Comments Off on Three struggles on the journey home from The Strand
I say goodbye to Alice and Theo and continue down the street. The Strand is usually dominated by an unpleasant barrage of airhorns and motor noises, but after a host of cocktails the general cacophony now feels gentle and familiar. Lights blur overhead as I stumble along the street and down into the underground by Charing Cross.
The platform is packed on account of several southerly bus lines being delayed. I am swept up into a tube car by the eager crowd and into the aisle. A 20-year old Green Day album hums along in my earbuds as I sway – ever so slightly – back and forth in place.
As the train car lurched away, a pretty girl in a blue skirt and light brown hair brushes against me.
I should admit, drunk men are notorious for reading women the wrong way. What would seem like a harmless brush during the sober afternoon is suddenly perceived some secret, insidious method of flirting after a few pints. I quieted Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice and looked at little more carefully at the girl.
She held onto the bar above her with one hand and her phone on the other. Strands of straight brown hair fell down past her face as she peered into her mobile phone. She was shifting this way and that – she was, in fact, quite drunk. Every now and then she jerked up and looked around to take in her surroundings. Pretending to be sober in a body which would not obey.
The brush had been harmless, unintentional, but through my haze I tried to perceive if it had been something else. Perhaps understanding this, or more likely just to position herself for closer to the exit, the girl shuffles away the next stop. In doing so, she has moved closer to another man, a tall, unshaven man in glasses. She has moved very close to him – so much so that I suddenly suspect that they are actually together.
But they aren’t – I notice him straighten a little as the blue skirt brushes his jeans. He regards her for a moment, then re-affirms his grip on the bar and pushes out his chest a little as he searches for her gaze. The drunken misconception has now passed on to him – I am no longer afflicted.
The train pulls into Clapham Common station and I push my way out onto the platform. After a few steps I notice the girl is walking alongside me, absorbed in cosmos of her smartphone. What I briefly saw as flirtation melts away into mild paranoia. Maybe she thinks I’m following her. When we arrive at the escalator, I clamber my way ahead, to prove that my intentions are purely homing in nature. I go right and she goes left, and then I am alone in the florescence of the station.
I ascend into the clamouring night of the Common. Fellow inebriants shout and couples sway this way and that. My eyes adjust to the evenly-lit street and I then I see her.
It takes a moment for her name to come back to me. Sally. She is arm in arm with a tall boy. Perhaps a man – my age. He has curly black hair and a kind, if drunken look about him. A scraggly Chris O’Dowd. He is angling for a kiss. He succeeds.
I met Sally through an internet dating service nearly six months prior. I struggled to remember the details. She was a teacher, somewhere in South London. Her father died of muscular dystrophy. She swam the English Channel to raise money for a charity in his name. She was pale, with red hair and bad skin, but a nice smile. We had met in Gordon’s Wine bar, an ancient dig just up the street from Embankment Station, where suitors are wont to meet up and test each other over wine and cheese. After a few token questions about who I was and what I did she had proceeded to talk about herself the whole evening and succeeded in allowing me to pay for all the wine. Whether this was self-absorption or nervousness I never found out, as there had never been a second date. Afterwards I had thanked her for a nice evening and left her in Charing Cross without a further hint of interest.
So I am there and she is there and this boy is there, so I walk by the pair quickly for fear that she would recognize me. I am desperately curious, but have no wish to upset the date. I settle against a lamp by my bus stop and watch them from afar. They are all giddy with amorous intoxication and their quiet conversation is punctuated by several more kisses. On occasion she pushes him away and looks down carefully at her phone, noting the time. She must have work in the morning. Except she doesn’t – I think – it’s the middle of the summer. He rubs her shoulders and presses his forehead to hers.
Through the alcohol I can plainly see that he is doing what all men do at this hour: he is trying to convince her to stay out for one more drink. Enough time to miss her train. Perhaps, if he is lucky, for her to eventually come home with him. Maybe he has already made that suggestion – I cannot tell.
She smiles at him and puts her hand on his chest – erecting a brief barrier of space between them. She says something to him, kisses him goodnight and vanishes down the stairwell into the station.
He looks after her for a moment, then shuffles off, smiling goofily at no one in particular. As he sidles up to the bus stop his temporary elation subsides and he pulls out his phone fingers fluttering away as he relays the night’s events to his mates.
