6:00 a.m. Salim squats low, his back straight, his knees bent. He pivots upward, hoisting open the heavy metal gate of his coffee truck. He uses just his legs and “core”, as a customer once advised. His breath blows white in the icy morning air. He wonders if he’s getting too old for this. His wife says he is. But he can’t imagine his days, long and empty. Sitting at home. Looking after grandkids? He makes a steaming cup of doodh pati chai, just as he’s done at exactly this time, six days a week for nearly 40 years. The tea reminds him of home.
6:01 a.m. Rebecca, 33 and tall, with wild auburn hair, cruises to the subway station on her bike. She gracefully flips a leg over the back of her seat and glides to a stop balanced on one pedal. She locks her bike to a stand, removes her helmet and snaps it to her bag. She looks in her bike mirror and smooths her hair. She enters the station with a weathered copy of Anna Karenina under her arm.
6:02 a.m. His name is James. He sells tickets and makes announcements. It’s his voice that pipes over the loudspeaker, informing people of delays, to mind the gap and to stay alert to their surroundings. James used to be Jenny. Years ago. Before London. He hangs his coat on a hook in the ticket office. He waves to Salim in his coffee truck.
6:03 a.m. An indigo blue sky before dawn. Clouds, more like dark shadows. Two pigeons amble toward Salim’s truck. They’re like an old married couple the way they lean in close and constantly nip at each other. “Shoo shoo!” says Salim, coming out of the truck and waving his hands. He spots a dark bag by the subway entrance. Two construction workers order espressos.
6:04 a.m. He’s a young man, 5'8, watery blue eyes, mousy brown hair. He has a forgettable face with rounded features, a blunt nose, and thin unkissable lips. His name is Marshall. He hates his name. He can see the entrance to the subway station from his studio flat. Perfect commute, he thought, when he signed the lease six months ago. Not that it matters now. He brushes his teeth like it’s any other day. He checks his backpack and phones. One is an old-fashioned flip model. He makes sure it’s on vibrate.
6:05 a.m. David is late. He likes to be at his desk in the City by 7 a.m. Halfway out the door, his sister rings. She needs money; he can tell by her chirpy tone. She lives in Myanmar. At least that’s where she is this month. She teaches English. Ever since their parents died in that hotel blast in Sri Lanka, it’s like she can’t sit still. He envies her and pities her at the same time. David taps a reminder into his phone to wire money and walks out the door.
6:06 a.m. James announces the trains are delayed. There’s a person on the tracks at Parsons Green. He says this solemnly. It’s the third time this month he’s made this announcement. December suicides. The scripted phrasing, “a person on the tracks”, always upsets him. It strips the person — already defeated — of their individuality. No name, no gender, no story. Salim is mouthing something to him from his coffee truck, while jabbing a finger toward the subway entrance. An elderly, sad-looking man named Omar, approaches the ticket booth. He asks James for help topping up his Oyster card.
6:07 a.m. Hearing the announcement, Rebecca looks up from her book. Most people are still glued to their phones. It’s like they didn’t hear about the person on the tracks. Only a few people leave the station. She thinks there’s a connection between the increasing number of people on phones and the increasing number of suicides on the tracks. Maybe she’ll look into this at work. Three days before Christmas. There’s not much else to do.
6:08 a.m. When Marshall was five he danced in the aisle of a grocery store. His dad yanked his arm and whacked him hard on the rear. “No one wants to see you making a spectacle of yourself,” he hissed. This is what Marshall is thinking as he stares out the window at the station where until last week he had a good job. He pulls on a hoodie and walks out his front door.
6:09 a.m. Over the loudspeaker, James tells people it’s unclear how delayed the trains will be. He asks them to step back from the tracks. The next train isn’t stopping. A teenage boy, looking at his phone and wearing big earphones, doesn’t hear. A chain of empty cars whoosh past, blasting air in the boy’s face and catching him by surprise. He tells himself this is what it means to be alive. He takes one step closer to the tracks and looks back at his phone.
6:10 a.m. More people leave the station. A woman stops at Salim’s truck and tells him about the suicide. “So close to Christmas,” Salim says sadly, and shakes his head.
6:11 a.m. Marshall approaches the station as more people flood out. He’s wearing a backpack across his chest. He doesn’t know why people are leaving, but he’s glad they are. Marshall isn’t unfeeling. He enters the station, pausing briefly to smile up at the security camera. Salim sees him and is suddenly struck by a terrible premonition. He’s had a bad feeling all morning, ever since seeing the bag by the entrance. It’s also the day: December 22. Salim is a superstitious man. He thinks 22 is evil. A day on the calendar when terrible things happen. A typical number of casualties when bombs go off. An age at which young men do stupid cruel things. Once you know a thing like this, you see it everywhere. Marshall is 22.
