Travelling can bring out the very best in us; we help each other with heavy luggage; we give up seats; we share food, books and mobile phone chargers; people once strangers can become life-long friends after a few plastic meals together on a flight.
There is though one type of travel where that kindness doesn’t easily manifest itself and that’s the daily journey to and from work. The daily commute is mundane, it’s a groundhog weekday, a rerun where nothing new happens. It can be a grumpy affair of self absorption where all the niceties of being human, eye contact, smiles, putting others before you, are forgotten in the mad pursuit for a place to sit.
That we lose our hearts thinking just about our buttocks is truly one of the world’s greatest mysteries.
This is even more bewildering if one considers that those buttocks will have spent the better part of a day parked on an office chair and least in need of a good sit-down
One of my colleagues, let’s call him ‘David’ to save his blushes, is one of those people who’s always nice. He’ll bless you when you sneeze, he’ll hold open doors, he’ll help grannies across the road smiling cheerily all the way through. He never gets in a mood and everyone likes him. Bastard. Last week though David’s kindness backfired rather spectacularly and landed him in a pickle. As the cliche goes, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
David had boarded his homeward-bound train from London, Charing Cross, to a small town less than an hour to the south, in the green commuter belt of Kent, called Hildenborough.
These trains that ferry commuters in and out London are nearly always crowded, and bursting daily with bad vibes, irritability and passive aggression. Free seats are rare and some passengers have to stand up for the entire length of the journey or sit in the aisle if their legs get tired.
Notions of chivalry are lost. Even pregnant women who are usually noticeable by their ‘Baby on board’ badge sometimes have to stand as seated people either don’t notice them, or pretend not to. Yes it’s on these types of journeys that our most selfish personas shoulder-barge and elbow their way to manifestation.
David was lucky that day, he found a seat at a table, pulled out his laptop and got on with some office work. A woman in a dark blue business suit was sat in front of him reading a book. No one talked. Eye contact was avoided as if fearing Medusa.
A brief guide to eye contact on public transport in the UK
Eye contact with strangers is generally avoided on public transport in the UK for it is loaded with subtle implications and subliminal messages.
Ofcourse, it shouldn’t really be that way; eye contact is natural and human. It just means your eyes happen to be in my field of vision. When I lived in Africa, I often saw eye contact accompanied with a gentle nod, at bus stops, or waiting rooms, meaning I acknowledge your presence. Eye contact is deeply human and part of our inner DNA; get it right and it will provide great clues to others feelings and a key to unlock empathy.
In many parts of the world, especially India, having extended eye contact can mean ‘I find you particularly interesting.’ This can be accompanied by an open mouth. In contrast in western cities extended eye contact can mean:
“You’re pissing me off. I’m going to fight you, you rascal.”
To complicate things a little further extended eye contact in the west can also mean:
“I love you.”
Rather confusing isn’t it? Rarely has a body language sign led to such divergent meanings with such opposite outcomes – a black eye or a kiss, fists in a pub carpark, or marriage. Or perhaps, ultimately, all of those.
QED, eye contact is rather beguiling and that’s why some people decide to look elsewhere instead.
I digress. David was sat there, avoiding the lady’s eye contact, his eyes on a laptop, her eyes on a book.
Occasionally one of them would look outside to the rolling English countryside of hedgerows and patchwork fields.
The train announcement rattled, and the train came to a slow stop at Sevenoaks Station the stop just before David’s. The lady in front of him closed her book, stood up and joined the queue to exit the carriage.
David felt an object between his feet and he looked down to see a burgundy leather handbag with a shoulder strap. Outside the window the woman was walking along the platform.
“This belongs to that woman over there,” he said to the station guard, pointing with one foot on the train and the other on the platform. “She left it on the train,” he said handing it over to him.
“Leave it with me sir,” the guard said, “I’ll make sure she gets it.”
David’s train ride home continued uneventfully except for the final five minutes.
From the row of seats behind him, he heard a sharp intake of breath. A woman popped her head over the headrest and asked him, “you haven’t seen my handbag have you?
David felt a hot rush and wished the small gaps between the cushions on the seats would widen to the San Andreas fault and swallow him up.
“Is it burgundy?”
“And has it got a shoulder strap?”.
“Ah, I think I may know what might happened…”
He explained to her his well meaning but erroneous deed. She pursed her lips, shook her head and said she had her money, cards and car keys in it.
On the side of the platform at Hildenborough, David made a call to Sevenoaks station. It was good news; the stationmaster had custody of the handbag and said she could collect it the next morning.
David offered the lady a lift home, some of it from kindness of his heart but mostly due to an overriding sense of guilt.
It turned out that by some coincidence she lived a few doors down on the same road as him and as he drove her home he felt better. The problem that he had caused was now solved. The lady didn’t seem to mind too much and he had met a new neighbour.
As he parked the car and they undid their seat belts together, he looked towards his house. In the front room was his wife, hands on hips, giving him an icy stare. This was extended eye contact that seemed to last an age. She clearly wasn’t saying ‘I love you’.
There was clearly some explaining to do that night.