(I am very aware that this is a picture of the underground, not the overground and I’m sorry.)
Sweaty days didn’t lend a hand to Ellie Hackett’s style. Some girls thrived in the hot weather with their flouncy playsuits, sunglasses and long smooth legs. There were a hundred and one reasons why Ellie preferred the good pairs of jeans and fun jumpers suited to the large majority of British weather. Large thighs, pimply skin and a lack of prescription sunglasses amongst them. It wasn’t that Ellie wasn’t pretty; rather she had a good face and a normalish figure and fun hair, but she hated being too warm and her pair of modest denim shorts and navy t-shirt with the anchor on the front didn’t make her feel at her best. She smiled wryly at herself in the mirror, but she was just going to her parent’s home to pick up her suitcase and to her aunt’s house for dinner. It was a perfect outfit for keeping cool running errands and tearing through the garden with a troop of under eight year old cousins.
Exiting her flat she sent up a prayer of gratitude that she was taking the overground and not the tube, and another when she entered the train to find it air-conditioned. She had had ten minutes to spare and could have walked further up the train, which she vaguely remembered the front being better for this particular journey – it wasn’t the type of thing she had good memory for. However, for some reason the sight of a bloke dressed in black, sitting alone in the section of 6 flip seats in her peripheral vision made her abruptly change track. She got into the train and practically plonked onto a seat. It was the seat furthest from the man dressed in black, as British train manners seem to dictate. He looked up. He had a generous portion of fuzzy gingerish facial hair. He wasn’t especially attractive and regardless of if he was, Ellie wasn’t really sure why he had been a factor in her deciding where to sit. He didn’t look especially pleased to have his section interrupted by the presence of another.
Ellie busied herself in her book. Somewhat flusteredly, she dropped the receipt that was her bookmark and the seat creaked loudly as she writhed to retrieve it from the floor. She felt embarrassed for no discernible reason. She wasn’t one to let the thoughts of a stranger bother her.
Who is to say why one stranger smiles at another? I, like Ellie, find myself doing it unpredictably and indiscriminately wandering through the streets of London. Often at women, sometimes at men and it is the nicest thing when they smile back. There never seems to be a reason for why them, then. Perhaps vaguely that I’m having a good day, but I do it also sometimes when I’m having an awful day. The joy and duty of greeting and cheering a stranger seems, on an entirely sub-conscious level, worth pushing through the gloom for. It is usually just one of those small smiles, where the eyes brighten slightly and you push your lips to the edge of your cheeks without showing teeth. Although sometimes I find myself fully grinning at strangers. Usually when I’m having a good day, or they have good hair. Surely then, I’m smiling to myself and drawing in any willing victim for the ride. Not sharing my joy as much as just spilling it. Devoid of intention.
I wonder whether these poor, unsuspecting strangers go away panicking that they appeared laughable in some way- that there was something in their hair or on their face, or that I had somehow conned them, hence my mirth. A sad fact really, that we suspect anyone appearing friendly. Certainly that is what Ellie began to do – suspect the stranger on the train. He had begun staring at her. She did not smile at him, nor he at her at first, and she was now making great efforts to not look at him at all. She wasn’t sure if he had begun staring at her before or after she had been accidentally zoning out in his direction, but he certainly was after. She began to purposefully zone out in other directions and wondered if he noticed.
His staring began in a no-too friendly way. It was an expressionless watching. She kept accidentally catching his eye. She had always wondered if it was true, something she had been told as a child, that if you stare at someone continually for 30 seconds they will look at you. She had always been too distractible to properly test it, but it felt true now – she didn’t seem to be able to stop herself from glancing up periodically to check if he was still watching her.
And so her suspicion that he might be attracted to her – that at best he might hit on her and at worst they might get off at the same station and he turn out to be a real creep and do something rather horrendous like murder her was only increased when on one of these seemingly inevitable connections of the eyes resulted with him smiling at her. She looked away quickly, probably not all that subtle in her surprise. Trying not to smile back. Oh gosh. Don’t pick where you sit on the train based on the placement of lone male passengers, or if you do, use that as criteria to determine where to avoid. What exactly had been running through her brain? It wasn’t like she had ever been looking to talk to him. She tried to relax – it wasn’t really that big of a deal. There were others on the train and it was the middle of the day. Nothing especially awful was going to happen. When it all happened again, she smiled back and then despite herself smiled into her book and her phone in turn. Why would this stranger be showing her any sort of attention? Perhaps only for the benign and mysteriously vague reasons that lead her to sit near him in the first place.
Ellie (and I also) believed in something she called ‘friends at first sight.’ A type of hunch, just from looking at someone – how they dressed, how they held themselves, how they interacted with the world – that you would be good friends. Perhaps this was such: a mutual recognition that in other circumstances, say, had they been seated diagonally opposite at a party rather than in a train, they may have talked to one another and been friends. Either way, Ellie found herself basking somewhat in his attention. She rolled her eyes at herself.
The stranger got off at Holborn.
All Ellie’s worries and hopes that he might talk to her vanished. She tried not to look at him while he stood up, but once his back was turned she got her fill of looking at the person who had been looking at her for the last 20 minutes. She suddenly realised he was about to walk past the window opposite her. Before she had decided whether to watch to see whether he looked at her again or not, he was already there looking in, catching her looking for him and he paused to smile. It was a wider less restrained smile this time, as was hers in return.
As the train pulled on to further stations, it struck Ellie that this was one of the prettiest of human interactions. She smiled once again to herself and busied herself in her book.