‘Is that book any good? I love him. I read his last book. I didn’t know he had a new one out until I saw an ad in the station.’
She had smiling eyes, in a face worn and weathered. She lived a life of hardship, you imagined, but full of warmth and happiness too.
Her eyes were on me now, expectant, hesitant, waiting for an answer.
‘It’s a great book but very similar to his last one, a memoir of an elderly lady.’
‘I love a good book.’
She was beyond her middle years, but not elderly in the way people think of old ladies as slightly dotty, helpless, a little deaf and forgetful. Her hair was cut short to frame her round face and rosy cheeks. She wore the lines in her face with ease, comfortable landmarks of her life. She was sensibly dressed. Understated, with a blouse the colour of vanilla ice cream. She wore a simple gold chain with a tiny crucifix.
‘What are you reading?’ I asked.
She leaned back and took her hand from the cover of her book. I recognized the face of a famous sportsman.
‘You like biography?’ I asked.
‘I read all sorts of books but I’ve always been interested in reading about him.’
Her accent was north Dublin, I guessed, Glasnevin or Cabra.
‘He’s a tennis player?’
‘Agassi.’
‘Yes. Wasn’t he in a band with John McEnroe?’
‘No, that was the other fella, the Australian…’
‘Pat Cash. ’Mulleted, beefy, slightly rakish, I could never work out if he was a chuggin’ a tinny type or at one with his inner rock star.
‘Yeah. I love stories about people like him. He was a very unhappy man,’she said.
‘He married an actress?’
‘Brook Shields. But they’re divorced. He’s married to Steffi Graf now.’
‘You don’t strike me as the kind of person who’d enjoy someone else’s unhappiness.’
She looked at me with a squinty eye as though she were trying to see some point beyond my surface.
‘No, I mean there was a person with a great skill, massive success and loads of money, but he suffered depression and he raised millions to help underprivileged kids develop their talents.’
‘People always acquaint wealth with happiness.’
‘I know but it’s not just that. I mean he had a talent, like a gift. I’ve always envied people like that.’
‘What do you do?’ she asked. Again with the penetrating look, not threatening but intense enough to let you know she didn’t deal in surfaces.
Her question caught me off guard. What do I do?
‘I work in a bar.’
‘You work in a bar? A pub, like?’
I nodded. As a literal answer to the question she asked, it was the truth. But her question bit deeper and resounded. I suppose we all reach the age when we ask ourselves the same question. Some of us spend a lifetime trying to find and answer. What do I do? I’m a writer, a silent voice said inside.
‘Do you own it?’
She was measuring me now. When we reach these middle years we find little time for procrastination.
‘No,’ I said, smiling, ‘I just work there.’
‘D’you ever find, now you look like a young man to me but I can see you’ve been around, when you get to our age, you’ve less patience?’
‘How do you mean?’ Again with the pithy retort. Her change of subject kept me off balance. Is she reading my mind?
‘I was never very sure of myself, growing up. I left school when I was 16, but I always loved reading.
‘I still work,’ she continued after a short pause when she picked up her book and gave Agassi’s face the once over. ‘My husband’s retired and my children are all grown up, except for the one, Sean, who’s 30, but he’s cystic fibrosis and in a wheelchair all his life…’
I say what I think now, that’s what I mean.’
‘Sebastian Barry’s from Wicklow. It seemed an apt time to read his new book,’ I replied. Subtle as all Hell, eh?
‘I saw an ad for it in the station. I read his last book, ‘Sacred Scriptures.’
‘This one’s very similar in so much as it’s a memoir of an elderly lady although this one’s set in America.’ I said that before. Maybe not the America bit.
‘There’s more to you than you let on…reading Sebastian Barry and the things you say.’
‘Do you mean a barman can’t read books and have a good conversation?’
‘No, I didn’t mean that at all. It’s just…’
Pausing again, her attention shifting to movement on the train as an elderly man lowered his self into the window seat opposite. She smiled. He smiled.
‘Is it my imagination or are they making the seats narrower on the trains these days?’ he asked.
‘We’re like sardines,’ she replied, shifting in her own seat.
