Danny Wallace on the pressure of opening a train door
A moment in life of great responsibility when you are given the chance to stand up and stand out
There are moments in life of great responsibility when you are given the chance to stand up and stand out, and these are precisely the types of moments you should try to avoid.
Like I should have, right now, on this train.
Somehow I have found myself the closest person to the door as the train rattles through its final tunnel. I’m acting all cool, like yeah, man, I’m closest to the door. But the pressure is building because people are crowding around me already. They’re doing their coats up, or making sure their bags are on their shoulders, as the carriage jolts around, knowing that the second that door opens they’ll be pounding down the platform to whatever they’re going to next. They just need a quick getaway. They just want to be out of here. Please let them out of here.
And for this to happen effectively, they’re expecting me to open the door for them.
Now, this in itself is not a big task. I know how to open it. Been opening doors years, baby. It has never turned out to be an issue.
I just have to slide the window down, reach through, locate the handle, and then either pull it up or push it down. Or is it left and right? Which way is it? Doesn’t matter.
If it’s not one it’s the other. I can do this. I can pull or push a handle while being watched.
Though it’s not the watching I’m worried about, of course; it is the waiting.
If I take too long (and I must not take too long), people will tut or sigh or – worse – offer to do it for me. Someone offering to take over is the second-worst thing that could happen in this situation. The worst thing that could happen is that while I’m suddenly struggling to open the door, all the other doors on the train open immediately and people start streaming along the platform outside, while I tug and tug at my door handle in ever-increasing panic and people stare furiously at the back of my head. And then someone offers to take over.
Life is full of little moments of pressure where we are expected to perfectly perform small acts of extra responsibility for the benefits of strangers. I take them very seriously because I hate to make strangers wait. In some ways I have made this work to my advantage and used this pressure to make me more efficient by developing my own systems. In the queue at the supermarket, for example, I find my debit card and make sure it’s in a prominent position before anything else happens at all.
Then – boom – I start the initial belt layout. Hard stuff goes down first, cold stuff together, breads all in a huddle. Then a swift step to the bagging area the second it’s clear, bags for life prepped and open, and bang bang bang I’m efficiently packed and paid-up by the time the person after me has even noticed all my bags for life are from a rival supermarket. I am a good person to be behind in a queue and I am rightly proud of this.
BUT. If anything unexpected crops up… an unusually speedy checkout person, say, I fall to pieces. Suddenly I’m just shoving bananas anywhere they’ll fit, and squeezing the doughnuts under the wine bottles. I have always been this way. When a taxi turns up early, I will stop everything I am doing and physically run to it – whether I am ready to go or not – then apologise profusely for keeping him waiting, even if we are leaving 10 minutes ahead of schedule and I’ve forgotten to close the front door.
As British people, we will tolerate a lot of bother from others, but we cannot abide being a bother. Being a bother is far worse than meeting a botherer and I would far rather be bothered than bother. I think I get it from my mum. I’ve known this woman since she attended my birth and still she refuses to be a bother to me.
I could offer her a simple cup of tea when I’m already making one, and she would turn it down, saying, “No no, just let me lie on my back in the rain and sip from a drainpipe – but not one of your nice drainpipes, just an old drainpipe somewhere out of view. Maybe while I’m there I’ll try to catch a mouse, so you don’t feel you have to cook anything, and I’ll just hunch behind the shed and gnaw at its tiny bones so I’m out of your way. Oh, that’s unless you were saving the mouse for yourself? Forgive me!”
And now the train has begun to slow to a halt.
Behind me, people bristle. Gloves go on. Ready for the race ahead.
People are waiting for me to slide the window down.
Not yet… not yet… I got this.
The train has nearly stopped.
I casually slide the window down. There is relief. I’ve obviously done this before.
But I know the time to prove myself is yet to come.
Now is it left or right? Pull or push?
I reach out and grip the handle, and await a click of the door like a sportsman waiting for the starter pistol.
This one’s for Britain.
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