The Nun, the Hipster, and Baddie
The London tube traveller’s first commandment is “Thou shalt not make eye contact with a fellow passenger.” It is, however, perfectly acceptable to surreptitiously study someone, and it can provide an entertaining way of passing time, as long as you don’t get caught.
Last Saturday morning, as I got on at end-of-the line station Ealing Broadway and settled in for the 20-minute ride to South Kensington, a weak sun was doing its very best to shoo away the frothy white clouds. I gazed outside leisurely, enjoying the views of orderly terraced houses and trees still sparsely clad in green and gold, too stubborn to acknowledge the calendar’s first day of winter.
Chiswick Park, Turnham Green, Stamford Brook. Mind the gap. Doors open, doors glide shut. “The next station is” – infinitesimal pause – “Hammersmith. Change for the Hammersmith and City lines.” Doors open. I close my eyes. And in those seconds of darkness, I become aware of an unusual presence standing nearby. I glance to my right, and sure enough, it’s like a powerful black hole, effortlessly attracting the attention of every child, adult and quadruped in the carriage. Sensible shoes, long, flowing dark robes, a strong-jawed face, slightly bloated but amiable, and a wimple.
She peers at the colourful Tfl map above her head, and then around her. The small movements of her neck tell me she is slightly puzzled, yet her body posture exudes confidence, and it seems like she would not welcome any help. I watch her doing a little involuntary sway, and wonder why she won’t sit down. There is a free seat opposite me. And if there wasn’t? Is it a sin not to offer your place to a nun?
At Baron’s Court, everyone facing me gets off, and she gracelessly collapses into the seat furthest to the right. Two men sit down next to her, one in his fifties, plump, and soft-spoken. The other one at least three decades younger, slender, and profoundly unattractive. His pasty face is framed by a mop of fine, colourless hair, and a few wisps of pretentious beard. A pair of very dark sunglasses, the type usually worn by the blind, rest atop his thin, straight nose. He talks animatedly, in a manner belying his casual, insouciant expression, and his voice is as melodious as steel wool sliding against a large sheet of metal.
I look away, then my attention is caught by a small flurrying movement. I glance back, and surely enough, the young man had taken an old scruffy paperback out of his leather satchel, and in the process, something came flying out. This round little something was now on a serene downward path to the linoleum floor. I feel my heart give a little skip of indecision. If there is one impulse which could override the commandment of not meeting the eye of – or speaking to – fellow travelers, that is the almost unavoidable British compulsion to be helpful. I almost bite my tongue trying to hold in the pressing “excuse me, have you dropped this?”
The object has finished its descent and is now lying on the floor, equally distanced from the oblivious youngster, his religious neighbour, and myself. I peer at it, trying to understand what it might be, and notice her eyes fixed on the same spot. Slowly, our gazes lift, and meet unflinchingly. We stare at each other candidly, and a mutual understanding passes through our exchange. Neither of us will say a word about the dropped item. Miraculously, it now seems like it is not even there.
Shortly before Earl’s Court, the young man breaks off his conversation, stoops, and collects the unidentified flying object (which Mr. B later informed me was a yellow guitar plectrum) tastefully decorated with the image of a black mons veneris. It looked a bit like this:
“I almost lost this” he screeches to his companion “almost lost it.”