The person opposite looks nervous. It’s not a ram-packed Tube carriage, but there are plenty of people here. That should mean it’s safe, but no. I am wearing a “Tube Chat?” badge, and in so doing have become the physical manifestation of urban ennui. Talk to me, stranger. Chat. Come out of your self-imposed bubble of personal space and let’s yak it up.
So the person opposite is nervous. Which is ridiculous, because I’m not saying I will initiate the chat. Rather, I will participate should they decide to start up a conversation. Maybe they should try it! Maybe they will try it! They look at me again and, anxiety glistening on their face, lean forward. They’ve started! The conversation is begun!
Unfortunately, I can’t hear them. We are on a particularly loud section of the Victoria Line and their half-whispered opener is snatched away by the howl of the rails and the roar of the tunnel. I frown and move across the aisle, sitting next to them. They smile with relief and I smile back, an open smile that says “I’m still ready for that chat!”. The “Tube Chat?” badge reflects the carriage back at itself, a pointed accusation of the silent others.
“My dolls,” whispers my new friend. “They can’t hurt me out here.” Immediately my spirts sag. Oh no, I’ve pulled the carriage nutter. This is the risky aspect of the “Tube Chat?” badge. Those who want to talk may have reasons beyond friendliness. I nod. “They can’t find me on the train. I move too fast. They are…” he looks up and down the carriage, as if worried one of the other passengers might be his doll collection in a big coat. “…slow. They can’t… get a fix on me out here.” I nod again. My smile is pasted on now, and when the train pulls in to Highbury & Islington I leave the carriage, waiting on the platform for the next train.
I find another seat – thank god for mid-afternoon quiet times – and shift my badge to catch the eye of the other passengers. I have to keep doing this for another hour. I curse my editor. Smile. The person opposite looks nervous. They lean forward, skin waxen. “I can see him,” she says. Purses her lips. “He’s still caught in the reflection of your eyes.” I blink rapidly – in disbelief at having the carriage nutter twice in a row and, I try not to think, to wash him off my eyes. To hide him. I smile, clownishly. “This is the first conversation I’ve had since wearing the badge!” I convince myself it’s true. She smiles back at me, a tiny, careful smile that doesn’t worry me in the slightest.
I get off at the next station and return to street level. I put the badge in the bin and wait for a bus. I avoid the eyes of the other passengers. There’s a reason we don’t talk on public transport. A very good reason.