Thus far I have gone through a long life remarkably unscathed by physical mishaps.  I fell off the back of a Land Rover during my National Service, I nearly fell out of a plane during my time in the University Air Squadron, and a taxi driver in Singapore tried to stab me with a screwdriver.  But otherwise, it’s been plain sailing until the other evening on a train travelling from Windsor to Waterloo.

 

It was 9.30 at night and, as usual, I got a seat in the front carriage to save walking the length of the train at Waterloo.  I was the only person in the carriage and I settled down happily to read the newspaper.  A few stations later a young black man got on the train and sat down opposite me.  I glanced up when he entered the carriage and then carried on reading.

 

To my astonishment the young man suddenly shouted, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, eh?’  Since I wasn’t looking at him, I thought it best to ignore the question so I kept my head down and carried on reading my paper. He shouted at me again, ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’  Then, a third time in an even louder voice.  Without looking up (in the circumstances it seemed unwise to look at him) I said, ‘I’m not looking at you.  I’m reading my paper’.

 

He stood up (he was a big fellow, perhaps an athlete or even a boxer) and loomed over me.  ‘You were looking at me!  Tell me why you looked at me.’  I replied as calmly as I could, ‘I wasn’t looking at you. I just want to sit quietly and read my paper. If you won’t let me do that I’ll have to move to another carriage’.  He stood, barring my way.  Getting up and moving would have meant pushing him aside – not something I thought it wise to attempt.  He now shouted at me, ‘Am I scaring you?  I can see you’re scared.  You’re scared of me aren’t you?’  I said, ‘No, I’m not scared.  I just want to sit quietly and read my paper’.  This, by the way, wasn’t quite true; by now I was starting to feel intimidated but I was determined not to show it.

 

With the guy apparently on the brink of punching me – or worse – my mobile phone rang.  I weighed up whether to answer it and came to the conclusion that not doing so would confirm what he already suspected; that I was scared. So, I fished the phone out of my pocket and answered it.

 

My wife was calling from Naples to report on her visit to Pompeii that day. I listened to her, saying the occasional, ‘Oh, yes’ and ‘How interesting’.  She asked me about my day and I told her what I’d been up to without saying anything about my current predicament.  During the phone call the young black man resumed his seat.  After about five minutes the phone call ended, with the usual pleasantries, and I braced myself for a resumption of the unnecessary, but troubling, confrontation.

 

However, the young man just sat there looking surly.  It was as if the interruption of the phone call had given him time to calm down.  I returned to reading (well, pretending to read) my newspaper, avoiding any upward glances or eye contact.  The professional part of me longed to ask him why he was so angry, but I thought better of it.  We sat in uneasy silence for the remaining 15 minutes of the journey into Waterloo.  He got off the train without another word, leapt over the barriers in one effortless bound (I told you he looked like an athlete) and fled across the concourse.

 

When my wife returned from her week in Naples I told her what had happened.  She said she thought I had been unusually curt during the phone call and rebuked me for being foolish enough to sit in a carriage on my own.  She said I should always select a carriage with other people in it.

 

I’m mulling over whether this is advice I should heed. Should my chance encounter with the angry young man change my behaviour?   I often travel on trains.  Should I seek out a carriage populated with other people?  What if they are drunk and disorderly?  What if they all get off at an earlier station?  Do I implore them not to leave me?  Do I get off with them even though it’s not my destination?  What if the next train is empty?  Should I give up train journeys?  Or shall I just assume my encounter with the young man was a one-off and carry on exactly as before?

 

Endless questions.  One thing’s for sure; I bet the young man hasn’t given any of this a single thought.              

2 comments

  1. Changing behaviour. Now where have I heard that before? Remember that “feeling intimidated” is tough, since you cannot do much about feelings. So somebody once told me. But above all, I have learnt something from your experience – avoid travelling on trains these days. Peter, more power to your elbow, and be well.

  2. You certainly have my sympathies. While I don’t personally travel by train any more, I’ve had plenty of experiences with people who seemingly feel aggrieved at little provocation and while I’m reluctant to suggest this incident involves a feeling of racism on the young man’s part, it is possible he thought (unjustly from what you’ve said) the glance was because he was black. Again, I’ve had this experience many times before.

    While there is no doubt this man greatly overreacted, I’d ask what you would have done if it was, say, an elderly white woman. For me – who spent his formative years in the North of the country – I probably would’ve added a small smile and nod as I saw him. It might have helped, it might not, there’s no way to know, but I’d do that for anyone. I’ve certainly been accosted by people despite these sort of pleasantries but often it diffuses the situation just enough.

    I hope you don’t feel the need to seek safety in a crowd. I grew up in suburban Birmingham and found that staying safe is about confidence, no matter where you are. Believe in yourself, regardless of whether it is accurate or not. That doesn’t mean I’ll pick a fight (I’ve never had a fight, it’s the best way not to lose them) it means I carry myself with the confidence to be less of a target. As you rightly say, the crowd can go and if that is where you place your confidence, it will leave with them and leave you vulnerable. You’re obviously an intelligent person, shown by writing about your experience, even before I read any of the other pages and I’m sure you can find the confidence inside you to truly believe you can stay safe on your own. I truly hope you do.

    If any of this came across badly, please feel free to contact me. Best of luck on your travels!

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