I arrive at the top of the stairs and blow hard as I watch the back of the train pulling out of the station. Every small delay – the tourists blocking the escalators, passengers with heavy bags taking steps one at a time – feels like a defeat. It’s not yet three o’clock but I’m already focused on avoiding the rush hour – on getting to Ealing Common and back again as quickly as I can. The district line, with its various branches, isn’t my favourite – too many stations, and too many destinations mean that I now have to wait another eight minutes for the right train. Eight minutes doesn’t sound like much I know but in Brixton, where I live, the train-every-minute Victoria line sets the standard. So, eight minutes is an age but also, frustratingly, not quite long enough for me to pull my book out to read. There is no part of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the world and me that can fit comfortably in an eight-minute time frame. I stand with his words in my bag, with my back against the wall, some distance from the platform’s yellow lines. I’m in a hurry, but I’m still cautious. People fall under trains, and occasionally they also get pushed. Ta-Nehisi has my attention focused on black bodies and the violence enacted upon them. I am keen to keep my own body intact. Perhaps that’s why I don’t put my headphones in. Perhaps not. If I’d been wearing headphones I wouldn’t have heard his greeting me – the young man who passes – though no doubt I would have seen him, tall and composed, with dreadlocks tied back to expose high cheekbones and a penetrating, apparently uninhibited gaze. He is looking at me.
“Hi” he says.
I’m not friendly in public – some people would probably say aloof – but I am always polite.
“Hi”, I say, giving him a brief glance before looking away.
He carries on walking and then turns back.
“Which train goes to high street Kensington?”
“Any train” I tell him. “It’s only two stops away.” I also like to be helpful. It makes up in part for not being friendly. I check the board, which says that the next train is still five minutes away. He doesn’t seem that interested in checking for himself.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
A red flag starts to wave in my head. Lyrics? Really? Is he seriously moving to me when it’s obvious that he’s half my age – even less probably? If I had to guess I’d say he’s mid-twenties. I could get annoyed, or wave him away but I haven’t been twenty for decades. I feel that I owe myself more than this.
“To you” I say, “my name is Mummy.”
It is a rebuke of sorts, and a more fragile ego would have jogged on by now, but for whatever reason this guy hasn’t. He remains composed, looks me in the face, says,
“So, Giver and Sustainer of life, what do you do?”
An unexpected title. Uninterrupted eye contact. I’m taken aback.
“As I said, I’m a mum.”
“And what else,” he says. “What other things do you do?”
What’s up with this brother? Presumption? Boldness? Absent boundaries? Genuine curiosity? Should I respond or look away? The information display board switches from four minutes to three. The train is not coming to save me yet.The red flag flutters, telling me I need to take charge of this conversation.
“Yes I do other things,” I say, “but what about you, what do you do?”
He tells me he makes films, says,
“I was at film school but_” and then spends a few seconds mentally distilling the experience of film school – trying to voice the ‘but’, during which his facial expression momentarily hardens. “They wanted me to do something,” he says, “and I wanted to do something else.”
It crosses my mind that Ta-Nehisi might have relevance here – that he might have something to say to a brother trying to live his dream – but I resist the temptation to quote him, and give life to a conversation that I am waiting to end. The platform heats up, accumulating bodies as the display flicks from three minutes down to two.
“If you could make the film you want to make,” I ask, “what would it be?”
You may know – though he doesn’t – that I’m a therapist. This means that I know about asking questions – know how to get people talking about themselves. He offers me the title and a short synopsis of his film, which is set in Birmingham. The premise is quirky and thought-provoking. The plot is intelligent and offers lots of scope to illuminate his chosen themes of connection and community.
“It sounds like a film that needs to be made” I say. He nods. I add “and I hope you get to make it,” because suddenly, I really do hope that. His response – if indeed there is one – is lost in the thunder of the arriving train. Bodies press forward towards the yellow lines, every person for themselves and yet still, right up to the sliding doors, he is by my side. He talks as we go, asks me if I have Insta or Linked in, rebukes me when I scoff and shake my head, for sheltering in the past and ‘refusing to show up in the present.’
“Just trying to bring some of what’s good about the past into the now”, I say. It occurs to me that I am making excuses.
