It was a fairly average day. There wasn’t much exciting going on, there never is. The only thing of any vague interest in my life was the fact that I was on a journey. Not one of those philosophical journeys or one of those ‘finding yourself on your gap year’ type journeys, just a bog standard two-hour train journey. Didcot to Cardiff; Standard Class. 11.53am. My mother drove me to the station as it’s just a quick 20-minute drive from our place, and the busses are always dodgy on a Sunday. She dropped me off with a quick hug and I walked confidently into the train station.
After all, why wouldn’t I, I’ve done this trip a thousand times just the same. Didcot to Cardiff I could practically do in my sleep standing on my head, although I must admit that gymnastics was never my strong point. I walked up to the ticket desk and bought my ticket, gave a quick glance at the details of which platform the train was on and then went into the tunnel leading into all the different platforms. I bounced up the stairs, two at a time. I loved the feeling of independence you get when you travel anywhere alone. Being only 15, I was still searching for independence from the omniscient ‘Mum and Dad’ wherever I could find it. So every other weekend, I hopped on the train down to Cardiff to see my friend who lived there. He had gone to every school I’d been to since we started at the age of 5, and we’d been inseparable the whole time. Then finally, when we were 13, his Dad had some kind of a life-changing realisation and decided to run for a spot in his home country of Wales. He’d got in the end, and now in the two years since he’d been working his way up the ranks. He was now Minister for Welsh Culture or something, I forget, and I digress.
I sat down on the cold metal benches and looked around. The world was really in a sorry state these days. All around me I could see the signs of rejection, neglect, loss and desperation. I’d always been a fairly good reader of body language and signs, I never knew why, it was just one of those things that came naturally to me.
There was a man standing in front of the bench where I was sat. He was stood precariously close to the edge of the platform, and rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet. He seemed to be in his late 40s to me, and it was starting to show. The bags under his eyes spread down to his cheekbones and were a deep purple colour beneath his thick, round glasses. He carried a brown leather briefcase that looked as though it had been shiny for his first day of work, back in the early 1990’s, but now was fading away, it’s deep brown colour more of a dusty sand colour now, feeling the damage from a steady 20 years of use. Suddenly he stopped his rocking and started pacing up and down a 5 metre stretch of the platform. He was fiddling with his hands in some way, and I couldn’t quite make out what he was doing until he turned around and paced closer toward my bench. He was turning his wedding ring around and around on his finger, biting his lip nervously. I wondered where he was off to today; going to his lover in Bristol to tell her that they had to end things because his wife had found out, or going to his wife in Swindon to try desperately to save his marriage of 20 years. His furrowed brow and thinning hair told me that the latter hadn’t been going well thus far.
The girl next to me was particularly peculiar. She seemed to me to be about 7 years old, if not younger, and she seemed to be alone. She carried a bright pink rucksack, and appeared to be clutching onto it within an inch of her life. What was particularly odd is that nobody around seemed to be interested in her in any way. Surely somebody should have noticed that a 7 year old girl shouldn’t be travelling alone in the hectic labyrinth of today’s public transport. Is chivalry dead? Maybe they thought I was travelling with her, but it should have been obvious that we weren’t brother and sister, and since when is a 15 year old boy friends with a 7 year old girl that he isn’t related to? Surely somebody must find that suspicious? Maybe it’s just that in our society, everybody keeps themselves to themselves, gets absorbed in their own lives and shuts everyone else out. Most people probably have enough going on in their lives to be able to do that fairly effectively.
The woman standing beside the bench to my left seemed a fairly good example of this. She was one of those ‘Young Professionals’ that everybody raves about these days. She looked to be about 30, but she was definitely looking after herself, if even a little too much. Her hair looked as though it had been abused thousands of times by straighteners, curlers, mousses, products, hairdryers, you name it. Her face looked as though she’d filled a bath with make up and then just dunked her head in it for an extended period of time. Her eye shadow was the chic colour of purple accented by glittery green eyeliner, and long thick black eyelashes. To protect herself from the bitter February cold, she wore a fur coat that looked as though it could have single-handedly caused the extinction of tigers, and I hoped for her sake that it was fake fur, otherwise she might have a green army on her hands some time soon. She was chatting incessantly on her phone, which was clenched, between her cheek and her shoulder, so as to free her hands up to type away on some Internet tablet device or other. I wondered how on earth she could talk so fast at the same time as typing so fast, but I suppose I’m a man so I’ll never discover the wondrous world of multi-tasking. Something tells me it’s not a loss – she looked as though she could burst any minute with the stress of carrying 10 designer shopping bags, two handbags, a suitcase whilst communicating with as many people as possible simultaneously. Then again, it’s her life, if she wants to have it whizzing past as a blur then by the laws of this country she’s perfectly willing to do so… as long as she paid for everything in those shopping bags, that is.
Finally the train arrived, and people started nervously edging towards where they thought the doors might end up. The awkwardness of ‘who gets on first’ started, and some men stepped back to let their female counterparts on first, whilst some men were so absorbed in wheeling their suitcases they didn’t notice that anybody else was getting on the train. Being a teenager, and in particular a teenager who was wearing a hooded garment (it was a lumberjack’s hoodie worn with a polo shirt and aviators, hardly threatening), everybody tried as hard as they possibly could to let me on last. So I got on the train last, and looked back to see the girl still sat there on the bench, looking at the hustle and bustle in utter horror as if it were a figment of her wildest and most haunting nightmares. Turning away, I stepped on to the train, and began the tiresome task of trying to find myself a seat. Thankfully, being a Sunday, the train wasn’t too crowded, and most of the occupants were my fellow Didcot residents.
I managed to get myself not just a seat, but a double seat, and in the carriages with the televisions on the back of the seats! Just my luck. However, today I wasn’t interested in the media in front of me, more in the lives and the personalities surrounding me. Each one had a little something that gave them away. There was the man twirling his wedding ring, revealing the tensions of his marriage. There was a woman reading the same text over and over again. Dumped by text? Seems a little harsh. There was a man reading the same letter in horror and disbelief. Fired for misconduct in the workplace. I looked forward to my two hours of intense people watching, but now I needed a break. I reached into my bag for my book of quotations, and opened it onto a random page. The quotation that faced me seemed particularly relevant to the situation I was in. I looked around and saw the pain and anguish on the faces of so many people, and then looked down and read the quotation:
‘Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle”
– T.H.Thompson and John Watson
I sat back in my chair and marvelled at the inalienable truth of this. I smiled. I can forget my own battles for a while, and I’ll be kinder than necessary. I tapped the man’s shoulder, the one who was twisting the wedding ring. I gave him a warm smile and said;
“Don’t worry, things will turn out alright eventually. They always do.”
He looked taken aback. He stopped twisting his wedding ring and looked at me, confused. Finally he smiled back, said “Thank You”, and sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. He stopped biting his lip and he stopped nervously twisting his wedding ring around his tired hands, and was peaceful, if only for a short time. “That means a lot to me.”