The arrangement might have been as old as Ravi but it was the tunes he was really bothered about.
He’d had a call only that morning to say the imports had arrived; were just staring up from the counter in their shrink-wrapped glory, begging to be unsealed.
After they’d cleaned up at the back of the store, he decided to head into town via the usual method.
It was getting late and he didn’t want to miss the record shop.
By the time the store manager had performed his cameo, clipboard in hand, most of the broken glass had been binned and even the earlier smell of shit was in remission.
But the obligatory upbraid wrapped in the usual psychobabble – no ‘I’ in team, fail to prepare, prepare to fail though no mention of the ‘u’ in cunt – ate into already fine margins and the sprint for the 5.14 left Ravi slumped and wheezing like a much older man.
Ordinarily he’d have seen them getting on from his preferred vantage point by the window nearest the exit. But today, it was fair to say, his mind was on other things, the sudden tightening of his bladder, which always happened when a package was shrink wrapped and in storage with his name on it, a sure sign; and, unusually for him, he failed to spot the loathed Revenue Inspectorate as they boarded the train.
‘Tickets and passes, please!’
Shit. Annoyed at himself for getting caught out so easily.
Still, they had at least started at the other end of the carriage, which was fairly busy, and he calculated that that would buy him valuable seconds, perhaps as much as a minute if there were other miscreants ahead of him in the queue.
‘No, mate, seriously, the ticket office was closed and by the time I’d have worked that machine out, the train would have gone.’
A wry smile. Of course there were others ahead of him. This was south London. And right on cue, with the intervention of uniformed skepticism, the pitch and the tone changes.
‘No, mate, no. You’re not listening to me. I’m telling you there’s nothing I could have done.’
Then a standard question, in a voice he’s guessing started off somewhere much further south. Ibadan perhaps, or maybe Thamesmead. And the response, equally routine, a dress rehearsal of a hundred other micro dramas in the landscape that’s passing by.
‘So how’s it my fault that you can’t even run a ticket office properly?’
He knows the Nigerian is going to play it by the book; is bound to be a stickler for the rules. Without knowing anything else about him, he can just feel the African’s disgust for the cut price commute. Can almost taste it in the questions, which follow the standard operating procedure. Why did you board the train without a ticket? When did you realise the ticket office was closed? Where did you board the train?
And whilst the prolonged standoff suits him, allows him time to crumple the note just enough to be credible, part of him almost feels sorry for the inspector; wishes the man would cut his losses and leave it at that. Of course he knows this won’t happen; has seen too many of these frustrated law and order types before, drunk on some illusion of authority; the coats, the hats, the tribal markers. Maybe even getting off on the loathing too, because in the end at least it’s something to hold on to. ‘Tickets and passes’ just the icebreaker. Could just be that it’s that they find so hard to resist; why they’re always attempting to flex even when the uniform doesn’t justify it.
So it’s no surprise to Ravi to hear the questions persist in that nagging delta baritone. Why? When? Where?
The next bit also sticks unerringly to the timeworn script.
‘You calling me a liar, then? Is that what you’re doing? I don’t fucking believe this, you’re calling me a liar! Don’t you fucking look at me like that! What are you fucking looking at?!’
He might be imagining it, but some kind of distress signal has been sent up, a subtle flare or maybe a coded message via a walkie talkie. It’s there in the pause, but it’s there alright. It won’t be long before this is classified as an ‘incident’ to sit somewhere between ‘leaves on the line’ and ‘a fatality’; and more uniforms are called for; probably already on their way.
As ever, at times like this, the carriage is becalmed.
The dodger, clearly not so artful, is still clinging to the original lie, but some of the conviction seems to have left him. He knows he’s over-reached, hasn’t played it right. There’s less fight in the voice now, the emphasis shifting from outrage to description. The closed ticket office. The complicated machine. The lack of time. The approaching train.
By the time the other ticket inspector has worked his way up the carriage, Ravi’s had ample opportunity to rehearse the speech and finetune its sincerity.
‘That’s right, the office was closed and the machine just wouldn’t accept this note’, he says, pulling out the crumpled but not overly damaged fiver for the benefit, if not of the still doubtful inspector, then at least for that of the overall charade.
But the look on his face is suitably intense to dissuade the man in uniform from asking too many searching questions.
Both men know the score; both understand the need to make little savings every now and then. The petty triumphs to be set against all those other little details, all that other shit. The unspoken agreement.
The window seat nearest the exit ensures that there are no real witnesses to the double bluff in Ravi’s carriage, the fare dodger and the Revenue Inspector briefly united in their tactical evasion to stiff the railways of more ill-gotten gains.
Anyway, the mutual understanding is that there are bound to be rich pickings from students further up the train.
Easy collars, insititutional fodder still programmed to submit without much of a struggle to men in uniform.