Commuting in darkness is unnerving because it seems unending, just as commuting in daylight despairs because the promise seems limitless, but luckily in these late winter afternoons everything is bathed in a dull grey glow that exists between these two extremities and excites and inspires nothing.
In this city of devils and angels it can be difficult to differentiate between the two — look the wrong kind in the eyes, I’ve been told, and you may never look anything in the eye the same way again — perhaps that’s why everyone bows their heads and stares into their phones instead. The trick I’ve been told is to look at the shoulders. Devils have sharp points protruding from their backs where wings have been clipped, whereas angels often obscure their wings with long, heavy coats or tuck them through openings in the rear of backpacks they constantly carry.
Euston has two main types of commuters. There are sprinters who stand poised in a central location, their briefcases and bags placed down at their feet, one eye trained at the announcement boards, one ear cocked towards the loudspeakers, ready to run at the first mention of their platform. Then there are sitters. They are more resigned, these are usually the older travellers who can no longer run and leave their seating arrangements to chance and congregate at the edges of the concourse on their knees as if praying. I find myself confusingly half way between and sit half-poised, ready to pounce when the chance presents itself.
I must have drifted off into a sleep lulled by the pre-rush hour white noise of the city when a voice wakes me from above.
‘What fuckin’ century is this?’ she says. ‘Why you don’t have gluten-free?’
‘Please miss do not swear. We serve sausage rolls, cheese and onion pasties and Cornish pasties,’ says another voice from above.
‘I want gluten-free,’ she says again.
‘As I’ve already said miss, we don’t serve gluten-free, just sausage rolls, cheese and onion…’
She looks down at me. ‘Can you fuckin’ believe this?’ she says.
She takes a seat on the floor next to me and crosses her legs, looks up at the bakery booth and gives an exaggerated tut. ‘I mean what fuckin’ century is this? You cannot get gluten-free sausage roll? Sausage in this country shit, no need to add gluten.’
I shrug without making eye contact. ‘I think there’s a gluten-free sandwich shop around the corner,’ I say looking at my shoes.
‘They have sausage rolls?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say.
‘I bet you they do not, that is way though huh? Never getting what you want. Never raining but it shits on fan.’
I glance across quickly, hoping she is looking the other way so we can avoid eye contact but what I see are two beautifully blue, heavily mascaraed eyes.
‘I mean fuck it!’ she says looking straight through me.
Her language seems at odds with her face which looks like it has come freshly airbrushed from the centre of a glossy fashion magazine. She reminds me of a young Kate Moss — all cheek bones and blonde hair — but her accent sounds like it has just landed from somewhere in eastern Europe. She is dressed in a black trouser suit worn over a white blouse and completed by a pair of white Converse All Stars. As I avert my gaze I notice her large bunched up trench coat and backpack on her back.
‘Maybe I give meat up. Maybe it is sign?’ she says.
‘Perhaps,’ I shrug.
‘Sometimes signs come from strange place. Sometimes signs we don’t look for,’ she says.
‘I guess so,’ I say.
‘And in strange shapes,’ she says, ‘Everything should be fuckin’ gluten-free!’ she shouts at the booth again.
I glance up momentarily and everybody is being consumed by phones. Watching these mindless legions, I’m unsure whether anybody would notice if the city were suddenly overrun by a zombie apocalypse — perhaps it already has. It has been a week since I landed my dream job in the big city and the dream is unfolding terribly. I still feel wholly unprepared how to act, look, talk, walk, drink, and breathe around here — each of these things I do awkwardly. I feel like a misplaced a piece of cheap cheese somebody has abandoned on a supermarket shelf full of tall sophisticated designer beers — out of place and sweating and rotting away slowly under bright lights. I take out my phone and feel comforted as its bright screen obliterates life a little.
‘Ladies and gentlemen this is an announcement of information to inform you that all trains through Leighton Buzzard are currently suspended and none will be running due to a person on the tracks. Please see information desk for further information. Please have a pleasant evening. Thank you.’
