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Iona Iverson's Rules for Commuting: A Novel

Iona Iverson's Rules for Commuting: A Novel

by Clare Pooley
Iona Iverson's Rules for Commuting: A Novel

Iona Iverson's Rules for Commuting: A Novel

by Clare Pooley


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Nobody ever talks to strangers on the train. It’s a rule. But what would happen if they did?

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Authenticity Project comes an escapist read that will transport you, cheer you, and make you smile—and make you, too, wish you had Iona’s gift for bringing out the best in everyone.

“A not-to-be-missed read in the mode of Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.” —Booklist, starred review

Every day Iona, a larger-than-life magazine advice columnist, travels the ten stops from Hampton Court to Waterloo Station by train, accompanied by her dog, Lulu. Every day she sees the same people, whom she knows only by nickname: Impossibly-Pretty-Bookworm and Terribly-Lonely-Teenager. Of course, they never speak. Seasoned commuters never do.
Then one morning, the man she calls Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader chokes on a grape right in front of her. He’d have died were it not for the timely intervention of Sanjay, a nurse, who gives him the Heimlich maneuver.
This single event starts a chain reaction, and an eclectic group of people with almost nothing in common except their commute discover that a chance encounter can blossom into much more. It turns out that talking to strangers can teach you about the world around you—and even more about yourself.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984878649
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/07/2022
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 17,068
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Clare Pooley graduated from Cambridge University, and then spent twenty years in the heady world of advertising before becoming a full-time writer. Her debut novel, The Authenticity Project, was a New York Times bestseller, and has been translated into twenty-nine languages. Pooley lives in Fulham, London, with her husband, three children, and two border terriers. Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting is her second novel.

Read an Excerpt



08:05   Hampton Court to Waterloo


Until the point when a man started dying right in front of her on the 08:05, Iona's day had been just like any other.


She always left the house at half past seven. It took her an average of twenty minutes to walk to the station in heels, which meant she'd usually arrive fifteen minutes before her train left for Waterloo. Two minutes later if she was wearing the Louboutins.


Arriving in good time was crucial if she wanted to secure her usual seat in her usual carriage, which she did. While novelty was a wonderful thing when it came to fashion, or film, or even patisserie, it was not welcome on her daily commute.


Some time ago, Iona's editor had suggested that she start working from home. It was, he'd told her, all the rage, and her job could be done just as well remotely. He'd tried to cajole her out of her office space with sweet talk of an extra hour in bed and more flexibility, and, when that didn't work, had attempted to drive her out by making her do something awful called hot desking, which-she learned-was corporate speak for sharing. Even as a child, Iona had never liked sharing. That little incident with the Barbie doll was still seared in her memory and, no doubt, her classmates' as well. No, boundaries were necessary. Luckily, Iona's colleagues quickly became familiar with which was her preferred desk, and it morphed from hot to decidedly frigid.


Iona loved going into the office. She enjoyed rubbing shoulders with all the youth, who taught her the latest lingo, played her their favorite new tracks, and told her what to watch on Netflix. It was important to keep at least one finger plugged into the zeitgeist, especially in her profession. Bea, bless her, wasn't much help on that front.


She wasn't, however, looking forward to today very much. Her latest editor had scheduled a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree appraisal, which sounded altogether too intimate. At her age (fifty-seven), one didn't like to be appraised too closely, and certainly not from every angle. Some things were best left to the imagination. Or not thought about at all, to be honest.


Anyhow, what did he know? Much like policemen and doctors, her editors seemed to get younger and younger with each passing year. This one, believe it or not, was conceived after the World Wide Web. He'd never known a world where phones were tethered to the wall and you had to look up facts in the Encycloaedia Britannica.


Iona thought back, somewhat wistfully, to her annual appraisals when she'd first started at the magazine, nearly thirty years ago. They didn't call them "appraisals" then, of course. They were called "lunch," and they happened at the Savoy Grill. The only downside was having to politely remove her editor's fat, sweaty hand from her thigh on a regular basis, but she was quite adept at that, and it was almost worth it for the sole meunire, deftly detached from the bone by a subservient waiter with a French accent, and washed down with a chilled bottle of Chablis. She tried to remember the last time someone-other than Bea-had attempted to grope her under a table, and couldn't. Not since the early nineties, in any case.


Iona checked her reflection in the hall mirror. She'd gone for her favorite red suit today-the one that shouted I mean business and Don't even think about it, mister.


"Lulu!" she called, only to discover the French bulldog already sitting right by her feet, ready to go. Another creature of habit. She leaned down to attach the lead to Lulu's hot-pink collar, studded with diamantŽ spelling out her name. Bea didn't approve of Lulu's accessories. Darling, she's a dog, not a child, she'd said on numerous occasions. Iona was quite aware of that. Children these days were rather selfish, lazy, and entitled, she thought. Not like darling Lulu at all.


Iona opened the front door and called up the stairs, as she always did, "Bye bye, Bea! I'm off to the office. I'll miss you!"



The advantage of boarding the train at Hampton Court was that it was the end of the line, or the beginning, depending, of course, on which way you were traveling. There was a life lesson there, thought Iona. In her experience, most endings turned out to be beginnings in disguise. She should make a note of that one for the column. So, the trains were always-as long as you arrived early enough-relatively empty. This meant that Iona could usually occupy her favorite seat (seventh aisle seat on the right, facing forward, at a table) in her favorite carriage: number three. Iona had always preferred odd numbers to evens. She didn't like things to be too round or convenient.


Iona sat down, putting Lulu on the seat beside her, and began arranging her things in front of her. Her thermos filled with green tea, just chockablock with age-defying antioxidants; a bone china cup and matching saucer, because drinking tea out of plastic was beyond the pale in any circumstance; her latest mail; and her iPad. It was just ten stops to Waterloo, and the thirty-six-minute journey was the perfect opportunity to prepare for the day ahead.


As the train became busier and busier with each stop, Iona worked happily in her little bubble, wonderfully anonymous and blending into the background. Just one of thousands of identikit commuters, none of whom paid her the blindest bit of attention. Certainly, no one would talk to her, or to anyone else. Everyone knew the Second Rule of Commuting: you may nod to someone if you've seen them on a significant number of occasions, even-in extremis-exchange a wry smile or an eye roll at one of the guard's announcements over the tannoy, but you never, ever talk. Unless you were a nutter. Which she wasn't, despite what they said.


An unfamiliar noise made Iona look up. She recognized the man sitting in front of her. He wasn't usually on this train, but she often saw him on her return journey, on the 18:17 from Waterloo. She'd noticed him because of his exquisite tailoring, which ordinarily she would have admired, but it was rather ruined by an extraordinary sense of entitlement that only really comes with being white, male, heterosexual, and excessively solvent. This was evidenced by his penchant for manspreading, and talking extremely loudly on his mobile phone about the markets and positions. She'd once heard him refer to his wife as the ball and chain. He'd always get off at Surbiton, which struck her as a little incongruous. She gave all the passengers she recognized pet names, and he was Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader.


Right now, he did not look quite so pleased with himself. If anything, he seemed in distress. He was leaning forward, clutching at his throat, and emitting a volley of sounds somewhere between a cough and a vomit. The girl sitting next to him-a pretty young thing, with red hair in a plait, and dewy skin that she no doubt took for granted but would, one day, remember fondly-said, rather nervously, "Are you okay?" He was, quite obviously, not okay. He looked up, trying to communicate something to them, but his words seemed jammed in his throat. He gestured toward a half-eaten fruit salad on the table in front of him.


"I think he's choking on one of his strawberries. Or maybe a grape," said the girl. This was obviously an emergency. It hardly mattered precisely which piece of fruit was involved. The girl put down the book she was reading and patted him on the back, between his shoulder blades. It was the sort of gentle pat that was often accompanied by the words good dog, and not at all what the situation required.


"Here, do it harder," said Iona, leaning forward across the table and giving him a hefty thump with a closed fist, which she found rather more enjoyable than she should have done, given the circumstances. For a moment, there was silence, and she thought he was better, but then the choking sounds started again. His face had turned a mottled purple, and his lips had started to lose their color.


Was he going to die, right here on the 08:05? Before they even got to Waterloo?






08:13   Surbiton to Waterloo


Piers's day was not going at all to plan. For a start, this was not his usual train. He liked to be in the City before the markets opened, but today's routine had been thrown completely off course due to Candida firing the au pair the day before.


Magda had been their third au pair this year, and Piers had held out high hopes for her lasting at least until the end of the school term. Then they'd returned early from a disastrous weekend away en famille to discover Magda in bed with the landscape gardener, and cocaine residue and a rolled-up banknote on a hardback copy of The Gruffalo. Piers might have been able to persuade Candida to let Magda off with a warning, since she'd been off duty at the time, but the besmirching of the children's favorite bedtime story had been the final straw. How can I read that story again without imagining Tomaso exploring Magda's deep, dark wood? Candida had yelled.


Things had gone further downhill when Piers had finally boarded a train at Surbiton, to discover that the only free seat, at a table for four, was opposite the weird lady and her apartment-faced, wheezy dog. Piers didn't usually see her in the morning, but she was an irritatingly familiar sight on his return journey. He obviously wasn't the only commuter who tried hard to avoid her, since she was often flanked by the only unoccupied seats.


Crazy Dog Woman was looking even more ridiculous than usual, wearing a crimson suit upholstered in a tweed fabric that would have been much more at home covering the furniture in a primary school.


Piers did a quick mental calculation on the pros and cons of standing until he got to Waterloo versus sitting opposite the sofa in heels. Then he noticed that the girl sitting next to the empty seat was rather gorgeous. He was pretty sure he'd seen her on the train before. Piers recognized the little gap between her two front teeth-a tiny imperfection that tipped the balance of her face from blandly pretty to captivating. He may even have winked at her-one of those silent moments of communion shared by those attractive and successful commuters who found themselves stranded in a sea of mediocre humanity, like high-performance racing cars in a Costco parking lot.


She was in her late twenties, probably, wearing a tight pink skirt, which he was sure displayed a perfect pair of legs, sadly hidden under the table, with a white T-shirt and a black blazer. She must have some trendy media job that allowed dressing down all week, not just on Fridays. Having some eye candy for the journey swung the balance in favor of sitting down.


Piers pulled out his phone to check on his key positions. He'd lost so much money last week that he needed this week to be spectacular. He sent out a silent prayer to the gods of the markets, while taking a grape from the small fruit salad he'd picked up at the convenience store by the station. He'd spent so long trying to get the kids to eat their breakfast while fending off cries of Where's Magda? We want Magda! that he'd neglected to eat his own. He'd hovered over the pain au chocolat in the bakery section, but Candida had banned him from eating pastries, as she said he was getting fat. Fat?!? He was actually in remarkably good shape for his age. Still, he held his stomach in, just in case, conscious of the girl sitting next to him.


Piers goggled at the numbers on his screen. Surely that couldn't be right? Dartington Digital had been a dead cert. He took a sharp, involuntary intake of breath, then felt something lodge deep in the back of his throat. He tried to breathe, but it just settled in further. He atempted a cough, but it had no impact on the obstruction whatsoever. Stay calm, he told himself. Think. It's only a grape. But he could feel himself being overwhelmed by a wave of fear and helplessness.


Piers banged his hands on the table and widened his eyes at the women around him in a silent plea. He felt someone pat his back in a motion that was more massage than the extreme surgery required. Then, thank goodness, a sharp, hard thump that surely must do the job? With a huge sense of relief, he felt the grape shift slightly. Before it settled back into position.


I cannot die right here, right now, he thought. Not on this ghastly commuter train surrounded by nobodies and weirdos. Then, an even worse thought: If I die today, Candida will find out. She'll realize what I've been doing, and the kids will grow up knowing what a loser their father really is.


From his position, hunched over the table, Piers could see the red suit standing up, like a volcano erupting, and a loud voice bellowed, "IS THERE A DOCTOR ON THE TRAIN?!?" Please, please, he thought, let there be a doctor on the train. He'd give up everything he had just to be able to breathe again. Are you listening, Universe? You can have it all.


Piers closed his eyes, but he could still see red-either the ghost of the crimson tweed, or the blistering of blood vessels behind his eyeballs.


"I'm a nurse!" he heard from somewhere behind him. Then, within a few seconds that felt like an eternity, two arms clenched round him from behind, and he was pulled up from his crouching position, the arms thrusting deep into his stomach-once, twice, three times.

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