It is 7:50am, and I'm standing on a cold platform (serious question - why are railway stations ALWAYS cold?). I've been doing this for two weeks. The train I'm about to board is heading to Wolverhampton, where I now work, so every weekday morning my alarm goes off at 6:30am and I wake up bleary eyed and wondering just what the fuck I'm doing up at this time and whether I could go back to bed for a few more hours and tell my boss that all the trains were massively delayed or something.
Having now become a dab hand at this "commuting" lark, I know I won't get a seat, so I decide to not bother trying and instead take the next best option - to lean on the nice cushioned thingy just by the doors where a commuter can leave his/her bike. Meh, it'll do. I pull my phone out of my pocket, and fire off a quick "good morning!" message via Facebook to my girlfriend whilst I'm in an area where my 3G works, and then I put it back in my pocket. Gaming apps don't really appeal at 8am.
(This will get more interesting very soon, I promise. I'm just setting the scene, OK?)
I decide to survey the people around me. There's a few, and they're all the same - they all look really bored, they all are wearing business suits, they're all holding cups of coffee....apart from one man. He's...well, fascinating. He's an elderly man - I'd place him roughly about 60 - and he has white hair and glasses. He is wearing a long tan coat, and he's carrying a battered old blue suitcase. He is fascinating me because he simply cannot stand still.
He paces up and down. He goes into the toilet, then exits 30 seconds later. He puts his suitcase down. He picks it up. He walks into a carriage, then walks back out again. He walks past me, and I realise he smells a bit. He holds the rail that I'm holding, then he lets go of it. He seems...troubled. He isn't talking to himself, or making strange noises, or anything that suggests serious mental illness. He's just...behaving a little oddly. "Maybe he's anxious about being on/having to stand on a train, and he's just fidgety" I think.
It is 8:05am. We're just outside Wolverhampton when the ticket conductor walks into our little area. I've bought a monthly season ticket, so I'm OK, but our friend in the tan coat isn't. Putting down his little suitcase, he admits to the conductor that he doesn't have a ticket...
"I have no means of paying" he begins. "My wallet was stolen, and it's been handed in at Wolverhampton police station. That's where I'm going."
"Sir you shouldn't have boarded the train. Why did you not speak to someone at the ticket office? Why didn't you come and find me?"
"I'm very sorry, it's very unfortunate..."
And this conversation carries on for about another 30 seconds. I'm trying not to listen, but when it's happening right in front of you it's difficult not to, isn't it? The chat ends with the conductor moving on through the train, and the man picking up his suitcase and waiting to get off the train at Wolverhampton, presumably to walk straight to the police station.
It is 8:10am.
My routine is pretty set in the mornings. I'll get off the train, pausing only to pick up a Metro paper from the concourse, before striding out of the station and to my place of work. It takes me about 10 minutes, and once I'm in I'll make myself a cup of tea, and then sit down at my desk to have a browse of the paper. My colleagues don't tend to arrive until sometime between 8:45am-9am, so I have a little time on my own. I quite like that.
Not this morning, however. Because this morning I'm too intrigued by our friend in the tan coat, and I can't shake off the feeling that he's lying. If your wallet was stolen, and handed in at a police station, would you take a suitcase with you when you go to fetch it? Wouldn't you hitch a lift, or sort out a train ticket somehow beforehand? No, there was something "Dodgepot McDougal" about this man - this elderly man, with white hair and glasses. He looked like a typical grandfather, not a criminal. I'm being stupid. This man isn't a liar.
I need to get to work.
But I don't, do I? Not yet, anyway. I'll be sitting in the office on my own for about 30 minutes, if I head straight to the office, so why don't I follow this story to a conclusion? Is this man a model citizen, or is he a big, fat liar?
(See, I told you it would get interesting)
We're now off the train. He walks slowly out of Wolverhampton station. Turning the collar of my coat up and fancying myself as the next Dick Tracy, I follow him, about 20 paces behind. "God I'm good", I think to myself, before about 3 seconds later he stops and pulls a cigarette out of a packet in his coat pocket. Shit. I stop, then decide a change of tactic. I walk past him, and begin making my way up the path towards the bus station. At a convenient point I stop, pull my phone out, pretend to text someone and look back towards the train station. I can see him, puffing away on his fag. I hate cigarettes, so I instantly change my opinion of him to "fare dodging, criminal bastard". Funny how we think stuff like that, isn't it?
A few minutes pass. He walks past me, and I give him 20 paces before sloping off after him, putting my phone back in my pocket. God, this is amazing. I'm a real life spy! I begin to imagine the screenplay. I see a sexually frustrated blonde wife, a complete brat of a child, and a really fit mistress who I have sex with in an apartment whenever I want to. It'd be awesome. I'm too busy thinking about this when I realise that he's stopped yet again. I let out a little sigh. This "following" lark is proving to be a little harder than I anticipated.
It is 8:15am.
What do I do? I pull out my phone again, but this time I actually do send a text. I message my friend Dan, who is undoubtedly still asleep but what the hell, I'm not really after a response:
"8:15am and I'm following an old man through the streets of Wolverhampton. No time to explain!"
And indeed there isn't, because he's off once again. He's walking down towards where the metro stops - walking away from my place of work, by the way - when suddenly I realise, to my absolute horror, that I don't actually know where the police station in Wolverhampton is. If I could find that out, it'd help. Out comes the phone again. I Google "Wolverhampton police station" and I'm greeted with a postcode of WV1 3AA. Splendid. I open up Google Maps, and, keeping an eye on our friend, I quickly type it in and ask it to go hunting for me. Seconds later, the app tells me where the police station is, and where we are in relation to it.
We're about 30 seconds away, and he's walking in the right direction.
How fucking stupid am I? I let out a little laugh - laughing at my own stupidity - before I stopped and turned round to walk to work.
But....not just yet. It was OK. I could keep on following him round the corner, and then when he went into the police station, I'd just continue walking straight on and up to the high street, and then just follow that all the way back to my place of work. I'd be in the office for 8:30am, it was OK. Another two minutes.
He walks past the police station.
And he keeps on walking. He crosses the road, crosses over the tram tracks, and walks down the road. He is now actively walking away from the police station. What do I do? "I've come this far" I think to myself, so I too cross over the road. Fuck it. I'm in the office every single day about 30 minutes earlier than I should be. I'm allowed to be a few minutes late just once.
I'm worried, though. I'm worried because I'm now walking into a part of Wolverhampton that I simply don't know, nor do I know where the frig our little fare dodger is going, and how long it'll take him. Thankfully, my fears are swiftly allayed. He turns left, and disappears out of my view. I follow about 15 paces behind, and, turning the corner myself, I'm greeted by the entrance to a Sainsbury's. Looking like any other kind, gentle and honest OAP in the world, he picks up a basket and serenely makes his way into the store, presumably to do his shopping.