Man on the Victoria Line

A young man with a backpack pushes past the closing doors at Highbury, a shell shocked look and an upturned nose. An old woman sits to write the address on an envelope. We stand.

Within 30 seconds the man has slowly sunk to his knees at the central pole as though to prostrate: he writhes back and forth on his knees, untucking and re-tucking his shirt, caressing the white gap of his stomach when it comes. The passengers glance at him and each other, none of us knowing if we should react, what to do. My partner and I continue conversation, but we are scared and sad at our helplessness here, not knowing if he is OK or if he is scared too. We pretend to not know and we don’t. He removes a laptop from his backpack and sets it on his chest, his knees, the floor of his ait. He places it on his body in careful manoeuvres, a practised choreography to an end only he knows, a second here and there, a heartbeat. My first thought is of terrorism because why is technology now involved, then guilt, then into the gully of abjection again, the hollowness of my not knowing anything. He pleads the laptop out like a baby to a lifeboat, take this burden of mine, holding it in midair to anyone.

I wish I was dead, expecting the bomb. He seems sated even as his eyes refuse to land on anyone or anything, full steam ahead. His mouth is open just enough to take in quiet, dragging gasps of us, his head rolling little loops on its ball.

When do we help? Does he need it? I resolve to help him to his feet at Kings Cross if he wants it. The tannoy goes and the laptop is quickly packed away, he is on his feet and at the door in seconds. He needed nothing from any of us and is down the tunnel before we speak again.

My partner and I acknowledge it in the walkway, share our concern, I cry for 10 or so seconds, find concourse sandwiches and sushi for the long train home, know already I’ll take his laptop into mine and snap it in the telling.

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