An Oyster for Christmas

It all started with a misplaced Oyster card which I thought was in my usual coat pocket. One morning, we woke up to freezing weather. I changed coats and used my contactless debit card. It was a couple of weeks before Christmas. 

We went on holiday with my family in France. London, the grey tube station, deep escalators and the nasal voices chanting “mind the gap” were far away. 

My husband was the first to notice that a lot of « auto top ups » been deducted from our account. I called TFL, and after a laborious discussion, cancelled the card, and discovered that my negligence had funded a mysterious traveller for three weeks. I imagined that my Oyster traveller was a young woman, called Mary. She was a single mother, with thin hair and dark eyes, lived with her elderly mother and one kid, Charlie, in a deep corner of Essex. She worked long days, took an interminable bus journey at 6 am every morning to get to Goodmayes station to take the Overground to Hampstead. She spent her day cleaning houses in North London. Granite countertops and Italian bathrooms.  Precious wooden floors and shiny cushions on deep sofas. She finished cleaning houses at 6 pm and then would clean offices close to Swiss Cottage. She ended her day a little before 9 pm and would run to take the 21:03 Overground from Finchley & Frognal.

She found my card on a rainy Monday around lunch time, as she was walking in the street to her next job. She had just finished cleaning a flat in Compayne Gardens. It was one of her preferred apartments, with shiny floors and large bay windows. It was her second job of the day. She smelled of cleaning products. A lingering bleach scent mixed with citrus. She could feel a slight burn in her lungs. Her hands were dry and red.  She often forgot to bring her gloves. 

She had always been good at spotting things. A penny on the floor, an untied shoe lace, a stain on a shirt, a forgotten book on a bench. She was walking when she saw a colourful spot on the grey pavement. It was my Tate member card holder which I had been using to carry my Oyster. Mary picked it up, looked around, prepared to run after a hypothetical owner. She saw my silhouette turning through the corner, walking fast, and decided I was too far away. She put the card in her pocket and forgot about it. 

She tried the card a couple of days later. She thought it would not work but it did and showed a balance of £13.70. She felt a guilty pinch but walked through the gates. Each day, she expected that the card would no longer work. Each day, it did, my auto-stop activated, and over the course of 3 weeks, she saved a total of £163 pounds. A full week’s expenses. Half of her Christmas budget. After a week using my card, she no longer felt guilty. She called it her magic card and smiled.

The free travel made her long dark commute feel lighter. The scents of the early risers mingling with the late party goers smell sweeter. The muffled noises of the tube and the low-quality earphones spillovers sounded like music. She smiled slightly, looked ahead, feeling lucky, her magic oyster in her pocket, wishing it would never stop. 

She no longer worried about peak times. She visited her sister in Watford. She even let her brother borrow her magic oyster at week-ends, a little pre-Christmas treat. She splashed on trips to Richmond Park and Kew Gardens at weekends, with little Charlie. As I reflected on my vaporized pounds, I tracked her journeys down day by day for the nineteen days she used my card.

On weekdays, I noticed she would get up at dawn. She would kiss little Charlie asleep in her bed. The shower was in the kitchen.  A narrow cubicle with a trickle of warm water. She would make a large pot of coffee and poor some in a flask to keep her going. Prepare a cereal bowl and a sandwich for Charlie. Sometimes she would leave a treat she had bought the day before. She would put £10 on the table. £15 on good days. She knew her mum would do her best. Then the long journey to her first cleaning job would start. It would take her the best of 2 hours. She would doze off in the bus. The windows foggy with all the early breath of tired greater London commuters. They were softly breathing together, sighs of those whose nights were too short and days too dark. 

The journey was more interesting than usual around Christmas time. All the decorations were drawing diffracted shiny shapes in the streets, on trees and windows.  She thought they had been hung out just for her and Charlie. 

After the long bus journey, she would jump on the Overground. She liked that part best, the rhythmic journey in rich London boroughs where houses had large gardens and multiple cars parked in front. Kids walking to school with the confident smiles of achievers who had their homework neatly packed in their bags. 

This year would be a good Christmas she thought, feeling my Oyster in her pocket.