The Difference a Smile Makes

Riding the train across the southeast corner of England can be a rather impersonal experience. Over the course of the three different trains I have to board to reach my destination, I rarely have to say a word. A flash of one’s phone or ticket is enough for the ticket collector and human interaction tends to be limited to the odd pleasantry, such as confirming that this is indeed the train to Redhill, or some such assistance. Besides that, you can travel for three hours or so and hardly have to say a word to anyone. In any other country I suppose it would seem dreadfully out of touch, but it seems to suit the English very well. To each their own; an Englishman’s house is his castle; don’t go looking for trouble and no trouble will come to you, and other such expressions. The English love their personal space so much, it’s easy to assume that the loss of low-level human interactions in the face of the endless march of technology was welcomed here with open arms.

I might as well talk for myself. Sometimes I feel as English as the soil itself. Here I am, alone, barricaded into my window seat by my luggage and hoping the four tracksuit-wearing twenty-somethings don’t occupy the seats opposite. A damp narcotic stench, reminiscent of straw at the back of a big cat enclosure at the zoo, drifts up the carriage as they enter and I wince. I wince at the smell, and at the swiftness of my judgement; for the smell pervades long after the lads have moved on, lingering about the hawk-eyed man in the suit sitting opposite. I hadn’t even noticed him take his seat.

When the times comes to change trains, I do so quickly and willingly. I cross the platform and board the waiting train, finding a mirror-image window seat, onward-facing, back to the doors. Same seat. Same service. Same train design. It’s as though somebody just pressed the reset button on the passengers. And it’s silent again.

There are flashes of hope, though. The ticket conductor on this service greeted everybody when he got on, a cheery, wiry-haired gent, with a smile so warm you could put your feet up in front of it. He looks like a regular. At least, he knows the other regulars, anyway, commenting on a girl’s new blue-dyed hair and how he’d not be brave enough to do it himself; inquiring after a young man’s onward travel; and confirming for a second time that this is indeed the service to Redhill to a doubtful older woman. The smile does not break even once.

One of the most intelligent men I ever met was a ticket inspector. I wish I’d taken more detailed notes of his reasoning, but it was something like this: “It pays the bills, it keeps me on the road and allows me to think when the day is done”. He spoke Finnish fluently “because Finnish culture is fascinating”, had an intrinsic understanding of musical harmony and was a profligate Europhile. In another life, I should like to give ticket inspecting a go.

The sun is setting behind the white spring haze. Albion, the White Island, continues to live up to its name (insert topical Jon Snow reference here). I hope the last leg of the journey is as personable as this one has been. BB x

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