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The game started with a stranger nudging the man’s left arm from the armrest. Another day he might have fought for the spot. But he had been ruminating, and the sensation came from nowhere. He felt his neighbour’s right arm snuggle its elbow against his left arm. When the Tube jolted, a hand hopped into the spot where his own had been. A warm form lay against his arm, which now hovered beside the armrest, floating in mid-air. There had been no struggle, no contest; only sensation.
The moment reminded the man of a Bible story from a middle-school assembly. Jesus was walking through a crowd when he felt someone touch the hem of his clothes. But it wasn’t because Jesus saw them that he knew he’d been touched. The Bible said the prophet felt his “power had gone out from him”.
Back on the Underground, the man has no time for qi or reiki or chakras or “power”. But when the stranger’s coat sleeve had touched his own, he too had felt energy flow away from him like an out-breath. All day he was heady and light: he couldn’t stop thinking about the feeling of the stranger’s arm on his. It was not long after this that the man began to play.
These were the rules of touch thievery. First of all, a game must only occur between the hours of 6.30am and 9.30pm on the London Underground. Buses are an unsuitable ground for play (too great a risk of injury), likewise trains (pitch too large) and the Overground (implausibility of playing by daylight).
The second law of touch thievery is: thieves must pick on someone similar in size to themselves, or larger. Thieves cannot subvert their play into exercises in intimidation or harassment: pensioners, children, wheelchair users and pregnant women are out of bounds; anyone who might hesitate to complain or retaliate. For the man – at a respectable 5′ 10″ – the second rule relegates swathes of the general populace. Chivalric code sets the tone.
There’s no question of the game hurting anyone: nine times out of ten, the subject doesn’t even notice he or she is a goal. For every subject who recoils from his touch (as if his hand is a wet umbrella or a dog’s tongue), another welcomes him with a smile. Perhaps they too are playing his game.
Thievery was down to a mixture of skill and luck. At first, it was a game without rules. He learned his hunting ground over a number of years, and knew the best places to play, rest, look and hide, where the yellow line at the edge of the platform was scuffed faint, and how to perfect his camouflage.
After a while, the game became more sophisticated. Like a Go player he looked for sequences, not moves – heading to a quiet section of the train, knowing body language there would be more relaxed because the carriage was less crowded. In packed carriages, you could start a fight by brushing against someone’s backpack. But in adequately-filled carriages, a thief could run one hand along a stranger’s entire thigh without so much as an apologetic glance. The thief replays memories of his greatest coups in his head: the tall gentleman in his grasp as he tripped when the train braked; the young sweaty squash player who fell into him and accidentally wrapped his arms around the thief in order to catch himself.
Before the game, he’s been in what he’d now call a crisis. There had been something else that occupied him: a “love interest”, as a synopsis of his life story might have it.
They would play a game too. They could win whole tournaments just with the touch of a fingertip on the back of a hand and a palm in the small of a back. That’s how it felt, anyway – terraces packed with rattlers and screaming kids in stripy scarves jubilating inside him when she’d brush against him, hug him, pick lint off his clothes or find another pretext to touch.
But she never left her boyfriend, and eventually the stadium inside his chest emptied. Now in his life there comes an occasional haircut or a party, or sometimes even a date. Activity keeps him from the game. He forgets to play for a day or two, and becomes one of the quiet commuters instead: reading a novel or listening to his headphones, lifting his head to look for a person to give his seat up to.
But thievery always pulls him back in. The daily routine of Tube, work, gym, home wears thin. He longs for the simplicity of this contact solitaire: one set of rules, one player. And so, as if it never stopped, the game began again. After work, rich with good play, he takes home touches like bright prizes.
His most audacious win, and the most serendipitous too, took place off-court, in a Pret near the building he worked in. By the fridges a woman his mother’s age was standing alone, reaching for a sandwich. The thief walked towards the subject, who looked with curiosity back at him. As the subject’s hand moved towards the packet, the touch thief covered hers in his.
Most civilians would laugh off a moment like that, and a rare few would escalate the contact by fighting back. But the touch thief locked eyes with his subject and the hands, like actors, held one another for a beat. He met the woman’s gaze for a count of three before releasing and walking straight out. That moment, polished to brilliance with frequent recollection, sustained him for weeks.
