The privilege of being able to walk in and out of others’ lives. The low expectations. Bold tiny snippets that you have no right to disclose or comprehend. Unfinished conversations. Satisfactory.
‘Really do you actually have to compensate?’
Listening hard to understand. Ears pricked - what two posh boys on South Western rail are talking about.
‘Quite. So the further distance away… they either compensate due to that… the pipes tend to speak less clearly.’ Wearing tweed. Flashes of acne. Younger than he sounds; older than the rest of us.
‘Would you then say that acoustic organs are better than electrical?’
Organs! They’re talking about organs. The instrument they play is an organ. The last one I remember was in Chapel tucked far away in a corner of memory. They do have pipes, I wonder if they’re woodwinds? Gospel choirs and Eucharists.
‘Fortissimo to pianissimo… the sheer range astonishes.’
A tea morning organised by a woman with a soul. Invite the neighbours, drink tea, eat homemade cakes, give to charity. There’s a green box with a Macmillan Cancer trademark lid, you put coins in the slot but others give folded notes. Sat in an armchair a woman wearing sandals and skin-coloured tights. She has a skirt that folds heavily about her thin frame. Maybe 70? Maybe 80? I like her glasses and cropped grey hair – thick big lenses that round off her angular elbows and knees.
‘I was working in print’ she tells me her voice is pickled with cockney and fruit salads, ‘a printing press.’
She continues, her mouth curls up a bit to give her a goofy smile, she’s got great teeth for an elderly – or dentures – a nice friendly sort of mouth.
‘You don’t have them these days. We used to print the cheques. The men would do the news, downstairs.’
I ask about the mechanisation of the printing press. She doesn't listen. That's fine.
‘And I think it were all women…’ she pulls a wrinkly finger up in the air away from the tea cup perched precariously upon saucer, and with that spindly hand attached to her finger she places it across her crooked smile, like a daddy long legs landing on a plate.
‘Well, I think it were. All so long ago. We’d do the cheques. Yes, like for the banks and things. I guess you don’t use cheques these days do you?’
A pretty clever girl next to me sparks up, ‘I only get cheques in my birthday cards.’ I understand the subtext. Those birthday cards are sent from old relatives. Online banking just isn’t as romantic.
‘The factory was near Southwark Bridge.’
‘Near Southwark Cathedral?’
‘No. More toward the Borough. Do you know it? I didn’t mind it. Go in at eight finish by five’, she’s smiling like a smile in a faded photograph and says: ‘I did a lot back then.’
Life might have been easier the pace of it. But as you get older you sleep less, why is that? It might be because you do less so you don’t need to rest and recover as much. Imagine doing what we do daily with all the screens and the accessories and the contactless payments and the looking up and down at tube maps. Imagine all that brain power. You need sleep otherwise, madness. Just madness.
The commute. Ends up making you hate humanity. No friends on an early morning commute – simply foe. No room to stand on your own two feet. God I hate the commute. Holy Communion. And it’s only Wednesday. For goodness sake. Everyone looks down and away at their swipey-zoom-pads. Mind keeps flitting in and out of divorce and adultery. It’s all the suits and ill-fitting pencil skirts. Bad cologne covering up a smell of sweat and last night’s lager. Geoffrey Archer types. Checkered shirt IT types. Immaculate spa day I work in recruitment types. Bored and not sure where they’re heading types. I’m the hypocritical teenage angsty type. Hair that’s on the left-field of convention. A wannabe. I hate the commute and it despises me. Sucks me up and spits me out with a last-laugh sort of attitude. Fuck you! Women caking on make-up in crowded situations so you see the pores being drenched with skin-coloured emulsion. Women’s beauty. When what you see and what you know don’t match the brain strikes up a confusion. A neat little pill to swallow before 9AM.
Lunch is the time for peace and piecing yourself back together again. When the sun shines it’s really not that bad. What were you so bothered about you prat?
Sit on a bench. Breathe. A breather.
A small woman eating hers opposite. Get salad envy. Remember the crisis of modern man.
Breathe. A breather.
‘Is that something you could get involved with?’ a fat electrical man gruffs in to his mobile, ‘I can’t tell if it’s hand-controlled or wall-mounted.’
Wishing I understood electrics. Physics class. Playing with diodes and something to do with salt. Or was it salt? Something to do with battery-powered potatoes. Did any of this happen?
‘It’s all in the spec Fred. I’m thinking about the, I’m telling you, I’m thinking about the metering package. Is that something you’d like to be involved in? You don’t know? D- d- d-on’t know?’
He breathes heavy. Panting like. He is built heavy too, has to lift himself up from the bench using one hand. Walks flatly and stammers with gravitas as he pulls up his trousers. Buffalo Gruff.
Or was it goats? Whatever.
‘You know what’s a really nice present?’ She has that posh gravelly drawl I get worried about. Skinny arms and legs, ‘…a cheese board.’
He says from his slightly creased expensive suit, ‘How about a coffee machine, I’ll just get them one of those.’ Flippant.
Sat opposite me displaying bouts of drunken slips of indiscretion, the rather well-made-up and not-convincingly-nice-looking couple talk loudly. Slurp stolen kisses. Spikey heels. Yikes.
‘How many people will you know at the wedding?’ He asks disinterested already in the question going in for a squeeze of her lower arm and then bum.
‘I don’t know - ’ (oh she knows), ‘- not many. You know we’ll be sat with Gail’s friends. You know Gail. Oh you do. You so do. Timothy’s girlfriend. You know Timothy. He. Is. Hilar-ious!’
A rail replacement bus service is in operation today, please go to Stop V. V. V. Where is Stop V? Already late and hungover and flummoxed by modes of transport. Ah, there’s Stop V. The bus stop is rammed. At least it’s not raining, and people are sort of milling and queuing up and leaving the queue to squint down the road for any signs of red loaded buses creeping up on us, this dishevelled lot. Love Sunday mornings just for the people who come out at that time. Either those with a purpose or weary with drink. Some churchgoers, but they don’t get the bus as much, either walk or drive. Smart people.
‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’
A faint sound of whimpering down a phone from a tall make-up-less girl in skinny jeans. Hanging off her shoulders a little big rucksack.
‘No tell me.’
‘No tell me.’
‘What did you do?’
Walking closely by her rucksack brushes my skin, I stay unmoved squinting for that bus. Come on.
‘You got with someone.’
‘Did you sleep with someone?’
I hope she misunderstood.
‘How can it be worse?’