The network exposed in daylight is an oddity; where the Jubilee line breaks cover at Finchley Road, I brace myself for a vulgarity of exposed wires and intertwined tracks, the indignity of seeing the true colours of the trains I travel on. Having relocated my life to the north-west of the city I’m still adjusting, wishing the obvious chaos of city was swathed in shadow and easy to ignore, not left out in the sun like an accusation. The colours of my journeys are now grey and deep maroon, sometimes air-conditioned orange, not the bruised black and blue I always felt at home with. I will admit, though, I get an illicit thrill seeing the dirt and coiled cables in natural light rather than the sodium-strip glare of the tunnels. Like a photograph showing a hint of flesh.
Each morning at Willesden Green, the dead platform opposite stares blankly back at me, within spitting distance but always out of reach. Its twin lurks behind. I feel its presence gently nudging my spine.
Elsewhere on the network you have to strain and struggle with a squinted eye to grab a glimpse of the dead stations, the decommissioned platforms, the branches that withered and died. Subterranean zones of the mind’s dark night, populated by forgotten cockney troglodytes, the murderous sons of unethical surgeons, transatlantic werewolves and ravers trapped after hours. They’re the places that capture the imagination, cinematic, friendly to writers, place-hackers, the swelling multitude obsessed with urban decay.
My useless platforms at Willesden Green are there for all to see, though many don’t, not really. They’re neither used nor in full disrepair. As such, no one cares.
It took me a while to notice them. With no information signs or wasp-coloured warnings, the dead platforms lack context, remain enigmatic and troubling. Best ignored.
There are shuttered gates, just to the left of the beeping Oyster barriers, blocking access to a redundant stairwell leading down to one of the platforms. Every morning I try and picture it thronged with travellers, in outdated clothing, no one fiddling with phones and no tinny noise leaking from their ears. Theses ghosts wait patiently, some read papers, or novels popular at the time. Some simply stand there, and wait.
The most enjoyable part of my commute is Finchley Road. In the morning there’s a kind of quiet desperation as Jubliee and Metropolitan trains race each other on almost-parallel tracks en route to the station, the only useful interchange for many stops. Commuters come crushing in from Wembley, Watford, as far afield as Chesham and Amersham out in Buckinghamshire. Zone 9? A load of rubbish. I see smart, neat women clutching kindles, frustrated that I don’t know what they’re reading. Fat short-breathed businessmen gingerly eye the Met line train, trying to read whether its destination is Aldgate or Baker Street. When the doors hiss open, a mad rush across the platform from one carriage to the other. I’ve seen fists banged on closing doors and heard shrieks of irritation when the timing is off. Beep beep beep the sound of the morning’s failure. Doomed to wait at the platform for another five, six, minutes, the foiled travellers pace back and forth like inmates in a yard, sighing as they thumb their phones, eyes darting back and forth from the information board. I never minded myself. If I miss the connection I can soak up the ambience of the station, watch the orange-jacketed staff mumble into microphones, make decisive hand signals, feel the vigorous ebb and flow of human traffic.
Once I stood at Finchley Road with a five minute wait for my connection while a dishevelled man in a creased suit, eyes flaming with coke, alcohol and a sleepless night, raved and ranted at us, the commuters. Scolded us for our lack of vision, imagination, how we were all just sheep merrily walking into Mammon’s maw. I noticed how his tie hung loose, the knot slack, like in popular American films I’d seen long ago. His skin was greasy and stubble was reclaiming his face. It was 8:45 am and I’d heard the point made before.
I feel a kind of family kinship with my platform. I like to watch the minarets of Central Brent mosque rising up above the line of non-descript buildings, aqua-green and off-white, a kind of toothpaste colour. I read cheery signs for Jewish dating websites and ponder what life is like in such unimaginable places like Queensbury and Stanmore. How your whole life could be spent in a place that, to me, is just a dot on a thick grey line. I stand looking at the decommissioned platforms, watching them, waiting for something to happen. They were there, once, to serve the Metropolitan and Bakerloo lines. Now only a few weeds colonise the concrete. Buddleia makes patient inroads. Green parakeets dart overhead.
Two stops down the line, Japanese knotweed got into West Hampstead and they had to level an entire earth bank, razed it to the ground in terror. That plant doesn’t mess around. I have a strange wish for it to be here, to honour my station with its presence.
As always, the weekend passes, Monday comes too soon, and I’m back at my station, waiting. I have a hot coffee from a franchise outlet in hand. I’m one red stamp away from a freebie. Tomorrow’s treat. A few school kids who must be running late are larking about. A middle-aged woman in what looks like a wig rolls her eyes. Across the tracks, the platforms stay silent.
I board the train, pull the novel I’d bought the day previous out of my backpack and sip my scalding coffee. I look out of the smudged glass at my dead platform, the buddleia swaying a little in the breeze. There’s a man standing there, waiting. I look at him. He’s in his mid-fifties I would guess, hair with a carbon-date of somewhere around 1982, a shabby suit that has a touch of the official to it. He stands there politely, neither smiling nor frowning, his gaze somewhere in the middle distance. An insistent burst of grass forces its way up through a crack in the platform by his left foot. Face up at the window, I try and see if in his hands he holds keys, a clipboard, some notebook or some kind of surveying equipment to justify his presence. But no, he simply holds his hands together and rocks gently back and forth on his heels. I see his lips purse as he begins to whistle the tune of some forgotten pop song.
The train pulls away. I watch the man, still rocking on his heels, until he’s out of sight. I debate whether to jump off at the nest stop, head straight back, somehow break onto the platform, interrogate this interloper. But I have work, and I don’t want to be late. I hear the screech of parakeets somewhere high up in the grey sky. I admire his dedication and know his train will never come.