John Vane’s London Stories: Sleeping man at Brixton station

John Vane’s London Stories: Sleeping man at Brixton station

I boarded the Victoria Line train at Victoria itself and didn’t pay him much attention until we were on our way to Pimlico. It was getting on for noon and the carriage was close to empty. The more I looked at him the more I saw and the more I wondered what would happen next.

He looked very fast asleep. Dozing is not uncommon on the Tube but this was different. I gradually took in what he had with him on, around and beneath the double seat he occupied at the end of the row: the grubby rucksack his head was resting on and another one, maybe two of them, on the floor below. One appeared half crammed into a plastic supermarket mini-shopping trolley. And further back, behind his legs, there was a glimpse of a Waitrose carrier bag.

He didn’t strike me as your usual Waitrose shopper. He did strike me as being uncomfortably positioned, his backside precariously perched at the very edge of the left-hand seat and seemingly only stopped from falling off by his outstretched left leg, which served him as a kind of prop but was as a possible trip hazard to people getting on and off. His right leg was bent into a shape that surely could not be sustained for long. His hands, half clasped together, suggested a slumbering vague state of prayer.

I feared he might he might crash to the carriage floor when the train eased to a halt, but he maintained his precarious posture. At Vauxhall it was the same. Stockwell too. We finally drew into Brixton, the end of the line. The doors opened. The one or two other passengers got off, but I dallied. Perhaps now he would wake. Perhaps I should wake him. I had half a mind to help him in some way if I could, though I have no idea what kind I could have offered.

New people were coming aboard and at any minute the train would commence its northwards return journey all the way to Walthamstow Central. I got up and headed for the open doors opposite the sleeping man. As I passed closer to him his left leg moved – just an inch or two, and quickly, closer to the rest of his body. The rest of him did not even twitch.

What did that sudden movement mean? Perhaps that even when asleep a part of a rough sleeper’s minds is always alert, attuned to possible disturbance, including when aboard a public transport vehicle in service. Perhaps that he had indeed woken, or partly so, when the train came to a lengthy stop. I know only that when I was out on the platform the carriage doors closed again and the train pulled out of the station and that I do not and never will know where the sleeping man got off, or what he did after that, or if he had other belongings, or any family or friends or other place to go, or how it came to be that a Victoria Line Tube carriage was his bed.

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Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

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