It was the day of the 2015 General Election and I was once again making the journey from Cambridge to London, returning to the safe haven of my mad house. I was in second year and the state school chip on my shoulder had started to become an unshifting weight. So I went home to avoid the place. The carriage was empty until the second stop, when one man pressed the button on the train door and got on. He was about fifty, still with a full head of hair, flecked with a grey that was the same colour as his matching tracksuit. On his shoulder he carried a large black duffel bag, which he swung up on to the overhead carrier above the table next to mine. I suppose it’s ingrained naturally within us to feel nervous when someone sits next to you on an otherwise empty carriage; and nervous I felt, especially by the tattoos he had on every finger.
I carried on reading the book about whatever author I was writing on that week; the content escapes me now, but I remember looking at the words intently without making connections between the letters. Don’t talk to me, please don’t say anything, perhaps I concentrated on these instructions so hard, hoping that they would somehow radiate from my brain to his, and he would obey, because in my gut I knew he was about to speak: “Y’lright?” he said. I knew it. I cursed my telepathic abilities. “Yeah, not bad, you?”
“Yeah, I’m alright, love.”
“Just got out today. I’ve been inside.”
“Oh”, I mumbled, not aware of the protocol for responding to someone’s prison time. He looked out the window at the fields gliding along with the speed of the train. “This is nice, init?” His Cockney accent was strangely homely, and something I resented never hearing during my week at Cambridge. I joined him in his gazing, wondering what it would feel like to see a moving outside world again.
There was a momentary silence between the man and me, as I waited, still nervously, for him to speak again. He asked me who I was voting for in the election and I told him I didn’t know, and that I think they’re all the same. He agreed and told me who couldn’t vote any way. He spoke about his son in the army and how he was hoping to see him soon. Then he took a flip phone out of his pocket to find the battery had gone. “This was brand new when I went inside”, he said without any hint of an identifiable emotion. “I’ve gotta meet my probation officer at Liverpool Street. Don’t know how I’m gonna find him now though.”
I looked up again, using the motion to think quickly of another response, but he got there first, “What you reading?” I told him. He asked me why I was reading, which seemed a strange thing to ask, but I answered just as literally, replying that I studied English, “what, like Shakespeare and shit yeah?”, he said. “Yeah”, I replied and then I tried to explain to him why I read Shakespeare and studied English, but he wasn’t having any of it. “It’s all a bit stupid, init. It ain’t real.” I agreed, not wanting to argue with a man who just told me he’d come out of prison only twenty minutes ago. “I can’t read that well anyway” he said, “I’m good at numbers.” “Oh, I prefer words,” I replied tamely. “You wanna go travellin’ when you finish uni or what?” His speech had a tendency to jump randomly from one subject to the next. I think it was because he was just happy to be talking to someone freely, appreciating a conversation. I said I was going to Thailand in the summer but only for a couple of weeks. He’d been to Thailand, he said, the drink was good, the drugs too. It was the first time I’d heard him laugh, it was dry and raspy and made him seem less scary than before.
He told me I looked stressed, and I explained I had exams soon, he replied that I was going to be fine, that I should enjoy myself and remember that life in the grander scheme of things “ain’t about grades, but street smarts.” I nodded and settled into a calmness for the first time since he stepped on to the train. He settled to, telling me that he was going to try and sleep before we got to Liverpool Street, and to wake him when we reached the end. I didn’t have to though, because about five minutes later a loud thump expounded from the ceiling. I jumped from the surprise sound and he did too: “Shit, what was that? I thought I was back inside.” “It always happens on this old train”, I said, my fear of the man now replaced with a pity.
He never fell back to sleep. Instead we spoke about music, pie and mash, and Victoria Park. He was so talkative and easy-going and later told me, when we were saying our good byes, that he was sorry for being so chatty, he’d just not spoken to a “normal female” in a long time. But, if I’m honest I think he would’ve spoken to anyone who was willing to listen. We never exchanged names. Like the train journey, it was a fleeting moment that would soon be swept up in the remains of the day and the later evening. It’s been over a year since this conversation took place, but I tend to think about it whenever I’m on a train, which is actually not such a regular occurrence these days. He taught me in a different way than the book I was reading did. In a simple conversation I understood humankind a bit more by realising just how little I knew about it. Who are these people who I pass in the streets, or look at through big glass windows of coffee shops? Where have they been and what would they have to say if I listened?