A thought shared

posted 07 November 2004

We take a break now from relentlessly obsessing about the election. The preceding post to this one has spawned a lot of email, and I shall be editing a bunch of it into a followup post sometime later this week. But as an interlude, let me tell you about a tube ride I had on the 29th that I've been meaning to blog about for ages. (Dear god, it's the 7th already) This entry is going to be significantly slower-paced than usual, contain lots of unnecessary detail, and doesn't have a funny ending. This is the art house cinema version of my blog; the usual blockbusters with explosions will be along again later. People with MTV attention spans should kick off to another site now.

The 29th is significant is because it was the day my number was porting from Orange to O2, my new mobile network. My number didn't change but, importantly, the SIM card in the phone needed to. Unfortunately, I received the O2 SIM card at work and tucked it in my desk. So at 6pm on Friday, when I emerged from the tube near home to discover myself locked out of the network, I realised that I was also locked out of the office. Suddenly, I was facing a weekend without a phone and a party to go to that evening, a disaster beyond the capability of my little mind to handle. So I made some panicked phone calls to the office and got my CEO to leave my SIM card, James-bond style, under the second fire extinguisher on the 3rd floor, next to the candle with the 'andle and the jug with the drug. Said CEO was very amused to find himself running errands for the most junior employee of the company.

So I found myself, at 9pm on a Friday night, taking the Northern line Bank branch south. That's the business district line, for those who don't know the London Underground like the back of their hand, so at 9pm it's deserted, since it's too late to be coming home from work and too early to be coming home from the pub. In fact, there were only four other people in my section of the train. So, as is my habit, I popped my iPod on and started people-watching.

The first thing I noticed was that, including myself, four of the five people in the carriage had headphones on, and of those four, three were listening to iPods. Boy, has Apple got the market sewn up.

My attention was then drawn to the non-iPod listener. A goth, wearing huge patent leather boots with shiny buckles up the sides, and platform soles that were ten inches thick at least -- they were taller than they were long. Travelling upwards, an elegantly-cut figure-hugging black trenchcoat with grey pinstripes wrapped tightly around (him? her?), and long, straight, dirty blonde hair, with streaks of red and white, shaved at the sides and swept over one shoulder. In short, a masterpiece of androgynous goth fashion, slumped quietly against the glass wall of the end-seats on the northern line. Already having more than a slight penchant for goths, I was captivated, and began to pay closer attention -- if only to work out what sex this beautiful creature was.

Looking at his-her face, I noticed her pale makeup was covered with a delicate tracery of black lines running down the cheeks from the eyes, making it look exactly as if she had been in floods of tears, making her mascara run and then allowing it to dry. Impressed at how well this had been done, I got out my phone and began to attempt to take a serruptitious photo of her. The completeness of her image, the perfection of her picture of gothic angst was so remarkable that I felt the need to record it.

Then the light glinted off the corner of her eye, and I realised that not only had she really been crying, but she still was, and as I was realising this she suddenly convulsed in a silent sob. All of a sudden my perspective shifted. I was no longer a casual observer appreciating her beauty, but instead an unwelcome intruder imposing myself on her private misery. Suddenly I felt terribly guilty for having been trying to take her photo. Now, instead, I was filled with empathy. She was alone and crying, in her own private universe, this beautiful creature who in a just world should have no reason to cry. I wanted to swap seats next to her, ask her if she was okay, if she wanted to talk, what was wrong, could anything be done? I wanted to make her happy again, for reason more or less compelling than that I hate to see people unhappy.

But even though we were just five feet apart, there were too many barriers between us. First the unspoken laws of social contact on the tube, plus the social barrier goth fashion is intended to create*. Add to that we were not one but both wearing headphones, and too much interaction would have had to occur. I could not strike up a conversation, although I was powerfully motivated to do so as she contined to cry for the next two or three stops.

Instead, I decided I would write her a note. This is an impulse I often have when I'm people watching on the tube -- the little things people need to be told, in a friendly fashion, like "that hairstyle doesn't suit you", or "red is not your colour", mainly -- but have never acted upon. So I pulled out the notebook I always have in my bag, and considered what to write. Eventually I decided, and tore off the strip of paper containing my message. But now I had the same dilemma as before. How to present her with my note, without appearing to be some sort of crazy stalker? To lean across and present her with it would be too embarrassing, and involve breaking all the same social taboos as walking over and talking to her would. She might take it the wrong way, become offended or disturbed, and the journey would then be awkward. Should I even be giving her a note at all? Was I crazy to try?

I decided the optimal time to present the note, to minimize social awkwardness, was when she or I left the train. At that point of transition, it is possible to make social contact -- to say "excuse me", usually, but the expectation of verbal communication is there, which is the important thing. And if she took it the wrong way, she would not see me again, so it wouldn't be so bad for either of us. But I had to make sure I presented the note at exactly the right moment: too soon might mean an uncomfortable silence. Too late might mean I missed her entirely, or would have to run after her to give it to her, opening the possibility for unintentional stumbling and truly disastrous mistakes. My window was brief -- the very moment she began to stand up, not before or after.

Suddenly my heart was racing. Every time she shifted, every train announcement had me on edge. I had to be poised to deliver the note in a five-second window, that could happen at almost any time. As the stations passed she cleared up her makeup, changed discs in her walkman, unbuttoned her coat (finally resolving the question of her sex) -- every one of these transitions could have been a prelude to standing up for the next station, so I had to watch her constantly while appearing only interested in my magazine. It was touch and go every second. And at the same time, a part of my mind stood outside myself and questioned, why was I getting so worked up about this? It was just a note to a stranger, of no real importance. But suddenly, it was important to *me*. I was determined that she would get my note, my thought.

Finally, the next station was my own. This could either be a gift or a greater error -- if she stayed seated, I could walk past her, providing a perfect opportunity to deliver my missive. But if this was also her stop, then suddenly I would be passing notes to someone also leaving the train. If she took it badly, we would be forced to walk the narrow platform** together, ride the same escalator, get stuck in a queue together. In my minds eye she attempted to run from me, a strange stalker handing her a note on the tube, and tripped and fell in those amazing boots of hers. The stakes were higher than ever. My heart was literally thudding in my chest.

The station was announced. As if in slow motion, the seconds passed as the train slowed, the windows flashed into light as we emerged from the tunnel. She shifted. Was this it? Was she going to go? I pre-empted this move by grabbing my own things and heading for the door, packing away my magazine and palming only my note, debating up to the last second whether or not to give it to her, but positioning myself on her side of the door to make it possible to do so. An eternity of fifteen seconds passed as the train drew to a halt. She wasn't getting up, but it was time for me to get off. Now was the moment! I leaned down, tapped her gently on the knee. She looked up, in the startled way that people do when someone makes contact outside the regular social norms of the tube. I handed her my note, hoping my sweating palms hadn't made it damp. The doors slid open, and as they did so, she unfolded and read the note, which read simply "Don't cry. You're beautiful." I was just about to step off the train, so I glanced at her one last time.

She looked at me through the glass partition and rewarded me the purest, sweetest smile I have seen in years, all the more startling in its beauty for its sudden emergence from a face that had until that point been so bleak with sadness, like a rose blooming in concrete.

For the rest of that evening I walked around with the warm glow of having done the right thing.

* Goths, just like everyone else, feel lost and vulnerable all the time. The only difference between goths and most people is that they choose to wear their armour on the outside.

** Clapham South, which features a single narrow walkway rather than the more usual double-tunnel system elsewhere.

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