I have always chatted, and as I get older I chat more. Sometimes it is an exchange with a passer-by who I have not met before and am unlikely to meet again. On other occasions it is with people I see regularly, and these days a lot of chatting goes on at our local sports centre.

For years, each day at the same time I have exercised at the gym and afterwards drunk a cuppa downstairs in the centre’s cafe. Initially, it took me time to recognise the ‘regulars’; then, after months or in some cases years of nods and brief natters, with some there followed an exchange of names, more substantial chats and even coffees together. We are a self-selected group and all of us feel that our chats lie somewhere between light relief, fun and entertainment, and for me this is hardly surprising. Amongst those with whom I chat are a retired architect, two teachers – one still practising – a retired cartographer and a one-time croupier.

Importantly, just as my early morning sessions are a delight, when exercising in a gym full of strangers where no one chats, the atmosphere can be dire. Recently, I went to my usual gym but at a different time. There were around ten people there, none of whom I recognised, none looked my way and none spoke; indeed, no one seemed to be aware of those around them. It was as though I was with a group of automatons and all dressed in menacingly black apparel. When I left that day I decided that if in the future I was faced with a numbing silence coupled with feelings of isolation, something would have to be done, someone should speak and that someone would probably be me.

In keeping with my decision, this blog is about a brief chat I had last week with a stranger on a train. The chat, which only took place over the last few minutes of our journey, was a warming surprise.

The train, which was taking us from London to Hove on the south coast, would be stopping midway at Gatwick Airport. When Rohan and I got on, the carriages were already packed with nearly every seat taken either by Gatwick-bound passengers or by their luggage.

At Gatwick station the train emptied and the exodus left our carriage almost empty with us sitting alone at a table on one side of an aisle. On the other side, also at a table sat a man in his eighties. He was glum and motionless and his face sallow and drawn. Throughout the journey he stared ahead and did nothing – no reading, no writing, no listening, no looking out of the window – just nothing!  

Rohan and I read our favourite sections of the Saturday Guardian – hers covering the news, mine, the sport (see the illustration) – and from our occasional glances both of us came to the same conclusion; our neighbour opposite felt very very sad. We had no reason to speak to him. But later, as we were getting off the train, I picked up my thumbed sports section and turning to our neighbour asked him whether he would like to have it. Why I thought he might be interested in sport, I don’t know!

On hearing my offer his face changed and when he took the paper he looked straight at me and with a twinkle and a smile said “thank you”, adding how very thoughtful I was to think to give it to him. His response was a wonderful and unexpected surprise and sensing that sport was one of his interests, I went on to suggest that he might like to read the article on page five in which there was a detailed analysis of the failings of this season’s English men’s rugby team. His response this time was even more surprising. After thanking me for my suggestion and promising to read the piece, he said that in the Six Nations game against Italy next day, he believed England would win.

I said my goodbyes and joined Rohan on the platform. She was relieved and delighted to hear about our neighbour’s response while I was reminded how a chat can be so very rewarding.

The illustration shows a photo of the front page of the sports section of the Saturday Guardian on the day of our trip to the seaside.

For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Alan, Rohan and Vivien

6 thoughts on “Across the Aisle

  1. I love this genuine and kind interaction Joe, we don’t know what is going on for someone… so a smile, an acknowledgment or a parting gift can mean so much.

    ‘Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.’ Dalai Lama


    1. Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comments. What a clever quote of the Dalaï Lama. Love, Joe
      PS Have you seen that your old friend Peter has made comments on my blogs recently?


  2. Dear Joe,

    What a lovely story- I’m sure your kindness made a big difference to the rather sad man.

    I also loved your story of the gym group- I stopped going to the gym during Covid and am only just now thinking of going back, but I do miss the locker room interactions with the dancing group!




  3. Having never been a huge fan of sport, one has to admit that nothing brings people together quite like the shared, communal experience it can offer us all. It’s interesting that your fellow passenger seemed to come alive at the mention of rugby, and the chance to read up on sport in the paper! It really is a universal language!


  4. Dear Joe,

    One of those moral dilemmas: has the individual chosen the silence – like Greta Garbo’s character in ‘Grand Hotel’ saying “I want to be alone”? – or will they welcome an act of human kindness to lift them from apparent loneliness?
    Your compassionate intervention on the train solved this particular enigma perfectly. I like to imagine that he has lasting warm memories of this brief encounter.


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