I have read a lot on the blogosphere about 'train fantasies', guff about strangers hitting it off on the evening commute. At one time I suppose this casual indulgence alleviated the tedium of travelling. Since we invented the smartphone however, there is no tedium. Now it is: get on train, sit and get out phone. This is how we do it - and that is fine. At some point in the future I am sure we will look back with a misty yearning, 'remember how granddad used to go on about his iPhone?' the youngsters will say, shortly before plugging into Skynet for frenzied death-orgies on the 6.15 to Lewisham.
In any case, for now we are stuck with reality, where the prospect of meeting someone on a train still excites. Personally, my morning commute offers little opportunity as I catch the 7.10 with the workers - too early for women in power-suits, I ride with dour Eastern European builders, weary cleaners, and cockney scaffolders.
On the way home I join the usual office crowd. A slave to routine, I always sit in the same carriage with my regulars, individuals of a similar bent, locked into the same pattern, their reading habits unchangeable, their style unbreakable: Clouseau-style mac in winter, oversized sunglasses in summer, I know them all so well. It should be said, I am just as predictable with my cravat and factory-battered leather satchel, a corporate man masquerading as an Edwardian dandy.
Nevertheless, I was happy with my routine and resolved to keep it. This was until I broke the code by speaking to another passenger - the inevitable consequence of listening to Bob Dylan and the Beastie Boys, the romance of the princely vagabond coupled with the urge to fight for one's right. I should not have been surprised at the ruinous outcome.
It was last Tuesday and the train had just left London Bridge. Opposite, a middle-aged woman was furiously knitting a ghastly jumper, I wondered how her husband felt watching the horror slowly unfold. Next to her was a woman in her thirties, the suit and trainers type, comfort and efficiency over style. Naturally, I was the reverse, a man of debonair appearance with limited depth. I had seen the woman on many occasions, and fancied us together, the Bonnie and Clyde of Platform 9 - our love indefatigable, our adventures awe-inspiring. I took her for a rebel turned corporate climber, a bit like myself. Given the right circumstances we would flee for Tijuana - go rogue, throw a Kerouac paperback into an inadequate backpack and disappear.
I was thinking this when she noticed me staring. She opened her mouth as if to speak then looked back at her book, a compendium of 15th Century Dutch art. We both had our headphones in. I took mine out and listened a while to the train chatter. I caught one end of a deeply personal phone call and learned that some awful person was 'playing mind games' - that, I could believe. I have been accused of the same, what this means however I do not know. I think it is a euphemism for being indecisive. The true players of mind games live in Hollywood prisons.
"Can I help you?" She said, removing her headphones. Unless in a shop, this question never carries its true meaning.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to stare. I was just looking at your book. I love the Flemish masters, Vermeer is my fave."
I winced after 'fave'. She turned to examine the cover.
"Oh, right. It's just you were...sorry."
"No, I'm sorry, it's rude to stare."
The train had emptied slightly, the remaining passengers were engrossed in their phones.
She said, "Nice to meet someone who appreciates fine art. These days it's all conceptual stuff..."
"Which is crap."
"I was going to say which has its place."
"Yes that too."
She smiled. The train rumbled past Forest Hill and I wondered how much time we had left.
"I love him," I said pointing to the cover, "Hieronymous Boche."
The cover showed the Dutchman's most famous work, 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', a medieval rendering of the Christian hell - it featured hundreds of tiny figures being blasted by fish-like demons on a sodden landscape.
"Oh, he's good."
I glanced out the window then said:
"Sometimes, I think my mind is like a Hieronymous Boche painting."
The train buffeted and I rocked forward. When I looked up she was gathering her things.
I said, "You know what I mean though, kind of dark but actually quite interesting."
"Sure, this is my stop."
"Only sometimes, not all the time."
"I know what you mean, nice talking to you."
She stood by the door watching the tower blocks - it was a full five minutes before we arrived at Crystal Palace. Scores of people tumbled onto the platform. They climbed the railway bridge with their heads bowed, a procession of the damned marching toward the inferno. I tried to catch her eye as she passed but she too was looking down.