These were the stops where London stopped being London, where the architecture, bars, bustle, studios, tech startups and high-flying ambition of the city petered out and middle English banality began. This was the London far removed from the global collective imagination, neither cosmopolitan chic nor East End gangster menace, but something far less remarkable; something far less marketable. Out here, the Underground wasn’t even underground anymore, emerging from the blue lightening blackness into the real world, suburban beige of former villages and hamlets caught in the capital’s ever-expanding and multiplying tendrils, becoming, over two centuries of growth, satellite cells connected to the nucleus by veins of train lines and lemming-like legions of red-eyed commuters.
Look out of the window of the carriage and you could see houses—family-sized houses, for established, finished families. Families that’d been families for a while, with gardens and conservatories and mown lawns—actual grass lawns, front and back.
In the centre of the city, the Piccadilly Line is an indispensable icon all of its own—Leicester Square, Hyde Park, Covent Garden—famous stops, timeless places. Settle down on your seat, though, and let the trundling motion of the carriage shake you to sleep, as you cross that cultural frontier and awake in no-man’s land.
At Acton Town, the Piccadilly Line splits. South West takes you down to Heathrow airport and all the potential that that might imply, North West takes you to where the tourists and urban go-getters have no business and post codes hold wealth, but no prestige—Alperton, Sudbury Hill, Sudbury Town. Two more stops and you’re way out in Transport for London Travel Card Zone 5, or more specifically, Rayners Lane.
The Metropolitan Line is the same species but a different animal; faster, more business-like, fewer stops of less iconic status, bar Baker Street. It’s bolder, too, taking you even further out beyond the castle gates to Zone Nine (“Zone Nine? There’s a zone nine!”).
At Rayners Lane the dark blue of the Piccadilly and the purple of the Metropolitan come together and run in parallel until the end of the line at Uxbridge. Sometimes, though, for reasons known only to the guys in the hard hats and the orange hi-vis jackets, the tired old Piccadilly Line doesn’t make it all the way to the end of the line and “passengers travelling beyond Rayners Lane towards Uxbridge should change at Rayners Lane and use the Metropolitan Line for onward journeys”—so say the crackling, Tannoy-ed announcements. Just one more quirk, one more foible, one more creaking joint in the two-and-half-century-old metro experience.
“It’s its own little icon of the London Underground experience,” said Rich, getting to his feet as he felt the carriage slow, “changing at Rayners Lane.”
“Like ‘mind the gap’?” said Neil.
“Yeah, but more… esoteric, subtle. Hey, don’t forget the table.”
“Eso-whatsitnow?” Neil struggled to fit an orange fold-up table under his arm and negotiated his awkward way to the carriage door. “So more like, ‘please seek assistance’ or ‘don’t obstruct the closing doors’?” he said.
“Yeah, but even more… like,” Rich heaved the cardboard box further up his chest, “you know, you really need to know it to get it. Everyone knows those other ones, I mean ‘mind the gap’ is like the CBGBs shirt of London; it’s meaningless, but Rayners Lane? Who knows Rayners Lane? Even some Londoners don’t know Rayners Lane, let alone that there’s this routine change there, this constant idiosyncrasy like all the other little idiosyncrasies but also totally banal—trust me, it’s genius. This’ll work.”
“So it’s going to be successful because no one knows about it and it’s boring?”
“Exclusivity and obscurity; people eat that up. It’s like, ‘Oh, the change at Rayners Lane? You don’t know? I guess you’re new here?’ Like that. And yeah it’s boring. But, you know… knowingly boring.”
They emerged onto the platform, the train pulled away, and for a moment they stood together like runaways without a plan, peering up and down the platform. The few passengers made their way to the station exit and they were left alone in the mid-afternoon summer mugginess.
“It’s so quiet,” said Neil.
“It’s Zone Five,” said Rich, setting the cardboard box down with a gentle thump.
“So I guess we should set up over here?” said Neil, pointing to an arbitrary patch of asphalt.
“As good as any other spot I guess,” said Rich.
“It’s definitely the spot,” said Neil, asserting an authority and agency he couldn’t quite pull off.
Neil set up the table while Rich retrieved the sticky tape from his backpack, along with two bags of pin badges and a money box.
Neil reached into the box and pulled out one of the shirts, holding it out in front of him. They were white with the famous red and blue London Underground logo, and in bold underneath, it said, “I Changed at Rayners Lane!”
“So we’re going for ‘elitist’ and ‘boring’?” he repeated.
“No, exclusive and boring, but not actually boring, just ironic. But not ironic like five years ago ironic—post-ironic irony.”
“I never knew fashion could be so complicated,” said Neil.
“It’s culture. And yes, it is complicated.”
