You know when something random catches your eye and you remember, out of nowhere, something you hadn’t thought about for years? Something on twitter just triggered this memory.
I used to go through Tottenham Court Road (we always called it “Tottering Corpse Road”, and my fingers still try to type that, now); and, like London Bridge, it has always been a bit of a nutty station. Too busy, the platforms too small, everyone kind of crammed in there at rush hour. In the years I worked at New Fetter Lane I used to change between the Central and Northern lines there, twice daily.
Anyway, it wasn’t a busy day this time. I think I was on my way in to work and for some reason I was a bit late and the place was quieter than usual. I’m on the platform waiting for my central line train, and there’s half a dozen other people around – suits and briefcases, same as me. The odd newspaper. It’s quiet. A guy appears, just at the entrance to the platform. He appears sideways. In fact, he skids into view. And as he does so he lets out a phrase I will never forget, because he uttered it with such horror. He cries out: “HE’S … THROWING SANDWICHES.”
He’s wearing a suit and looks a smart enough fellow, but he’s not right. He’s terribly agitated. He’s looking back over his shoulder, at – or FOR – something or someone I can’t see. And everything in him is wired. His suit looks slightly dishevelled, as if he’s been running in it. He says it again, towards the platform this time, as if he desperately needs someone to – I dono – just acknowledge that he’s saying something. “HE’S THROWING SANDWICHES.”
Despite the fact that everyone on the platform (including me) has studiously NOT appeared to notice him, we’re all Londoners. All of us have clocked him. There’s the sort of shimmy of nonchalant non-activity you will be familiar with, if you’re a tube regular. The people with papers raise their papers slightly, so any chance of catching the guy’s eye is gone. The people without papers become absorbed in reading the platform adverts, or looking at their nails, or wander very slowly and casually down the platform and away.
Our commuter agitato sort of pulls himself together and comes down onto the platform. He stops by the edge. He’s still looking up the stairs, he’s still bobbing about like a CGI dinosaur, but he’s starting to chill out – or at least he’s starting to realise he doesn’t look chilled out, and to get a bit self-conscious about it. He puts his briefcase down and starts rearranging his clothes. He is indeed a bit untucked and awry, but other than that he seems like the rest of us – in his 30s. Well turned out. Short hair. Well laundered shirt. Once he’s back to normal, the full awareness of the fact that everyone is very deliberately not looking at him sets in. He is the nutter on this particular platform (there is one on every platform), and it is obvious that he feels the burden of his role. He wanders over to where there’s a map and starts staring at it, as if it’s covered in equations which must be solved if he’s to get anywhere.
At this point, another man in a suit appears at the top of the stairs.
He is also in his 30s and appears to be a perfectly normal businessman. He is carrying a sandwich. It is a sandwich from Boots. It is in a little card-and-plastic film wrapper. I cannot see what sort of sandwich it is, but the way he is carrying it – something about the lightness of his grip on it, the slightly wide-legged stance as he stands at the head of the stairs, the very fact he has paused there – the theme from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly might as well be playing.
That man has a sandwich. And something is about to happen.
Our commuter makes a quick sideways head movement. He has seen the other fellow. He redoubles his effort to read the map, as if it is now not only written in equations, it is written in CUNEIFORM. He’s doubled over in front of the map with his face practically pressed to it.
The other man comes down the stairs. His stride is quick and easy. He makes straight for our man. Everyone on the platform is electrified, watching these two, pretending not to. The second man stops a few feet from the first. He throws the sandwich at the first man.
Not at him in the sense of “STITCH THIS” *BANG*. No. At him in the way you might throw a ball to a two-year old. Up goes the sandwich. Our man’s shoulders hunch, as if anticipating a dreadful blow. The sandwich reaches the peak of its arc and comes down, gently. It bounces off our man’s chest and falls to the floor. The second man bends down, picks it up, and … and at this point our fellow scampers along the platform, now desperately trying to get someone – anyone – to acknowledge what is happening to him. “HE’S THROWING SANDWICHES!” he shouts. “FUCK OFF! STOP THROWING SANDWICHES!” – at the man who follows him, silently, relentlessly, at a walking pace, like the Terminator. The Terminator armed with a Boots sandwich.
It has reached the stage where I exchange a little eye roll with a fellow observer.
Sandwich Man again comes near the first chap, and again throws the sandwich in a gentle parabola. At this point, the first dude loses it and launches his briefcase at the head of Sandwich Man, and a full on rubbish pushy-slappy erupts. The sort of fight men who have never, ever thrown a punch have. It’s basically the same fight you see toddlers having, but taller.
At this moment, the train comes, and we all pile on it in a fug of desperate relief, and pull out of the station with the entire carriage lined up against the window watching one man flail with miserable incompetence at another for throwing sandwiches.