Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Last chance

When I’m not concentrating on the world around me – when my thoughts are focused within – I know that all emotion leaves my face and it becomes hard, like a statue. It’s not a particularly nasty look, just cold and aloof. I’ve heard it called ‘imperious’.

Walking up the steps of the train platform this afternoon, a thousand things were going through my mind. The sharp click of my heels on the concrete, the cold satin lining of my long black coat brushing past the exposed parts of my legs and the glorious faux-fur* collar softly nestled against my neck and chin faintly registered in my conscious mind. Internally, I was dividing some number by 6.5 to calculate an exchange rate. That was my entire world – platform, body, thoughts – nothing else mattered, everyone else there was just a moving object whose speed and direction was to be gauged and whose trajectory was to be avoided.

Suddenly, I registered a smile. Well, not so much ‘registered’ as ‘became aware of’. Registration would come later, too late as it turned out.

Seated against the wall was a gentleman, his suit grey and his hair beginning to turn the same colour. His grooming was immaculate and the crows feet in his tanned skin deeply wrinkled as he looked over to me with a lovely, genuine smile.

Now, in London, as I’m sure is the case in the larger cities of the world a smile from a stranger is about as rare as a beggar saying “Hey, let me shout you a drink.”

I’m not talking about the salacious, appraising-someone-from-head-to-toe-and-leaving-a-slime-trail look either, those are far too common. I’m talking about the kind of smile that says “Hello there, nice day, isn’t it?”

And here’s where my recalcitrant visage comes into play – I was so deep in thought that I must have given him what amounted to a snooty or dirty look. By the time I snapped out of it and smiled back, he had turned away, his face had fallen in evident embarrassment – he was mortified.

I sat down on the bench next to him, 2 minutes remained until the next train in our direction and I did my best to rectify what must have seemed a terrible – if unintentional – snub.

He resolutely wouldn’t look at me. When the train came, he walked a few paces to ensure that we weren’t in the same carriage. I felt awful and wondered, as the train clattered on its way, what would have happened had I smiled back – would I have a new acquaintance? He certainly must be extraordinary in some way to remain so openly, cheerfully civil in a society where one ‘keeps to oneself’ in public.

I’ll never know – I do know that. My father once saw a beautiful woman on a train and didn’t have the courage to do anything about it. He returned to the same station at the same time for days on end and never saw her again. I’m sure that same rule applies here.

In life, sometimes we are only given one chance to act and no matter how we kick or scream or beat our chests to the gods, this fact remains. I, for one, know that I’m going to be a little more forthcoming with my grin in the future.


* Faux not because I don’t believe in gutting animals for warmth – but because I can’t afford something made of mink. Yet.


Update: I wrote the above over coffee whilst waiting to go somewhere else today. On the way home, after drinks with M and a friend in the city, I sat in a separate part of the carriage from M for lack of seats.

In the flurry to sit down, I noticed a smile. My second random smile for the day and its owner happened to be sitting right across the aisle – looking straight at me.

I looked down, flustered. I saw my briefcase. Remembering that the above post was scrawled in my diary and that that diary was in my briefcase, I realised I had the chance to rectify this morning’s mistake – or at least mitigate it a little.

It felt strange, though, this smile-at-a-stranger-on-demand business. I’m not really an accomplished flirt, I’m just comfortable around people and he was most obviously looking up at me from his newspaper periodically, waiting to catch my eye. I hoped most sincerely that I wasn’t blushing.

I looked at his lap and noticed something strange about his paper. The letters were a little weird...weirdly familiar...just like...and suddenly the paper moved. He was holding it up for me, the right way around, grinning. He had nice blue eyes, I noticed, and an easy smile.

The paper was in Polish, which gave me the excuse to say hello in that language. He was startled and we started to chat.

We spoke through the entire journey in Polish, much to the amazement of fellow passengers who saw that we had been strangers just a few moments ago. We chatted about Poland and London, about work and about our backgrounds. We got up at the same station and took the same exit. It was really nice – it made me wonder anew at what I could have learnt from my first smile for the day.


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