- By MNR Contributor, Victoria-Anne Bulley
The burden of ceaseless contact with strangers spawns a strange breed of communication – a comparatively new form, in the grand scheme of things. It manifests itself in headphones plugged firmly into ears, and eyes downcast, or averted onto advertisement placards. What else can you do when personal space is a concept that cannot survive on the tube? Occasionally though, lives collide and we begin to communicate in the old-fashioned manner. A conversation is struck up and pleasantries are exchanged, before ending upon a light joke and farewell, all of this lingering with us like a breath of clean, leadless air that we thought did not exist underground. Strangers are humans too, it says. Something we know, but don’t often feel, about people – especially when we can’t escape them.
The day after the general election result, on my way to an exam too-poorly prepared for, I boarded a Hammersmith and City Line train at Liverpool Street. It had been raining that day, but the lady two seats to my left didn’t look like ‘inclement weather’ meant something to her. Dressed as though she’d come in from the beach, her airy vest top and skirt were pastel coloured while flip-flops hung laxly off her feet. It was the early afternoon. I wondered if, maybe, she lived so far outside of the city that she’d actually gotten on before it had started to rain. Meanwhile, at Moorgate, a young man with a backpack boarded the carriage, dishevelled, breaking enough of that unspoken sit-still Tube protocol to make his presence felt peripherally. A second man, much older than the first, passed by begging. The lady in flip-flops watched him, then turned to me – or anybody immediately to her right, it seemed – as she gestured and said:
‘It’s getting so bad, this. Happening more and more now. It’s devastating.’
Backpack man quipped, unsympathetically, ‘How did he even get on?’
I shot him darts for eyes, then turned to the lady and said that I guess now we had at least another half-decade of this to come. She laughed in agreement. Her demeanour was easy and light, a calm accepting manner which suggested that it wouldn’t put a damper on her day to walk home in the rain whilst dressed for sun. A flip-flops state of mind.
‘You’re exactly right there. Honestly, good luck to us all now’, she replied.
The train pulled away from Farringdon with us in silence again. I wanted someone else in the carriage to dare to join the conversation. It would have been oddly cathartic to hear someone break their stiff-upper-lip and declare that, actually, this homelessness was not some bottom-end consequence of politics, and then defend themselves. Each newspaper strewn across seats waxed on repetitively about the ‘shock’ of the election result, as if to ask in semi-feigned disbelief, who did this? Yet the same old real-time train silence remained. Perhaps voting had now become a subversive act, something hushed. Dishonest. Don’t ask, don’t tell, and don’t speak about it on the Tube. Backpack man shuffled his belongings irritably. Flip-flop lady spoke again:
‘You know what? If that man had not walked past us, not one of us on this train would have spoken to one another. But look what’s just happened.’
She smiled. I smiled with her and agreed. It was true, but sadly so: a poor man to teach us to talk? It had come to this. Others in the carriage looked on, still wordless and unwilling. I stood up to leave. Kings Cross arrived, and so I wished her a good day.
'Thank you’, she said. ‘And you, sweetheart. Enjoy the next five years.’
Victoria-Anne Bulley is a writer and poet based in London.
She is a member of the Burn After Reading and Barbican Young Poets collectives, and has been commissioned to write and perform at a range of London locations including the Southbank Centre and the Royal Academy of Arts. She tweets as @victorianabulls, and records late-night bursts of words at victorianaadukwei.wordpress.com.