The daily grind was the same every single day. The same cogs turning, the same train journey at precisely 7.06am filled the same bored faces staring at the same phone screens, scrolling with the same thumb, the same shit cup of coffee in the same hand. The same bump on the track would create the same coffee spills without fail, with the same curses muttered under the breath by the same people. The same station stops would spit out the same ruffled commuters heading the same way towards the same office blocks, and would feed the same sleepy commuters into the train, destined for the bigger city. The same black and navy suits filling the same musty aisles, the same questionably-stained floors sticky with unidentifiable liquids left to dry overnight.
What was the point?
Why did no-one learn after weeks, months, years of the same train journey that at exactly 7.32am, the train would go over a hump in the track and coffee would be spilled? Why did no-one realise that their social media feeds gave them the same sense of dread which no-one needs that early in the morning? Why did none of these people see how truly mundane all of this was? Why were any of us here?
My name is Lisa Maxwell.
I’m thirty-four years old.
I'm a barrister, a mother, and a partner.
I’m dead inside.
Perhaps the morning commute wasn’t the best time to have an existential crisis. But the monotony of the entire thing was suffocating me, and that morning was the first morning the dull drone of the train’s decades-old diesel engines felt like the loudest, deafening roar. I felt a state of panic sweep over me. I had to get out. I couldn’t breathe, but the next stop wasn’t for another twelve minutes.
Another thing that pissed me off about train times in England – why the everloving fuck did they always have to be at six minutes past, or two minutes past? Why never a nice round number? Whose idea was it to add another layer of stress to already terrible thing, just to fuck with us?! Whoever that person is, I just want to talk.
I have children. Two of them, to be exact. Both of them hate me. I’m tired all the time. Twins. Fourteen years old. Both of them nearly died when I gave birth to them. Both of them spoilt rotten by their father and their paternal grandmother. Part of me is grateful that my own mother died when I was a lot younger, purely because she’d have stabbed that bitch in the face several times over just for the way she behaves. Those twins are hers, not mine.
And, before you say it or think it, I haven’t lay down and taken it. I’ve fought back. I’ve said no. Patricia has done all in her power to have those girls taken off me, and because Patricia is there all the time and I have an hour and a half commute every day to and from work, I’m the arsehole. The arsehole who provides most of the money which affords them the luxury of horse-riding lessons, swimming lessons, an excellent fee-paying school, plenty of good quality clothing and shoes, and a lavish home. My partner Daniel works from home for a start-up that, after thirteen years, is still starting up. I asked him the other week at which point the company will cease to be a start-up, and will be a fully-fledged company. I was the arsehole for not being supportive. Thirteen years. Eight hundred grand. Patricia paid half, but still, the principle of the thing.
Perhaps it was because we had the twins early... I was only twenty when I fell pregnant with them, and by my twenty-first birthday, instead of doing what I wanted to do and going out drinking and partying with my university friends, as all good law students did, I was icing my swollen ankles and shrieking at anyone who dared come within a metre of my engorged and tender breasts. My stomach was twice the normal pregnancy size (because two huge and healthy babies took residence), and life was miserable. I couldn’t eat, the morning sickness had hospitalised me twice, and I felt heavy. So heavy. But I graduated university in the end with a first-class bachelors and the promise of a successful Bar exam. I could be a barrister if I wanted. I did want. I wanted to be a prosecution barrister.
Children were not going to stop me from doing that, and indeed they didn’t.
When I passed the Bar exam, and became a full barrister, the salary was enough to make Daniel’s eyes water. Six figures immediately, given how well I’d performed at university. I was hireable, desirable, and enough firms wanted me that I could negotiate a very lucrative offer. The catch, of course, was two Newborns. Daniel had shaken his head.
“I’ll be a stay-at-home dad,” he’d said. It was true, he was in love with the girls. Doted on them as much as I did. He did his very fair share of things, including night feeds, bath times and changes. He gave me time with my friends, and I gave him the same. We were a good team. We didn’t need any support.
“Are you sure?” I’d asked. I knew the twins alone all day would be a headache even for the most devoted of parents. We’d shared everything up to that point.
“Course I am. And if I get really stuck, mum just retired, so I’ll have her to help.” Patricia was an older mother. She’d had Daniel at the age of forty-two. Naturally, that meant she knew everything.
And so that had settled it. Daniel stayed home, took care of the girls through the day. I went to work as a barrister, prosecuted until my heart was content, dealt with criminal law until I couldn’t physically think any more, and then went home to my dinner cooked and my children waiting for me.
What I didn’t see behind this idyll was Patricia. Perhaps she’s the entire problem here. She started interfering, coming over every day – to the detriment of her own husband – and raising my girls against me. I was the bad guy. I didn’t love them. I chose work over them. I remind Patricia regularly whenever she brings up the seven figures in my account that I could have taken a housing solicitor job for the same hours, much less money, and Daniel would have had to work too. She never has anything to say about that. My seven figures helps Daniel to stay home in luxury. Our collective twenty grand would barely have covered a mortgage and twins, and that was without a car. I am untouchable when it comes to money matters. And Patricia hates that.
