Somehow he always found his way onto the margins, the fringes, the edges. The verges where the odds were stacked like a tower of beans.
He’d been fired from his last three attempts at jobs. When the office boss had rubbed him the wrong way, he poured coffee down his back. In the pub where he’d been forced to work til 2am, he peed in the landlady’s tea the next morning and stole his wages from the till, never returning again. The job in the estate agency had lasted two days until a client had been so obnoxious and pinickity about the shade of Magnolia on the walls of a Chelsea flat, he kidnapped the client. Instead of returning her to the office, he drove an hour to a paint merchant in the middle of nowhere, and left her there. That was that.
But the problem with following all your urges was it rarely earned you any money. His notebook of friends with sofas to sleep on was gradually withering down. Without a regular income there was little chance of getting a flatshare, let alone his own place. Even the overemployed were on borrowed money and borrowed time. No matter how hard they slaved away at their jobs – there was never enough.
The cocktails on credit cards, rides in Ubers, weekend city breaks to get away from it all, takeaways and gym memberships to burn off the takeaways all added up. He’d checked out of this way of life long ago. Work didn’t work for him.
It was a soggy sodden day as we walked down the foggy smoggy main road. The traffic was gridlocked. He got a tasteless 99p filter coffee from a cafe and stared out the window.
Technically, now, he had nowhere to go. No place to call home.
All he had was a large rucksack with a few clothes, two dog eared books, a notebook and a tablet. But he had himself. And that had kept him safe so far.
He drank up – then headed to the supermarket. He picked up the meal deal he wanted, went to the self checkout, and only scanned the hula hoops. He paid and collected everything as calmly and casually as he did most lunchtimes.
He gobbled up the Prawn Mayo sandwich in the park while watching the pigeons. He loved the pigeons. They didn’t care too much about rules and property and much for that matter. They flew where they wanted, landed where they wanted. They ate what they could scavenge. They mated with whoever was willing. They weren’t trying to live up a social media feed that they’d always fall short of. They were instinctual, playful, free creatures.
He watched them dance out their mating rituals. He threw his crusts at the birds which attracted a fluttering flock. He left them and headed towards the tube station. Transport hubs were always rife with possibilities, new doors, places to go, opportunities, newspaper. He stood in the ticket hall, watching the scurrying cockroach commuters with their suits, frocks and umbrellas.
The he saw the side door. 4592AA the men in orange jackets pressed. He pretended to browse the newspaper for a while, then went to the pound shop next door. He bought a flourescent green jacket and bottoms, then changed in the station toilets, adding his black hat and his gruff frowning face.
4592AA. The lock clicked open. He closed it behind him. To the right were steps that led to the tracks. To the left a metal gate stood ajar. He pulled on it and climbed the narrow staircase.
The room was unlit. He pulled his torch from his rucksack. This cosy room was full of old signs, the old station clock, dusty cones and wet floor signs. The place hadn’t been used in a while. On the right stood another door. He battled the cobwebs and pushed on it.
This room had windows at least, the top one was broken. A desk had been built around the edges. It had a prime view of the tracks. In the corner a set of four rusty levers stood erect.
He wasn’t supposed to be here. But the cogs in his mind were clicking into place. The points on the track were lining up and a non-stop Metropolitan line train had rocketed from the tunnel underneath the room. His face lit up. “Bingo!” he shouted. He’d hit the motherlode.
He spent the afternoon in the former signalling box. The signals had now been electrified, this narrow space was redundant. He could get a heavy duty lock for the gate downstairs and make this his fortress flat. He’d need to sneak in and out of course. But during rush hours that would be easy. He’d now wait until 5:30 when the tubes began belching out commuters and he could slip out.
After a gentle snooze his phone’s alarm went off. Let’s get cracking. He sneaked downstairs and went to the cab rank. He asked the guy to hang on while he brought down some antiques for clearance. Out came the grand faulty clock. Out came the platform signage much older than its holder. Out came the signals. Now to flog it.
The meter was ticking up as they edged their way into Camden. The young man had texted Vinnie the shop’s owner and promised to deliver at the tradesman’s entrance. Vinnie was smoking a fag by the arch doors when the cab pulled up.
Vinnie offered £300 for the lot. The young man laughed and explained how few of these old Underground clocks were around. Maybe 100 in total. He could get at least a grand for it on Ebay and even more if it was sold to some local yuppie mug. He’d throw the rest in for free. Vin upped his offer to £500 and tapped his nose – nobody needed to know if he wasn’t too greedy. The young man shook his hand, unloaded the goodies, took the envelope of cash and paid the driver double the fare.
