the platform would cut him off, and he’d have vanished into the station entrance below.

Given the unreliability of the service I could understand his haste – I was Mr Last Minute myself. But at the same time I could see it wasn’t entirely logical. After all, the right train could arrive at any moment. By rushing madly you could reach the platform just as it entered the station. But you could equally well not, and then spend even longer in the freezing cold.

At least, I could.

It was in the second week, when the icy chill turned to snow, that I first noticed the distinction.

Mr Waddle never waited for a train.

Within seconds of him entering the station entrance the overhead board would flicker into life, the rails hum and vibrate. And then round the curve it would come, rattling, swaying, bright-lit, riding an audible surge of relief. And in the rush to squeeze into already crowded carriages all thought of anything else vanished from my mind.

Or, rather, it had. But now, as the snow turned to ice, and the trains had a fresh excuse for delays, I had something else to distract me from the cold and frustration. I started to time Mr Waddle.

On the Tuesday he first appeared in the street below at 8.05am. On Wednesday it was 8.13, on Thursday 7.47 and on Friday – not a good day – it was 8.46.

The number of seconds between his entering the station and the arrival of the first upline train was, in date order: 33, 31, 28 and 19 seconds – though I was jogged on the last one and probably mistimed it.

Does that sound like coincidence to you? I’m an accountant, not a scientist, but I’ve a reasonable understanding of odds. The odds on coincidence seemed unlikely to me.

So what did explain it?

The following weekend was my first free one in London. I sorted out the studio flat my visiting parents called a glorified bedsit, shopped, walked everywhere and relaxed. By the Sunday I’d forgotten Mr Waddle, until the very last moment before I fell asleep.

High up.

The thought popped into my head. He lived high up, high enough to spot the train coming on the other side of the Thames – but close enough to the station to get there in time.

Of course.

So simple. So stupid to have missed it.

A ridiculous wave of relief swept through me. I’d no idea how much I’d brooded on the problem. I slept dreamlessly and well.

But in the morning, crossing the Thames on the narrow foot bridge beside the railway, facing horizontal sleet, I thought again. I could see barely a dozen feet in front of me. In conditions like this how could anyone spot anything across the river, even something the size of a train? My theory was about to be tested.

From my usual place on the platform I had only fleeting views of the street. But my eyes hardly left it. 

This was a nightmare of a morning. The opposite platform barely visible, ice on the track, the wheels of downline trains slipping and squealing as they left. The usual Monday crush seemed thinned and, as it neared 8.50 and nothing had arrived for 40 minutes, more and more commuters gave up the fight and slunk away.

Not even Mr Waddle, it seemed, could beat these odds.

But then, out of the swirling gloom, an orange glow appeared and the flat face of a train materialised. I joined the grateful stampede, but, for once, instead of focussing on squeezing into the carriage, I glanced along the platform.

Just beyond the waiting room, where the stairs rose from the entrance, a dark, blocky figure moved among the jostling commuters. I blinked, and almost missed the train. No one else moved in quite that way. It had to be Mr Waddle.

And he was huge.

I don’t know which surprised me more. His ability to beat the weather. Or his size.

Viewing him from above had obviously confused my sense of proportion. No wonder I’d picked him out. He had to be a good six feet. In every direction.

As we rattled towards Earl’s Court I poked my head out the doors at every stop, but never saw him leave. Soon, the crush marooned me in the centre of the carriage, and I resumed obsessing.

Yes, it was obsessing.

I put it down to anxieties about a new job, fears I’d be sacked if I continued to be late, the disorientation of a new city where I really didn’t know anybody. But that didn’t stop it.

The next day was bright and clear, bitingly cold but, miraculously, with a near normal service. I’d no time to reach my usual spot before a train arrived.

No sign of Mr Waddle, but as we pulled out I couldn’t help noticing that the only apartment blocks nearby that looked tall enough to give good views across the river also seemed too far from the station to make a last minute dash feasible.