6:12 a.m. James sees Marshall pass by the ticket booth. He feels sorry for the young man. He was a good worker. But you can’t yell at passengers. Even if they put themselves, and others, at risk. Firing Marshall was left to James. The look Marshall gave him still makes him shudder. But that was a week ago. Surely he’s settled down. On impulse, James taps the window and waves. He offers an apologetic smile. Marshall looks up in surprise. He quickly nods a greeting and keeps walking.
6:13 a.m. Omar sits on a bench. He sees people exiting and stands as if to go too. But he’s in no hurry. The museum doesn’t open until 10 a.m. Omar always leaves his house early. He feels the walls closing in. His wife died six months ago. Her clothes still hang in the closet; her bathrobe in the bathroom; her slippers by the bed. It’s like she’s just out shopping. He wishes he was the one who fell in the tub. His wife would have insisted he bring his cane. He feels faint and sits back on the bench.
6:14 a.m. Rebecca scans the platform for her banker. That must be what he is. Neat hair, smart suits, early hours. He always smiles at her, like maybe they knew each other at school. She likes his wide shoulders and slim hips. She likes that he reads a newspaper instead of a phone. She imagines Sunday mornings, the two of them in bed, newspapers spilling over the sheets. She swears to herself that today will be the day she finally strikes up a conversation. She doesn’t see him.
6:15 a.m. David arrives at the subway. He passes her bike. It’s locked with a cheap chain. He thinks one day he’ll buy her a better lock, and a better bike too. He remembers the first time he saw her. The flash of a slim white ankle sailing over the back of a bike. For weeks, he’s been working up the courage to ask her out. It’s not a romantic thought, and he’d never tell anyone, but he can see her at 70, tall and slim, still riding high on a bike, her russet hair flying in the wind. They’ll still hold hands. He likes that she’s a reader. And still young enough to have kids. He’s later than usual. He hopes she’s still there.
6:16 a.m. Rebecca reads her book; James thinks about getting a coffee. Omar twists his wedding ring as he sits alone on a bench staring at an empty subway track. Salim starts to call his wife but then hangs up. She’ll call him a silly old fool. But he can’t shake the feeling that something awful is about to happen. He wipes dried milk off the coffee steamer with a damp cloth.
6:17 a.m. Marshall walks to the subway platform. His head is down. David, rushing to see the woman, knocks into him. “Sorry mate,” he says good-naturedly, and claps Marshall on the back like they’re old friends. It’s the first human contact Marshall has had in months. He mumbles something and moves away. He stands in front of the bench where Omar sits. David spots Rebecca, but is suddenly nervous and stays put. A train approaches with a loud rumble that fills the station. It stops short of the platform.
6:18 a.m. A small yellow leaf clings to a tree. It’s the sole winter survivor on a grand oak. A strong wind gusts, shaking the tree’s branches. The leaf flails in the wind before snapping off. It spins to earth and lands on Salim’s truck counter. It’s bright and perfectly formed. Salim sees the leaf as significant. He shuts off the coffee machine and pulls the gate down on his truck and locks it. He notices the bag is gone from the entrance. He’s probably being silly, but he goes for a walk around the block.
6:19 a.m. Omar stands up again and steps forward. Suddenly he feels faint. Rebecca sees him sway and rushes over. She grabs him but he’s heavier than he looks. Marshall, standing a step away, cradles his backpack. He looks a million miles away. Rebecca tries to support the elderly man. “Help me! He’s falling! I need help!” she calls out. Marshall, startled, reverts to the subway worker he was a week ago. He steadies the man and helps Rebecca get him back to the bench. Omar smiles feebly. “Thank you my dears,” he says, nodding and grasping both young people’s hands. “Can I call someone for you?” Rebecca asks. “I’ll be fine,” says Omar. Marshall returns to a spot by the tracks. Rebecca runs off to get water.
6:20 a.m. James announces that the train is still being held at a red signal. He thanks people for their patience. He looks at his watch. It’s time for that coffee. He sees Salim’s truck is closed. He remembers now that Salim tried to tell him something earlier. He walks outside to find him but he’s not around. James returns to his booth to check on the train.
6:21 a.m. Rebecca is back with a bottle of water. Omar puts a hand to his heart in thanks. David, now standing next to Marshall, watches the scene. His heart swells. Marshall, beside him, steps over the yellow line. If he were to lean forward now, he would fall on the tracks. He thinks maybe that would spare the others — the kindly old man and the pretty young woman. Just topple forward when the train barrels by. But he doesn’t want to be just another person on the tracks. All that effort and planning for nothing. His hand is in his pocket; his finger on the button. He closes his eyes. He leans forward and starts to take that one final step…
6:22 a.m. David throws his arm in front of Marshall. “Careful mate,” he says with a smile. “We don’t want to lose you so close to Christmas.” It’s such a tiny gesture. The acknowledgement a person matters. Marshall looks at his feet and steps back from the yellow line. Without realizing it, he’s let go of his phone. His finger is no longer on the button.