Inside the carriage it’s standing room only. To reach the only remaining grab handle I’m forced to manoeuvre around a woman carrying a big tote bag, and stand at an awkward angle. I’ve recently experienced a certain loss of faith in the steadiness of my own body – a disproportionate fear of falling down, or in truth, for the consequences of falling down. People tell me I am too young to be going on like this which I guess is supposed to be flattering, but does nothing to mitigate menopause, muscle atrophy or osteoporosis.
When he asks, ‘what about email?’, I flip it back to him by asking him if he has a card. Is this really happening? Am I really asking a strange young man on the tube for his number, and if so, why? What possesses me too, when he says he doesn’t have a card, to reach into my bag and give him mine? I register this act as uncharacteristically impulsive, even as I am performing it.
“Thanks,” he says and then he reads my name out loud, accepts my correction of his pronunciation and asks me where it’s from.
“It’s Yoruba,” I say, “like my father.”
He seems satisfied – “You’re Nigerian” he says and I decide to leave it there rather than offer any of the stories that would illustrate the ways in which this is, and isn’t, true.
“What about you?” I say, which again surprises me because it’s not the kind of question that I would normally ask. I suppose I’m still being driven by a need to deflect the spotlight and re-direct the flow of information.
“Nigerian too” he says, “maybe” and then he shrugs. “My ancestors did one of those long internships in the Caribbean”.
I smile. A painful and recognisable truth.
“Jamaica” he says.
“Like my husband” I say.
“Is he a good man?”
This guy is not shying away from intimate questions. It is disarming.
“Yes,” I say, “He’s a really good man.”
“You should tell him that.”
“I do,” I say. “I’ve been telling him that for thirty years.”
The train brakes, and arrives at Sloane Square. Passengers disembark, not enough of them to free up seats but at least as we pull away again, we have more space to breathe.
“What do your kids do?”
As far as questioning skills go, my man is giving me some stiff competition. I give him my own synopsis – run through the achievements of two daughters and three sons – and it must be that while I’m doing this that something changes, perhaps my voice or my facial expression, because when I’m done he says,
“You feel really good about yourself, don’t you?”
Mockery? Is that what this is? My prize for unguardedness – to be crushed in a moment of genuine vulnerability? He doesn’t laugh. His expression doesn’t change. The moment is not crushed, but held, and in it I realise that it wouldn’t even matter if he were mocking me because what he said is true. I do feel good. I own it.
“You’re right,” I say, “I do.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Why not?”
“Do you have children?” I ask, trying to hold up my end of the questioning. He shakes his head.
“No, but I’m the best uncle.”
He’s interrupted by an announcement. High street Kensington is the next stop. He talks over it, telling me about his nieces. The love and care in his voice – also the pride – are clear.
“I tell them I am their best uncle” he says.
“What do their other uncles have to say about that?”
“Yeah,” he says, his words slower now, “unfortunately my elder brother passed away in April.”
“He committed suicide.”
I receive this – his own moment of unguardedness and vulnerability perhaps – without words. I hold his gaze which, as inadequate as it is, is all I’ve got. The train is already slowing down, and any moment now the platform at High Street Kensington will appear, and he will get off, and this unlikely exchange will come to an end.
“I guess at least he got what he wanted,” he says. “On his own terms. I hope he has peace now.”
“I hope so too,” I say – such inadequate words that say nothing of what I hope, or feel, but we are already here and the doors are sliding open and there is only this moment and there will be no more. Before disembarking he opens his arms and leans forward and tentatively – respectfully, briefly – we share the lightest of hugs. He steps out. The doors close. I sit down. I take Ta-Nehisi out from my bag only to find that I whatever space I thought I had for reading is occupied now, with hopes – new ones. I hope that a young man who took his life is in peace, and I hope that another young man’s film gets made. I hope that I get to see that film and sooner than that, that I reach home safely today and get to tell my husband that he’s a good man (again). I hope someone tells my Victoria to High Street Ken travel companion the same thing about himself, if not today, then some day soon. I hope, when the world renders me hard and insular as I know it does – and will – that the gifts of vulnerability remain with me. I won’t bother hoping to turn into a friendly extravert who likes nothing more than being chatty with strangers in public (it’s just not going to happen), but I do hope to remember to leave the doors open – even a little bit. I hope that posting this story will remind me to mind my doors. And if it reminds you to mind yours, all to the good. I’m glad we could share a moment.