Who can say how it happened, but the woman on my left wants to talk about relationships. ‘You have to give people their freedom, don’t you?’ she says. ‘Sorry?’ I reply. ‘In relationships, you have to give people some space. You can’t just be with them all the time.’
I smile but don’t say anything. Like anyone on an East London Line train, when I see a seat, I grab it. There’s no time to check out the people sitting in the seats on either side of your space. Unless they are bleeding from the ears and holding sharpened knitting needles, you park your posterior. Sometimes, when it’s too late, you realise you’ve been hasty and that the person next to you is not going to be leafing through a paperback or playing Nintendo, but will be a more troubling fellow passenger. In this case, one whose shoulders heave with quivering sobs.
That said, which user of the East London Line doesn’t sob a little at the prospect of the lunatic interchange with the Jubilee Line at Canada Water? But the woman doesn’t get off at Canada Water. She stays on, stops sobbing for a moment, turns to the woman on her left and with a tremulous voice says: ‘I just don’t know what to do about Simon.’ ‘Susan,’ the second women says urgently, ‘listen to me. I’m your best friend. You’re not thinking about the real Simon, you’re creating an ideal Simon. But you’re not going out with an ideal Simon. There is no ideal Simon. You are going out with the real Simon. And Susan…’ ‘Yes?’ Susan sobs. ‘The real Simon isn’t very nice.’ As the real Simon isn’t here, I don’t know if this is true or not. Susan turns back towards me. I look at her friend, but she scowls and seems to have taken against me even though we’ve never met before. And, at least from the sound of him, I’m a much nicer person than Simon.
‘You’re a man,’ says Susan. ‘What do you think? I really want your advice.’ The best advice I have ever been given, apart from don’t eat green saveloys and avoid Ickenham if you can, is never give people advice. So I really don’t want to give Susan any advice about Simon. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘but it’s really none of my business. ‘No, it’s not, is it?’ offers Susan’s friend, shaking her head slowly from side to side in the universally recognised sign for ‘mind your own business’.
But Susan keeps going. ‘He asked my sister out on a date. What kind of man does that?’ Susan’s friend looks over Susan’s shoulder at me as if I am exactly the kind of man who does that. ‘No,’ I admit. ‘That doesn’t sound very good.’ ‘You don’t think he cares about me?’ she says. ‘I don’t know him. I mean, you seem very nice.’ ‘He says he wants his freedom. How much freedom do you need?’ ‘I suppose it’s different for everyone.’ It is now clear that everyone else on the train, apart from Susan’s friend, is beginning to enjoy this encounter. Their faces are communicating two emotions. The first: I’m really glad this isn’t happening to me. The second: I am even gladder that it is happening to you. ‘If you were me,’ Susan now demands, ‘would you leave him?’ The rest of the carriage falls silent, and looks at me for the response. ‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘I suppose I would.’
Susan breaks into fresh sobs. Susan’s friend looks at me with contempt and mouths the words ‘Happy now?’ Somewhere in this city, Simon is having a great night out.
Also not recommended: four other East London Line letdowns
2008, Liverpool Street
Things start with a bang when engineers ‘drop’ a bridge on to a line out of Liverpool Street, showering the tracks below with debris, closing the station and stranding thousands. TfL calls it ‘a unique event that we want to ensure cannot be repeated on any other bridge installation’.
2010, Shoreditch High Street
The East London Line opens! Shoreditch moves from Zone 2 to Zone 1 – adding 50p to most journeys from outer London. TfL placates passengers by explaining that this is to get more money.
2010, Dalston Junction
The first ever train rolls in, carrying a troupe of Indian dancers and Boris Johnson, apparently about to do the full Bollywood – providing a test for the station’s emergency evacuation procedures.
2011, Honor Oak Park
Work finally finishes on repairing the landslide at Honor Oak Park that took engineers by surprise, happening as it did at a station previously only noteworthy for the, er, great.