Opinions of others can change in a moment and several years ago this happened to my wife, Rohan. In our family, her account of that day’s events has become legendary and recently she retold the tale to friends over tea. It is that retelling which prompted this blog.
The story was several years in the making. Three days a week Rohan would catch the same early-morning train to work. Because our station is at the end of the line, when trains set off they are usually empty and, on most journeys, Rohan could choose the same seat in the same carriage. Often, not always, a woman, who was similarly selective, would sit opposite. After months they would acknowledged each other with ‘hello’ nods when they met and ‘goodbye’ nods when the woman got out – her stop came first.
Slowly, Rohan built up a picture. The woman, who was probably in her mid-fifties, had an obsession with purple. From head to foot there were never any exceptions – coats, hats, gloves, dresses, scarves and shoes were shades of that same colour. As to her demeanour, the ‘woman in purple’, as she became known, had a pinched expression and rarely allowed herself more than a hint of a smile. Finally, each day she carried a raffia basket which she put in the space between her and the neighbouring seat. From her bag she would bring out a copy of a Mills and Boon paperback and throughout her journey would sit absorbed.
Their relationship never went further than nodding and observing but over time Rohan made a judgement. Normally Rohan is one of the least judgemental of people, on this occasion, however, she made an exception. At first, Rohan found the woman’s purple obsession interesting not to say quirky, ultimately it was tedious. Then there was her choice of books – it was difficult to believe that someone could be such a devotee of Mills and Boon. In the crudest of terms Rohan decided that the woman in purple was a prim and proper, dotty and withdrawn old maid.
Then, after three years, things suddenly changed. It was late afternoon and this time Rohan was on her journey home. To her surprise, opposite her sat her customary morning travel companion: same colour scheme, same Mills and Boon, same expression – unmistakable!
At the next stop, a tipsy man in his forties carrying a can of beer and wearing grimy, plaster-spattered overalls got on to the train and squeezed into the seat next to the woman in purple – her basket took up a lot of space! The train was empty and a spellbound Rohan could hear everything.
The man, who Rohan assumed was a labourer, looked into the basket and seeing an unfolded newspaper used the opportunity to start up a conversation. He was interested to discover that she read the Morning Starand pointed out that reading a communist daily was very much a minority occupation – she must be most unusual! He then asked, in a strong Irish accent, if he could read it. With a nod she agreed.
Pursuing his political theme the man next asked whether she had read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, adding that he found the section on The Power of Labour very difficult to follow. At this, she perked up, turned, smiled, and spoke: ‘Yes, I agree, the English translation is difficult – it is much better in the original German’. There then followed an erudite discussion between the two about the book’s contents in general.
At the next station the man got up and left, the woman returned to her Mills and Boon, and Rohan gulped. It had been an extraordinary few moments when a chance encounter across the aisle had caused her a major re-think. She realised that her initial judgment of the woman had been terribly wrong, and what made things worse was that the same went for her snap assessment of the woman’s fleeting male acquaintance.
Rohan continued to ‘meet’ her woman in purple on the morning train, but while behind Rohan’s nods there was now a feeling of respect and admiration, even warmth, her fellow passenger showed no signs of change.
Rohan tells how the mistakes she made that day were very important. They served to remind her how lapses occur, and also how, from then on, she was even more wary of the dangers of pre-judging others. Importantly, with the telling, the family has learned too.
The illustration shows the cover of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. To the right of the cover is a picture of the author himself.
For helping write this blog, I would like to thank Rohan and Vivien.