There’s a baby on the Tube. Sitting in a pushchair, cooing away, dribbling down a rattle and grinning at strangers as though we live in a world where not every stranger is a rampant paedophile. It’s placid, it’s cute and it’s happy. Everybody loves a happy baby.
Then it coughs. And not the cough you’d expect from a human that size – the full hack, crackling like an old man 30 fags deep into a 50-a-day habit, with a pipe for pudding.
Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t have the following effect on me: eyes pinging wide in horror, scarf thrust up over my nose and mouth, head darting left and right looking for an escape vector to save me from this tiny package of death on wheels.
These are not normal circumstances, more’s the pity. I’m currently sick as a dog who’s been licking the toilet bowl at the hospice. One of the main effects of the treatment they’re pumping into me is that my immune system is now as useful as tits on a dolphin. Any kind of illness or infection can fell me faster than Noel Edmonds in any kind of public vote.
And as a result I’m now terrified of the London Underground.
A quarter of a century I’ve been regularly riding the old contraption and I’ve always ‘enjoyed’ it. The foibles of my fellow passengers, all their perplexing intolerance and impotent fury, stock me up on chuckles for the day. Against the odds the service has improved remarkably over those two decades, not that I’d suggest nationalising the trains above ground might prove an equivalent shot in the arm or anything.
But now this network of almost-airtight cylinders hurtling through the underworld may as well be transporting me to hell itself. Every sweating office drone, every germ-infested pole and handrail, every coughing baby and every Charing Cross mouse now has the potential to raise my temperature by the single degree that’ll see me scurrying to the nearest hospital to lie down in a nice coma for a few weeks.
I can’t get the Tube in rush hour now so I always get a seat. And there I cower, cracking my neck left and right at every cough and sneeze, desperately praying the fucker spraying the contents of their head around hasn’t addressed it to me. I plot trajectories of germs, wondering how susceptible group A Streptococcus might be to gravity 50 metres beneath ground. Every smell can either be some tit scarfing down a Big Mac or the pungent first knockings of a lower respiratory tract infection being shared generously by someone who just can’t miss that meeting now matter how many of the sick must be sacrificed along the way.
Seeing a homeless person shuffling along the carriage asking for spare change used to be a highlight of a journey for me. Obviously I’m one of those utter bastards who actually gives them money, mainly because they need it more than I do but also for the stares of hatred from other passengers who now look as tight as a cat’s arse. “Don’t you know it just encourages them?” To annoy you on your way to your well-paid job? Wear your empathy with pride, Jesus.
But now these fetid monsters of sickness and grime are the embodiments of the Reaper himself. At the first whiff of stale fags and piss I’m now up like a rocket, hoping my 50/50 choice of left or right doesn’t thrust me up against a shambling, coughing resident of the street who will unwittingly end me. Mate, I was going to give you 25p and pretend to everyone else it was £2. And if he has a dog with him, oh my God I might not even make it to the emergency alarm as it honks up a rat fur-encrusted crisp packet or whatever the poor sod had for dinner.
As a man who can get hot in Helsinki it’s quite an experience being forced to wear a scarf on the Tube to protect me from the germs you people ferry about like P&O. Beneath my scarf and coat, which Mummy makes me wear to keep my chest warm, I’m sweating like the fat man I used to be on the squash court I used to able to run around. The only mitigation is I’m now bald, so the heat can escape out of my shiny dome like steam from a sauna vent.
On the plus side I do look like a Palestinian terrorist, so I can shit a few people up while they try to kill me with their acute viral nasopharyngitis, nasopharyngitis, viral rhinitis, rhinopharyngitis and acute coryza. Each of those means ‘a cold’, which just serves to demonstrate what I’m up against.
But there’s one thing above all that combines all the terrors of the deep into one horrifying, luminous bundle: school kids. I mentioned that I have to avoid rush hour now; that many people packed into an inescapable metal barrel isn’t exactly a health farm. I’m often on the tube with no more than three or four others in my section of carriage.
And as we roll into the station of some monstrously affluent suburb – perhaps I mean Highgate, perhaps I don’t – on rolls a battalion of kids in gilets jaunes, sometimes tethered together, often up to 25 of the little gits marshalled by a sole, dead-eyed adult. On they bustle, surrounding me with coughs and splutters, never fucking sitting still, blocking every exit and causing more carnage than any of their Parisian brethren smearing their shit up the Arc de Triomphe. I only wish this was Paris, so at least I could laugh as both the train and its inhabitants pull into L’Archway in flames. Fucking Paris.
But this is London and it wants me dead. There I sit, taking my medicine in the form of a cascade of infections tumbling into my nose and throat and ensuring I’ll spend Christmas hooked up to beeping machines surrounded by nurses wishing I’d just snuff it so they can get round Auntie Flo’s in time for Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Just like a train pulling into the miserable depths of Morden, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, literally, metaphorically or clinically. The Tube is a living hell for a man in my state and when I close my eyes I see Sadiq Khan dressed like Freddy Krueger. Have you seen Creep? You, my fellow travellers, that’s you to me now.
What hope do I have when even the mighty shield of a blue ‘Please offer me a seat’ badge won’t keep you at bay?