The seventh circle of (shopping) hell

Oxford Circus on a Friday night is, one imagines, akin to being in the seventh circle of Hell. Just making it out of the tube station is a fight for survival, but once you hit the main concourse that’s when the struggle really begins. As you navigate the constant stream of dazed shoppers and excited tourists you find yourself sympathising for salmon in their battle to make it upstream. Everyone seems to be going in the opposite direction to you. In this no man’s land they are your enemies, yet when you scan their hostile faces you see your own plight reflected back at you as if in a mirror. Your bags become lead in your hands, your feet heavier still.

When the need to escape this throng of lemmings becomes overwhelming you duck into a department store, but after wandering amongst the over-painted perfume ladies their cloying scents make you heady and nauseous. You are losing focus and you know it. Panic bubbles furiously in the cauldron of your stomach. Beads of sweat nudge down your temples like a landslide. “Can I help you, Madam?” says a perfume lady. ‘Yes,’ you want to scream, ‘please help me! I’ve no idea what I’m doing here and I want so desperately to go home! And, while you’re at it, can you tell me why it’s so interminably hot in here?’ But of course you don’t say that. You just give her a strained smile, and beat as hasty a retreat to the exit as you can whilst maintaining the shred of dignity you still have left.

Gasping in the air outside the shop you scan the pavement for a break in the plasma flow of fellow humankind. When that break comes you run as fast as your heavy feet will carry you back to the tube, eschewing the advances of the Evening Standard seller as he tries to thrust a paper into your clammy hands. And within minutes you are cocooned in the carriage of the tube train, speeding away from the place that has tormented you, empty-handed but immeasurably relieved.

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John Doe

John Doe woke to the sound of rowing neighbours and the view of his alarm clock’s blinking red light. In two minutes the alarm would sound, a siren call demanding he rise and actively participate in life. He reached out to flick the switch that would silence it before it began, a fleeting flicker of satisfaction rippling across the otherwise flat vista of his personal horizon.

He washed and dressed, then carelessly threw some cat food in the bowl as he exited the kitchen. As he stepped out into the street he paused to look up at the sky. He sighed. It was another grey day after a succession of equally grey predecessors. As he walked towards the train station it began to rain. He had no umbrella.

The train platform was crowded, five deep in sleep-deprived commuters, not one of them wanting to be where they were. John Doe positioned himself just back from where he knew the doors would be. Fat rain drops splashed onto his cheeks. Next to him a fat woman jostled for space for her obscenely large breasts. A man coughed in his face.

The train pulled up and in the ensuing scramble someone stumbled, cried out. But, intent on catching their trains, not one person helped their fallen comrade. She was a businesswoman, early thirties, or so John Doe suspected. As the doors closed inches from her face she pulled her skirt down to cover her modesty and slowly rose to her feet, cursing as the blank expressions of those who had safely boarded the train began to move.

John Doe moved into the space that had been created by the evacuation of the other commuters from the platform. The businesswoman, having recovered herself, stood beside him, a scowl plastered on her otherwise pretty face. A tidal wave of people rose up from the depths of the tunnel at the end of the platform, spilling over the lip of the top step and thronging all around them.

A disembodied voice announced the next train would be five minutes late, and a collective sigh breathed through the impatient crowd. Behind him John Doe heard a woman with a high pitched voice screech into her phone that she was about to miss a meeting.

After five minutes the train had still not arrived, and frustrations were at fever pitch. There were now so many people on the platform that John Doe could feel a pressure against his back as they forged ever forward. A woman – perhaps the businesswoman, though John Doe could no longer be sure – shouted, begged for people to stop pushing. But still they pushed.

As the train finally pulled into the platform there was a blood curdling scream. The commuter mob swayed uncertainly. Another scream, more prolonged this time, followed by a man’s voice: “For Christ’s sake, move back!” Eventually the message filtered through and the swarm retreated, parting ways enough for everyone to see the twisted form of John Doe splayed across the track.

Rather different from the ones in central London…