So, I pulled myself on the train on Friday morning, shoulders slumped, the anxiety of the things I had screwed up yesterday weighing heavily as usual. Little did I know, that my greatest screw up was yet to reveal itself to me.I got to the barriers at Blackfriars station, and beeped my way through. Except there was no through this time. Instead, there was just some embarassed shuffling out of one London’s longest and most ill-tempered commuter queues, and off to the side to report myself to the guard. They tried the card, and got the same result. Normally, in the event of a ticket malfunction, you then get a quick flick of the wrist, the barriers swing wide and it’s on to the next stage of human degradation. Or the tube as it’s also sometimes known…
…but not today. Today I got sized up. There was a distinct moment of looking me up and down. Eyes crinkled at the edges with the merest of squints. The lips curled slightly. The hands moved to the belt where the radio was in case help needed to be summoned. My amiable, if slightly care-worn, face fell. What had I done now?
Or rather what had I not done? My Oyster card had expired at the stroke of midnight between Thursday and Friday, unbeknownst to me. I hadn’t fed the bureaucratic beast my credit card in time. Never mind, I ventured. There’s a machine just over there, on the other side of the barrier. I have a season ticket, so if you just let me through, I can renew it now. Then we can just put this behind us and get on with our lives. You’ll have the huge amount money I give you for treating me like a battery hen every day (only without the free food and antibiotics) and I’ll continue to lose touch with my emotions as the only way to control the panic induced at being crushed by strangers in a metal cylinder on wheels.
But the beast is getting cranky these days.
‘Do you know just how many young men with difficult family lives and poor housing conditions had dodged their fare recently?’, it asked.
‘Several?’, I ventured.
‘And what’s more, they’re cheeky, and horrible to the staff, and rude to their fellow passengers.’
‘I know,’ I sympathised, ‘Quite often I feel threatened by them on your trains and buses, and they play horrendous music about killing authority figures and degrading women. It’s not on really.’
‘They? What’s this: ‘they?’ business.’
‘Huh?’, I asked.
‘Don’t you mean, I?’
‘Yep. You’re a fare dodger, ergo a reprobate who intended to deprive me of cash and who will now be disproportionately punished.’
‘But you can see me. I’m hitting 30, and I’ve got a job. Look, I’ve got job clothes on. I’m carrying a job bag. I’ve travelled to and from my job on this train for about 7 years on this very trainline, and this is the first time I’ve ever let my ticket expire, and anyway I didn’t get any of those ‘Near Expiry’ messages that normally pop up and…’
‘SILENCE. And while you’re shutting up, give me £20.’
‘£20 pounds. That’s rather a lot, isn’t it? It sounds like a completely arbitrary figure, not mention unjust given that I’m just about to renew my season ticket at that machine just across the barrier. That means you will lose exactly zero money, because I am not trying to scam you like a small number of other people might be. It may also be worth taking into account my seven year record as your customer, during which I have paid roughly £8400 to you in regular installments, and not a single one has been late up to this point. This is despite the fact that my experience using your service was less like public transport, and more like the CIA’s new alternative to water boarding…’
‘Give me £20 pounds, otherwise we will take you to court. Oh, and we’re keeping your details. If this happens two more times throughout your entire life, we will criminalise you.’
‘Oh…well…here you go’, I said. ‘Sorry…’
And, of course, I meant it.