It is 8:29am, I have a suitcase and laptop case and I am catching the train to Waterloo, the opposite direction to my usual routine. This is new territory for me. No longer the fresh salmon leaping freely against the flow of this raging commuters’ torrent, I am now a common sardine waiting to be packed into an oily tin heading for the big smoke. I am not in my element as shoals of umbrella-laden piranhas patrol the platform, I am uneasy. That I have not been torn to shreds as the train pulls in is remarkable in itself.

Having fatally misjudged the positioning of the train doors, I entered the carriage in 23,682nd position out of a possible 23,682 and earned myself pride of place: half wrapped around the central holding pole, with the dulcet tones of some 78 kazillion decibel hard house sounds inches from my right ear and a luxurious leather briefcase engaging in unsolicited flirtatious activity with my posterior. Only 32 years to go until I can draw my pension, woot woot…

By 8:38am, as the train drew into Queenstown Road station, I was preparing my insanity plea for my projected defence against 23,681 counts of Mass Homicide With Nokia E65. Just as I was concluding my case with an emphatic ‘Wot-evah, dem all deserved it, innit?’, the doors opened and a ray of sunshine pierced through the storm clouds as an angel squeezed past the peasant hordes and took her 17 square inches of commuter allocation opposite me.

She was pretty in a simple and understated manner, with looks that attract a second glance a full ten seconds after the first, and a good many thereafter, but with neither lust nor leer. As she too sought shelter from the early morning madness, she gripped the orange pole just above my hand, looked at me, smiled sweetly and opened her Lonely Planet to Berlin.

As I half closed my eyes, her delicate floral perfume and wispy golden locks transported me momentarily to a safe haven of peace and calm, a beautiful oasis of tranquility.

Then, the unthinkable. Delicately balancing her book in her left hand, she slowly extended the exquisitely manicured index finger of her other hand and plunged it without hesitation deep into her right nostril. Trying not to think of hot knives and butter, I stood stunned, transfixed and very nearly tearful as I watched this raw commuter wildlife documentary unfold. My oasis of calm was battered to the ground by the wildest of desert storms.

Foraging for an eternity with the wild abandon of an award-winning truffle-hunting pig, the hungry digit eventually emerged triumphantly with a fragrant trophy delicately perched on its tip. With the same distracted expression she had worn throughout the excavation, the prize was cruelly discarded to the floor with a deft flick of her thumb. Just like that.

The mining operation having duly been conducted and completed with the military precision it required, she re-entered the land of the living and looked up. Straight into my eyes.

It is hard to say which of our faces achieved a deeper pantone of red, so fleeting was the moment of mutual realisation, shock and, ultimately, horror. As our respective sets of eyes developed an instant and quite possibly fatal allergy to one other, one final unspoken conversation played itself out in that last parting glance. ‘I’m sorry…’, her anguished eyelashes fluttered in a silent apology to my heartbroken ‘Why?’.

We are not always what we seem.

[Author’s note, 12 years on: of all the love-of-my-life near misses I have had to date, this is still the one that traumatises me the most… WHY?]

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