His favourite match was when a man in his thirties actually embraced him. The thief had been looking for a new subject, one sultry night in September. After an easy, boring day at work, he took the long route home: two trains rather than three, it had an extra change to the quick route home, and the fifteen extra minutes increased his chances of a satisfying play. He had no other plans that night. The first train was packed full of nervy tourists, whose glances were quick as a shoal of fish. They were only looking for pickpockets, he knew, but it felt almost patronising as one after another met his gaze, and smiled at him, assured by his clean suit and shirt.
The second train was oddly quiet. Empty trains at rush hour were the worst: passengers sat and stood in haloes of absent-mindedness, tiredness or outright despair. You only had to graze the skin of these haloes to earn a glare. Odds of a good game narrowed again.
He had just boarded the third train when a jolt sent one passenger falling into his arms. He felt an electric thrill as he felt the man’s shoulder thud against his chest, faster than his own reactions. The passenger jerked away, gaze plunging to the carriage floor. Sorry, sorry, the man whispered, face flushing, and the touch thief imagined he could smell an anxious sweat springing up from his opponent. The passenger bolted off at the next stop. The touch thief rode home in an awed grace, still tasting the sweet random play of the night’s game.
The game’s obsessive nature has had a slow, empathising effect on its player. For example, now when he sees stories about celebrity shoplifters, he knows why they did it. He knows the excitement. They have everything, but they still crave the sudden and almost unimpeachable intimacy that comes from taking something small – something they could afford but don’t have of their own.
But the game finished quite suddenly one morning before work. It was 8.54am, and the thief rode the dragging escalators out of the concrete underhalls, racking his brains about why his sportsmanship had been so weak so far that week. Dread gathered in his stomach. It felt as if the day was almost already ruined.
He was coming up to the ticket gates when he saw a bigger, older chap in an old unfashionable black leather coat slowing down. The man was looking through his wallet for the card he tapped in with. The thief hesitated, but reasoned with himself: time to go, quick getaway, looks like the kind of chap who’d take it on the chin.
As the man approached the ticket barrier, the thief came up behind him. He feinted left and right, so the people behind him thought he was hurrying impatiently around the old gentleman. But at the last minute, he gathered his courage.
The gentleman touched his card onto the reader; the thief embraced him from behind. He pressed his torso against the man’s back, his face pressed sideways against the leather, arms out at stiff angles down either side of the subject’s body, insides of elbows pressed against his sides.
But the card failed. The gates beeped and flashed a red sign. As the man banged against them, assuming they’d open, the touch thief misstepped and shoved the subject against the gates. So the man shouted.
What the fuck are you doing? he cried, pushing the touch thief backwards, card still in his right hand. You fucking idiot! Look what you made me do.
The touch thief knew he had to come out swinging too, so the man wouldn’t guess he’d been trying to touch him.
The gates are fucking shut, mate, he wanted to say, but his voice closed up.
Meanwhile, the man was still pushing him backwards. Tube staff were hurrying over. In the last moment of the game he felt a surge of something, the meeting of defeat and victory.
The man raised his voice.
Stepping on me when I’m trying to get through the gates, the fucking gates, my fucking card’s not working—
Please sir, the staff said, could you come over to this gate, sir—
But the man continued to cuss the thief:
Coming up behind me, you were practically up my arse, look at you in your suit and tie. You probably think you’re very fucking important, don’t you. I’m going to the hospital, I’m going to the hospital to see my mum—
—please, sir, the staff went on, if you just come to this gate—
The touch thief and the staff members’ eyes flicked between one another and the ranting man.
Come on then, come on if you really want to run into me on your way, come and run into me now, why don’t you run into me now—
Another staff member was coming to subdue the man. The thief realised he’d broken into a sweat. The supervisor put both his hands up in front of his chest and took a deep breath.
Look sir I’m going to need you to calm down—
The words sizzled through the ticket hall.
I am calm, the ranting man replied, I’m so fucking calm right now! This prick, this prick here – and he flicked his fingers under the touch thief’s chin.
That’s enough, the supervisor said firmly, his hands resting lightly on the man’s chest, his voice slightly raised.
The touch thief didn’t stick around to find out what happened next. As the ranting man’s anger finally exploded, he bolted for the gates, Oyster still in hand, across the polished floor of the station and into the light. A cool breeze touched the sweat on the back of his neck as he rode the escalator to the concourse. He stepped through the revolving doors of the building and into the dark, into the lift, into his office. 9.02am, the clock on the desk read.
Everything alright? his deskmate asked.
Fine, he said, walking to the window, looking for a police car outside the station. He ran his finger over the edges of the radiator, for a feeling.