This is a return to a slightly more “regular” tone for this blog. It may shift back and forth. It will probably shift back and forth. Here’s something that happened to me today.
I have a love-hate relationship with commuter trains. I can’t stand the way we’re packed in. I can’t stand the studied indifference of people who board and don’t move down. I can’t stand the soggy heat of too many people standing, perspiring, breathing hot damp little breaths.
But sometimes you wriggle down the aisle and find yourself a gap, because each row of seats has a handle on it. You can’t stand between the handles, as there’s nothing to hold on, so if you inch down the aisle you can get a decent half-metre on each side of you. And – bonus pleasure – you can nose into what your fellow commuters are doing.
Some of them watch last night’s television, and for 17 minutes I am sucked into whatever they’re watching. There’s no sound, of course, and I haven’t the first idea who anyone is. Instead, it’s just a tiny little window into what this passenger enjoys. It’s perfect.
Sometimes people text, and I rest my eyes lazily on their screen, always ready to whisk them away as if I were simply a connoisseur of train ceilings and floor coverings, and had merely rested my eyes on their passage between the two.
Two days ago, someone was learning Russian and texting someone. A colleague, perhaps. They ummed and ahhed over the words, fingers uncertain on the keys. They’d downloaded a Cyrillic keyboard, and everything was in the wrong place. Or was simply the wrong letter.
Fun game: try and find the equivalent (not the facsimile) of a Roman “P”.
Then do the same for “D”, “G”. and “L”.
Then weep forever.
“What are you up to?” their colleague asked.
“Nothing,” they responded. This time their fingers were quick and responsive, tapping out a staccato lie.
Why did they hide that they were learning Russian? It’s not a crime to learn it. Was there a Russian in the picture; some mysterious, attractive, dangerous liaison of which the colleague disapproved?
Or perhaps this person worked for one of the services and was merely texting an acquaintance, trying to keep a cover story up while giving themselves a boost before heading into the field?
Or perhaps this is a closer friend but a friend with whom our student has fallen out. Preparing for a trip to St Petersburg with other, closer friends, they lie in order to keep the peace?
Of such things are novels made.
But I want to tell you about someone I saw today. She was texting a man, and the conversation was the same flirtatious conversation people have when they’ve slept together and feel a little guilt and a lot of excitement.
“So…shall we do something on Friday?” he texts. There is a novel in those ellipses; sex and lust and something we shouldn’t have done and something I’m so glad we did.”Do you want to?” she responds. Testing the water. There’s an out here; he can say no; he can back out. No judgement. Don’t get my hopes up, it says.
The answer comes back quickly. “Do you?” Batted back, a quick volley. He puts it on her, and instantly in my mind there’s something even deeper going on. This wasn’t too many drinks or a one-night stand they’re feeling a little ashamed about. There are other people in this story.
By now I am staring so intensely at this woman’s screen that I’m afraid the weight will flip it out of her hands and onto the floor. I give the carriage a quick once ever, examining the handle I’m holding, the floor, the windows.
Yup. Still good.
I look back.
“I do. I’ll meet you – ” and for a moment I imagine going there and watching this couple greet each other. How do they do it? Are they awkward, or do they slip easily into each others company, fitting together like people should? Is that how you can tell who’s meant to be?
“I’ll just tell Paul I’m out at something. I’ll see you then. I can’t wait.”
Paul must be a boyfriend then, or something more. Her hands and legs jiggle with nervous energy and I feel my own heart speed up in sympathy. Is Paul a bad guy? Is he just dull? Does he know, and does it matter?
And for a moment this is a delicious thing, an exciting adventure. I’m wholeheartedly with this woman, ditching her dull and uninspiring boyfriend for a night of passion. It probably makes me a bad person, but I’m too caught up in the excitement. She flicks over to a different conversation.
“Paul,” she types, fingers tracing half-truths on the keys. “I’ve been invited out with the girls on Friday after work. Helen’s leaving do, so don’t worry about staying up.”
“But since it’s after work could you pick up Nina from school?”
And then suddenly it’s not a romantic fling, or an exciting exploration of sexuality. Objectively it’s probably still both, but I’m suddenly horrified by the depth of my support for her – depth that has now simply evaporated – and the sympathy of equal depth that wells at once.
I looked up, suddenly feeling intrusive and unpleasant. It was as if, biting into an apple, I had found it soft and maggoty.
She got off the train. I moved to let her past, and she looked straight through me. She doesn’t know that I know. I don’t know who she is, or what happened next. Perhaps, right now, she is having a conversation with her husband. Perhaps not.
I sat in her seat for the next few minutes as the train came to my stop, and people shuffled along. I texted my partner. I looked at some emails. I glanced up, and noticed that someone had been watching my screen the whole time.
And I wondered what they thought of my life.