London Moments: O, Valiant Knight of Bethnal Green!

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The October night bites. The darkness is set to swallow me whole – and I don’t resist. Bundled up beneath my impossibly thick winter scarf, the shadows offer sanctuary as I slope away from strip lighting and square screens. It’s been a long day, but I’m satisfied. My feet take me towards Farringdon train station, and then away again.

My mouth mutters ‘Chicken burrito please’ and I peel my coat away, planting myself in a seat before my reflection in a window. The guilt pours over me like warm, gooey chocolate pudding. ‘Treat yo self’, I mutter as I scroll through a mindless stream of Facebook posts, hoping for some spark of excitement. The surreal calm that clouds my head leaves me questioning whether it’s action I need, or just bed?

Before I can ponder the possibilities, a thick burrito lands in front of me, tightly wrapped in silver foil. Seven pounds, around half a week’s shopping, squished into one hopelessly delicious wrap. I tear at it shamelessly, as though the veil of darkness were still protecting me. The deeper into the burrito, the messier it becomes. It’s like running down a hill, your speed picks up as you attempt to stay on track, before flailing out of control. Wiping at my chin, I glance behind me. There’s just a man, on his own, lost in his phone. Our anonymity hangs in the air. Turning back to the reflection, deviating in this twilight world, half inside, half out, I see myself, stripped bare.

Pulling my long hair free, to regain some kind of femininity while winding my scarf endlessly back around my neck, I leave the warmth of the burrito shop and stroll into the tube station. The brightness is offensive. My peripheral vision is blurred, but it’s okay. On autopilot now,  the tube arrives and carries me away. I scan all the ads, as though it were the first time, and in an instant am stepping out into Liverpool Street station, before sinking further down, into its belly.

With a soothing whoosh, the Central line train pulls in. I step into the white light of a thinly populated carriage, looking briefly about before sitting in the ‘safe seat’ beside the doors. They beep their worn-out warning and begin to close. In an instant,  a  long-haired man lunges from his rooted stance in the corner, across the carriage, towards the doors. It is a singular, swooping movement – a cross between martial arts’ precision and sheer caveman compulsion. He rams a hooked arm through the closing doors and proceeds to tear them back open. The whole carriage seems to jump in their seats, bewildered and confused. As the doors jerk backwards,  the man pivots, returning to his original position, his hair trailing behind him. In his wake, a red-faced commuter clambers on, muttering a casual ‘thanks’.

I remember to breath, attempting to control my wide-eyed wonder as the red-faced man sits beside me. I look across at his humble hero, whose eyes are now fixed quietly to the floor, his hands held lightly together in front of him as though he were simply minding his own business.

“Do you know him?” I turn and ask, searching for some kind of connection.

“No, not at all!” The red-faced man laughs, as he catches his breath.

“Wow,” I’m struggling to comprehend, “That was a pretty epic save, lucky you!”

“Yeah,  I honestly don’t know if I would have done the same thing for him!” He said.

We both chuckle, his confession adding further weight to my piquing curiosity. I turn back to the long-haired man, intending to absorb all that was previously overlooked.Yes, I’d seen his long brown hair, but nothing else. Now, somehow, I felt an unexpected attraction that seemed to be synced to my heart-beat. He’s stocky, his hands look strong and yet they’re hung together, gently. His beard is suddenly thick, not straggly and his hair is defiantly long, demonstrative of an intriguing mix of strength and sensitivity. He’s not tall but he’s sturdy, with a posture that allows his spirited certainty to breath. I’m aware by now that I’m staring. But I don’t care, I almost urge him to look up from his feet and show me his eyes.

Moments later, he scoops up his laptop laden back pack and glides off at Bethnal Green. He’s shy, I decide, perhaps he was shocked at the boldness of his own action. But what possessed him to react with such ferocity? It’s a daily occurrence, witnessing a would-be passenger’s face drop as the doors slam shut, carrying the oblivious city travelers away. In an underworld of commuters trained in the art of invisibility, where interaction is squeamish and eye contact unfortunate, what compelled him to act with such valiant benevolence?

It was an act of epic heroism and utterly unnecessary kindness, I conclude as I swing away from the tube doors at the next stop. Releasing my hair behind me, I feel mentally refreshed as I climb up through Mile End station, two stairs at a time. I’m excited by this seismic shift in perception, thanks to one almighty action. A brimming sense of possibility propels me forwards, as I dig my mouth into my scarf and breathe through the autumnal chills, striding the rest of the way home.

* Featured image adapted from Flickr: Walt Stoneburner

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