I was making my way to the railway station via the Tube at that time, rather than on foot. I had some still undiagnosed problem with my ankle and I couldn’t manage the half-hour walk without enduring considerable pain and probably further damaging my poor old bones. So I limped along Gray’s Inn Road for ten minutes—it’s a five-minute walk—and got the Tube at Chancery Lane.

Chancery Lane can be a busy station, but it is very quiet at six o’clock on a Saturday morning. I had been hoping that the barriers would be open, because I knew they would be at Newbury Park, where I intended to get off that day, and if they had been open here I could have made the journey without paying. The barriers were closed.

I saw one of those little black mice with bald white tails that infest the whole Underground. I always look out for them. It was scuttling around the concourse beneath the ticket machines. So fast. You can’t see their legs move and their bodies don’t appear to undulate at all, so that they might be on wheels. How do they live? Well people drop a lot of food, throw more or less whole meals away sometimes and they must spill a lot of crumbs. But you never see mice around an abandoned kebab like you see pigeons in the street. They seem to eat what is practically invisible. Clearly they more than get by. It would be impossible to eradicate them. Why would you want to? Charming creatures.

So I tap in and ride down the first set of escalators. I don’t walk, because of the ankle, but I do walk the length of the platform, partly because there are a couple of blokes on the first set of benches and partly because I know that if I get on at the back of the train I will be near the exit when I get off at Newbury Park.

I sit on the end seat and put my bag next to me. All of the seats of these metal benches have arms, which discourages people from sleeping on them, makes it impossible in fact, their primary purpose, no doubt.

I look up at the dot matrix Ceefax-style monitor which tells me that I have about, I think it was, twelve minutes to wait for the next train. These monitors will soon be replaced with what will look more like computer or TV screens, quite pointlessly and at great expense. I get out my book. I am reading Cymbeline in Bertrand Evans’ New English Library edition. Not really a very good edition actually, but Evans writes an interesting introduction. He writes about how Shakespeare manages the play’s multiple ironies; the not-knowings, the characters who keep secrets and those who are kept in the dark. You need to hold these uncertainties and contradictions in your head if you are to appreciate the complexity of this subtle but unlikely drama. No one knows everything except for Jupiter and he is not there. So I am reading Evans’s essay rather than the play itself as yet, although I have read that a number of times before.

I hear all the shouting and swearing from up by the other bench but I do not raise my eyes from my book. I just hope it doesn’t come down my end, but I soon know that it will because he gets nowhere with the two young blokes and I am the only other passenger on the platform.

There is a beggar coming towards me. I can see him out of the corner of my eye. He is wearing a black beanie hat, a lot like my own, pulled down to his eyebrows and he has a red blanket draped over his shoulders like a cape. It is undeniably warm this deep underground, but then I haven’t taken my hat off either. I wonder if he might not think me a homeless man myself as I haven’t shaved for a couple of days and I know I look pretty raggedy, but I am wearing glasses and no homeless men wear glasses. That is just something I have noticed.

I know he is addressing me even when he is ten yards away, but I don’t feel I have to know that, so I pretend that I don’t. I have got to Evans’s account of an argument between Coleridge and Swinburne, although Coleridge was long dead by the time Swinburne wrote, about what Imogen is like. It seems to me that Swinburne is right, which must be a first, but I don’t really remember now what it was all about. The beggar is talking about Boris Johnson, or Boris fucking Johnson, as he never fails to call him.

Eleven fucking years I’ve been like this. Eleven fucking years. I’d like to see Boris fucking Johnson spend twenty-four hours in my shoes, never mind eleven fucking years.

I’m going to omit some of this man’s fuckings and fucks, which will certainly diminish and change the nature of his invective, but I have some hopes of getting this published in a magazine—I might even get my money back—and no editor is going to publish it if every other word is fuck.

Boris fucking Johnson don’t care about people like me.

I think he must have been reading the story that said Boris Johnson had endorsed the Evening Standard’s campaign to end rough sleeping in London. I recognise his talk for the gambit that it is. He might think that I don’t look like a Tory voter and so would be on his side. He might just be happy to start an argument. What I am wondering is, how did he get down here? Did he actually buy a ticket so he could get on the Underground and bother people? Then I remember that the Tube runs all night at the weekend and he might have got on at any station with an open barrier. He’s probably been down here all night, keeping warm.