A huge cloud of dull grey defeat descends on all the waiting passengers. Those who were poised and had woken into a half-sprint suddenly stop sapped of energy, they shuffle in sleepy circles half-dazed with mouths wide open, the ones who prayed at the edges pray no more; some stand up in silence and shuffle out of the station in ragged lines.
‘We go for gluten-free sandwich then,’ she says standing up.
‘Oh, I’m not hungry,’ I say.
‘I did not say you are hungry. But you know gluten-free shop.’
‘But… I’m not sure… I mean… I need to get home.’
‘Train is cancelled. Did you not fuckin’ hear? Anyway this is not date, show me where is shop, pay for food and then you leave.’ She strides off and disappears into a throng.
‘Wait. What do you mean: “pay for food”?’ I say, catching up with her, hemmed in by suited shoulders and backpacks.
‘Well you cannot take without paying, that is wrong.’
‘But you said I was going to pay?’
‘You are not?’
‘Well, no, no I wasn’t.’
‘Not very gentlemanly,’ she turns to me and shakes her head. ‘You are not from here.’
I shake my head.
‘It is clear. It is like looking in window.’
‘You are alive. You are too alive. I give tip. For free. You want to belong? You don’t give fuck and nothing matters. Be dead and you will live longer.’
We walk through sheets of cold, horizontal rain, tripping over umbrella carcasses to reach the sandwich shop. I watch as she constantly hitches up her backpack which I imagine is stuffed with large wings. She ponders over the menu. The menu has only five items on it and an uneasy queue has started tutting like a disapproving chorus behind us.
‘We should hurry up,’ I whisper.
‘Ha! Now you sound like you belong. Always rushing, people always rushing in city,’ she says.
I motion my head towards the orderly queue of disappointment.
‘Fuck them!’ she says.
We find a couple of seats by the window. As she sits down she removes her coat and backpack. I notice the sharp points protruding from her shoulders and immediately look away. I want to leave but I’m scared to move. I focus on the brown melamine table between us where she occasionally places her sandwich on a napkin between bites — it is the only thing that tells me she’s still sitting in front of me.
‘Great fuckin’ sandwich!’ she says to whom I’m unsure but I feel obliged to acknowledge her statement of satisfaction.
‘It’s good that you like it,’ I say.
She forces the sandwich between the table and my eyes. ‘You take bite and enjoy, no bad gluten.’
I shake my head and hear her laugh.
‘What’s funny?’ I ask.
‘What?’ I say looking at the crumbs that have fallen on the table.
‘You don’t look at me since station. You think I am devil?’
‘No, I, I didn’t say…’
‘It is okay.’
‘No, it’s just that.’ I want to raise my head but I just think of those points on her shoulder, of clipped wings.
‘I see in your eyes even if you do not see mine.’
‘It’s just. Well you don’t talk very angel-like exactly.’
‘Not everybody angel or devil here. But who said angel must talk nice?’ she says, ‘Devils have monopoly on language? Fuck devils! You can look. It is okay. Only thing I bite is gluten-free sandwich.’
I inch up my face slowly and discover her beautiful blue eyes again, she twists her neck and her hair motions to the points on the back of her shoulders.
‘This,’ she says, ‘This is second chance. That is why I carry backpack, for when they grow back. Not everybody devil or angel but if you don’t choose, soon somebody choose for you.’
She gives me a white business card with an address in Russell Square on it.
‘What’s this?’ I say taking the card.
‘This somebody else choosing for you. Take before somebody else choose something wrong. And buy backpack and trainers you will need them.’
As she puts her coat and swings her backpack on I notice her shoulders appear larger, more rounded. She walks out of the shop without appearing to walk, but nobody looks up from their phones and notices.
I turn over the business card, finish the gluten-free sandwich she’s left and read the quote: ‘When make your peace with devils, your only worry then is that the angels won’t deliver.’