Moments passed in silence, the two of them leaning against the platform wall. “We should have brought chairs,” said Neil.
“Yeah maybe, but once the commuters start coming through, we’ll be on our feet selling these suckers.”
“Or a radio,” said Neil. “Do you think there’s a bar round here?”
“It’s Zone Five—there’s nothing round here.”
“How about coffee?”
“So coffee stops at Acton Town?”
There’s no coffee like we have coffee, only mom coffee. Moms with babies in prams kind of coffee. Not our kind of coffee.”
“Oh fuck. Here comes a train. It looks full. Get ready.”
With a heavy heave, the train pulled alongside the platform and disgorged its occupants in a single, uninterrupted stream of humanity. Businessmen and women and schoolkids and guys and girls in various work shirts, some chatting, some texting, some reading books and magazines, streamed towards the exits with hardly a look towards the odd little table with the funny shirts barely three feet to their right. The ones who glanced over gave nothing away, the merest hint of interest, no more than what they reserved for a new billboard or a change of personnel working the confectionary stand. And then they were all but alone again, bar a few stragglers and passengers checking tube maps and platform signs.
“Okay,” said Rich, staring straight ahead with his brow furrowed and his lips slightly pursed, as if trying to solve a difficult riddle. “That’s just the first train of many. There’ll be way more to come. Don’t worry. Just… it’ll be fine.” He studied a T-shirt spread across the table. “Maybe we should have added a second exclamation mark.”
“Maybe we should have put it in Nirvana font?” proffered Neil.
More time passed. More trains came and went, and though two shirts were sold—one to a drunk loiterer with the most crumpled and filthy tenner either had ever seen stuffed into his top pocket, and another to a giggling girl with a skateboard and suspiciously dilated pupils—the number was not enough to unfurrow Rich’s brow.
Another train arrived, spilling another load of anonymous frowning commuters onto the platform.
“Oh, fuck,” said Rich.
“What? Is there someone famous?” said Neil, standing on his tiptoes and scanning the crowd.
“Shit, I hope she doesn’t—oh fuck, she’s seen us.”
“Hi Lisa!” said Neil, as a blonde woman in a neat dress skirt and blouse stepped tentatively out from the hastening tide and stood in front of the table with her hand up in greeting.
“Neil. Hi. Rich. Oh my god. Hi,” she said.
“Wow. Lisa. Hi,” said Rich.
Awkward hugs and more monosyllabic greetings were exchanged across the table.
“So what are you doing all the way out here?” said Rich.
“I have a house out here actually,” Lisa said.
“You—wait, you have a house?” said Rich.
Lisa looked down at her feet as if admitting a shameful transgression to a schoolmaster.
“Yeah, I bought a place. We bought a place. That we own. And live in.”
“I thought you were doing something in theatre, set design or something?” said Rich.
Neil held his finger in the air and widened his eyes. “That’s right! You did theatre studies.”
“I did. And then I designed some sets. And then I quit, and now I’m in law.”
“Don’t you need a degree for that?” asked Neil.
“Yeah, I have one. I went back to uni, to Edinburgh.”
Rich and Neil exchanged a look.
“You went back to uni?” said Neil.
“How’d you do find time to do that?” said Rich.
“Guys, it’s been, what, seven years since we graduated.”
Rich and Neil looked at each other and down at the table and then the station in general, as if arriving there for the first time, transported from another dimension.
“So what brings you guys this far out of your natural habitat? Or I guess I don’t need to ask,” Lisa said, looking down at the table of shirts. “These are cool, sort of niche, a kind of ironic take on the whole London souvenir fetish? I quite like that.”
“It’s post irony-ironic,” said Neil.
“I see,” said Lisa.
“And obscure and exclusive,” Neil added.
“The holy trinity,” noted Lisa.
“At least you get it. We’re not doing so well, to be honest,” said Rich.
“It’s London—people have kind of seen everything, or they want you to think they’ve seen everything,” she said.
And then another voice: “Maybe it’s not my place to say but is this really your market? People around here are a bit more Guardian, maybe even The Times, whereas isn’t this angle a bit more Brooklyn Vegan?”
Rich and Neil stared with a mix of indignation and bemusement at a besuited man in glasses whose presence they’d only just become aware of.
“Oh shit, sorry, this is my husband, Mark,” said Lisa.
Awkward handshakes were exchanged across the table.
“A house and a husband. Have a kid and you’ll have your own holy trinity,” said Rich.
Lisa gave the smallest hint of a laugh and looked down at her feet again, then remembered herself. “Oh—sorry. Mark, this is Rich and Neil, friends from uni. I guess you guys are… entrepreneurs or something?”
Neil and Rich grimaced at each other.