The rest of the week was good. Grey skies, bearable cold, work survivable. I dared to suspect I might actually make a go of it.

Then, after an uneventful weekend, the arctic returned. Savage, snow-flecked winds dropped the icy temperatures another ten degrees.

At the station I hunkered down and watched for Mr Waddle. The moment he appeared I sidled to the edge of the platform, and won my first seat since arriving in London.

As standing bodies closed in around me, I felt a burden lift. Why I was so concerned about solving the puzzle? What harm did it do to me, or anyone? People received unexpected, undeserved benefits all the time. All I really needed to do was accept it, and be grateful.

The thought sustained me through a week of irregular service. It almost compensated for the discomfort and delay.

At times I debated whether or not to abandon the station and lurk in the newsagent across the road, watching for Mr Waddle and joining his last minute dash. I was even tempted to confide in fellow travellers. There was a petite brunette whose gratitude I’d dearly love to have earned.

I did neither, of course. My secret was, at best, an amusing observation; at worst, worryingly irrational.

And that’s when my unease returned. What if rationality had nothing to do with it?

Perhaps it was studying the desperate measures of clients at work: near bankrupts who took insane risks, gambling against all logic that their problems could be solved at a stroke.

What if Mr Waddle’s circumstances were so dire, so overwhelming, so impossible to better he decided instead to focus all his attention on one simple goal – catching a Tube train at the right time every morning? What if that sheer concentration of willpower actually worked – if only in this single aspect of his life?

I realised how insane this sounded, but I’d first noticed him because of the panic, the despair he radiated. He obviously wasn’t a happy man, but just as obviously he was an extremely determined one and his determination clearly paid off.

I decided then that I needed to meet him. I’d no idea if I actually would or not. What, after all, could I say? Why would he want to talk to a complete stranger – especially one who might be completely deluded?

But I felt – and I can’t explain it fully – that in some bizarre way I’d contributed to his state by taking advantage of it. My need to believe in his gift had somehow strengthened it. I was involved.

I toyed with the idea of abandoning my one certain train and positioning myself by the stairs to catch him as he appeared. But my punctuality at work was so poor by now I’d risk a lot more than a single train. Then, with the exquisite perversity of British weather, we had a fortnight of unseasonal mildness.

I didn’t forget my obsession, but, with no need to use it, it slipped to the back of my mind. Until, crossing the footbridge one morning, a blizzard descended out of nowhere and a Tube train ground to a halt beside me.

By the time I reached the station I was frozen. Commuters milled in the entrance lobby, questioning flustered staff, who clearly had no idea what was happening. As many people were turning away as were piling through the turnstiles. I joined a crowd clustering by the platform stairs, partly to keep out of the cold but also because I’d spotted the petite brunette. She was standing with a blonde friend.

As I came close I heard them debating whether to risk a bus, and wondered if I dared join in. But, as I reached them, I turned, and saw Mr Waddle. Head down, he swayed through the station entrance and plunged straight towards the turnstiles.

I turned towards the brunette. ‘I wouldn’t bother with the bus,’ I said quickly. ‘The train’ll be here in a few seconds.’

She blinked at me in surprise. Blown it, I thought. She thinks I’m a nutter. But she said, ‘Really?’ And her pale grey eyes took me seriously.

‘Do you work for the Tube?’ asked her friend more suspiciously.

‘It’s just a temporary hiccup,’ I said. ‘You’ll miss it if you wait.’

I glimpsed Mr Waddle squeezing through the turnstile. He barrelled straight towards me.

Two commuters immediately pushed past, blocking my way. Mr Waddle swerved round them and shot up the stairs. My heart thumped.

‘Go,’ I told the girls. ‘Go now.’

Immediately the rattle and hum of a train reverberated through the structure above. There was a surge for the stairs.

Cursing myself for being so slow, I dived through the crush as Mr Waddle vanished from the landing above.

