The problem with people is that they all can’t be alike.
Phil always took the train home from work. It wasn’t a complicated decision: he lived too far away to walk, he didn’t own a car and he refused to ride a bicycle because he felt it left his elbows unnecessarily vulnerable to scrutiny.
Travelling by train brought with it some difficulties at first, but Phil had learned to overcome them, gradually, through a process of positive self-affirmation and unflappable determination to be left the heck alone. He came to treat the train as his “Fortress of Solitude”, a place not unlike that of the Superman comics, a place in his mind where he could exist entirely separately from the rest of the world, and more importantly keep enquiring minds from attempting to probe his innermost secrets through the arcane and mysterious art of “small-talk”.
Phil was deeply suspicious of small-talk, even the name seemed misleading. The first (and last) time he had allowed himself to be engaged in this activity he had come within a hair’s breadth of revealing almost everything about himself in what seemed to him to be only a few sentences. The instigator clearly knew more about Phil than he was comfortable with, because this individual, whose name could have been “Steve”, felt from that moment onward he could broach virtually any topic with total impunity. But Phil didn’t want to know Steve’s opinions about sporting events, television programming or “women, eh?”, and was intensely relieved when Steve’s attention was drawn abruptly to another office-party-goer with whom he had clearly established even greater familiarity at an earlier juncture, and he went away.
Catching the train home was an activity Phil had made into something of an art. He prided himself on what a symphony of procedural sophistication it had become. The trick, initially, was to break it down into parts. Firstly, he would ensure that the walk from the office to the station took exactly twelve minutes, allowing for the inevitable delays caused by the teeming mass of less organised travellers – queueing, and such – so that he could catch the 5.38pm train. In other words, not the train all of these other people were clamouring to get on. Arriving home 20 minutes later was an infinitesimally small price to pay for a less crowded carriage.
Once aboard, Phil would find a seat and build his fortress. The seat had to be a two-seater, not a three. On rare occasions when no such seat was available, Phil would simply disembark and wait for the next train. It had to be perfect, or it wouldn’t work. Just as a house needed firm foundations, Phil’s Fortress required appropriate seating parameters. The next two phases of the construction involved two props: a device that stored and played music with a set of large headphones and a book. Each element had been selected with tremendous discretion, along with some minor trial-and-error “tweaks”. For example, too-large headphones attracted unwanted stares, whereas too discreet might imply that whatever is being listened to isn’t so important that the listener shouldn’t be interrupted.
The choice of book was more problematic. If it was something other people might find interesting then that might encourage unwanted attention. The same can be said for something too uninteresting, which would also promote staring. Phil eventually decided the safest course was to find relatively small books that had nondescript binding at the second-hand book shop. That way he could maintain his focus whilst obscuring the content of the text at the same time. Today’s book was a 19th Century treatise on the nature of creosote.
Once headphones were in place and book open, Phil would adopt an expression he had decided after some practice in front of his bathroom mirror gave an impression of a deep, cultivated level of concentration. He hoped that this would repel small-talkers, either because they might be fearful that he would either fly into a rage for being interrupted (unlikely), or intimidate them with the details of his obviously very specialised and possibly rather occult and unwholesome interests (yes, that seems more likely).
“Seven-hundred-and-sixty-three days since last incident,” Phil reminded himself as he found his seat. Everything proceeded as planned, his Fortress was sturdy, his headphones were in place and his book was open to the last third. He had begun to settle into his fifteen minute journey when the unthinkable happened.
An unkempt man sat down heavily in the seat next to Phil. Although he was no expert on such matters, Phil sensed that the man had been drinking. He was aware of the fact that the man was being studiously ignored by everyone else in the carriage and Phil reminded himself that he was still in his Fortress, that it was impenetrable by all, that he existed in a place where the cares of such men as this could not reach him. The man nudged Phil with his elbow and nodded solicitously at him.
“Eh?” The man said, and then said it again, with another nudge, to add emphasis.
Phil shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a moment and evaluated his position. He could continue to ignore the man until he went away, but he had noticed on the way in that there were not many free seats. Then, if he continued to ignore him, the man may choose to persist, and escalate his attention-seeking behaviour to truly unacceptable levels.
“Eh, mate? Eh?” Said the man, with much nudging and nodding.
Phil chanced a polite nod and weak smile before returning to his book.
“M’name’s L.P., mate. Wotcher readin’ there?”
Phil wasn’t sure what to call the stage beyond which a cringe ended and the next uncomfortable sensation began, but he’d reached it. He scoured his mind for options and decided his best bet would be a kind of awkward mime he hoped would convey “I can’t hear you, I’m wearing headphones and I’m listening to something I really enjoy and oh, look here’s this book I’m reading and… well, you know… sorry”
L.P. either wasn’t sure what Phil was trying to convey, or didn’t care. He continued:
“Yeah, mate. L.P. Not like the records, ya know? Not like Long Playing,” L.P. drew the syllables of those last words out, carefully. “But Lonely Place.”
That actually surprised Phil, and caught him off guard. By the time he would otherwise have kicked himself for looking at L.P., it was too late. L.P. noted the acknowledgement with another nudge (My elbows! Phil thought) and continued.
“My mum called me Lonely Place, because she said I was born in a really lonely place, ya know?”
Phil allowed himself to consider what sort of a place that might have been. L.P. kept talking.
“Yeah, she was real lonely, in this lonely place. I arksed her once where it was, an’ all she said was that she wouldn’t ever go back there.”
Phil was overcome with a sadness, what he assumed was a kind of empathy for this unusual, most likely drunk man who had intruded upon his Solitude, broken down the walls of his Fortress and made so little sense in the process. Against his better judgement, Phil decided on this seven-hundred-and-sixty-fourth occasion he would break with tradition and engage with this man in some form of conversation. Phil removed his headphones and looked at L.P.
“Did you ever find out where it was?” He asked L.P., whom he’d only just realised hadn’t stopped talking during his reverie and was already changing subject to something someone else had told him the other day. But when Phil spoke, L.P. stopped.
With a wistful look, he said “Yeah. I did.” His expression began to change from wistful to pained and Phil was instantly even more sorry he’d asked.
L.P. gestured to one of the more offensive stains on the linoleum floor of the carriage with a tilt of his head. “It was over there.”
A large tear welled in the corner of L.P.’s eye, then rolled clumsily over the weathered skin of his cheek, magnifying a trail over some of L.P.’s more excitingly broken capillaries. Phil was dumbfounded. Before he’d had time to absorb this bizarre revelation L.P. had sprung to his feet, raised his arms above his head and turned to address all of the occupants of the carriage, most of whom remained in their Fortresses.
In a voice that suddenly took on a tone reminiscent of the most fervent television evangelists that Phil had remembered watching late at night while he couldn’t sleep for the worry, L.P. declared:
“I reckon…. I reckon that we all are s’posed to be here – all of us – right now!”
It was Phil’s stop. He let the nice old lady, who seemed a little startled, get out first.
“Zero days without incident,” he muttered.