An unwanted encounter

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.              

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