I haven't been on a train since early March, so naturally I've been daydreaming about public transport a lot recently.
I'm lucky not to need to use it at the moment, of course, and I'm well aware that for every time I've spent a journey staring out of the window at a gorgeous view, there's one where I sat in some vomit. Similarly, I've had some deeply unpleasant interactions with strangers while travelling — the roving packs of men going to stag parties on the Friday night train to Liverpool, for instance — but it's the unexpectedly amiable ones that have come to mind again now.
A case in point: it was the morning after the night before I had told someone I liked them, really liked them. Absurdly, I don't actually remember what it was that they said in response, the precise words they used, but it was definitely along the lines of "thanks, but no thanks". I had been keying myself up to make this declaration for months. Every aspect of how I should do it, every possible permutation, had already been considered and taken into account by my febrile, overactive brain. Except this one: how do I keep going afterwards if it doesn't go well?
That's how I ended up on the Tube, taking my usual train to work but feeling as if the connection between my body and my mind had come unstuck. I was sitting in my seat but also floating somewhere around in the curved roof of the carriage, watching myself fall apart without a plan. It was still on the early side for a morning commute, but there were enough people milling about in the stations to make this dislocation even more acutely unpleasant.
My journey was only a short one, two stations north on one line and then four east on another one, but I couldn't make it. Just before the doors closed at Embankment I dived out and collapsed on one of the recessed benches in the wall in tears. Nobody could really see me, because there were people bustling in both directions along the narrow platform between me and the trains, and anyway one of the glorious and awful things about having a public breakdown in central London is that everyone ignores you.
When will we cry in public again? It's an unimaginable activity now, in the time of face masks and the constant awareness of bodily fluids and air circulation. Part of what made it cathartic was that intensity of being alone in a crowd, the press of uncaring bodies all around emphasising the absolute solitude of the emotion. It was an especially effective release on trains or in stations — places that contain their own sense of momentum and can impart some of that to someone who pauses there to weep.
I thought I was invisible, tucked into the wall like that. But someone had seen me. A woman dressed in that irreproachable City armour of tailored grey sheath dress, matching jacket and uncomfortable black court shoes suddenly loomed into my little nook. She was holding a packet of tissues out to me. I took them. I probably did an ugly snort where I meant to say "thank you" in response. She didn't linger, just melting straight back into the crowd. Of course, that just made me cry harder, but at least now I had a way of blowing my nose.
The kindness of strangers. I miss it.
Twelve things I'm reading, watching and listening to:
- On the viral ideas of influential how-to books
- How the descendants of dissidents live in remote Siberia
- "You have to tell your money where to go, rather than wonder where it went."
- They're just trying to sell us plastic boxes! I knew it!
- How to escalator safely
- I'm so into "the accountability format"
- Can you guess what my dog got for his birthday this week?
- Yes I did watch this film and yes I am scared of my phone now
- A "famous people interview each other podcast", yes, but a good one
- I want to tell everybody how satisfyingly good this show is
- I'm extremely tempted (not really)
- They had me at "66 million year old murder mystery"
If you enjoy the podcasts I recommend in this newsletter, consider taking out a subscription to The Listener, the daily podcast recommendation newsletter I write. I promise, it's really good, and it's a great way to show your support of my work.
Apart from that, there are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: I write weekly podcast industry reports for Hot Pod, I make a fortnightly podcast called Shedunnit and I’m sometimes on Twitter and Instagram. My book is now out in paperback, find the links to purchase a copy here.
Until next time,