As I get older I get more picky, and this extends to where I sit when travelling. For some time I have had favourite seats in cars and planes. The list now includes places in the underground, more specifically, in trains on the District Line. Here, making sure I find one of my favourites is de rigueur. The chosen seats, which are found in the far corners of each carriage next to the end walls, have their backs to the windows and their fronts to the aisle. Why are they so attractive? Firstly, they provide more space both for passengers – they are wider – and for luggage – bags or umbrellas can be placed against the door. But just as important, on one side there is a wall rather than a neighbour, so on that side at least there is no risk of being bulged on to, or coughed at, by fellow travellers.
Recently I had to walk almost the length of the train before finding ‘my’ place. It was rush hour, but as it was the terminus and the train was not due to leave for a few minutes, there was time for the search. I finally spotted my seat in the sixth carriage, and on entering the train was greeted by a chorus of animated schoolchildren, more precisely, the chatter of seven girls aged around twelve years. They filled all the seats around mine and, as far as they were concerned, this corner was theirs. Feeling like an intruder, I asked hesitantly if the seat in the corner was taken and if not would they mind if I sat there. “It is my favourite seat,” I explained.
“No problem,” one of the girls replied. Then after a few moments, and following some gesticulation with her teacher down the way, the cacophony eased and she turned to me to offer an explanation. She was outspoken and at ease speaking with strangers, well at least this one. Moreover, she had clearly registered that I was bemused; here was someone observant and thoughtful beyond her years. “We are all members of our school’s under-thirteen cricket team. We got through the preliminary rounds of a competition and today we are off to the finals.” It didn’t occur to me at the time but, in mid-winter, they presumably would have been playing the indoor game.
Then, led by their ‘spokesperson’, all of them asked questions, with much of the dialogue going on between and around the passengers now standing in the aisle: Why do you particularly like that seat? What do you do for a living? Where are you going at the moment? What is your favourite newspaper? And finally, Why are you wearing those funny gloves? They were indeed odd, with arrangements allowing my thumbs and index fingers to be uncovered individually to permit texting or phoning.
I answered their questions as best I could and then asked my own, “What papers do you read?” One read the Mail, one the Guardian and another the Sun. I turned to the Sun reader and expressed my concern, even disapproval, saying that I found her choice very worrying.
“Why do you feel that way?” she asked.
With little time to be circumspect, I blurted out, “As far as I am concerned the Sun is a sexist pig rag.”
She looked surprised and called across the aisle to the spokesperson opposite repeating my comment. Then, after a moment’s silence and some obvious contemplation, back came the response. The spokesperson looked across at me and simply said, ‘You are a legend!’ I had been apprehensive about what she might say but interpreting her words as meaning “you’re a star” (for confirmation of this I needed help from my iPad and Mr Google!) it seemed that my comment was ‘on the button’ and acceptable at least to her. And for one who has puzzled for years about bridging the generation divide, this acceptance was most warming.
My station arrived soon after and as I left I heard a chorus of goodbyes. It had been a surreal interlude and one in which I might just have crossed a gap of some 60 years. My favourite seat had offered more than just greater space.
Pictured: The Sun’s riposte