2 December 2001
Every step she takes is a victory of man's despotic rationalisation over his animal instincts and the mucus she can feel solidifying around her nasal hairs turns every inhalation into take off. It's dark still, the kind of darkness you can see through, that melts slowly into recognisable shades of morning like watered-down ink, but even so an unnatural environment to have heaved herself out of bed, scraped the granular residue from her eyes and stumbled into the atmosphere's frigid assault surrounded by.
She took the job in summer when the stillness of the dawn air seemed a pleasant means of easing herself into consciousness, now she's telling herself like a mantra that it's nice to get to lunchtime and have the rest of the day to yourself, to read a book, do some shopping or to sleep. Mainly to sleep.
The cars are gliding past in a steady stream but that's the city for you, out in suburbia there would be absolute silence except for the eerie drone of a trundling milk-float and the faint patter of cats' paws as the kings of the night are sent leaping from their haughty vantage points by some imperceptible trigger and slip from garden to garden. Who knows at what pitch black hour these hollow-eyed figures behind the wheel got up, shaken into wakefulness by ten minutes of angry scrubbing at frosted windscreens with useless strips of hardened rubber.
She knows from experience that momentum alone will not carry her through the swing door and begins to collect her energies for the determined shove whilst trotting up the steps. Although now technically indoors the burst of pallid vapour that expands shapelessly each time she breathes out makes it clear that the temperature of her surroundings hasn't changed as the foyer's broad expanse and polished white floor suck all attempts at heating. It's a far cry from leaving home where the hallways and stairwell provide an acclimatising air-lock of ambient cold between the flat's insular snugness and the ravages of the outside world.
The door's always open, just that one of the three weathered sets, and she wonders whether it stays that way all night or if Tel opens it up every morning after someone has hung around until the last tube's gone and the last train's passed through to seal this barn of cold stone for the night like a grimy mausoleum. Tel's around as usual, pushing cigarette butts and chocolate bar wrappers around the floor with a broom three feet wide. He stops and straightens to watch her traverse the courtyard, she lifts a hand in greeting but says nothing for fear of the icy assault on her lungs that might follow should she part her lips wide enough to speak.
As she approaches her pentagonal shack she fumbles around in her bag with mittened fingers in search of the key, playing the daily game of challenging her impaired dexterity to its limits. Finally she gives in and, rubbing the rough wool across her moist nose one last time, jettisons the gloves into her bag before grasping the key, swiping away the padlock and hauling up the corrugated shutter in a flurry of exertion.
Before anything else she sets up the percolator, thankful that the practicalities of starting work coincide with the means of her continued survival. Only when it is fully up and running does she pull off the woolly hat, letting her hair fall down in untidy clumps which are unceremoniously gathered together and secured behind her head, and shed the layers of insulation that have cocooned her during the journey here. The required green-check shirt she had scooped off the floor and pulled around her the instant she had kicked off the covers but the apron and cap are now plucked off their respective hooks and donned.
A solitary outsider has wandered through the doorway, almost as if by chance, and is now meandering in her direction; it's a young white guy in his twenties, unshaven but wide-eyed as if he'd just stepped out of bed fully clothed but ready for anything or was still buzzing from last night's speed. As he comes near he widens his eyes still further and arches his eyebrows in an enquiring expression but she shakes her head and he wanders away again.
Soon they'll start coming, first in surreptitious ones and twos, then larger groups: waves of men in suits stalking through with po-faced businesswomen, uniformed school-kids careering through in more sociable units, lugging bulging rucksacks like demented snails, and all the other travellers. For now, though, it's quiet; empty, in fact. Tel has retreated to his cupboard whilst the other guy seems to have disappeared back outside and WHSmith remains in obstinate darkness.
The acrid smell of coffee has started to warm her nostrils and, emptying her mouth's current coating of phlegm into the booth's miniature sink, she sets about making a cup. The chemical effect of the first sip of bitter black liquid to slip in through her lips is astounding in the immediacy and extent of the change it induces. Suddenly human, with the tall, warm styrofoam cup nursed by both hands, she gazes around the station, devoid of any life except for a single girl stood in a five-sided cabin at its centre, and begins humming a tune.