Strangers on a Train- Again: Help the Aged.

25 Nov

The tube from Embankment which we boarded around midnight, heading for Morden, was packed with the relieved revellers of a Friday. The first unwinding of the week had been accomplished and there was a loose sense in the carriage. Those around me dived for the few spare seats. I was regally indifferent. I have lost the competitive edge. Unseemly haste, I inwardly sneer.

As the doors closed and the too-late arrivals appeared comically stranded the wrong side of the reinforced perspex, I turned to survey my fellow travellers and caught the eye of a pretty girl, primly seated before me, clutching a brolly. We exchanged a fleeting smile but there must have been something in the look I gave her which suggested the distress of age. Yes I had had a long and indulgent evening; yes I am grey and thinning and have to hold my stomach in; yes I am 62 but so not in that country of old men!

My pretty girl was not looking at me through the eyes that were looking at her. Her smile became a compassionate tilt of the head which prompted speech. “Please would you like, sit down here, please?” Estonian? Slovakian?Polish? Whatever. I knew immediately that her smile had been one of bus-pass assessment and mine that of inappropriate flirtation. She was standing now.

Comically embarrassed I suggested, for the benefit of the Friday compadres within earshot: ” Do I look that old?” A few sniggers but to my further dismay, a general quiet of agreement fell on the majority. My respectful Samaritan now erect and embarrassed shuffled towards the stability of a central pole and I was aware that her boyfriend, still seated, was smiling, patronisingly at her. I cut my losses and sat down quickly. My joke had misfired. I was aware of a couple of sympathetic glances but more keenly aware that, for all my inward denial, I really do look like the old man I see in the mirror each morning.

A fun Friday evening could have drifted towards self-pity but I lifted my head and took stock of those around me. My pretty girl was embarrassed, still, and wouldn’t catch my eye. Indeed her boyfriend, now rubbing his left leg against my right, was making faces at her. I intuited he was mocking her for her show of manners, her generosity of spirit. After all, giving up your seat isn’t that common any more is it? No matter how many stickers are plastered on public transport to remind the masses of their duty towards oldies, the disabled, the pregnant and so on.

My pretty girl took offence at her boyfriend’s gentle piss-take. She turned petulantly away, upset. He rose, between Oval and Stockwell and wobbled over to her. She turned again so that she was facing the way she had started and he was staring at her neck. The farcical mime was noticed by a few, I think but I was staring, riveted. Thoughts tumbled. How would this, now wordless falling-out, play out after they alight the train? Could I imagine the twists and turns of argument and the development into something darker, deeper that could threaten their relationship?

Where had her ‘old fashioned’ sense of manners and respect come from. Somewhere east of Berlin, in a country whose language was impenetrable and growling and ugly? A family, I imagined of very modest means, had instilled a humanity, a set of values, a list of behaviours that were standards you hung your balaclava on. These were ingrained so that your social response was Pavlovian. My pretty girl had to stand up; there was no other way to retain her integrity, her dignity. Of course there was respect for the elders and elderly that remains a fragile cornerstone of many cultures – crumbling rather more, closer to home, perhaps.

I watched as boyfriend managed to get a couple of pouting responses from my pretty girl. He was struggling. He’d hit a nerve, mocked something at her core; something she couldn’t forgive lightly. I felt  might have contributed with my bluff, awkward joke when offered the seat. The young couple fell to a brooding silence.

When they got off at Clapham North, they shuffled past, boyfriend leading the way. As my pretty girl edged through I glanced up, smiled fully, knowingly and said, ” Thank you very much again.” She nodded and if her smile wasn’t as generous as mine, it seemed to have the sureness of knowing she’d done the right thing. They walked past the window and he made a tentative grab for her hand. She pulled away as they turned and headed up the stairs to the exit. The tube doors slid to a close.

I bundled myself up in my own thoughts again as we rumbled towards Morden. First time anyone has offered me their seat. I hope it won’t be the last.

2 Responses to “Strangers on a Train- Again: Help the Aged.”

  1. N Fowler November 25, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    Excellent! But only because no one has offered me their seat yet!

  2. Julian November 27, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

    Tres amusant…now the reverse of that situation i.e. to be seated as I am now on my daily commute from Hampton Court (the end or start of the line depending on which way you are going) to Wimbledon. By the time we arrive in Surbiton it is standing only which of course includes a bevy of nubile ladies. My gentlemanly instinct is still there – should I offer my seat – but then I remember the aching knees and the reality of the fact that, to them, I am a balding, near pensioner – so that’s that…stay put and gaze at the forest of shapely legs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: