I’m sorry, I really am. I know my general demeanor isn’t threatening (sad eyes, nose in book, phone that I neurotically check placed on the tray-table ), but still, I know I can’t look approachable. You’re traveling with your son, but you don’t look like a mum. There’re no lines around your mouth, no tight-lipped expression. Your son looks maybe nine or ten, but you can’t have reached thirty yet. I like your pink hair and your denim dungarees. I like your firm Doncaster accent. I like the way you speak to me through him.
“You never know, Ross, maybe someone will talk to us,” you say. “All the best stories start with strangers on trains.”
We’re the only ones on this carriage, so you must be talking to me. I sink my chin down farther, head buried in book. I try to think of something worthwhile to say, a half-decent way to accept this invitation to speak, but by the time I think of something, the moment’s passed. I consider saying something ironic like: “Do you want me to speak? Because if you want me to, I will, but I’m far too shy to initiate anything interesting,” in a way that I hope will be vulnerable and yet charming. Then the onus will be on you to think of something interesting (which realistically, I feel like it should be anyway), but instead, I say nothing. Deep down, I don’t think that trains are for conversations. They’re for scenery and listening to loud songs through headphones. They’re for catching up on books. They’re for introspection. Yet, I do wish that I could speak to you. My chest has been feeling tight ever since you sat down.
Our carriage is hot because the air conditioning is broken. This is why we are the only ones here. Everyone else left for other carriages, but we three do not fear sweat or isolation. Perhaps we have a lot in common. I would know if I spoke to you. But then again, why sit in the emptiest carriage and attempt to create conversation with the only person there, a person looking deliberately unapproachable? Find a full carriage! Leave me be. And yet I know if you left now, I’d be heartbroken. I want your attention, but I hate reciprocation. I’m shy, you see?
You turn to your son. “Do you know how to work out a percentage?” you ask. He doesn’t, so you tell him. You’re showing off your intelligence. You ask him about fractions, and he’s slightly unsure. You demonstrate because it’s much easier for you to explain numerators and denominators than it is for him. Ross compensates, though. He shows off too because he’s very good at times tables. You throw the numbers at him like ninja stars, and he bats them away effortlessly. Correct, correct, correct.
You say, “Bloody hell! You already know all this, I’m learning that in college!” which lets me know you’ve gone back to studying. I want to tell you (while understanding that it might sound condescending) that I think you’re really cool, and balancing ambition with personal responsibilities is hard. College is tough enough at seventeen when you’re middle-class and childless. Maths is solid at A Level. My brother and sister dropped maths red-hot, and they were brighter than me, so I stayed away. I think you’re brave. In fact, I know you’re brave because you looked around for conversations on an overheated train. But thankfully, that moment has long passed, and now you’re helping your son with maths. He’s really pretty bright, you know. I’m relaxing now, contentedly, pretending to read while listening to your session. I assume this is the end, and while I’m sad I didn’t speak, I’ve got a sense of relief and calm surrounding me.
It’s rare for anything of note to happen on a Northern Rail train, but things keep coming. The smell of burning rubber permeates.
You catch my eye and say, “Do you smell burning?”
And I go, “Yeah, like burning rubber,” aware that I’m responding too quickly out of keenness.
“Yeah,” you respond.
This is my moment to accept human communication, to finally feel more connected to the world, and all I have to do is say something like, “By the way, your son’s good at times tables.” But I get too nervous. I try to think of something perhaps more acceptable, more mundane. Something like: “Well, I hope the train doesn’t break down,” so it’s connected to the smell. Or even something non-vocal: a smile, a shrug, an eye-roll, something demonstrating that I am a person capable of interaction. I turn back to my book; I’m so painfully predictable. I recheck my phone because I crave contact. Nothing’s there. Of course, there’s nothing.
You nudge Ross. “Looking forward to an adventure, mate! I hope someone talks to us.”
I look at you, but you’re looking out the window, which makes words stick in my throat, a clichéd expression, but isn’t it true? Like I’ve swallowed them the wrong way and I’m scared I’ll cough and choke. I put down the book to say something, wait too long, again. I check my phone.
We’re pulling into my stop soon. For some reason, I think your journey might be significantly longer than mine is. I think it’ll be more tumultuous. I want to remember your comforting accent, your pink hair, black dungarees, and bright eyes staring out a window. I see your son’s short, blond crew-cut, his clothes well put together, his face looking so grown-up.
As we approach my stop, I stand up too soon. I want to say things to you. I have a speech I’m in the process of memorizing. It will go something like: “I’m sorry. I really am. I’m sorry that I didn’t speak to you. It’s not your fault. I’m insecure and have these terribly moments of shyness where communication feels like a physical impossibility. Still, you should know I think a lot about you from what little I know, and by the way, your son’s good at times tables.” But I realize this is far too much and reveals parts of me that I’d never dare to say to you. Instead, I edit down and think: “Your son’s good at times tables.” That’s all I have to say. I’ll never see you again, and if you find it strange, it won’t matter. “Your son’s good at times tables.” This kind of compliment is valuable for kids. I want him to feel proud of himself, to have some self-esteem because kids deserve it. “Your son’s good at times tables”: a normal, healthy sentence that does no one any harm and, at worst, indicates eavesdropping. All I have to do is say, “Your son’s good at times tables.”
But I don’t. Hovering by your seat, I adjust my bag. I say nothing. Anguish must distort my face. I disembark from the train, and this is painful. It’s painful to leave you knowing that I’ve failed so completely. You’ll recover. Someone interesting will get on at the next stop. You may even speak about me, amused by what you’d perceived as my unfriendliness or irritation. But I will agonize over how pathetic I am for months, between infrequent visits from friends, who remember me out of pity or loyalty, who will pander to my insecurity and say you should have left me alone to read. I’ll pretend that’s what I really wanted too, but just so you know, it wasn’t. I would have liked to talk to you because I think you’re very brave and your son’s good at times tables.
You said all the best stories start with strangers on trains. How’s this one?