Brief encounters

There was a hint of musical chairs about my train journey home last Monday. It started when a young woman plugged into her mobile sat down beside me. It was impossible to escape from her chatter so after a few moments I upped and moved down the carriage. There I found a space with no phone in sight. But minutes later a muffled ring-tone sounded in a handbag two seats away and after fumbling around it was my new neighbour’s turn to start up a conversation. Judging by the long silences, her caller had most to say but even so I found her contribution annoying and so off I went again, this time to stand by the door.

But more was to come. For the last leg of my journey I took a bus and found myself next to a somewhat bedraggled senior. Not much chance of a phone there? Within minutes he started to cough, his face reddening and his chest rattling.

Adhering to the policy I developed during the 2009 flu epidemic, at this first sign of possible flu carrier close by I was up and away, again to stand near the exit and a week later I remain symptom free. In all these instances movement was based on one-to-one relationships. Late last night the movement was almost a herd response.
A group of young men got on to the train at Whitechapel in London’s East End. The man opposite me immediately looked across at them, furrowed his brow, gathered his belongings and hurried off the train and onto the platform. Then he stepped back into the carriage one along. Assuming he must be ‘in the know’, I hastily followed, getting back on the train just as the doors closed behind me. Why he changed carriages and why I followed without really thinking remains a mystery.

Being a nomad in buses and trains is all part of my travelling experience and one that has no particular emotional content. The feeling is altogether different when others have moved away from me. Recently I sat next to a young man and started tapping away on my iPad. Even though it is compact, my elbow invaded his space and he soon left. I felt embarrassed and apologised but he never looked back. But at least there was an explanation. When a young woman sat down next to me and within seconds left, all manner of paranoid ideas entered my mind. Her decision left me puzzling and with my ego bruised.

All these instances relate to unknown people. With people you know and are keen to keep at a distance, it is altogether different. There have been occasions when I have spotted an old adversary in the train and I have got into another carriage, naturally hoping that my move had gone unnoticed. And these non-encounters are not limited to public transport. When I worked as a doctor and went to conferences, it was common practice to dodge and weave during tea breaks to avoid contact with adversaries. Of course, the feeling was mutual so in fact such avoidance behaviour was a normal part of the social ‘etiquette’.

Finally, there are occasions where one person who seeks proximity while the other prefers to remain at a distance, and recently that happened to me. I was at gathering where it was inevitable that I would bump into Di. I knew her as an altogether unpleasant person, more precisely devious, destructive and powerful. Several years ago I had been on the receiving end of these qualities. At the time I made it clear to her how much I disliked her style but she seemed oblivious and our work relationship was such that I lost out and left.

At a break in the proceedings I saw her at the tail of a queue for tea. I planned to go up to her and remind her of my feelings. As I approached and before a word was spoken, she saw me coming, glanced furtively, looked ruffled and hurried off – indeed vanished. I will never know what was on her mind but I like to think that it was a sense of guilt that made her want to leave. It was small recompense but her obvious discomfort meant that my original message had indeed got through – and she did miss her cup of tea.

In most instances it is possible to avoid being close to people who annoy me, who are unpleasant, or perhaps even threatening. Moving away usually costs nothing. Though it can require effort or be disruptive and in some circumstances it is seen as rude, these are prices worth paying for peace of mind.

2 comments on “Brief encounters
  1. Graham Dukes says:

    Joe’s piece reminds me of a day, many years ago, when as a student I stepped into an old train with compartments at Liverpool Street Station in London. I walked along the train looking for an empty compartment, but most were half full. Finally I found one with only a single passenger. As I stepped in, I glanced at him. I thought of one of Charles Dickens’ down-at-heel characters; he had patched clothes and an ill-fitting cap and had obviously seen better days. Not my type, I thought. I was just moving out again when he looked up at me, smiled and in the friendliest possible voice murmured: “Come in, my friend – don’t you like the look of me?” Embarrassed, I muttered something about having a friend further down the train, and fled. Sam Weller, I thought, and I’ve misjudged him. Sixty years later I am still embarrassed about it, but since then I have never knowingly hurt a stranger in a train in the same way. That’s the story,and I’ve never dared to tell it to anyone before.


  2. ian bruce says:

    Joe, most of the impacts you mentions are negative, but somtimes can be unexpectedly positive. We were on hols in Portugal with our 9 and 11 year old children. We had drunk what we thought was a bottle of rather sweet wine (which turned out to be port when we examined the bottle the next morning!). Thus “fortified” we had sung songs with our children, danced tround the fire and made/were merry into the night. In the sober light of the next morning we apologised to the occupants of nearby tents. To a person, they all said “Dont apologise, it was so nice seeing your children having so much fun”

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