Underground Compatible

–While on this busy tube, I thought… if in Islam you are not supposed to shake hands with an unrelated man, how must a Muslim woman feel when crammed up against total strangers?–

The red pole is hot under many salty palms. I can only see some triangles or slithers of light between arms and hands and bowed heads. Thumbs jump about over mobile phones. This is the only real movement except the occasional stamping of feet as the carriage sways from side to side. I am caught in the sweaty clutches of the Central Line rush hour.

    My mother and sister don’t get on the tube at rush hour. I would avoid it if I could, but today I have to work because other employees are on strike. More trouble because of the Night Tube. There’s an odd satisfaction to wearing an Underground jacket with a hijab. Proves a point.

    My cousin Niamh doesn’t like jilbab and stuff. She asked me why I wear them. I said I liked that I could wear my pajamas underneath them and she enjoyed that. I’ve tried jeans and other things, but nothing’s more comfortable than my ‘sleepy-moo’ top and fleecy trousers. Once I almost went to work in my slippers.

    We arrive at St Paul’s and people pile into the carriage. Bodies squash up against mine. I get pressed into a tall man behind me.

    “Can you move down please,” an angry white woman in a business suit snaps at us. She pushes in, suitcase first, along with six other people. All the space around me disappears. The back of one man’s hand is pressing into my left breast. Another man’s knee bumps and rubs against my upper leg.

    The first man is jabbing at a medium level of CandyCrush. He is not aware that his fingers are pushing against the side of my breast. He’s not even supposed to shake my hand.

    Does it still count as a crime against me if he’s not aware he’s doing it? It’s not like there’s anywhere we can move. What a pity Britain doesn’t segregate their Underground.


    All movement leaves the train and everyone is thrown forward. A hundred people’s feet stamp down making a loud THUD. CandyCrush man and his hand are thrown against me. The man behind me did not move so I become squashed between them like meat between bread. A Muslim sandwich.

     CandyCrush man’s fist hurts all the way through my jilbab and ‘sleepy-moo’ top. He quickly tries to pull his hand away and looks at me with sorry eyes. I try to smile but only nod. He glances at his hand and at my chest. The bossy white woman looks at me, because she thinks I am hurt. I bow my head and try to shuffle away from the man I was pushed against. Everywhere there are bodies. I try to make a little veil of space over my body, but everywhere people bump and shuffle and wobble as the train starts to move again. I wish CandyCrush man would stop looking at the hand that touched me.

    Niamh would come straight out with a comment about him keeping his hands to himself. She can always think of some snappy comment that sums up the situation. Like the time she was being watched really closely by a shop assistant in Oxfam. She turned around and asked the woman if she really thought that she, Niamh, would try to shop-lift wearing something as memorable as the turquoise coat she was wearing. The woman left us alone after that.

     The car halts, and CandyCrush man and his hand catapult into me again. I’m a sandwich for the second time. My bum is right against the man behind me.

     “I’m sorry,” CandyCrush man tries to get off me, but the people behind him have not moved yet. His face is close to mine. If a boy ever tried to get this close to me, I would slap him and then turn him over to my father.

     “Can you stop leaning on the doors please,” says the driver’s voice, “you’re only causing delays.”

     It’s getting too hot in this car with all these bodies bunched together. I can feel people’s hands and bodies on mine: wriggling and touching. I put my hands up to stop CandyCrush man. He stumbles towards me when the train starts moving again.

     He looks at my face, his hand, my face. He’s sorry, but he’s going to fall against me as soon as the tube stops or brakes again.

     “Please, can you hold on somewhere where you won’t fall on me?” I say.

     “I’m trying, but there’s no…” he tries to reach up to one of the high handles. He has to twist awkwardly because of the crowd. The bossy woman is still watching.

     Some people are looking at me like I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Would they be less or more understanding if I was wearing jeans and jacket like Niamh?

     We get to Bank. The doors open and people barge paths through the crowd, parting us like annoying branches. We bounce off each other, a mass of twitching heads like bubbles in boiling water. I get crushed against the bossy woman and pushed away in the next second.

     A moment of relief. I back up away from CandyCrush man and Bossy Woman. The commuters waiting at Bank surge forward and bulldoze CandyCrush and Bossy away from the door and towards me. We get pressed against the far door and still more people cram on. CandyCrush is pushing his phone into his pocket, watching the doors try to close.

     “There is another train right after this one,” the driver announces.

     People mould themselves into the shape of the doors and they shudder shut.

     The train starts to move, but…

     This time it’s me who whams into CandyCrush. This time he tries to hold his hand out to catch me but instead one hand makes it up onto my breast again. Now I am fully against a man who is touching my breast.

     My ears start to throb as I shove him off. I dust my breast, harder when I can still feel where his fingers were. I still don’t feel better, so I give it a smack and that just hurts it even more. I can feel the tears pricking the corners of my eyes. People must be staring. Bossy Woman is coming over. She thinks that I’m hurt.

      I turn my head away as she comes to stand in front of me. I will just tell her to mind her own business.

     “Keep off the doors, please,” the driver says.

      Bossy Woman still hasn’t spoken.

      Again, the tube jerks to a stop. I have a firm grip of a handrail, but I still stumble forward a step or two. I bump briefly into the Bossy Woman. I look at her to apologise.

      She smiles.

      I shuffle back as the train starts once again. She’s crammed between me and CandyCrush; her suitcase wedged awkwardly against her thigh and the red pole.

      She’s served herself up as sandwich meat.

–Ms Always Write–


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