Strangers on a train (3). A trip to London.

29 Apr

I boarded a District Line tube at Wimbledon and settled in my half-empty carriage to my book, The Junior Officers’ Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey. Seated, head down, phone off, I drifted through the pages of soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan. The boredom, humour and utter terror of a life I wouldn’t know. Someone was shouting into an android three seats away, desperate to connect before we went subterranean. Wanker. Otherwise all seemed OK.

Parson’s Green. Young black bloke gets on, announced by the tinny, high-pitched whistle of an iPod, blaring decibel-destruction into his own ears and irritation around the carriage. He sits opposite.  Nothing said. Stiff upper lips all round. Putney Bridge. A Marianne Faithful lookalike (40+ years ago anyway) gets on and finds a spare seat next to the noise. She has a copy of Paris Match protruding from a shoulder bag. Ten seconds pass. She realises her journey will be compromised. She gets up, hastily, haughtily even and marches to the far end of the carriage. Definitely French.

Fulham Broadway. Thick-set white, middle aged bloke in overalls appears. Bespattered. A builder? Rug of greying hair protrudes from his wide-open shirt. Bald. Big boots. He sits next to our DJ. The train moves off, the pulse and pitch of the music overrides all thought. I look up and see the new arrival showing active signs of discontent. Loud theatrical sigh. My interest piqued, I rest my book on my lap and wait.

Not for long. My builder-friend half-turns to our irritant and gently, carefully pulls an earpiece out. I was surprised at the lack of aggression and further, amazed, when he spoke. With no hint of menace, but with undeniable, firm imperative he breathed, “Turn that fucking think down will you mate?” I  held my own breath here. No one else seemed to notice the drama before us – but of course they all had seen and heard. We all play the weird game of locked-in-syndrome unless bold enough to voice discomfort, opinion. I had admired Marianne earlier but this polite, unrefusable request transcended any previous Gestalt of such situations. And  more, the young man responds!

” I’m so sorry; of course.” The accent, public school – or at least that place where Tony Blair sent his kids. The expected uncouth shrug or ‘innit’ voice no part of this young man’s behavioural vocabulary. And yet he knew what he was doing with the full-volume blasting of strangers, just as he knew how to apologise and kill the volume. Self-preservation? Or just manners.

I make it to Sloane Square without more excitement. I have to kill time. I am meeting my daughter. She will be late but I factor this in and allow myself to enjoy the freedom of time. The King’s Road. It’s plush round here. Knightsbridge a stone’s throw, designer shops to right and left, estate agents boasting eye-watering prices for modest flats. There’s a confused hubbub of languages about. It seems most conversations are being conducted in French or Spanish or, actually, American. Fewer Eastern Europeans round here? I head past the Saatchi gallery and turn right at Calvin Klein – I have spied a bookshop at the end of Culford Gardens and I need a browse in the quiet of a sensible store.

Most sole-trader bookshops struggle, don’t they? But here in Kensington and Chelsea this little place is bustling. Bookish people are asking if biographies reviewed in last week’s Sunday Times have come in yet. Smart uniformed prep. school children are quietly browsing in kiddies’ corner. A mother says, “Hurry up and choose, we’ve got to go home via M and S otherwise we’ve nothing for supps.” English, to my surprise.

I hear a conversation outside. A Spanish mother having one of those chats with a son which sounds like ferocious argument but is, in fact, a loving exchange. They come in. I turn and look.. and take her in. Silly clicky high-heels, skinny jeans, tight top, shock of dark hair, aviator sunglasses and…annoyingly attractive. Their conversation continues. Now the boy, also uniformed,  takes the lead and his mother gestures for him to go to the front desk. A perfect and polite English voice comes from the boy’s previously Hispanic gob, “Excuse me have you got the last Alex Rider book, please?”

I smile and head off for Starbucks, needing a bit of barrack room banter from my book to restore order in my head.

Sitting in the alcove at the front of the coffee shop, I have my window on the world. The traffic moves surprisingly freely outside and seemingly hundreds of buses pass, laden with workers going home or heading to meet buddies for beers. It is 6 o’clock. Hordes of pedestrians click by, so many ‘working’ their mobiles as if lives depended on connections made while walking from A to B. Ted Baker bags bounce around the arms of women; men in suits deep in business conversation amble by heading towards Colbert’s the posh new French place on the square or perhaps Pimlico for a gastro pub. There’s no shortage of choice here. Older school pupils rucksacked with cricket and tennis gear,  bantering away, head for home – and if they live round here they’ll be laying their heads in plush bedrooms tonight.

My attention is caught by an American woman ordering coffee – her accent is more Bronx than Boston but it is the expression Hot Latte that catches my ear. “I wanna get three hot lattes,” she demands. The attractive, pony-tailed young waitress (at last an eastern european accent!) smiles.

“All our lattes are hot!”

“Not from the last Starbucks I was in, they weren’t.” Caustic but not unpleasant. I released a smile, which the Yankie lady saw and reciprocated. I resolved to ask for ‘hot’ lattes in the future.

I looked outside again. Almost time to go but I had been enjoying the piped lazy jazz, Frank Sinatra… American Songbooky music that I would rarely buy but seemed perfect for a late afternoon in Starbucks. I glanced across the road. A flower-seller trading beneath a large umbrella, boasting the patronage of KnightFrank.co.uk, Estate Agents – stamped on the fringe of the canvas. An elderly man I had seen earlier, surely then with his wife, now solo, was making his way across the road. He stooped over various bucketed bunches below the canopy. A few seconds and a suitable selection was made. There was a smiley exchange between vendor and vendee and the older man shuffled away towards Sloane Square. He was almost out of Starbucks spying range when he stopped and waited at the pavement’s edge. A minute passed, two, three perhaps. Buses went by a-plenty, taxis too. A rater stooped lady, relying quite heavily on her stick, shambled into view and stopped just a yard from my perch in the Starbucks alcove. She looked up and across the road, scanning the bustle of life, searching. It didn’t take long for my flower-buyer to spot her. He raised the bouquet. She lifted her stick in response. It took a little while but he found a safe gap between buses and made his way to where she was waiting. The flowers were handed over with smiles and love. A fond kiss. A few words and, after a satisfactory rearrangement of bags and blooms, the pair moved off, rather elegantly,  together.

In Starbucks the music had changed to a more urgent beat. Drum and bass. A signal for me to move too.

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3 Responses to “Strangers on a train (3). A trip to London.”

  1. Tracy Usher May 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

    A great read, but I was wondering what you were doing in Starbucks.

    • simplysorro May 1, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

      One sometimes has to make concessions for one’s art….

  2. Siriol May 23, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Love the train journey story.

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