I know what I look like. A disgrace. A fucking disgrace. I’m ashamed. You might think I’m mad. I’m not mad. I’ll tell you what I am. I’m fucking angry, that’s what I am.

He’s obviously talking to me, but I carry on staring at my book. Just seeing the names. Coleridge. Swinburne. This is meant to be a hint, but some men do not take hints.

Eight and a half years I was in the army. A contract that was. A contract. Until they slung me out for nothing. Fucking Hooray Henrys. That was bollocks.

He says bollocks like it might be spelled barlox and with the stress on the first syllable, a long stress. He says it often. He clearly likes the effect. It is effective. It cuts off the plausibility of contradiction. Ba-a-a-rlox. You can’t simply say, No, it is not barlox. Even if you knew what he was talking about.

Look, I’m wondering if you can help me out. My name’s Jack. What’s your name?

He extends his hand and I shake it.

Jack’s hand is very red I notice. Very red and very warm, almost as if swollen with heat. And there are still traces of home-made tattoos on his fingers, quite faded, not able to stand out against the red and the swelling. I can’t read what the tattoos say. What would a man be happy to have tattooed on his hands for anyone to see at any time? I look at his trimmed beard. He has a stud in his ear, a piece of transparent plastic, faceted to look like a diamond. I am doing what people do, looking for evidence that he is tricking me, that he is a beggar on horseback, that his life is not as desperate as I know it is.

I don’t give him my real name. Not my real real name. I know that in Jack’s world—I can tell from the way he speaks as much as from the state he is in—that only single syllable names are acceptable. I don’t stop to ask myself why I should want to be accepted by this man.

He is saying some more things about the army, not really believable but quite possibly true. He is swearing a lot. He is not a compromised person. This may be a line, but he is saying what he thinks and although I do not feel threatened by him and although he does ask, he is not really asking, he is making a demand. I do manage to look him in the eye and I listen.

So. Can you help me out?

I ain’t got no money.

That is not how I usually speak. I have given him a little ground. I shake my head. As if I regretted my pennilessness. It is in any case a lie. I have got lots of money. Again I marshal the excuses that people make. If I had to give a note to every beggar who asked me for money in London I would need four jobs. These people spend this money on drink and drugs and that will kill them in no time. I have a family.

And someone nicked my fucking tent.

Jack just threw that in while I was thinking. I really am cutting out a lot of his fucks. I know it might not seem like it. I notice that Jack never swears at me for all his swearing and he doesn’t accuse me of talking barlox even when I am. And Jack is ready with a counter to my refusal. An amazing one as it turns out. He knows, he has good reason to know, that many people in London really do not carry money any more. They pay for everything with a card, even for a packet of chewing gum. I got through the barrier with a card.

Where are you going?

He calls me by my name. He’s already shaken my hand for a second time. He’s a salesman, selling his apparent need.


No, no.

He’s impatient with this, like he would be trying to explain something obvious to a stupid person.

I mean which Tube station.

Newbury Park.

He nods.

Well. That is a bit out of my way, but, if I was to come to Newbury Park with you, would you be willing to go to an ATM and get some money out? To give to me.

He really did say this, speaking slowly and clearly as though setting out his terms, offering me a deal. This I had not heard before. I almost smiled at him. The fucking cheek. I gave him a long slow shake of the head which certainly meant that that was absolutely out of the fucking question. He understood that. I wondered if he had ever had any success at all with that one. It occurs to me to speculate why Jack should want so much money. He won’t be hungry. I don’t think homeless people in London go hungry. That’s not an excuse, I really don’t think they do. He doesn’t look like a drunk. What’s he saving for?

I decide to give him my change. I know this isn’t a lot of money. I have notes in my wallet, but I don’t know that I have got a fiver and I don’t even want to give him that. I give him everything from the hip pocket of my leather jacket. It’s all silver and a few coppers.

I can let you have this.

I drop it into his big red hand, that small handful of change.

Jack looks at it. He is not happy. He picks through the coins with his thick finger. I say he is not happy. He is manifestly disgusted.

Ain’t you got no pound coins?

I shake my head. I think he is thinking of giving me this money back. He says pound like parned. No word rhymes with parned, except that every word that Jack says that rhymes with pound would rhyme with parned. He stares at me with contempt.

You looked like a nice geezer as well.

