The tube is stopped at Aldgate. To my left a very big woman with a woolly jumper has her elbow firmly jammed into my nipple. She sat beside me and did it on purpose. It feels almost companionable, if a little aggressive. She’s definitely aware of it. Maybe she’s trying to actively combat “manspreading”.
Opposite us sits an old couple. He is thin. Too thin. A thin I’ve seen before. He must be 82. Cancer is eating him. “3,2,1 Go” he says to the train, to the air. It doesn’t go. He tries again. Nothing. His wife laughs. I laugh too, despite the elbow.
“It was worth a try,” I remark. He makes direct eye contact with me and keeps it. “I think this is where they change the drivers. It’s like Edgware Road – it’s the end of the line.” I say.
“End of the line? I know the feeling.” he replies. His wife snakes her hand into his. Touch. He says it again. “End of the line.” I look at him closer. He has chosen his clothes. He has life in his eyes even if his body looks like it’s hurting. “I dunno mate. You look like you’ve got some good time left in there.” “I hope so.” He says. “I really hope so.” His wife touches his hand again. There’s a pause. But the conversation is open now. It feels like I have to say something. “The rate I’m drinking, I reckon I’ll be off before you,” I say. Fuck knows where that comes from. It seems this is where we are with this exchange. The big woman to my left withdraws her elbow from my nipple. She’s odd. She send seems to like being antisocial. This companionable stuff has made her awkward. She’ll happily nipple jam someone who she thinks won’t call her on it. I have been considering patting her on the head with equal disregard for personal space. She senses this and she withdraws.
“What’s your tipple?” the old guy asks. I’m sort of in a character now, ticking over this interaction because it feels he wants it or needs it for some reason. “Wine.” I tell him. “Red wine.” It’s not strictly true. I don’t have a tipple. I just worry about alcohol. He’s happy with specific information though. He wants it. He thinks.
“I used to be fond of red wine, once.” he muses, still with hard eye contact. His eyes are haunted now though. Her hand goes for a touch again.
“It’s not helping.” I say. “I spend money. I forget. Then the next morning I remember even harder.” I’m trying to make it sound bad cos clearly he’s not allowed to drink and he misses it. Also that’s true.
The train is moving. We are almost at Liverpool Street. He’s thinking again. He speaks, moves and thinks with care. Eventually he says: “Oh yes, I used to like a glass of wine.” More thought. The train is pulling in. He leans in. This is important: “But don’t … waste your life … trying to find something … that you enjoy”. This is thought through, and finished with a Confucian flourish and the eyes widening. Clear pale blue. He’s happy with it. It’s wisdom.
“Thank you, my friend.” I say. “I’ll mull over that. And thank you.” I tell it to him hard because I want him to feel he’s impacted me. He’s in a place where he’s very aware of mortality. He leaves the train, supported by his loving and solicitous partner. Elbow touch. I hope he rallies. I suspect someone has given him a finite number of months.
I don’t really know what he meant though, in his parting shot. He wanted to impart wisdom. He was inevitably thinking about his impact and legacy which is why I thanked him so sincerely. I think it was personal to him and his past decisions, that advice. That’s what wisdom is. Going from personal to general. I’ll mull it, as I promised.
I’ve found something I enjoy but I’m maybe wasting a lot of my life trying to make it work. But it doesn’t feel like a waste. It feels like a delight mostly. But there it is, for you, from him. Make of it what you will. Here are the boys playing x-com. I’m gonna join in. Waste? Nah.