I make my journey from A to B every day, rattling westwards on the Central line, switch for the mainline sliding out of Ealing Broadway like a silent snake, then get the bus into the depths of Southall. This is my route. I could do it with my eyes closed. I do it mechanically, without enjoyment, in a bubble of introspection. Early in the morning there is no desire to exchange words with anyone, except the inky sensationalisms of the Metro. After work, colleagues taking the same train are reluctant to talk to one another. This is the decompression chamber. We shed our personas and assume a state of detached anonymity. I keep my head down. I like my bubble.
But recently, it has been infiltrated by a stranger who would eventually also infiltrate my thoughts.
It was the boots I noticed first, because she was walking up the stairs at the station, just in front of me. All I saw were her feet and I thought, “Damn, those are cool boots.” Sturdy brown leather with big brass buckles, jeans stuffed in. Something I would wear (had I been able to justify another footwear purchase that winter). The boots caught my eye because you just didn’t see boots like that in Southall. There isn’t much room for fashion around here.
I saw them again the next morning, on the bus stop. I hadn’t been expecting that. The same boots, outside the same station, at exactly the same time as yesterday? This broke the rules of the London Anonymity Code. On the bus, I surreptitiously examined the wearer. A tall girl with black-rimmed glasses. andy blonde hair spilling out from under a quirky beret. It was a geek chic look that would go unnoticed in Islington or Soho, but was completely out of place in this neck of the woods.
Intrigue set in when she began cropping up at various points on my route: the tube, the train, the bus from the station and the bus back to the train station. Once, I even saw her after work in the shopping centre near my house. I nearly bumped into her rounding a corner. It was then that I began to wonder whether she had noticed me too. We were, after all, quite similar. I began to consciously look for her and it gave me a warm feeling whenever I saw her. I desperately wondered what she was doing in Southall. I was surprised to feel a little lonely whenever we weren’t on the same train or bus.
Yet somehow the idea of speaking to her terrified me. Imagine if we struck up a conversation one day, then continued seeing each other on our shared route. We would be obligated to talk to each other. Of course, there was a chance we would get on like a house on fire, but it was equally likely that we would get stuck in the dreaded swamp of acquaintanceship: small talk, pleasantries. Shudder! The bubble would burst.