For a long time, one of the few things I was really proud of in life was my Oystercard technique.

I was a master. Controlled, efficient, precise. I never caused any unnecessary delay to the people behind me. I knew just how long to keep the card in contact with the reader in order for it to register. I appreciated the subtle difference between “Ticket 1 soon expir” (two to three days left of a weekly Travelcard) and “Ticket 1 near expir” (weekly Travelcard expires tomorrow). I never fumbled around in the walk-up to the ticket barrier trying to find my Oyster; I had it in my hand, ready, prepared.

And yet, although I was always careful to make sure I had my card ready, I never wanted to be one of those over-cautious saps you see standing to one side, somewhere between the escalator and the barrier, making sure they have their ticket to hand before making their approach.

For me, the skill – the art – comes from ensuring every movement is perfectly timed so that without having to alter the pace of my steps, without having to rush, without panicking, I am able to produce my Oyster at the perfect moment. Not just that, but the whole exercise (approaching the barrier; removing my wallet with my left hand from the pocket in my jeans; flipping my wallet open and removing the Oyster with my right hand; swiping it on the reader, the RFID chip embedded in the card sending my details to some magical computer somewhere which then says “Yes, James Ward may pass through these gates” and orders the barrier to open, allowing me to continue without hesitation; as I then return the card to my wallet and my wallet to my pocket) must be done in one continuous, fluid, motion.

It is moments like this when I almost feel like time itself has slowed down, seconds expanded massively. I become aware of everything around me. The incredible distance still to travel. I don’t need to take out my Oystercard for another two or three steps, I can relax. There’s nothing to worry about, it’s all under control. I am calm. I am confident.


Recently, I’ve started getting “Seek Assistance” messages more and more. Almost fifty per cent of the time now. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’m sure I haven’t changed my technique. Sometimes I wonder if I’d grown complacent. That the “Seek Assistance” message is a punishment for my hubris. But, it can’t be that. Although I take pride in my Oystercard skill, I am not cocky. I haven’t changed as a person, I am sure of this. It’s the card. It has to be the card. Maybe after a while, they get worn out, don’t work as effectively. It’s the card. It’s got to be.

It’s got to be.

I can at least take some comfort in the fact that when faced with a “Seek Assistance”, I know to step back from the barrier before trying again. You can’t just stay in your I-was-expecting-the-barrier-to-open position, that’s just asking for trouble.

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