I am not a man who is easily frightened. To be more precise, I have never been someone who suffers from classical phobias so have no concerns about being in open or closed spaces, nor am I made anxious by being in the company of spiders or mice. I don’t get worried by dreamed-up fears, so street drunks don’t frighten me. I don’t automatically think that a noise in the night means a break-in and, despite the sound of tapping and the annoyance of my wife, I will turn over and go straight back to sleep. Perhaps this approach is the product of a career in medicine. If doctors can’t stay calm in the face of adversity, who can? Possibly because of this background, it came as a great surprise to me recently that this staid ancient should became very anxious during what started as a routine rush-hour journey on the underground
I was on my way to my French class at South Kensington. As usual, the train from Richmond was packed, which meant that last-minute homework had to be done with one hand holding onto a rail, the other onto a book and the rest of me struggling to keep upright. As is my custom, I got off at Barons Court to change from the District line to the Piccadilly line which arrives just a short walk across the platform. Both lines go to South Kensington and the train would be just as packed, but from years of experience I knew it would get me to my destination faster.
There was already something a little odd at the changeover I seemed to be the only person around. And things got even odder. When the Piccadilly line train approached, its normally packed carriages were completely empty. As they passed I noticed that in the first carriage, then in the second, then the third there was not a soul in sight. I assumed that this train was ‘Not in Service’ and would soon accelerate and leave without stopping. But no, it stopped as usual, the doors opened and I got in. I leaned out to hear the loudspeaker reassuringly announce that it would be going as planned and noticed that the message was echoed on the electronic indicator board.
The carriage was indeed empty but just as the doors were closing a second passenger jumped in and sat opposite me. He had a gaunt, unsmiling expression and was wearing tinted glasses.
After a few moments I started up a conversation – what else could one do in these circumstances? We were in agreement – it was very strange that in the middle of the rush-hour the train was not packed with passengers and that whatever the time of day it would anyway be most unusual for there to be only two people in a carriage. And there was a further problem; we could find no plausible explanation for the emptiness. Our ghost train would have gone through at least ten stations before arriving at Barons court; how come it took nobody on board?
Conversation stopped and the train, moving much more slowly than usual, continued on its way and we were soon underground. The journey to the next stop seemed interminable. Suddenly my companion started up again, “I think we have missed Earls Court Station,” adding, “perhaps there has been a deviation.”
For a moment, a frightening and normally unthinkable idea came to mind. We had been kidnapped and the gaunt man was part of a plot. Somehow a ludicrous idea seemed feasible.
Then, within moments, Earls Court arrived, the train stopped and the doors opened. Smiling for the first time, my gaunt-faced companion said goodbye and left the train as new passengers poured in. For them, the rows of empty seats were a bonus. For me, someone who had just been scared out of his wits, the station was a great relief. How the train could have arrived at Barons Court empty still baffles me, as it did the several station staff I asked when I finally got out at South Kensington. And despite all this, I was still in good time for my lesson.