His train was due to leave at 16.35. It was 16.34 on the digital clock. Stephen started to run.
Across the concourse, through the barriers, down the stairs, his trainers made a hard slapping sound upon the tiles. He passed adverts on the walls: for Venice, insurance, a play, a warning about salt, the London Eye. He passed a man in a suit running down the escalator. He had gingery blonde hair and carried a bright yellow plastic bag and a briefcase. He and Stephen hit the platform at the same time. The train stood at the far end, the rear red lights beaming like a monster in the shadows. The man’s steps sounded behind him. Stephen saw that people still climbing aboard. The clock read 16.36.
Stephen reached the door and jumped inside as the warning beeps sounded. The man had lost ground: he was still at least ten metres behind, his sharp black shoes clacking on the tiles. As the beeps sounded again, Stephen pushed against one of the doors, which shuddered underneath his grip. The man jumped inside. Stephen let go and the doors slid closed. As the man gasped for air, he let his briefcase fall to the floor and placed a hand upon Stephen’s shoulder.
Sometimes, Stephen knew, the driver would speak out over the tannoy asking people not to impede the doors. Not today. The interior of the station reeled away. They entered a tunnel. The windows looked out onto a black wall. They walked into the carriage, the man first, Stephen following. They sat down in a section of four seats, facing each other. Further into the carriage three teenage girls were laughing, probably, it occurred to Stephen, at the two of them. Ordinarily he might have felt embarrassed, but now he didn’t care. He felt slightly high from the run. The train left the tunnel the white daylight flooded the windows.
‘Glad I gave up smoking last month,’ the man said. His eyes were a pale cold blue. A pink flush had risen through his face into his hairline. He was growing bald.
Stephen nodded. He still couldn’t speak.
‘Seriously. A month, two months ago. Never would have made it. That was good time wasn’t it?’ He glanced vaguely at his watch. ‘A minute!’ He reached over and slapped Stephen on the shoulder. ‘We did it, mate!’
‘Yes,’ Stephen said, finally. ‘Didn’t think we would.’
The man placed his carrier bag on the floor between their feet. Stephen noticed that it contained a bottle of champagne.
‘That,’ Stephen said. ‘Is going to explode.’
Stephen mimed the cork exploding in a spume of nuclear proportions. He didn’t know anything about wine, and felt suddenly humiliated in case the bottle hadn’t been champagne at all.
‘Ha ha,’ the man laughed. ‘It’ll take my eye out, yeah.’
They rocked gently in the seats with the motion of the train. The girls burst out laughing again, but this time it didn’t seem connected. It was something else, a joke, or something they had seen from the window. ‘It’s a special weekend…’ the man began, but his mobile began chiming, a tune which Stephen didn’t recognise.
The man began searching his pockets for the phone. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I need to take this.’
Stephen turned away. He knew that after the call the conversation would inevitably drift into awkwardness, that nothing would be the same. But right before he took the call, the man leaned over.
‘I nearly caught you, you know,’ he said. ‘I slipped but you didn’t see it. Coming off that escalator. I’d have had you.’
With that, he answered his phone.
‘Hi Jerry. Yeah. Yeah. The contract went in the post. Yes. I talked to Suzanne about it all.’ He picked up the carrier bag from near Stephen’s feet and placed it on the seat beside him. ‘She’s been briefed. She’s ready for the call.’
Stephen sat back against his seat. The train moved across the river, shrieking upon the rails. The back of his legs ached sharply and his breathing still hadn’t regularised, but he felt content. Pushed in the direction of the wheels circulation, he felt like the extension of its awesome electrical power. The man continued to talk loudly upon his phone. Undoubtedly, he was important, but Stephen had been first to the train.
Later that night, alone in front of his computer, Stephen downloaded a film showing a woman having sex with two men. He watched the images calmly. He had been drinking, but he wasn’t drunk. Someone shouted in the flat next door. Stephen turned up the volume on the speakers. ‘Why did you let this happen?’ he asked. The sound of his voice surprised him. The shouting next door increased: a man repeating the same word, over and over. Stephen started to cry. ‘What did you expect from them? Why did you let them do this? What was it, anyway? Why did you have to leave?’