Oddballs on the Tube (1)


I moved back to live in the UK in July, having lived in Russia before. One of the most annoying things about living in London is all the time you have to spend sitting on the Tube.

On the other hand, this being London, you can always rely on some ‘mentally divergent’ character to get onto your carriage and display their crazy mind-plumage for anyone to observe. Any students of psychology out there – put down thy books and take up thy Tube map.

Yesterday, I encountered not one but two unusual characters on my Tube journey home. The first got on the carriage at Oval, I believe. He was around my age – 30 or so – and quite well-dressed, smart, unremarkable-looking. The only thing that was out of the ordinary about him was that the first three fingers on his right hand had sellotape wrapped around them, forming a sheath or cellophane mitten.

He sat down, and proceeded to brush himself off using this mitten. Thoroughly. He brushed off the whole of the outside of his jacket, and then brushed off the suit jacket underneath. It was hypnotizing, like a cat licking itself clean.

Then he disposed of the cellophane sheet, scrunching it up in his satchel, and seemed prepared to refrain from eccentric behaviour for the time being. But then I noticed, in his hand, was a small roll of sellotape. And as the passengers boarded the train at Waterloo, he was ever so quietly wrapping this sellotape round his fingers again, to create a new sheath, a new protective device, a new hand-condom to give him safe contact with the nasty filthy outside world.

I was tempted to lean forward and ask him why he needed this device. He seemed fairly rational and professional, perhaps he would explain in calm terms. I assumed he had some form of obsessive compulsive disorder, and was terrified of germs, like Howard Hughes of The Aviator fame. I wondered what he thought of people like me, holding on to the carriage pole with reckless abandon, and some perverse part of me wanted to lick the pole, just to show him how little I cared for personal hygiene. But I didn’t. I just got off the Tube at Tottenham Court, and left him to his eternal self-ablutions.

As always with the Irrational, his behaviour was rooted in an (initially) rational response to a real threat. The Underground is filthy and germ-infested. Think of all those grubby hands on the hanging handles, all those feet on the seats, all those greasy palms on the escalator hand-rests. We should have a complete liniment rub-down after each journey, just to de-germ ourselves. Yet somehow we survive. We let the germs and bacteria get a free ride on us. We are their Tube system.

What his case illustrates, perhaps, is the sheer excess baggage that having an emotional disorder entails. The sheer effort and energy of it: no sooner has he rubbed himself down completely, than he has to take out his sellotape and begin the whole process again.

And the compromises you make for it. A large part of his brain functions completely normally – he goes to work, he probably works quite successfully and mingles socially, he travels home from work. And yet his mental illness, his disorder, tries to come along too, like a parasite, tries to get as much obedience from him as possible. And he tries to give it as much obedience as possible, while maintaining his tenuous position as a member of human society.

So many people with minor mental illnesses have to try and keep up this balancing act – both placating their inner demon, which demands their obedience and feeds off their energy, while also placating external society, which demands that they obey conventional behaviour. So they sit and look normal on the tube, while slowly and quietly winding the sellotape around their fingers…

And the other oddball? I’ll tell you about them another time.

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