When travelling on public transport, everyone knows about the obligatory weirdo. It could be the woman wearing slippers who tumbles along the train carriage arguing with herself and anyone who looks up at the wrong moment, or it might be the wild-eyed loner silently oozing such an air of menace that nobody nearby can relax. Whoever it is, on whatever journey you take, there’s always one. A few months ago, that one was me. I became the weirdo on the train.
I’d been in London for the weekend and was travelling back home. This was in January and, to mark the new year, I’d decided to try something new with my hair. I’d kept it short for a number of years and was utterly bored with it. However, my hair is very thick and becomes curly whenever it gets long – it seems to grow outwards instead of downwards and previous attempts to tame it have always proved a disaster. I’d spend ages gelling and combing it straight before leaving the house only to find out later that rather than looking like a coolly tousled Jeff Buckley, I’d instead spent the whole evening resembling a 70’s era Scouse footballer. I’d usually struggle on with the self delusion for several months before good sense and constant piss-taking would make me shave it all off again.
Not this time however – this time it would be different. Instead of fighting against my hair’s natural waves I was going to go with them; I was going to embrace the curls.
I wasn’t overly optimistic but I decided that this could be my last chance for long hair before encroaching baldness stopped me forever. By January my hair wasn’t yet long enough for me to present myself to a barber and say: ‘Here you go, do something with this,’ but it was easily long enough to make me look stupid. That day it was particularly bad as I’d forgotten to bring any shampoo on the trip. In the morning, I’d washed it with the hotel shower gel then spent the whole day traipsing round the capital getting snowed on. By the time I reached St Pancras it was corkscrewing everywhere at crazy angles like a misguided, greying clown wig.
I’d been on my feet all day in heavy walking boots and was now exhausted. Being outside in the London air for two days also had the usual effect on my body; making my eyes sore and my throat dry.
I arrived early and went to the station’s Marks & Spencers to get something to eat and drink as I waited for the train. I bought a bottle of pop and a boxed salad – edamame bean with chilli and coriander sauce. I expected a flimsy little fork to be encased in the packaging of the salad, it’s the usual procedure for food that’s sold to be eaten on-the-go. However, Marks & Spencers don’t do this. Instead they have their eating utensils stored separately in a basket by the door. This is presumably so people forget to pick up a fork and napkin when leaving which saves the store money. By ‘people’ I mean me, obviously – but I didn’t realise this until I’d opened the top of the salad and poured the sauce over my edamame beans.
It did occur to me to go back but the shop was downstairs on the other side of the terminal and there was a burly security guard on the door. He might take umbridge at people wandering in and taking their cutlery, they were obviously very protective of it. Unusually, the top of the box wasn’t re-sealable either – it was cellophane and once it was off there was no going back, you were totally committed.
I opted to eat the salad with my fingers, struggling to maintain an air of dignity. It was difficult; edamame beans are hard to snare under normal circumstances but near impossible when slippery with chilli and coriander sauce.
Then, something unexpected happened – something nobody could have foreseen which proved disastrous for my salad and me. The train arrived on time.
The whole station seemed to flock towards the single turnstile and I had an unreserved seat. I needed to find my ticket, hoist up my bag, keep hold of my bottle of pop and do something with my food while my hands were slick with watery sauce. This completely shattered the normal image I generally try to convey when travelling – the air of a world weary and well travelled cynic, like the hero in a Graham Greene novel. It doesn’t quite work when you’re frantically shovelling edamame beans into your mouth as fast as you can with two hooked fingers.
But so what? I didn’t know these people around me, who cares what they thought of me – screw them!
I finished my salad with just enough time to wipe my hands on my jeans and show the guard my ticket. Panic over. On board I found a seat next to a window and, as the train filled up with people, spent several minutes digging my book out of my bag and trying to surreptitiously clean my hands on the upholstery of the empty seat next to me.
In front, at one of the tables, was a magazine editor interviewing a photographer for a surf themed fashion shoot. The editor was someone who clearly loved the sound of his own voice and talked at length about his magazine and how great it was. The photographer had his laptop open to show his portfolio and was trying hard to sound enthusiastic and professional. In the seat across the aisle was a middle aged Yorkshire couple who looked as though they’d had a happy day shopping and were glad to be going home. When we pulled away, the carriage was busy but not full and the seat next to me remained vacant.
I was by a very hot radiator. Before long I had to shed some of my winter gear – the boots came off along with my coat and thick Lopi jumper. I was particularly proud of my Lopi jumper, it had been hand-knitted in Iceland using local wool famous for being lightweight, waterproof and incredibly warm. It’s probably the most expensive item of clothing I’ve ever bought but that doesn’t alter the fact that it does look a bit like something an aunt would give you for Christmas. Icelandic wool is very wiry so tends to stick up scruffily and I can’t put the hood up because, for some reason, it’s pointy and makes me look like an elf.
With my jumper and coat next to me, I settled in for the journey. Reading my book, it wasn’t long before I fell asleep. Almost immediately, I woke myself up with a snore that was so loud that I heard it myself over the noise of Jimi Hendrix on my ipod. ‘Christ, that was a bit embarrassing’ I thought, and sat bolt upright to make sure that I wouldn’t fall asleep again.
I fell asleep again almost instantly. This time with my head lolling backwards so my mouth drooped open in a gape. I stayed like this for two hours, waking briefly every ten minutes or so at the sound of my own snoring which was almost deafening because of the dryness of my throat. I just couldn’t stay awake, the day had been too tiring, my eyes were too sore and the seat was too warm.
When I eventually came round properly, we were in Chesterfield and just fifteen minutes from home. The train was now packed – people were standing in the doorways and at the ends of the aisle but the seat next to me was still empty. Looking round for someone to give an apologetic smile to, I saw that the middle aged couple were looking out of the window into pitch black nothingness, conspicuously avoiding any glance in my direction. The editor and photographer still had the laptop open in front of them but neither one was looking at it. One stared down the carriage, the other looked down at the table, both of their bodies were tense and the backs of their necks were reddening.
I had one of those moments of ruthless clarity that often comes when you’ve just woken up from a deep sleep – a horrible, sudden realisation of how I must look to these people. A figure with wild hair and red-rimmed eyes grunting amid a mass of tatty looking wool with no shoes on. I also noticed that in my haste to eat my salad, I’d slopped a fair bit of chilli and coriander sauce down my shirt. If it was on my shirt, it was fair to assume that there’d be some in my beard too. Marks & Spencers’ chilli and coriander sauce looks quite a lot like dried vomit.
The ‘screw them!’ attitude, always my default position, wouldn’t quite cut it this time. I was beyond ‘screw them’ – it had gone too far, I’d embarrassed myself too much.
I was the weirdo on the train.
Those last fifteen minutes as we approached Sheffield were the longest of my life as I sat squirming with shame in my seat. Nobody looked at me when I got up to leave and as the doors closed behind me, I felt the carriage give a collective sigh of relief.
It made me wonder if this is how it happens – If every weirdo has simply been the hapless victim of an unfortunate chain of events and they’re otherwise quite normal. I think it much more likely that their ‘screw you’ threshold is a lot higher than most people’s and they no longer care a jot what others think of them.
Has this experience made me more sympathetic towards other weirdos on the train? Will I now look up the next time one of them reels down the centre aisle looking for people to talk at? Will I maybe even chat to them, ask them to tell me more about their reincarnated cat or the cloud that follows them everywhere they go?
Probably not, no.