I didn’t catch up with him on the next flight. As I burst onto the platform, the train appeared through a curtain of falling snow. The crowd had swallowed up Mr Waddle.

Swearing in disbelief, I spun round, and immediately collided with the petite brunette. She threw me a puzzled frown as I mumbled an apology. Then the train slid to a halt in front of us. And I saw Mr Waddle.

Just past the waiting room. Further down the platform than I’d ever seen him before. Too far to reach before the train left.

But the train didn’t leave. The doors stayed shut. Worried faces looked up from inside. The waiting commuters tensed and frowned.

I had time.

As I darted away, I heard the brunette speak – to me, I think, but I couldn’t wait. The crowd didn’t part easily. Looks, frowns, a muffled swear word followed me down the platform.

Mr Waddle’s head was still down, but his height made him easy to keep in sight. Ten yards, five, two – I prayed the doors wouldn’t move. Then he was in front of me.

‘Excuse me.’

He didn’t respond. The shapeless hat and a thick scarf hid his face. ‘Excuse me, please.’ Now others were looking round.

My resolution wavered. What if he simply ignored me? He was perfectly entitled to. I felt my face redden. But, then, his head lifted.

I’d expected a face lined with anxiety and strain, haggard, prematurely aged, a face that matched his desperate, panic-filled gait.

This face was bland and square, small, colourless eyes, a pinched nose, a tiny, puckered mouth. A baby face lost in an over-sized adult head. He looked at me so blankly, with such an absence of expression, that I thought for a wild second that he might be blind.

I found myself gushing, ‘I’m sorry to bother you. I just wondered – ’

The train doors rumbled open. The crowd surged. Mr Waddle turned away.

I felt ridiculous – and cheated. As if I’d failed myself, and him.

Without thinking I reached out. My hand snagged his sleeve. Caught in mid-waddle, he started violently. His head twisted towards me.

‘Not the flesh!’

It was a bizarre voice, high-pitched, shrill, almost feminine. But what shocked me more was the change in his face. From blankness it turned instantly to a mask of terrible pain.

Then I realised what he’d said and glanced down. An inch of glistening white skin showed at his wrist.

Did he have some disease, or phobia? Or perhaps just hypersensitivity to cold? Embarrassed, I grasped the sleeve and pushed it down. A fingertip must have brushed his skin.

I’ve had, I think, only two or three electric shocks in my life, none doing too much harm. But the sensation was the same now.

A sudden, rippling charge through my centre, as if my entire body had suddenly been grasped and cracked like a whip, snatching my breath away.

For a confused second, a dull roaring filled my head. I was afraid I’d faint. But as I regained my breath I realised the noise had been the train leaving. The platform was suddenly empty.

I swore at my stupidity. Why had I made this happen today of all days when trains were going to be like hen’s teeth?

I turned towards the notice board. And my whole body seemed to slur, the neurons stuttering a millisecond before they fired. My neck and shoulders ached.

Had I had a stroke?

I felt a stab of fear, and tried again. Now I moved easily, but with much much more effort. First one leg, then the other. Their weight seemed huge. Were my motor functions affected?

But then, spreading slowly like the chill seeping through my long, black, too thin overcoat, I felt a far greater dread.

I would miss the time appointed.

Blood would not flow. There would no reward. Without reward, my faithless, taunting partner would finally leave me for his new boyfriend, and I would be utterly alone. Again.

I would not let that happen. An old determination surged through me, animating my tired limbs, my thick, heavy body.

I heaved myself forward, swaying to the left, swaying to the right.

The noticeboard snapped into focus. Blank. But I could change that. Enough blood-borne energy remained. I paused, centred myself, gathered the thin, bright strands of power. Felt them focus, thicken and spark.

The noticeboard flickered randomly, then settled, character by character. The track hummed.

I breathed in. Safe. Safe in my heavy fleshy prison, until a touch of empathy released me to a new bodily home. But when, when in my pain-filled centuries, would that ever happen?

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