Sunday, 11 November 2012

The guy in the opposite seat

Bella writes: On the 20.40 train out of Leeds, I am faced with one of those dilemmas that polite commuters prefer to avoid. A teenager stretches over the only available table in the carriage, hood up, oversize black and red headphones hung round his neck. Do I risk abuse by claiming a share of the table?
“Anyone sitting here?” I ask, indicating the three other clearly empty seats.
“That’s fine,” says the teenager, and flashes the sweetest smile. He suddenly looks about twelve. Relieved, I make discreet space in the pile of the trash on the table between us: a Daily Mirror, and some Christmas toy catalogues, without touching the lad's rucksack.
Outside, the platform is dark, and on it men are laughing. The train is a cocoon of warmth and light. The words of Orson Scott Card resound in my head:  
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” 
I want to be a Good Writer. The journey takes an hour: if I write for a whole hour every time I take this train, I could have a novel done by the year's end.
Just before the doors close, a man gets on. He is about my age, in jeans and a dirty hooded top. He lowers himself carefully into the seat on the other side of the aisle, flashing a white sock as he avoids the empty beer cans at his feet. His chin is covered in long grey stubble and he wears brown tortoiseshell glasses. He is sending out mixed sartorial messages: intellectual or down-and-out? I begin to make notes, discreetly.
“Is that your newspaper?” he says. He has a foreign accent. Dutch maybe?
“No, it’s not mine.” I aim to be polite but avoid eye contact. I don’t want to be stuck making unwanted conversation with some weird bloke for an hour. I have writing to do.
“Is it yours?” I ask the lad opposite.
He shakes his head no.
So I pass the Daily Mirror to this possibly Dutch/definitely unshaven guy. I always like to assume that scruffy men are intellectual bohemian types - off duty professors of philosophy perhaps - but usually they are just homeless.
I make some more notes. Alcoholic? A broken marriage? Drug problems? His jeans look a little grubby.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” says Dutch scruff. “But are you two travelling together?” He means me and the lad opposite.
“No,” I say, shielding my notebook.
“It’s just a little strange,” says scruff to no one in particular, “but he is so young to be travelling alone.”
Really? I look at the lad and realise I have no idea how old he is. Sixteen? Eight? Eleven? He has the merest hint of fluff on his top lip.
“Where are you going?” Scruff asks him.
“To Manchester Piccadilly,” he says, very precisely. His voice flutters between octaves.
“Is your family meeting you?”
“Yes,” says the lad. And he picks up the oversize headphones from round his neck and places them, very deliberately, over his ears.
“What kind of music are you listening to?” asks Scruff.
The boy sees he has been asked something, and removes the headphones.
“What kind of music are you listening to?” asks Scruff again.
“What kind of pop?”
“Just pop.” And bang, on go the headphones. The lad stares pointedly at the empty chair directly in front of him. Don’t talk to strangers, I think. Good.
On the other side of the aisle, Scruff starts to pore over the Daily Mirror as if he is mining its pages for gems of narrative gold. In his hand, just in the shadow of the table top, he holds either a cigarette or a pen.
I start to doodle flowers in my notebook. Scruff is putting me off. Is he a socially responsible, concerned adult? Or some kind of child predator? The doodles in my notebook turn to jagged lines. Here's another dilemma. Should I be looking out for this lad? I am a mother: there are two small children waiting at home for me, hopefully tucked up in bed by now. But I hadn’t even noticed this lad's age – apart from when he smiled, and looked so young. I must be a really reprehensible human being, not to mention a pretty unobservant writer. I glance at him now.  
He is pulling something out of his rucksack - a packet of crisps. He eats a handful, then rummages again, takes out a phone, and calls someone, speaking in a soft voice. “I’m on the train,” he says. He puts the phone away and stashes the bag on the seat next to him. He stifles a yawn. Maybe it’s past his bedtime too.
Shit, do I need to make sure he gets safely to Piccadilly, and is met by someone, as he claims? Surely it's perfectly fine for a teenager to travel on a train by himself?
The WC sign has been flashing for the entire journey, accompanied by the smell of large quantities of piss turning stale. An elderly man from the next carriage tries the toilet door handle. The door is locked.
“I think someone is hiding in there,” says Scruff. The elderly man laughs and retreats to the other carriage.
Scruff has ceased to be a character in my notebook: I can't predict what he's going to do next. I resent Scruff. He's put this idea in my head that I should be looking after the young lad opposite, or possibly protecting him, and I just don't want to do it. But if I don’t, I’ll be leaving him alone on the train with Scruff. Scruff could be an alcoholic, a drugged-up paedophile sensing an opportunity. On the other hand, if I stay on until Piccadilly, that’s past my stop, it’s late already, my own family need me and I’m tired too.
The train begins to slow for my station.
If I tell the story of this trip in my head a certain way, I can convince myself that my version is the truth. The teenager is fine. Someone is meeting him. Scruff is not a paedophile. I must not beat myself up over figments of my imagination.
“Can I ask you one more thing?” says Scruff.
The boy looks in his direction.
“Does the controller – the ticket inspector – know you’re on the train? Did he check your ticket?”
The boy looks at his railcard, on the table beside him.
I stand up to get my coat. I feel awful about getting off. Scruff is going to be left alone on the train with this vulnerable boy. What if Scruff follows him to Piccadilly and abducts him? I reach up to the overhead rack and don my coat like armour. I shove my notebook in my handbag.
Scruff is out of the train as soon as the doors open. I am overwhelmed with relief. He is not going to molest the boy, or follow him to Piccadilly and kidnap him. Thank God.
“Is there definitely someone meeting you at the station?” I ask the boy, mainly to salve my conscience.
“Yes,” says the boy, only this time he doesn’t smile.
On the platform Scruff is talking to a station official in a bright yellow jacket. “He’s travelling on his own,” says Scruff, indicating the train, and the official nods and writes something on a clipboard.
Of course that's what I should have done. I should have had a quiet word with the station authorities. What’s the matter, haven’t I got any imagination at all? Am I just too English to pry into the concerns of my fellow human beings? I hurry up the stairs to the platform bridge. I hope Scruff isn’t walking directly behind me. Yet, as the Piccadilly train pulls away along the tracks below me, a chain of light in the darkness, what bothers me most of all is the nagging feeling that somehow I have not paid attention, that I let a character get away, that I have missed a story.
I wait fifteen minutes for the connecting train but am home by eleven. My family are all in bed, but they have left a light on for me.