I relax against the lamp post and look out into the night. I feel isolated from the buzz of Clapham High Street’s night life. This place is so rarely a destination for me – just a staging ground for one last push home – alone.
In the corner of my eye I see someone come skipping into the street from the traffic isle that comprises the main entrance of Clapham Common station. It is the girl with the blue skirt, who once I thought gone but now appears determined to remain part of this story.
The 345 comes trundling up to the stop and I climb on board followed by the blue-skirted girl and the dark-curled boy.
The bus is overrun with the bleary eyed and stupor’d. I stay standing up and begin working on the second half of Dookie on my iPod as we lurch this way and that through the darkness of the common.
Sitting in front of me is an older man. He has a slightly pudgy, puffed up face and long white hair which he has pushed back behind his ears. He is wearing a camo-printed bomber jacket and is tightly gripping a large hiking backpack.
He is also murmuring away at first to no one in particular, but then he notices there is a tall girl with brown hair behind him. He begins to talking to her. She pretends not to hear thim, staring at her phone with faux-absorption. He appears undeterred.
Eventually the girl looks up from her phone and makes eye contact with the man in the bomber jacket. He is looking very intently at her and she nods and smiles at him – but it is clear that she is unnerved by him. She is trapped in her seat by another passenger who is oblivious to this entire interaction. The white-haired man has a captive audience, and he seizes the moment.
I take out my ear buds and consider intervening – the girl looks nervous and she does not need this man hitting on her. I walk myself through an entirely fictional scenario in which I walk over and confront the man. Hey man – she’s not interested so why don’t you back off? Captain America to the rescue – confrontational, in the right.
The haze clears a little more and I pay a little bit more attention to the white-haired man. His body language does not suggest a sexual advance, but that he is merely trying to convey a story – a thought – to this girl. Or to anyone.
As I lean in his hand is stretching out towards her, palm facing upward as he makes another point.
“Oh really?” I say loudly.
He turns and eyes me warily. I smile at him and continue talking.
“Is that the case?”
The white-haired man shifts in his seat. Someone has now offer’d up to him their full attention and he gleefully seizes it. He continues talking, telly his story, but nary a single coherent thought reaches me. Either this man has permanently succumbed to a mumbledom, or he has some sort of mild schizophrenia.
I have a secret. I have a hard time paying attention – and often hearing – in loud social situations. To adapt to this handicap I have become very, very good at pretending to listen. To smile, nod – ask the right question at the right moment.
But this man is lost in his own world. My own responses don’t seem to matter. Only my attention. I smile and nod and he keeps talking. His story keeps going on. Whatever it is.
We reach the penultimate stop on my journey, and the frightened woman who had been sitting behind him gets up and makes for the door. I keep my attention on the man, but just ever so briefly catch her eye as she looks at me and mouths me a “Thank you” as she disembarks.
And then it is just me and the lonely man in the bomber jacket. We arrive at the Battersea Arts Centre and I look him the eye.
“This is me. Have a good one!”
“Yeah, you too,” he says, but his attention is already elsewhere – he looks out the window and forgets me.
I step outside, clutching my bag and preparing to cross the street. As the bus accelerates away I sense there is someone behind me, crossing at the same time. It is the girl in the blue skirt.
We cross the road together, although I am slightly ahead. As we reach the opposing pavement, I hear a crack – the unmistakable sound of a mobile phone coming apart.
I look over my shoulder – the girl is standing above her phone, swaying slightly. She falls to her knees and begins collecting pieces of plastic.
I should help her, I think. But that old paranoia returns – that she might consider my efforts to be an advance. That we have, so far, shared the same journey. In reality, she probably does not even remember I was with her on the tube.
So I turn away again and continue walking, turning off the main road down my street. It is a downward slope, and looking up I can see through the haze the railway and the blinking lights of tower blocks sitting between me and the rest of Battersea.
There is a faint pitter-patter of feed behind me. I can hear the girl walking quickly behind me. She is almost right behind me now. I walk quicker – my inebriated paranoia is evolving. Maybe she is following me?
I reach my house and quickly fumble with the gate latch, stumbling forward towards my door. As she passes I whirl around to face her, but she is – again – absorbed in her now functioning phone as she continues down the street off somewhere else.
I turn back and find my way inside. The house is dark, quiet. I shuffle upstairs and into my room. The air is stale, so I open a window and stand there in the darkness, listening to the tree outside bristling in the wind.