Some weeks ago, I was on a train leaving Victoria for Denmark Hill on one of those golden late-summer evenings when London feels like it might actually be everything you ever wanted it to be.
The train was just beginning to relax into its journey, and as the sunshine warmed us through the windows, another train, also freshly departed, drew up alongside ours. A man on board caught my eye and blew me a kiss over the top of his Metro. He wore a baseball cap and bore a strong resemblance to Jack Charlton circa the 1994 World Cup. He looked delighted by his own daring (or perhaps by something in The Metro – though this seems unlikely) and I laughed – Laugh 7a: 'Tsk! You!' (Amusement + Minor Admonishment) – as his train pulled away and over the river ahead of us.
Although my sexual magnetism is flatly irresistible to all creatures that draw breath and feel pain – and all inanimate objects who expressed a preference – I was confident this wasn't an expression of romantic intent. His was the giddy air of a grandparent showing off on a merry-go-round, not a public-transport sex predator.
Also, I'm not sure how predatory you can be if you're on a totally different train*.
We were still in a thick confluence of tracks, not yet spread out into the tributaries of zone two and beyond. And as my train and others seemed to speed and slow according to the caprices of the signalling system, I became increasingly anxious about just how I should respond were my train to catch up with his, and our eyes meet again. The thing about anxiety is it really keeps you busy.
The obvious solution was to avert my eyes and pretend it never happened, AKA the London Stranger Standard (incorporating the 2012 Olympics Dispensation), applied on buses, trains and pavements city wide ever since Dick Whittington realised being Lord Mayor of London was actually a total bloody headache, and he should have trusted his instincts and ignored those stupid bells trying to talk to him while he was just minding his own business.
I don't know if regret is a uniquely human state. I don't know if cheetahs run, run, run far across the plains, just to outpace the guilt, just to put distance between themselves and the bare bones of that gazelle they wish they could maybe – for once – have left alone. One more pair of sad, scared brown eyes to haunt them as they lay down to sleep. Damn you, the food chain!
And I don't know if a dog trudges home from the park, wishing it could have grown a pair (back), gone right up to that lovely glossy chocolate labrador and sniffed its bottom, rather than acting like a total spaniel over a stupid, dirty, broken tennis ball.
But I know the homo sapiens of London and I've read their wistful attempts to claim back a little human contact after assiduously avoiding it on their journeys around the capital. 'Northern line, evening rush hour. I was reading How To Live In The Present Moment but was too shy to speak to you.' Suits and tracksuits and dapper macs and uniforms, all wishing they'd been a little bit bolder, believing they'd caught a glimpse of another life with this stranger where everything's at least 79% better and someone finally understands you. But, like, really, instead of just saying, 'God, yeah, no, I totally understand.'
I didn't want to smell this man's bottom. Let's be clear about that. This was no fledgling May to September romance. Or even August to late October, which would have more accurate. But in the gap between our generations, and in his cheek**, I did glimpse another life - it was familiar, and it spoke of bad jokes, and foolish dancing done purely to engender others' embarrassment, and a general knowledge arsenal gathered from a lifetime of listening to Radio 4 while driving.
I'm not sure there's a precedent for this kind of Missed Connection in the back pages of Time Out, but still:
'You: baseball cap, Metro, smile. Me: curly hair, Dickensian pallor, mid-brow comic novel. Would like to know you better. Come to my flat for ham sandwiches and Battenberg? Also, can you put up large pictures and shelves properly? Like with rawlplugs and everything? Could you attempt to teach me while you're doing it, so I will know how to do it myself, and I will pretend to listen while thinking about something else, then regret it [SO MUCH REGRET, HUMANS] later and forever? Can we listen to Elvis, or Ella and Louis? Would you like to play along with A Question Of Sport together, even though it is an empty facade of its former self, I mean, it is barely an actual quiz at all these days. God!'
As will be inscribed on my headstone, I worried for nothing. The trains didn't pull together. I never saw him again.
But I really miss my dad.
*Quite, I suppose, if you're Mr Tickle, who has been known to get quite 'handy' with the Little Misses after a night out.
**As in sass, not nose-flanking facial areas.
38. QUEEN ELIZABETH OLYMPIC PARK, LONDON
6 months ago