I quite like taking the train, but I can’t seem to pass a train journey without someone sidling up to me and spilling their life story all over me a like a simmering cup of bitter coffee. And I didn’t even want coffee. I just wanted to do my crossword.
Maybe you too have a big friendly face, honest eyes and a smile permanently creasing your cheeks. If so, damn; people are going to assume that you’re always up for some jolly banter, the selfish bastards.
5. The Bores
Some people are starved of attention for a reason; because they are boring. These people are so hungry for a conversation (or: to speak at you for hours without stopping to breathe) that they will literally take any opportunity handed to them. Don’t smile at them, don’t make eye contact, don’t even look…! You looked!
“Hello,” They will say, in a disarmingly friendly and normal sounding way. It would be churlish not to acknowledge them, even with the most cursory nod. But by now it’s too late, and you’ll be sucked into their vortex of ennui-inducing chatter like a pube down a drain.
The narrow focus of their interest will also betray their status as a bore. It won’t just be “cars”. It will be “Saabs manufactured before 1989.” (That’s before General Motors bought Saab from Scania after the restructuring of Saab into an independent company during a time in the company’s history when… (I stopped making notes at this point as my fingers deliberately snapped the pen and tried to slit my throat with the sharp plastic shards)…)
The best way to deal with these people is to simply pop in your mp3 player and turn up the volume. They’ll probably just keep talking, either at you or else effortlessly slide the focus of their conversation to someone nearby.
4. The Crazies
When it comes to the most foul of the racists and bigots, you want to watch out for that harmless-looking old woman, squinting rheumily into her bag of boiled sweets and perched rheumatically on the edge of her seat.
If you sit next to her, she might call you “dear” and offer you a sweet. All will be smiles and chuckles, then suddenly her wrinkles will deepen into scowled trenches of disdain and her eyes will narrow crustily. Don’t even look at what she’s looking at, I can tell you that it will be either; a teenage mother; anyone who looks even slightly foreign (by any measure, whether it’s skin tone, choice of clothes, or general shiftiness); or a youth (who is doubtless ‘hanging around looking for trouble’).
Then suddenly it will turn out that Mrs. Old Lady has a whisper like a knife being enthusiastically steeled as she offers you the opportunity to concur with her that something ought to be done about this by someone. It’s a disgrace, she’ll conclude, as you radiate lack of agreement while not inciting her to further explanation by trying to look as neutral as possible.
Also, watch out for views that sound harmless. It might not sound like what you are agreeing to is intrinsically repulsive, such as “young people should take pride in their appearance.” But don’t look as if you agree quite yet, because then you’ll get swept up in her upcoming justification. For example, people say an awful lot of bad things about Adolf Eichmann, but at least his uniform was always spotless. Very neat man, good posture. We need more youths like that these days, taking a bit of pride in themselves.
That sort of thing.
3. The Flirts
When someone sultrily whispers; “Hi there, is this seat taken,” then if you were to shut your eyes and imagine what you’d like them to look like before actually looking then you would never be pleasantly surprised. For one thing, they tend to have more chins than you’d have anticipated.
It is usually quite nice to be flattered, but as they remark on how much they like your haircut, or your shirt, or your magnificent blue eyes, you cannot shake the mental picture of a farmer stroking a pig’s back to calm it down as his other hand reaches for the stun gun and knife.
Unlike the bores and the crazies, the flirts will ask you questions. Ceaselessly, in fact. About every damn topic they can think of. This is because they once read a book that said men love the feeling of importance they get when they are asked questions, but I always feel that since I know that they know that, the effect is rather spoiled. Also, if they know that I know that they know that, then it just feels like they are going through the motions like a horny automaton, going by the book time and time again in the hope of one day snaring someone as ugly and lonely as they are.
Good luck to them. The same book must also have said that perfume should be applied until you have reached saturation point for the fabric of your ghastly clothes, and that make-up should be applied with a grouting trowel.
2. The Woebegone
They sigh as they scale the slight step onto the train, hand shaking on the rail, and when they do sink slowly into a seat it looks remarkably like a sped up video of a decomposing body recorded in time lapse.
You might try to get on with your crossword puzzle, but your concentration will wither. There is something quite un-ignorable about a person who is making wheezing noises a few inches from your ear. Their damp cough is giving you concerns, and your brain’s internal thesaurus, normally rustling away on your morning crossword, feels suddenly overwhelmed by words like “contagion” and “infection” and “leaking”.
Sneak a look, and you’ll notice that above that shiny slimy nose are two haunted pools of ocular distress. Oops, you looked up, and now they will almost certainly try to engage you in conversation. Their opening gambit will inevitably be “How are you?”
Innocuous sounding, perhaps, but it is designed to illicit the easily given “fine.” This then gives them the liberty to tell you how they are feeling. And as you might have guessed, it’s not “fine.”
Boom, suddenly you’re getting hit with lurid details about the side-effects of their new prescription that wouldn’t sound out of place in one of those documentaries about wasting diseases in the 1800s. They seem to almost relish the description as they tell you that their doctor doesn’t know what to do with them, and that they’ve been though three bandages for their wound this week already. “It’s all the pus, you see, it’s soaks through quite quickly,” they’ll earnestly confide.
The best response is not to offer advice, but rather to say “uh-huh… yup… oh dear… uh-huh…” until either you need to get off the train or they finally die of whatever is making them cough so phlegmatically at the end of every tortuous sentence. (That same hacking pause is also your window of opportunity to vacate your seat, should you reach the former before the merciful latter embraces them.)
1. The Merry
“Woooooooo!” they’ll say, as they grin at you from about three inches away.
A modest volume of alcohol will worsen the traits of all of the people described above; the bore, the crazy, the flirt and the woebegone; as their inhibitions are lowered and they feel that they absolutely must tell you all about Saabs before 1989/ where foreigners can go/ how long it’s been since they indulged in physical carnality/ what the colour of their mucus signifies.
A larger volume of alcohol produces a new monster, more terrible than any that have gone before. This monster is one that primarily wants to be your best friend, but might also be sick on your shoes, divulge all of its personal secrets and start a fight with you, all in the same ten minutes.
They might have been drunk when they got on the train, or they might have bought their alcohol from the trolley; giving rise to the fantastically tautological statement; “I’m drinking to celebrate my discovery that they sell alcohol on trains,” reinforced by another “Woooooooo!”
Any attempt to ignore them and get on with your crossword will be rebuffed with “You don’t want to do that. Have a drink. Woooooooo!” and any attempt to listen to your mp3 player will be countered with “What are you listening to? You can have one earphone in and I’ll have the other, then we can both listen! Have a drink! Woooooooo!” and any attempt to gently coerce them into silence by dint of disinterest in anything they say or do will be rendered pointless with “You don’t say much, do you? But that’s ok, I’m the chatty one and you’re the silent one. That’s what makes us such a good match for each other. Woooooooo!”
Then, one day, you might finally get some peace. There’s hardly anyone in the train carriage, and astonishingly no-one seems interested in talking to you. At long last, you get to do your crossword. But a few words later, and you’re bored. You look up. There is someone sitting across from you, and they aren’t doing anything except looking out of the window and smiling. As you open your mouth to speak, spare a minute to wonder; should I perhaps just leave them alone? Can random conversations with strangers lead to interesting discussions on topics of mutual interest, or friendships that would otherwise have slipped away forever, or even a wonderful romance that started in the middle of nowhere on the 1800 train to Edinburgh. So, should I say hello? Or should I just leave this person alone, looking out of the window?