01 December 2016

Time Was

Commuting by train used to be something to enjoy. Crammed into a narrow seat yesterday evening, one of the few which didn't have a reservation ticket on them, next to a man who wanted marginally more than his allotted share of the space available and opposite (I was sitting at one of the two tables provided in a Great Western HST carriage these days) two women burdened with far more luggage than a rush-hour train can comfortably accommodate, I looked back nostalgically on the days when there was enough room to spread out. If there was no-one to talk to (rarely the case) it was an opportunity to get some work done. When, I wondered, did I last talk to anyone on the train? (I think it was a Polish punk, last Christmas.)

Just then an old commuting friend - no more than an acquaintance, in truth, but years of daily travelling together creates a special kind of relationship - passed me on her way to a seat further up the carriage. And later, as we approached Didcot, she passed again in the opposite direction, heading for the lobby for a quick exit when the train stopped. A minute or two later I too made my way to the lobby, where she was standing looking out of the window. I wondered whether she would recognise me, as it was a few years since we'd seen each other (and then she was telling Lixin and me off for talking too loudly in the quiet carriage), but she turned round and remarked that she hadn't seen me for years. (I didn't remind her of the last occasion.) Better still, she said I looked younger. No suitable rejoinder came to mind - at least, not one that that would have sounded anything but daft.

We chatted about those long-gone days - whether I was still cycling to the station, about her remark one morning when the train was late that she (being endowed with a Latin temperament) was surprised that this did not result in civil disorder - and what had changed since. People don't chat on the train as we (and Chris, and Nigel, and Mark, and Alison, and Geoffrey, and Dorothy, and The Master, and many people whose names I never learnt, including my Latin interlocutor) used to. Instead they commune with electronic devices. As they do on the Tube, too, where that morning I had become impatient with people who forced me to take evasive action as they walked along seeing nothing but the screen of the device in their hands. We put it down to a general lack of civility, and then went our separate ways on the platform expressing the hope that we'd see each other again before long.