Anyway, fourteen years go by, and here I am. On a train to the same job, the same office, with the same case that’s been sitting on my desk for three weeks because incompetent pieces of shit can’t suck up their own ego long enough to take pride in their work. It’s the egos surrounding me which kill me dead, half the time.
Patricia’s ego. How the girls look. What people will think of them if they don’t secure a top fully-paid-for place at Oxford in four years’ time.
Daniel’s ego. How he looks to his successful business friends who each have their own highly-successful companies which didn’t take thirteen years to start up.
The individual egos of the interns we have at the firm. Mini barrister wannabes who got the grade because they paid their way, or in some cases sucked enough dick, to get to the top. Or what they think is the top. And stereotype has made you think it’s only the ladies who’ve done that. You’re wrong. Every single one of them thinks they’re the best because they have a special badge which puts them on high profile cases. It’s because of me that they’re there. They’re my interns. Acting like they’re above me.
The egos of the monotonous train people. The men. Every suit in here, black or navy, with an expensive bauble strapped to their wrists, shoes gleaming a little too brightly, briefcases filled with porn mags and snacks – but as long as everyone thinks it’s important...
The egos of power-hungry femme-fatales who think a cold, steel-hard stare and a killer pair of red-bottomed heels is going to give them an edge over their male boss. It won’t. We live in a society that’s paved and smooth for men, and an executive coal yard for women. We shovel the shit; they take the power from it. We stumble on the potholed cobbles while they stroll on the tarmacked cycle lane. You get the idea.
My own ego. My own ego which apparently drove me to providing for my family. That small, three-letter word is thrown at me so often... my ego is big, my ego is huge... yet I wear a modestly-priced suit, and a good pair of shoes. I wear my “stuff” gown when I work, and my wig, and that hides what’s beneath. I don’t need to flex my millions to these people on the train. I’ve prosecuted enough criminals to know what ego makes you do, what it does to you. It makes you think you’re the best. It makes you think you’re the victim. It puts you on a pedestal of wet sand. I don’t need to flex on these people because they’re already feeling unhappy with their lot. They don’t need the added stress of another Savile Row power suit.
Another look around the train, and I realised I wasn’t going to get off at Farringdon station and take my usual walk for my usual coffee, before my usual entrance into the usual office block at the usual time of 8am. I wasn’t going to change into my usual heels, and log onto my PC, and read my emails. I wasn’t going to bark at the latest intern to button her blouse up fully, or to stop wasting his time on Facebook. I wasn’t.
I was going to stay on.
Farringdon station came and went. The train pulled through tunnels, letting people on and off, and as I looked around, I saw the different faces of new people, unstuck from the usual monotony I’d faced for fourteen years. I saw young people on their way to school, to their first job. I saw colourful graduates, wearing hoodies and blazers and earrings and bright shirts. I saw Nike trainers, baggy jeans, rips and tears in the fabric.
I saw a rainbow of skin. Black guys so dark they’d have been laughed out of the male social circles in my firm just for that alone, such was the white-privileged racism born from white elite upper classes with too much money. Black girls with hair in cornrows or stunningly round afros, and dreadlocks – delightfully uniform and irregular dreadlocks! Olive toned men with perfectly coiffed hair, suitably messy, with untrimmed beards that made them look free. White women with freckles, or a pink blush to their cheeks, wearing perfect summer attire for a day in the park... so many people, unashamedly and unabashedly themselves. I found myself excited to see which colour, which beautiful vibrancy, would step through the train doors next. Humans, in every colour and shape and size and creed, it made my hungry to see more, to look at these beautiful people. I felt like an alien.
For a time, I didn’t see a single suit. I didn’t see a single highly-polished shoe attached to a briefcase-wielding megalomaniac behind a carefully-manicured corporate mask. I didn’t see anyone mindlessly scrolling a phone – sure, the kids listened to tinny tunes on their AirPods, but that was it. People spoke with each other. As we left the confines of London City, the people knew each other. Old and young got on, recognised friends and acquaintances with either a bright ‘Hello love!’ or a simple, solid nod (usually the younger folk nodded – hellos aren't cool).
A young man sat down opposite me. I drank him in, as though I was seeing for the first time in years. He could be considered black (his skin was dark, but it occurs to me that living in my perfect suburban bubble has left me uneducated in the rest of the world's cultures, and I’m ashamed of that), at least six feet tall, a well-built and gym-honed physique hidden behind a baggy black ‘Under Armour’ shirt. I knew Under Armour. My interns were always wearing it to workout. His dark jeans were well-fitting and clean, wrinkle free. On his feet, a pair of crisp-white and red Nikes, which were well-looked-after, but well-worn, beside a leather holdall that was definitely steeped in a personal history. The watch on his wrist was a Rolex, but the dents and small scratches told me there was a history to it – was it an heirloom? Was it stolen? Second-hand? Fake? His ring on his little finger told the same story – history, but what history? A silver chain peeked from behind his shirt. His jaw was cupped by a neat beard, not too neat, mind – just neat enough to show he’d washed his face, like any self-respecting person did.
