Every inch of space is contested and every empty seat fought for. As precious as ivory comprising an elephant’s tusk, personal space is an extremely rare and precious commodity.
This is London.
Crowds start to form as I stand on Maidenhead’s station platform awaiting a train bound for London Paddington. Even with 10 minutes to spare, people mark their spot on the platform and shuffle forward like a herd of sheep in anticipation of the train’s arrival.
People, in the precise spot the train doors will eventually open, amass row on row, all vying for the slim chance at snatching a seat.
Rubbernecking down the tracks as if a train will magically appear, commuters’ eyes are transfixed on an empty spot far into the distance. Only a quick glimpse at a watch or phone breaks the trance with which they are ensnared. Every second counts; every second matters.
Minutes remain until the train is scheduled to arrive when an unexpected – and uniformly unwanted – message is loudly emitted from the public address system. The five-carriage guest of honour is going to be late once more, and not fashionably so.
Overt displays of displeasure rumble across the ever-increasingly frustrated crowd, whose numbers now far exceed what our tardy, five-carriage friend-turned-foe will be able to accommodate. One man spontaneously developed a fierce twitch, his left eyelid quivering, his entire head shaking uncontrollably. His jugular pronounces its intention, bulging like the Hulk’s muscles when agitated.
It’s as if small pockets of the collective have contracted an isolated airborne version of turrets as profanity is being spewed in an unfettered display of contempt.
But the bevy’s annoyance and anger quickly turns to a uniform and robotic-like readiness at first sight of our late foe, which slowly, and painstakingly, approaches from the distance.
Shoulder to shoulder and toe to heel, the herd inches toward the yellow line in unison. So close to one another, you can pinpoint your neighbour’s breakfast of choice. A brazen bloke has the gall to try cut into the queue but is swiftly brushed aside. Competition for poll position is stiff, but holding your ground takes precedence.
The train doors open and, akin to the rapid rate at which Romans flooded into England during their expansive conquest and great reign over Britain, the collective bundle aboard. A few of the lucky ones, like a king eminently taking his seat on the throne for the first time, claimed the remaining vacant seats.
The rest of us, it seemed, had reverted back to the start.
But instead of on an alfresco platform, we stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder and toe to heel fighting for space aboard our stuffy five-carriage foe that showed up late, unapologetic and remorseless.
For all of its commuting downfalls, I still wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. It’s a city full of life and replete with enigmatic charm. I just wish trains – and their passengers – during rush hour weren’t so callous, crowded and churlish.
What do I expect. After all, this is London.