Brief encounters

The festive season can mean so many things – connecting with family and friends, enjoying good company and good food, reflecting on the birth of our saviour, singing seasonal songs and filling up endless recycling bags with brightly coloured paper.  This year, it included a small dose of strangers on trains.

I don’t drive, and am unlikely ever to do so, as the thought frankly terrifies me.  Thus, I tend to rely on the great British public transport system to get me from A to B when B is not within walking distance of A.  Thankfully, Kent is blessed with a decent (though not always timely) bus network, meaning that I can zoom around the county to rehearsals and performances with relatively little difficulty.  Longer distances tend to mean the train, largely because the Victoria Bus Station makes me want to cry.  This year, I made a few train journeys during the twelve days of Christmas, and had two very different encounters as I did so.

My first rail trip was to Malvern in Worcestershire, where I watched Jack and the Beanstalk, a pantomime starring Colin Baker and, more importantly, with musical direction by a good friend of mine.  I was travelling from Buckinghamshire, and the journey there was absolutely fine, despite dire warnings of heavy snowfall across most of the country.  The panto was highly enjoyable with liberal sprinklings of traditional cheesiness, fun and talent.  After spending some time with my friend, I had to head back to the station in order to make it home.  Unfortunately, fate was not on my side.  As I waited, there was an announcement to say that the next train to Birmingham was cancelled due to an incident on the line.  This, I thought, was a shame, but I would happily wait for the next one while reading Terry Pratchett’s musings on cats.  Unfortunately, the next train was cancelled as well and before long I had been sitting in the cold on the station platform for an hour and a half.  As the young people say today, sad times.

As I looked to find out when the next train might possibly be, I was rescued.  A young man asked how long I’d been waiting, as he’d also been trying to get away, but had not spent the intervening time sitting on the platform.  Informing me that there was a pub nearby, he suggested we adjourn there in order to keep warm while the next train decided whether or not it was going to make the journey from Hereford to Birmingham.  We were soon chatting, and I learned that he (Sam) was studying electrical engineering at a university which I had applied to back in the twentieth century when I was beginning my studies.  We passed a pleasant hour and a half or so listening to the pub quiz and wondering why it concentrated so much on popular culture.  We didn’t have a great deal in common, but it was a companionable time which proved that it really is possible for British people to break through their reserve, even if only briefly.  My social skills are ‘interesting’, so conversation was filled with as many pauses as it was with content (I suspect I may have reinforced various librarian stereotypes), but it was wonderful to make an unexpected connection with someone I will probably never see again.  Thankfully, the next train did run, and we were both very happy to get on board.  We parted ways at University station, and I was extremely grateful for his intervention in my life – without him, I’d have been sitting in the cold, alone, for nearly three hours.

My second brief encounter was much briefer, and happened as I travelled from my parents’ home back to Kent on New Year’s Day.  Snow, or more specifically ice, was playing havoc with the trains in Kent, so when I reached Charing Cross, I found that all trains heading South had been cancelled.  I asked the man on the Information desk whether trains were running from Victoria as an alternative and he (after, I am sure, checking on told me that they were.  So I descended into the underworld of the tube system once again and made my way towards a different route home.

I entered a carriage, sat down on a vacant seat and glanced around.  I couldn’t help but notice that the woman sitting on the opposite side of the aisle was crying as she read a book.  Nobody else appeared to have noticed this, but I couldn’t just ignore it.  I had no idea whether the book was making her cry or whether something in her life was the cause of her tears.  I had no idea who she was.  But I reached into my pocket, got out my ever-present packet of tissues and handed a fresh one over to her.  The smile  that lit up her face as I handed it over was a fascinating contrast to the disapproving stare of one fellow passenger who had failed to ignore this.  As she took the tissue and dried her tears, our journey continued in silence.  I soon reached my stop, and stood to leave.  She caught my eye, smiled again and mouthed ‘thank you’ moments before I stepped out onto the platform.  A very brief encounter, to be sure, but a moment that will stick with me for quite some time.  It is possible to connect with our fellow human beings, but we often seem to have lost the art.  I, for one, think that’s a shame.

    • SG V
    • February 1st, 2010

    Well done! And I wholly agree – we were not designed to be in individual, invisible cocoons.

  1. I was really very moved by your encounter on the train and have been meaning to comment for a while – it has a poetic quality to it. And having been caught by fits of weeping in the most astonishingly public places myself, I can vouch that she would have been appreciative both of the tissue and the discretion.


  1. November 28th, 2010

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