“I do some stuff for Deliveroo, and Uber and kind of… whatever else,” said Rich.
“I do Uber stuff too, and some stuff for Deliveroo, and sometimes admin,” said Neil.
“Ah, the gig economy,” said Mark.
“The what?” said Neil.
“But to answer your question,” began Rich in the direction of Mark, “we actually consider ourselves a bit more toward the A.V. Club side of the market, but I see your point. I think I—we—were kind of thinking of authenticity. Like, if you’re gonna buy a shirt with a place name on it, shouldn’t you only sell it at that place? We don’t want to create a CBGBs situation here.”
Mark stroked a perfectly shaven chin. “But what you’ve gotta ask yourself is if the selling point is the authenticity of the purchase or the joke itself. I mean I’m pretty sure that type of humor might go down better down Shoreditch and Liverpool Street way, regardless of if the buyer’s actually ever changed trains at Rayners Lane.”
Lisa gently thumped Mark’s chest with the back of her hand. “Don’t mind him, he’s in marketing.”
Neil looked blank, while Rich gave the briefest of laughs.
“I mean, ideally you’d cover both areas at the same time,” added Mark quickly, with a nervous look at his wife.
Rich looked baffled. “You mean—”
“Split up?” said Neil.
Rich held Mark’s gaze for a second. “We only have one table,” he said.
Two seconds passed. “Well, regardless,” Lisa said, “I think they’re cool. We’ll take one each.”
An awkward transaction was completed across the table.
“I guess I can’t really wear this right now, can I?” said Lisa. “That’d be like wearing the band’s shirt to their own gig. Is that still a rule?”
“Umm… I dunno. I think so, maybe,” said Rich.
“Yeah, that might still be considered lame,” said Neil.
A moment passed while all three pretended to be overly interested in an oncoming train.
“Well. Anyway…” said Lisa.
“Yeah, good to see you.”
“Umm… are you guys on Facebook?”
“Well, yeah, technically…” said Rich.
“I don’t really check it these days…” said Neil.
“I get it,” said Lisa. “Who’s even been on there since a hundred million years ago?”
“Right! But you should definitely add—”
“Wait, I think we’re still friends from ages ago.”
“Ah, okay, so you can just… ”
“Yeah, I… ”
Mark checked his watch, adjusted his glasses, and gave an ostentatious look towards the exit.
“So we’d best be off,” said Lisa.
“To your house. That you own, and live in,” said Rich, with a half-smile.
“Exactly. Well, bye then. Good luck with all this,” said Lisa.
“By the way,” said Mark, “if you don’t have a license to sell this stuff, I’d be on the lookout for the police.”
“Actually, I think it’s Transport for London police round here,” said Neil.
“We’ll be fine,” said Rich. “Nice to meet you.”
Mark gave them both a smile and, hand-in-hand, he and Lisa walked away towards the entrance.
Rich watched them round the corner and exhaled deeply.
“Christ, that was awkward. Did you feel how awkward that was? It felt longer than a German war movie,” he said.
“I thought it was nice,” said Neil, warmly. “I like bumping into people like that. It’s the best bit about living in the city.”
“That’s so weird. No one likes that except old Spanish ladies.”
They both stood for a moment reassessing the encounter.
Three more trains arrived and left. Two more shirts left the box.
Another half hour passed during which the sun disappeared behind a billboard for an airline price comparison website.
“Maybe we should head back East,” said Rich, pulling in his arms close to his sides and burying his hands further into his jean pockets.
“You reckon that Mark guy was right?” said Neil.
Rich gave a derisory snort. “Do I. Bollocks, I think I saw a couple of Transport cops over there.”
“Over there. Just—let’s go, yeah?”
Before Neil had answered Rich had begun haphazardly folding and piling shirts into the box.
“Hey, I think there’s a ping pong whiskey evening at The Loaded Goose tonight, if you fancy it,” said Neil, beginning the process of dismantling the table.
Rich made an ostentatious show of checking his watch. “I dunno, I think I might be too broke.”
“Ah, fair do’s,” said Neil.
Rich heaved the box onto his chest. “Or, you know, maybe I’ve got a twenty on my bedside table.”
“Everyone always has a spare twenty somewhere,” said Neil, “how else could anyone afford to live here?”
“Dude,” said Rich reproachfully.
“What? It’s true.”
“Yeah, but no one actually says that shit.”
John Patrick Miskelly lives and teaches in Gijón, Asturias, Northern Spain, where there isn’t much punk but there is a lot of water, both in the sky and in the sea. Other stories and articles by John can be found on both the current and achieved Razorcake website. Occasionally he creates his own fanzine, called BonusCupped. He is thirty years old.