When I got to his beautiful amber eyes, I gasped. The man was looking right at me.
“Like what you see, love?” He wasn’t a young man at all. He was a little older than the early-twenties I’d pinned him for. His hair, while I was taking in his details, was a neat and handsome Idris Elba-type cut. It complemented his face immaculately.
“Sorry,” I said, my face flushing with colour.
“It’s alright. You look done in. Rough morning?”
“You could say so, yeah.” I blushed again. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine, honestly.” His accent wasn’t the typical London twang touted by the British media as spoken exclusively by London youths. He was reserved, spoke with education. “I get it a lot. Not to toot my own horn.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, you are gorgeous.” Who the hell was I?! He laughed, and shook his head.
“Thank you very much. You’re not so shabby yourself.” He looked me up and down, more to make a point than anything. “Off to work?”
“No, actually. I mean, I was off to work... but then I decided I’ve had enough.” I smiled at him. He smiled back. His teeth were pearly white, but crooked. A good British lad. I grinned.
“Perfect enough reason not to go, I’d say,” he nodded, musing something. “What are you going to do instead?”
“I realised today that I’ve been staring at the same damn canvas for the past fourteen years. My kids hate me, my partner’s a drain, and my mother-in-law is the biggest bitch walking the planet. I’m only a bank account to them. I decided to stay on the train today. I’m glad I did. I didn’t realise London was such a colourful, vibrant place!”
And then I proceeded to tell this gentleman, named Tristan, all about my epiphany, and about how multicultural London had become right under my nose. I told him all about how much I’d missed. How beautiful people are.
“And that, dear Tristan, is why I was staring at you. You have so many details.” Tristan nodded, understanding completely.
“I’d love to quit my job myself,” he smiled. He did understand. He proceeded to tell me that he’d been stuck in a place his uncle had put him in, but his father had recently died and he’d realised he hated everything he’d ever done so far. His father’s last words to him had been ‘do what makes you happy’. He told me the stories behind the Rolex - which had been his grandfather’s and then his father’s - and the stories behind his ring, which had belonged to his mother’s grandfather. He then told me how it was his dream to be a footballer, and he knew there was a tryout or something at Crystal Palace later this afternoon, but he wouldn’t go because he knew he didn’t have what it would take. And it wouldn’t pay well, either.
“Then you should do it even more,” I smiled. “Because the heart only sings for free.”
We chatted a little longer, and Tristan looked up at me when we arrived at his stop. I was about to wish him luck, but his eyes twinkled.
“I guess I’m not going to work today, either.” Despite myself, I reached over and hugged him. Solidarity in our choices to live.
We chatted even more until we got to Penge station, and Tristan got off. I wished him luck, and he me, and then he set off at a jog towards the fabled Crystal Palace stadium.
Another half hour later, and I arrived in Canterbury. On autopilot, I got off the train, and the crispness of the air hit me. I closed my eyes briefly, then made my way towards a taxi rank. I asked a driver to take me to a B&B in the greenest part he knew, and after wafting two fifty-pound notes under his nose, he took me to a quaint little place that boasted two cottages for rent. It’s out of season, so one of them, right in the nature reserve, was available.
The world is a colourful place. The greens of the hills rolling away from me, with France in the distance, are like a surreal watercolour painting. The shrill call of birds unscarred by the terrors of cars or city life is like a symphony around me. The blue of the sky is so clear, the air so clean, so crisp... so still, so animated. This is life.
My name is Lisa Maxwell. I am thirty-four years old.
I am a human being.
I am colourful.
I am alive.
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I loved this! Lisa’s distress and dissatisfaction felt incredibly real and relatable, and her slow transition into realizing life had more to offer was gripping and enjoyable. Well done!
Thanks so much!! I really enjoyed writing this! I also think every day right now for most of the world is SUPER monotonous, so we do miss how beautiful and colourful the world actually is! Thanks for reading! :D
This part: Another thing that pissed me off about train times in England – why the everloving fuck did they always have to be at six minutes past, or two minutes past? Why never a nice round number? Whose idea was it to add another layer of stress to already terrible thing, just to fuck with us?! Whoever that person is, I just want to talk. Seriously I'd like to speak to that person too! Airline flights are the same. I wonder if it's something psychological? I enjoyed reading about something many people deal with, attaining the dream wh...
RIGHT??? I never understood it! What's wrong with 'half past' or 'five past'?? Used to drive me insane! Thanks so much for reading!! I love writing about people's dreams, whether they get them or not! <3