I frankly doubt that I looked like a nice geezer. I do know that this is not Jack negotiating. He’s not trying to persuade me to say, oh here’s ten quid after all, or, yes I will come with you on your fabulous quest to an ATM, so please believe I am the nice geezer you say I once looked like. He is telling me what he thinks of me, insulting me, which people so rarely do to your face.

My mind wanders now to later in the day, or to a later day and I might ask myself how Jack is and what he is doing, because he lives his rough, improvised life all of the time, not only when he is bothering me, but I know I will not do that. I will forget him entirely. Jack’s life must be largely composed of these inconsequential relationships lasting minutes. Who else lives a life like that? I go back to staring at my book. Coleridge. Swinburne.

What are you reading?

He’s given up trying to chisel money out of me now. How mad it would seem to him if I quickly rehearsed the dispute between these two poets about the value of Imogen and her wholly unbelievable relationship with her crazy father, although the play is full of tramps, runaways, vagabonds, outcasts with nowhere to go. I close the book and hand it to him.

It’s a bit tatty this copy and its white cover is dirty, certainly. I did not buy it new. It will have its very modest price pencilled inside, in a corner of the title page. I might have got it from a charity shop. The illustration on the cover is of Imogen holding a naked sword. Jack looks at it, taking it in. Then he says, Shakespeare.

Like it was the worst word. As he had said Boris fucking Johnson. He looks at me now as if he has really seen through me, found me out.

I tell him that he does not know what he is talking about, even though he has only said that one word.

He doesn’t hand the book back. He throws it away from him and it slides along the platform and bounces onto the tracks. I don’t think he meant for that to happen. I think he had forgotten where he was for a moment and that throwing the book was bound to end in this disaster. He might have thought he was back in his barracks, humiliating some young squaddie, straight out of grammar school. The book has fallen into the suicide pit. I have heard it called that. Suicide pit, what a name. It’s a sort of ditch below the rails that runs the length of the platform and which might provide a haven for anyone who had fallen on the tracks when the train came. It’s quite deep, although I have seen a mouse run straight up its vertical side. It might be called the suicide pit. It’s one of those things I think I know. I remember being asked which of the three rails is the dangerous one. It is a trick question. The answer is, all of them.

I’m not really that bothered about this book, in that it is not a precious object in itself, although I am now without anything to read on the long journey to my home. And in truth, I don’t mind losing an argument with Jack, I don’t mind standing down in front of him, losing face. But the book has several bookmarks in it. I keep marks on different pages: where I am, my place, but also the page I’m aiming to read to that day, my target and other places I don’t need to explain here. That’s how I am, how I approach my reading. One of the marks is a card with a Hokusai illustration on it and the others are magnetic clips with pictures of dinosaur fossils; a tyrannosaurus skeleton and the skull of a sabre-tooth tiger, not technically a dinosaur at all of course. The point is, that the bookmarks were all gifts from my daughter and I do not care to be without them.

I am pretty tired and I have been slouched on this cramped metal bench, so when I haul myself up on my sore ankle, it is only here that Jack realises what a very big man I am. He is taken aback.

The Tube is an inhuman place. It is too brightly lit and early in the morning for such an encounter as Jack and I are having. When the train emerges from that tunnel it will come howling like a holocaust. Jack doesn’t look that mad or that angry anymore. Cymbeline is not King Lear, despite certain similarities, Imogen is not Cordelia and Jack is not Poor Tom, Kent or the Fool, but I am about to put some dreadful drama into our lives. I look at the monitor, as does Jack, when he sees me looking. Still three minutes.

Now, I tell him, I want that book back. Go and get my book you useless bleeder.


About the Author

Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton, UK. He works in a press cuttings agency in London. Before that he was a teacher and then foreman of a London Underground station. He has two children and lives with his partner in Ipswich. He has had stories published in Stand, Panurge, 3:AM, The Write Launch, Eclectica, Confingo, Here Comes Everyone, Book of Matches, Punt Volat, The Decadent Review, The Cabinet of Heed, Heirlock, The Main Street Rag, The Clackamas Literary Review, The Pearl River Quarterly, Angel Rust, Lunate, Blue Stem and Wraparound South. He has had three stories published in Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar chapbook series. Micro stories have been published by Sledgehammer, Third Wednesday, Palm-Sized Press, 5x5, Star 82, The Ocotillo Review, deathcap, The Westchester Review and Clover & White. A story appeared in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020 volume. His website is and he tweets mostly about stories here: @RobertJStone2.


Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash