Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Anecdotally... 1: Smiling at strangers on trains

Welcome to Anecdotally..., another semi-regular column. But rather than calling bullshit, this is just going to be me telling you stories. Anecdotes, if you will. Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then we shall begin...

It had been a long, mostly enjoyable day. I had wandered around Hyde Park and drunk chai lattes in a coffee shop, crossed to the East End of London via the Central line and DLR, watched a band I love play a show, and then sat in a pub with an old friend drinking and laughing. By the time I got on the train home, at just past midnight, I was starting to fall asleep.

Instead, I got out the book I was reading, which went by the unwieldly title of This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. It was a collection of short stories which I had taken from the Bloomsbury marketing room on my last day, and after slogging through a 500-page novel alongside my exams, I fancied reading something a bit lighter. Everything was ready for a normal train journey home: I sat down in a window seat facing backwards with my iPod in my ears, a book under my nose, and the rest of the world blocked out. Someone sat down opposite me, but I didn't pay them much attention.

About five minutes into the journey, I heard the drumming of fingers on the train wall. I saw a hand just beneath the window, on top of the "no feet on the seats" sign. I glanced up. I checked my feet weren't on the seat.

The boy opposite me raised his eyebrows. He was too old to be called a "boy", really: in his early 20s, I thought, with dark hair and thick stubble. He wasn't quite attractive in the conventional sense, but there was something interesting in the way his face was arranged. I smiled slightly, shyly, the way you smile at a stranger who is encroaching your personal space when you want them to stop.

I looked back at my book, and he drummed again. He motioned with his hands, and I realised he wanted to see what I was reading. I showed him the cover wordlessly, but my attention had been diverted from the paragraph I was staring at.

"That's in my pile of books to read," he said, and I was taken aback by how nice his voice was. "Though, the pile is about this big," he added, and held up his hands about two feet apart. Before I could stop myself, I laughed.

"I have exactly that problem," I said. "I just picked this because it was the smallest book on my list."

"That's the smallest? Then what's the longest?"

"Probably A Dance With Dragons," I said.

I couldn't help it. I'd been sucked in. We started talking about Game of Thrones, and science fiction authors, and how trains were better than buses. After a couple of minutes, I took out my earphones. After ten, I closed my book and put it in my bag.

I could remember two other times in my life when I had engaged in long conversations with strangers on public transport. The first was when I had been 15, on the day of the General Election, when a handsome bartender had spoken to the guy next to me and swapped seats on the crowded tube, purely because he wanted to speak to me. He'd mentioned his job. He said that talking to strangers was how he amused himself on his commutes. I thought him incredibly brave. He'd asked who I voted for, and I lied and said Lib Dem, flattered he thought me old enough to be able to vote. I was sad to get off at Chalk Farm, because I had to leave this interesting conversationalist behind. His name had been Robert, or Richard. He had smelt of cinnamon.

The other time had been on the train home, wedged in a table seat opposite two American Football fans who'd seen a game that day in London, and next to a Canadian on his way to the airport. Once the football fans had left, I'd talked to the stranger next to me: he had been from the Yukon. He was catching a flight to Portugal, where he intended to pick fruit and then catch buses across the country. He had lived on his own since 13 and had hitch-hiked from Germany to India (or possibly the other way round). He features, occasionally, in conversations: I contribute his existence whenever the subject of hitch-hiking comes up. I don't remember his name. Perhaps he didn't tell me.

"I'm V, by the way," I said, feeling emboldened by my drinks through the day. I'd had three in the last few hours, which - on an empty stomach - had the effect of making me giggly and confident.

"Oliver," he said, but I heard it as Holiver. We had a long conversation about this, our hands still clasped. "Oliver," he said again, "like Twist, the little street urchin. All-singing, all-dancing crooks. That's me."
"Yes, I know," I told him, "I just misheard you, added an imaginary H. Very cockney."

He had moved to the same town as me - counting on his fingers - four days ago, as the office for his job had moved. I let slip I was 18, and though he claimed he'd had me sussed, I was pretty sure he'd assumed I was older. People always do. I guessed he was 23; he was 25. His favourite band was The Eagles and he worked in 3D modelling, which sounded terribly interesting but had little to do with what his degree was in.

"About a year and a half ago, when all the stuff about Blackfriars 1 was on the news - that was our company."
"I don't remember that," I told him.
"It's a weird building. A skyscraper. Looks a bit like a thumb."
"A thumb?"
He demonstrated what he meant by half-bending his thumb. "Yeah, it goes up, and then it's got a kink in it."
"My thumb kinks the other way," I said, because I quite like showing off my weird hands. I have a thumb that, when straightened, bends back at about fifty degrees. Everything about my hands is weird: the tips of my index and middle fingers bend off at angles too. My peace signs have a definite tilt to them. He laughed, and pressed the ends of my index fingers together, the way I always challenge people to do, and laughed more as they sprang back and I told him that no, it didn't hurt at all.

As the train approached our stop, he stood up and I realised how tall he was. I also decided that I wanted to keep talking to him, this stranger who had started a conversation with a girl with pink hair based purely on the book she was reading.

"I kind of want to have lunch with you sometime," I said, and his wallet was out. He pulled out a business card, with his number on it, and a QR code underneath, in case I was "that kind of geek".
"Consider it done," he said.

My dad was waiting in the car for me outside the station. I texted Oliver once I got home, with one kiss on the end, and he said he'd "been about 15 seconds" from asking me out too.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. It's not often you end up organising dates with strange men you meet on the train. He doesn't seem like a potential murderer, but then again they never do. Still, I'm intrigued, but mostly amused. And if nothing else, I have a vaguely interesting anecdote to tell my friends.

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