Oh to have a pocket full of cash, your own place and be free to roam the city. It was cold, but the rain had subsided. He went to the canal and strolled along with a spring in his step and some Thai noodles as a treat. He headed to Argos where he got an inflatable mattress, sheets, feather duster, lock and extra thick duvet. Then he headed on the bus to his new pad.
It was quieter now, but he snuck in unnoticed. The station staff were occupied on their phones. He locked up, cleared up and set up his new bed. The moon was full and giant through the window. The white gravel and black railway sleepers looked like piano keys from this angle. The trains thundered and trundled underneath but there was something reassuring about being safely above the bustling activity.
How long he could keep this gig going he didn’t know He needed to be discreet and not caught. He’d have to use the window as a urinal into a neighbours alleyway. And if he needed a number two it’d have to be a in a carrier bag, wipining his bum with the Metro. That’s all it was good for. But besides that he was OK. Food could come from the local supermarket bins if things got tight. He could fix the drafty window tomorrow with half a wet floor sign, glued on with No More Nails.
He laughed to himself and slept remarkably well despite the rattling beneath. The next morning he looked in the estate agent’s window and laughed to himself. A flat adjacent to the signal box was going for half a million pounds. He smiled to himself. Ok it had a few more creature comforts, a kitchen and bathroom, but it wasn’t any bigger.
Over the next few weeks the young man bought himself a second-hand bicycle and went around all the museums and art galleries he could cram in. He absorbed as much as he could from the cultural artifacts he saw. He got a sketchbook and drew. First objects and items of interest. Then people. Then as he made slow but steady progress he started making comic books and cartoon strips.
One day he found some half-full tins of paint – all different shades of London Magnolia. He painted them onto his mancave’s wall – like the urban caveman he’d become. He painted his story. From the wretched bosses, to the wretched clients to finally making his own home.
It was perhaps inevitable that one day his game would be up. His heart sank when the code had been rejected. He tried and retried but it had obviously been changed. Damn! Then he got a tap on a shoulder.
“Going somewhere?” asked the ogre in the fluorescent jacket with the walkie talkie.
He was arrested for trespassing and taken down the police station. The young man explained his story to the officer and Transport For London lawyer. But it was like talking to a brick wall. Every sinew in his body was blazing red lava. But they were heartless, icy and impenetrable morons.
He was the problem to be dealt with. His existence was not compatible with the systems they upheld. He was let out with promise that he’d turn up to court the next Monday.
He signed, dejected and hungry. He called the friend he was on best terms with. He scrubbed himself up in the shower before putting on clean clothes.
It was time to call Dave. Dave was 24 and worked for Buzzfeed. Their office had beanbags and a pingpong table. But if anyone was seen playing on them they were fired on the spot. Dave had 9 more clickbait articles to write today. He wasn’t exactly proud of his last article “17 Kittens That Look Like Toy Story Characters”. But it counted towards his target.
He scrolled through Tumblr, scraping the bottom of the internet’s bowels for ideas when his phone vibrated.
“I’m at reception let me up”
After being ushered in the young man told his story in Dave’s cubicle. Dave’s face was in awe – it was certainly more exciting than this job and evenings with Netflix. A story was a story – and this was an exclusive!
“You Won’t Believe What Happened When This Man Left His Job To Squat In a Tube Station” screamed the headline.
Dave could believe it. But hell this was the formula that had worked for a decade. Dave took the phone pictures his friend had sent him, added some blurb and published it within half an hour.
The algorithms on the site were noting above-average click through rates on the article, pushing it to the top of the headlines. Within hours it was going viral. Mashable, Metro, The Evening Standard and even the BBC London had copy-pasted the story.
The following day Natasha Baxter was browsing her Twitter feed when she found the story. As PR manager for the Underground – this was disintegrating into a PR nightmare. It was bad enough with the strikes and the night tube’s delays. Here the comments sections were filling up with angry opinions about how the Tube was pushing a resourceful homeless man onto the streets and into jail potentially, so that they could store some signs.
She stroked her blonde highlights, chewed her pen and adjusted her polyester suit. Hmmm. She had phone calls to make.
“What a museum!?” said the young man.
“Yeah we’ll drop the charges against you, give you some of the entrance fees. You know Tracey Emin made millions from her spunky sheets. This is far more interesting. We can keep on a few staff to man it and that should sort out the strike problems. Where are you now?… Right the cab will bring you here so we can sign the contract”
His breath was taken away. By the evening his fortunes had turned around once again.
Two weeks later, the signal box had a ticket booth added while plaques were placed on the walls. The news had spread across many outlets home and abroad. Soon there was a line of technicolour tourists with trigger-happy cameras and bulging wallets queuing around the block.
And as for our hero – his work was done. With his earnings from his mancave museum he bought a campervan in which he’d headed to greener pastures for his next adventure.