Mumsnet and its charity partner Aviva are attempting to raise £200,000 for Railway Children, an international children’s charity for vulnerable street children. For each Mumsnet blogger that posts about the subject, Aviva will donate £2 to the cause. A further £2 will be donated for every comment left below.


  1. Interesting reading

  2. Really enjoyed this - you had me in the train carriage with you

  3. This story stayed with me -- a subtle, strong message. So important. Thank you for your fine writing!

  4. Such an honest post... yes, I fully understand being torn between the desire to protect and the reluctance to pry or feel as if one is over-reacting. And what a relief that his young person seemingly was okay. But that isn't always the case, so your concern is a good thing, I think, and in the end, it's something both you and "Scruff" shared in common. Wonderful writing here, too... xoxo.

  5. Thought-provoking. Oh that fear of doing the wrong thing...

  6. An excellent story. We should all keep our eyes open.

  7. Thought provoking read Ebba. I'm wondering if I know Mr Scruff, a Dutch colleague who recently went to work for Leeds College.

    1. Could be! Truth is stranger than fiction...

  8. The dilemmas of travelling solo and yet not alone... an excellent read, really drew me in.

  9. Very thought-provoking and well-written piece.

  10. Thanks so much everyone for commenting on this piece. As you know, insurance company Aviva is donating £2 to charity for every comment. The money goes to Railway Children, an international charity that works with vulnerable street children. Thanks for your support and keep those comments coming!

  11. Great read, great way to raise money & awareness