Whenever I’m on a long journey, and I often am, I like to talk to strangers. It’s not an objective or anything; I don’t feel a trip is a failure if I haven’t engaged in conversation with someone I don’t know. By the end of it, whatever else happens, I’ve got where I want to and the scenery is usually good. But it’s something I aim to do.
Striking up that sort of random conversation, in polite British society, is both rare and weirdly awkward, with all the endless barriers of polite apathy and withdrawn decorum we put up. But most people, I think, love a bit of attention from an unexpected quarter. And it’s so easy. We’re all human, we all have things we can share (this is the other reason people always talk about the weather; everyone lives underneath the sky.) All you need is an in, and they’ll talk to you.
The National Express driver up from London laughed when I put my laptop screen in his face. “Very nice!”
“I… lost my printout. Thank heavens for unsecured wifi, eh?” And that was my in.
“Tell me about it!” And I could tell we could have started talking tech right there, but he had a job to do and neither time, tide or the large woman behind me would wait. I took the front seat, just behind his, and half a minute after we’d rolled out of Victoria station, blowing down the back roads heading for the big ones, there was another touch of that fleeting contact when some elderly, rich-looking woman had her taxi stop in the middle of the road in front of us, and the coach driver slewed around them both with a honk of frustrated disgust.
“Considerate,” I said.
“Hah! Welcome to London!”
Maybe I’ll see him again. I hope so; we pulled into the new spick-and-span Birmingham coach station ten or fifteen ahead of schedule.
On the train from University to Selly Oak there were two men sat in the six-seater across from me. One looked late forties, in that anorakish, very British retired public servant sort of way; suit trousers hitched up showing short socks rolled crease-straight above his ankles, watery eyes behind glasses, cheeks rosy with broken veins, desperate-looking hair trying to escape his pate and his chin, friendly smile behind a clerical newsletter with a header in Latin. His friend looked the same plus a few decades and minus all the hair and all the blood in his face.
The train stopped at Five Ways, and the older one looked around, worried. “Are we there yet? Is this-?”
“I think it’s Five Ways,” said the younger one.
I checked through my window. “Yes, it’s Five Ways. All the stations here look the same, all depressing corrugated metal,” I said. The younger one looked at me, and saw my t-shirt, which bore a lion’s head and said Singapore. And that was the in.
“No, I’ve never actually been there – well, I might have stopped on a flight, but not seen the place. We have family friends who bring us exotic t-shirts from all corners of the world; I have a load of Costa Rica t-shirts, and I haven’t been within a thousand miles of the place.
“Oh. We’ve both spent quite a bit of time there – Tony” (indicating the older man) “lived there for a while and I worked there.” And we chatted happily, Tony chipping in from time to time, about Singapore and Sri Lanka and War Studies and Birmingham, until Selly Oak appeared outside the windows. I rose, and shook his hand. “Jeremy.”
And everything I told him about my degree and my life was true, because what did it matter? I know I’ll never see him again, and I’m cool with that, but it was nice to meet him.
On the way back from the station, on my way to pick up an absurdly cheap and nomlicious dinner at Big John’s (Selly Oak’s premier grease outlet, with the best money: deliciousness ratio of fish and chips I’ve yet experienced; seriously, cod and chips for £2, and the good stuff, chips not fries, real fish in real batter – but I digress.)
“Eh, mate, what’s the time?”
I glanced at him. An oldish chap, looking like the stereotype of a 1930s hobo, sitting on a roadside bench with a younger, sharper looking man. I thought for a second, pulled out my phone and told him. “9:37.”
And that, he thought, was his in with me.
He nodded, digesting this; his mate gave him a look. He got up, shook himself down, looked at me square like a man. Up at me; he wasn’t tall, and I am. I knew he was about to ask for money.
“I’m homeless, and-”
“Sorry, man, I’m a shit-poor student. I won’t be able to afford to eat next year. If I could, I would, but I can’t.”
And none of that was exactly true. (Well, I am a student, and barely solvent, but unlike a lot of students I’ve got a decent savings buffer; I will be able to afford to eat next year, just not eat and rent at the same time.) Because I couldn’t really afford to buy him supper, and I didn’t want to, because you can’t turn fellow-human-feeling to straight altruism that fast. And as I walked off to my 99p supper, I pondered that was why the blokes ahead of me didn’t answer him, and why random conversation isn’t so popular after all.
I hope I don’t see him again, but I bet I will.