On my way to work this morning I encountered the latest in a long running, and seemingly never ending, series of socially awkward situations. I am not good at socially awkward situations. Socially comfortable situations I excel at; polite, urbane conversation with wryly crafted witticisms, a well executed anecdote, a concentrated ‘listening’ expression. Socially awkward situations however leave me stuttering and bumbling like a fool, saying things like ‘what are weather?’ and ‘how do you are?’
This latest was particularly tricky.
On the train this morning, an unusually empty district line carriage, I was reading my current book, Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt. I was nearing the end of it and when the train pulled into Dagenham station, my stop, I only had two pages left to read. I had really enjoyed the book and didn’t want to wait eight hours to read the final pages, so I decided to sit on the bench on the platform at finishing reading it before walking on to work.
So I was sat on the bench reading, the train pulled away, the platform cleared and an old man came down the stairs and sat next to me on the bench. I carried on reading, about a page and a half to go. Then old man started talking to me.
“I bought this laptop,” the old man said, “took it home, did all the windows updates and then the disc drive wouldn’t work.”
I rolled my eyes in a way that said ‘ugh, typical, that sort of thing is always happening to me and it is so frustrating’. Then I looked down and carried on reading.
“These things sit in warehouses for years before they get sold, so by the time I got it there was loads of updates. It used up half my monthly internet allowance.”
I rolled my eyes again, trying for sympathy, then went back to my book.
I am not the sort of person to strike up a conversation with a total stranger. I rarely try it. The last time I did was on my honeymoon when I was using the swimming pool in the associated health club. I was having such a nice swim that I turned to the man next to me and said ‘isn’t this lovely’ and he, in turn, looked slightly horrified to be having a conversation with a total stranger in a swimming pool. I can’t say I blame him.
The old man at the train station kept on talking.
It occurred to me that this man thought I was waiting for the train. Having struck up a conversation with me he would now, not unreasonably, expect me to get on the next train with him. In reality if a train arrived he would get on and I would not, or I would finish my book and then stand up and leave the platform. Either eventuality would seem odd to him. The fact that he wouldn’t stop talking me made it even more difficult. If I were to finish my book I would have to stand in the middle of his chatter and walk away. Not that I would be able to finish my book because he kept talking to me and I felt obliged to look at him and nod and roll my eyes and things.
“I’m a musician,” the man said in an unpredictably sudden change of subject.
I was now dangerously close to hearing this mans life story. Up to now the laptop-centric conversation seemed manageable as it would inevitably lead to a conclusion as long as I didn’t add anything to it. But now it seemed like it could go on forever. And a man willing to strike up a conversation with a total stranger and then keep ploughing on even though that stranger keeps attempting to return to his book, of which he now only has about one page remaining, is not a man likely to stop talking.
I was now not only not reading my book, I was getting later and later for work. I needed to resolve this but I am too inanely polite to just abruptly end the conversation. I was starting to wonder just how this would end. The only way it could end, of course, is by ending it somehow.
I took charge of the situation. As soon as there was a natural break in the mans barrage of inane chatter I stood up and said;
“Well, I hope you get it all sorted out,” and then walked briskly up the stairs away from the platform and finished reading my book in the street.