Friday, 23 September 2011

Déjà vu

Déjà vu, we are assured, is a present phenomenon, and the sense associated with it of a return from the past is purely illusory.

So it was a bit of shock to have a bout of genuine déjà vu yesterday, when I didn't just have the impression of reliving an earlier experience, I really relived it. And it wasn’t that pleasant.

It happened when I boarded the 7:56 train into London. Things started badly enough when I turned round in the narrow aisle and my rucksack nearly sent a thermos flask flyng from the table behind me. The woman who owned it gave me a look I can only describe as bleak and no amount of apology seemed to mollify her.

That though wasn’t the truly chilling experience. That was merely embarrassing.

My reason for turning round in the first place was that I’d noticed that the aisle seat opposite the thermos-flask woman was occupied by a man working on a laptop, who had placed his briefcase on the window seat next to him.

Why do people do that? Why are they so keen to keep an empty space next to them that they’d let other passengers stand rather than free the space? And do other people put up with not getting a seat rather than disturb someone else’s luggage?

In this respect at least, I'm made of sterner stuff. In this situation, I always compose my features into a fixed expression of blank neutrality and address the offender in tones of calm courtesy. I used to ask ‘is that seat free?’ until the day I had the reply ‘what’s wrong with looking for a free seat in the other cariages?’, which made me snap – I later regretted it –  ‘actually, there are passengers standing in them too.’ My only satisfaction, on that occasion, was that for the length of my journey at least I was able to cramp his style a little in flirting with the woman opposite, into whose knickers it was horribly obvious he was intent on getting, though I couldn't understand why he was making such heavy work of it: her body language and her simpering responses to him made it only too clear she was as keen as he was on getting rid of that inconvenient undergarment.

Nowadays I say ‘may I take that seat please?’ Yesterday the owner of the briefcase responded by leaping to his feet with alacrity, rushing about to tidy away the papers that he’d spread across the table, stow his briefcase and move his jacket. He turned a winsome smile on me full blast –‘of course,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘let me make room for you – that was terribly careless of me, don’t know what I was thinking of’, as though either of us was going to believe that he had occupied the whole of his side of the table unintentionally, that it hadn’t been a deliberate ploy to keep the seat next to him empty.

It was that smile that struck me. I’d seen it before. White shirt, dark tie, expansive waistline, thinning white hair, and that smile, nearly apologetic but full of complicity – ‘you know how things are’ when of course I knew very well just how they were – I recognised them all: we’d been through exactly the same pantomime just two days earler.

Same carriage, I realised. Right at the back of the 7:56, the one with the best chance of providing a seat. And then with a chill I realised that it was even the same table.

I sat down and my heart sank further: the two passengers opposite were also the same as two days earlier. The one with the earphones plugged in and his eyes closed, with a little cushion doubled up and stuffed between the side of his head and the wing of the seat, was highly recognisable. As was the man with the incomprehensibly baleful stare opposite me. Was he telling me that I was occupying a seat they regarded as belonging to someone else in some sense, a regular travelling companion who just happens to be away at the moment?

‘Don’t think that’s yours for good, just because you’ve been able to grab it twice,’ that liverish look seemed to suggest.

‘Oh, Lord,’ I thought, ‘sitting at the same table in the same carriage of the same train with the same people. Have I stepped across the line separating those who sometimes commute from those who are real commuters?’

Between commuting and being a commuter: a line I'd rather not cross
This morning I was on the 7:56 again but I made a point of sitting in a different carriage. I had to get a guy to move his bags off the seat next him, but it was a different guy with different bags. Which was a great relief.

And tomorrow morning I’m off on leave. Which is an even bigger relief. This is all beginning to feel much too much like routine.


Tom P said...

Spot on David. Enjoy your leave.

David Beeson said...

Thanks, Tom. And I am - loving Lisbon!