The Commuter

by Harriet Weston

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The platform was cold and empty, just as I liked it. No distractions. No delays. With my feet planted firmly, I waited.
           3, 2, 1…
Soft rumblings forewarned the tube’s arrival. The doors opened to a partially filled carriage, the commuters segregated within their own pods, and a metallic voice announced the station. Interrupting the voice was my Transport for London app, beeping at me from my watch to tell me the train had arrived. A quick glance told me the number of the seat I had paid for.
           I sat without another look around me and activated my pod. Immediately the hushed noise around me was silenced by an opaque wall. The pods were a godsend by TfL. When the price of the tube rocketed a decade ago, Londoners demanded more of the service. TfL’s answer was to carve out more lines, specifically for those within the central zones, and to install pod seats. Pods were controlled via an app through a phone or watch and once activated sealed you in from floor to ceiling. It meant that those who had the means paid for privacy, hygiene, and isolation. It was a slice of heaven in an otherwise hellish day.
           Gradually the pods became obsolete as crowds thinned out on the tubes due to rising fees. People, like myself, still cherished the physical cut off, despite the lack of crowds. The smallest noise could set me off and I needed silence. Though not a great way to relax, the pods allowed me additional time to prepare for work. Relaxation was a luxury these days. I had to be ruthless and take time where I could find it.
           I sighed. Another day. Another project.
           The particular project I was working on was a goddamn nuisance. Stress seemed to spill from me, filling up the pod. My shoulders ached. I could have sworn I had shrunk from the amount of tension I had been carrying around.
           Speaking of stress, I checked my phone. My boss hadn’t called to check up on me. I wondered what was holding him up. He usually liked to ping me at least twice on my commute, giving me tasks to complete before arriving to the office. I was on my way to becoming the beta to his alpha. Just a few more months of hard, life-sucking work until I was rewarded with the same hard, life-sucking work on a much higher wage.
           I smiled at the thought.
           The train jolted.
           No! Please don’t—
           My watch beeped. Delay.
           They were rare enough not to warrant my immediate aggression, but I paid through the roof for this service to run on time. I growled, hoping my will would power the train to move faster.
           If I was late by even a minute, my boss would be on my back and my chances of becoming manager would shrink.
           My fingers played with the edges of my coat, anxiously fiddling with a loose thread. What could be holding up the train?
           As the train began to inch forward again, my watch beeped to announce I had received a message from the TfL app.
           Our sincerest apologies for this delay to your commute. Another line has been taken out of service due to an electrical fault. As a result, this train will detour to cover stops on that line. An additional 30 minutes will be added to your commute this morning. We apologise for any inconveniences caused.
An extra thirty minutes!
           I whipped my phone out and called my boss. He didn’t answer. I tried again – nothing.
           Where the hell was he?
           I looked around on instinct. The pod’s walls enclosed around me were stifling, their soft blue not calming me in the slightest. The tension within the pod grew. My breathing became jagged.
           Accessing my pod’s settings, I changed the opaque wall to clear.
           I gasped.
           The carriage was packed with people. It took me a while to adjust to the sight. I hadn’t seen this many people on the tube in years.
           My breathing slowed as I took it in. So many faces. They were covered in dirt, all wearing uniform overalls. I peered at the logo on their chests. TfL maintenance. Probably finishing a night shift.
           I gratefully patted the walls and thanked the TfL gods for the creation of the pod once more. The number of germs they carried could put me out of commission for a week. Or longer!
           My body shook at the thought. Vile.
           Checking my phone for messages, I pondered what to do. Usually I would have tasks to work on, or at least talk projects over with my boss. But he was radio silent.
           I scrolled through notes on my phone, picking the most recent to peruse.
           The crowd in front of me jostled. Glancing up, I caught the eye of an older lady. She gave me a small smile. I blinked at her. Slowly, my lips raised. I hadn’t smiled at a stranger in so long, my face felt like it was cracking.
           The lady turned away as a colleague spoke to her. She laughed, her eyes crinkling with glee. When was the last time I laughed in such a carefree way?
           The fact that I had to question myself meant it had been far too long.
           The maintenance crew were a mixture of ages, the lady being the oldest. I would have placed her between 60 and 70, but that was too old to work, especially in such a manual role.
           I discreetly examined her, my notes forgotten. She was small and her hands gripped a pole to keep her balanced, with pale skin that was hardened and dry with grime. Her face was lined, no doubt from laugh wrinkles. The crow’s feet around her eyes deep. A smile seemed likely to break out at any moment, her lips naturally half-raised in good humour.
           We stopped and more people piled on. It was only for an instant, but I saw her humour slip and fatigue plagued her features.
           Deactivating my pod, I froze as the impact of smells and noises hit me. I pushed through my initial shock, sliding my phone into my pocket, and stood.
           The lady glanced at me in surprise. I gestured to my seat.
           She understood immediately and shook her head.
           A tentative smile forewarned me of a full-blown grin. “Thank you.”
           She sat down, as I stood in her place by the pole. I breathed, trying not to touch anyone. The lady settled into my seat, visibly relaxing as she leaned back. I smiled and stood tall, holding the pole to keep steady.

Harriet Weston is Bristol born and currently living in London as a freelance writer. She has a weakness for science fiction and coffee houses. You can find more of her work here.

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