Thursday, 30 September 2010

Strangers on a Train, Ha Ha

The sharp smell of cigarette smoke in the air, so obnoxiously out of place on a tube carriage, hangs as the equally obnoxious laughter fades. The chatter of people excited by the vicarious thrill of close proximity to lawbreaking.

“Ha ha ha, I couldn’t believe it”
“Are you allowed to do that?”

A man who could be called Patrick or Connor or many other names but here will be called Michael, stares at the chip of a half-smoked cigarette. Picking up the free tabloid commuter rag, he straightens it out to the front page, crosses one leg over the other, strokes his beard and then lights the stub. The electricity of excited conversation starts again, all above Michael’s head, below his interest.

“Ha ha ha ha ha, look now HE’S at it”
“Have they changed the laws or something?”

Alex or Peter or Andy or another Michael but, for the purposes of this narrative, Ashley quickly changes the lens on his DSLR. He hurriedly sits next to a man wearing a black jacket and a scowl, standing on his foot and shoving his elbow off the rest. Ashley does not have time to apologise, he is too busy preparing to ‘document reality’. He focuses on Michael, but will not ask his name. When the photo sells for £400 (plus frame) it will be titled ‘Tramp Smoking on Tube’. He will debate with his agent over whether it should be ‘tramp’ or ‘homeless man’ before coming to a mutual decision that ‘tramp’ is more shocking.

Focus being much of the job, Ashley wears his ‘game face’ but inside is a child who has just assembled his first mechano set and is waiting to show his dad, or an 18 year old, knowing for the first time what they wanted to dedicate their life to after numerous years of attempts and false-starts.

Downtime by Ashley Simmons

I sit alone
Inside my head (yeah)
And think about you

Every word you said (yeah)
What else am I
Supposed to do?

Scratching at the walls and waiting
While you leave me hesitating
Wasting time while you’re debating
F------------------E/F-----D (ring out)
Whether to leave me blue


Michael sits smoking, reading the paper. When getting to the sports section, he elbows the man next to him and points to a story.

“What do you think of that then?”

The man, who could be called Chris or Steve or John or Tom but for the purposes of this fiction will have no name as he does not feature again, smiles and engages in conversation, knowing this will result in at least a passably amusing story to tell his friends. He calls him ‘mate’ to show that he does not have a problem with Michael’s homelessness, his thick accent, or his smoking on the tube. He does not remember the King’s Cross fire, in which 31 people died. He was 6 at the time and liked lego and football. Michael may or may not remember, but either way does not care. Circumstance, alcohol and an unbalanced economic system have rendered it so he cares about very little but himself, and even then barely at all. But it was not always the case:

Here is a rhyme
He would skip and sing
Before growing ashamed
To do such a thing

“There is a ghost which sings
Walloo, walloo, walloo
Inside a broken house
There is a bird which calls
Tralloo, tralloo, tralloo
While stretching out his wings
But if they were to meet
Halloo, halloo, halloo
In halls or in the street
Then who, wholloo, wholloo
Do you think
Would be afraid
Of who?”

He was no longer ashamed. That most adult of feeling had long since faded, replaced by greater shames, and those too in turn until there wasn’t anything left to be ashamed of. Michael could simply no longer remember much of his childhood.
Ashley stands up again, walking past the scowling man. He stands four feet away from Michael, holding his DSLR at chest height. It can also record video to an exceptionally high quality. This is why he’d bought that model. It cost almost £3,000 (tax deductible) and was proof to himself and his family, if any were needed, of his professionalism and dedication. He records Michael’s conversation, and more importantly, the holes in his shoes, the dirt under his fingernails and in his skin, and most importantly of all, the cigarette, which Michael smokes until the cherry reaches the filter. He then drops it on the floor and stubs it out, leaving a black smear. Ashley captures this too. Michael then returns to silently reading the paper, which holds little interest to Ashley. Instead, he sits opposite Lawrence and tells him what good footage he’s got.

For the first time Ashley notices the scowling man, despite standing on his foot and jostling him. But this is not why the man was scowling. Ashley notices the man sharing his disdainful gaze between the two parties, both Michael and himself. The man shakes his head and mutters what appear to be obscenities. Ashley, affronted, returns his stare before nodding upwards at Lawrence and pointing the man out. But the man seemed unperturbed.

This man had not always been so angry. Once he was a child, like we all were, and like some of us thought he was carefree for most of that time. He now looked back on his childhood with an unfairly weighted fondness, as do some of us. Life had subsequently been unkind to this man, as it is to all of us, and as it is to none of us as it is nothing more than a series of occurrences in four dimensions.

Let us say his parents died.
Let us say that he never got to say goodbye.
Let us say that he lost his money.
Let us say that he lost his wife.
Let us say that he lost his home.
Let us say that instead he kept them all, but could never accept that he was actually gay, or bisexual, or a woman born into a man’s body.
Let us say that it was nothing near this tragic and he just went through an ordinary, if unfulfilling life.

And so, cruel as I am, I make it that it is all, or one or none of these things, but just enough to bait his anger into dancing for your amusement.

Although agnostic, the man anthropomorphised existence just as much as anyone of any faith. ‘Fate’, ‘luck’ and ‘fairness’ were applied to random events. It was this and a biological predisposition towards serotonin deficiency which caused his bitterness. The man would never know how closely melanin and serotonin were related, and how much his northern European ancestry would hinder his enjoyment of life. He just thought the world was unfair.

But this is all a fiction. I could give this man a name, one of the most popular boys names of the early 1980s (as was mine) to help you, the reader, identify and push this fiction into the realm of pseudo-autobiography. But this is not autobiography, pseudo or otherwise. This man is not me.

His rage continues. Rage at the selfishness of Michael for smoking on the tube. Rage at Michael’s situation. Rage at Ashley’s exploitation of Michael and rage at himself for not saying a thing. But it is all a rage of my own invention.

And as selfish as these three men were, reader, there is none more selfish than I. Impressions of half-remembered faces, suitless puppets interacting at my behest. Their creation, exploitation and crimes of moral lack are all mine.

At Clapham Junction, the scowling man gets off. He leaves Ashley and Michael. Both are silent. Ashley no longer has any interest in Michael, and Michael, Michael has never had any to lose. The pictures are on the hard drive of the camera and Michael has no money for a hostel. The doors close. The weather turns cold. I stay on for two more stops.