Tom Gutteridge: Someone smelt a rat on the Northern Line

Journal columnist Tom Gutteridge enjoys a very British moment of kindness on the Tube

Nick Ansell/PA Wire The London Underground
The London Underground

As I reached the Northern Line platform at King’s Cross, clutching my overnight bag, the crowd of passengers was milling around a man in uniform. Despite the crush, everyone was strangely calm.

The man was shouting instructions to a tube train nosing its way into the station. Instead of racing in and screeching to a halt at the last moment, forcing passengers to cling to the handrails for support, this train was inching forward, the driver with his head out of the window so he could hear instructions. I didn’t know tube trains could do that.

“Stop!” the official shouted. “It’s over here.”

Oh no, I thought, there’s a body on the line. I couldn’t bear to look. In London scarcely a day goes by without a suicide on the Underground. It would take ages for the police and ambulances and the fuss. I selfishly wondered how I would get home. It was after 10pm, and I didn’t have enough cash for a taxi.

Then I reasoned: if it’s a body, surely they would have stopped the train in the tunnel. Maybe someone fell onto the tracks and they’re going to help them back up. So I gingerly walked to the edge of the platform and peered over. A large rat was scampering along the line.

Surely they hadn’t stopped the train for a rat? There must be millions down there. I thought of what would happen if a rat got into a carriage. That would wake them up, the normally oblivious, unconcerned London commuters. I pictured chaos and screaming. They’d be jumping on the seats in panic.

I smiled at the image, then shuddered in case it was my carriage the rat visited. Yes, best stop the train and catch it.

“It’s off.” The shout from the driver broke the moment.

“You sure?” shouted the man with the hat. His walkie-talkie crackled.

“Yes, it’s off,” came the reply.

They’d switched off the power. The entire Northern Line had been shut down for a rat.

The official bent down and jumped onto the track.

“Here it is,” he cried triumphantly, pulling up something white from beside the rail.

There was a murmur from the crowd and a ripple of applause. The rumour quickly spread down the platform. It was a pair of headphones.

To stop a tube train in the middle of the evening for a pair of headphones, that was so… British. Sure, we were going to be a few minutes late, but someone would save £65 at the Apple store. Then I smiled as the official handed them to a little boy with a tearstained face.

Just then there was an aggrieved shout from a furious woman in the crowd. She was puce with rage, speaking in a foreign accent.

“They shut down the tube network for a pair of headphones? That’s disgusting!”

She came up to me for support. “It’s repulsive, holding us all up for a pair of headphones.”

Something in her manner really irritated me. They were doing something nice here, helping someone out. For this city, it was a tiny act of corporate human kindness.

Maybe it was because I was feeling particularly mellow, some might even call it hung-over, after the previous night’s excellent dinner with my fellow columnist colleagues at the Jesmond Dene House Hotel.

Hann, Banks, Trafford and I had thrown a farewell to our much-missed editor Brian Aitken, and the hotel had made an extra special effort. Even the Secret Diner made an appearance. Perhaps that’s why the food and wine were so good. All day I’d been so relaxed, nothing at all could irritate me. Except this woman.

“Oh do be quiet,” I said loudly. “How can you get neurotic over a pair of headphones? Just chill, woman.”

She was so stunned, I thought she was going to hit me. But instead, she stormed off down the platform, spouting bile at the men with hats.

“I want your names. I’m reporting you to Boris Johnson.”

I thought of the number of times I’d been held up by herds of sheep in Northumberland. A journey delayed for a pair of headphones? This was nothing. And maybe it shows there’s humanity in London after all.

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