January at five-forty-five in the morning. I arrived at Earls Court station to meet the District line train driver. Transport for London had warned me that if I was late he would go. Of course he would – him and his train would leave without me. I was an hour early.
I scanned along a dark and windswept Earls Court Road for somewhere to get breakfast and keep warm. Light spilled onto the wet pavement some fifty metres ahead, a MacDonalds was the only place open. I settled into a seat with a cup of tea and a pancake. That breakfast remains part of a day which in my memory has magical proportions.
People who don’t write occasionally express sympathy that I work alone. I might say there are no office politics or no one nicks your stapler. And then there’s the research. In the name of research I’ve explored a police station, roamed lonely spots by the Thames and threaded my way through tangled graveyards. Soon I’ll be quelling my vertigo and climbing a water tower. During these times – always magical – I am out and about meeting people who do interesting jobs. Poor me.
Sipping tea I scribbled down research questions and observed drivers their hi-vis jerkins over blue London Transport fleeces beginning their day with a McMuffin or some such. I imagined being a train driver, thinking that it would fit well with writing stories, it’s not a job you take home with you, I assumed.
I followed George my driver, a friendly man in his forties, to the eastbound platform where ‘our’ train was due in under a minute. Cutting it fine I thought. But were I about to drive a train carrying over a thousand people I’d be catatonic and unblinking. George was at ease amid the hustle and bustle of the station: already I was in his thrall.
The train arrived and the driver stepped out. The chat between the two men was economic and swift and involved handing over of a key. I hadn’t considered the train needed a key. We climbed in. George stowed his leather bag with his flask and lunch within reach. He inserted the key in the dashboard - I didn’t ask the proper term - and shutting the cab door started the motor and deftly manoeuvred levers and knobs.
‘The doors are closing. This is the Upminster train. Our next stop is West Kensington. Mind the doors.’
My mum would have called George’s voice ‘mellifluous’, I scribbled the word in my notebook. George tells me that he was a newsreader for a London radio station. Their loss I quickly understand. It seems that broadcasting was the perfect training: George addressed hundreds of passengers on the train and on the platform, his mellifluous tones – so reassuring - might have been meant for just one person.
Like me George works alone. I had already interviewed a Northern line driver. The tubes (that’s the tunnels not the trains) take one train each so this driver only caught glimpses of other trains through gaps between the tunnels. Many hours of solitude in the dark had, he said, robbed him of his ability for small talk; any talk. Sometimes I could relate to that.
George - literally – didn’t share this view. The District line, a cut and cover system, is mostly above ground. He demonstrated his sociable self, negotiating the converging rails outside Earls Court, he waved and gestured to the driver of a Wimbledon train going the other way. Their agreement to catch up later was condensed to nods and a tap of a watch.
From George’s commentary (just for me) while we skirted the bottom of gardens and passed thirties semis, I saw how he jigsawed together snatches of life seen en-route to form a narrative – topographically linear - that developed over time. Not far different from what I do. As I listened to his silky public announcements and the more technical and curt exchanges with the controller my fantasy of driving a train driving fizzled out. Never mind the idea of towing all those people in the carriages behind the cab. While waving at an oncoming driver I might overshoot the platform or breeze through a red light.
On our return from Ealing Broadway I got off at Earl’s Court. I lingered on the platform and watched the crowd board George’s train.
‘Mind the doors...’
The doors swished closed. George’s train glided past me. I waited until it slid into the tunnel and I was alone.
The Detective's Daughter by Lesley Thomson is published this month and is available in eBook at 99p from selected retailers for an exclusive period.