He smiled as he settled. He was a tall man and slightly stooped. His movements suggested the wear and tear of age, arthritic joints. He was bald with well trimmed gray hair at the sides; piercing blue eyes, creased with smiling lines and a warm intelligence. He had an air of confidence about him.
‘Have you just got on?’ she asked.
‘No, I was standing at the end of the carriage when I spotted the opening.’
‘Don’t you wonder why there’s only three carriages on this train that’s full and there’ll be six empty carriages, two passengers and a dog on the last DART out of Howth?’ I asked. Could I be more inane?
Again with the smile. I felt like a fool.
‘I got the train to Dublin yesterday to see the match. It was the same thing. I stood all the way.’
‘I was on a LUAS the other day,’ she offered, ‘and for the first time in my life somebody got up to give me a seat. I took it too and I was glad of it’.
We all smiled as we considered this. She had a way of drawing conversation from her own observations.
She continued, ‘Manners have always fascinated me, and class.’
‘Do you mean ‘class’ as in ‘social standing’, so to speak, or personal style and élan?’ Did I just say ‘elan’? Oh my God.
It was her turn to smile, a smile of friendly indulgence.
‘My family never had any money, but we were brought up to have good manners. And I’ve reached that age where I didn’t mind taking the seat offered to me. I was kinda chuffed, in fact.’
‘Good manners are a scarce commodity,’ Friendly Eyes offered. I felt resentful of his contribution and angry with myself for that feeling. Who stole your rattler? I thought. I felt we were being patronized. I thought I was being a dickhead.
‘You asked me about class… Well, I started working for a doctor in his private practice when I was 16, and I still work for him. He’s a very wealthy man and they have a beautiful house with a library of books, and I’ve always loved those books. His family is lovely people and they always treated me well, and even encouraged me to read whatever books I wanted. But this is what I found; they were used to money and wealth, so class and manners are natural to them, the snobs were the ones who married money.’
‘Two things rule the lives of the middle classes: fear and aspiration.’ Oh God, I want to jump off the train. Are we close to a trestle bridge over a gaping chasm?
‘Y’see, that’s why I think there’s more to you than you let on.’
A benign grin from Friendly Eyes before he rose to make his way to the toilet made me squirm. Is this woman a saint?
‘Andre Agassi was a very unhappy man because I don’t think his talent was of his own choosing.’
‘A talent is not a passport to happiness.’ Mr Cliché, I presume?
‘No, it’s not. Look at Van Gogh. I went to see the Van Gogh gallery in Amsterdam last year. There was a man with a God given talent but he was never happy.’
‘Have you traveled much?’
‘I never traveled in my life until my brother died three years ago. He lived in England all his life and I got my first passport before I went to his funeral. I always say it was his gift to me, the passport.’
I fought the Tourettish impulse to say you don’t need a passport to travel to England. I won. Tact is my middle name.
‘I’ve been to Paris and Amsterdam and I’m going to Rome this year. I’ll go to all the galleries. When I saw Van Gogh’s early work, there were pictures of people out in the fields and you could smell the earth.’
She gazed out the window at the blurred countryside whizzing by. Her eyes focused on a far off place. Her eyes shone, her face glowed.
‘There was a picture of a sandy beach. It was like being on Portmarnock strand. I never knew you could feel so many emotions looking at a picture.’
She turned and looked at me as though I’d walked in on some private reverie. She smiled. Blue Eyes returned. He pointed at her book.
‘Are you fond of your sports?’ he asked.
‘Not really.’
‘He was one of the greatest natural champions, they say’.
‘Was he? He was a natural, alright but his father put a tennis racket in his hand when he was two and drove him hard all his life.’
‘His first wife, Brook Shields had a very pushy mother,’ I piped.
‘The ambitions of the parents often destroy or smother the talent of the youngster,’ Blue Eyes said. He was quiet after this and took a long look into the same half distance where she saw Van Gogh.
I wondered how a random conversation on a train had turned to discuss the very topic of a short story written that morning. We spend our lives trying to find an identity and a role for ourselves , but a chance encounter on a train reminds us life is a round trip, if we’re lucky. That has won me the Blue Peter Badge for Insight, at least.
Lillian introduced herself while Friendly Eyes was using the facilities. ‘Lillian’, I thought, wondering if she’d ever read Lillian Hellman, the activist playwright. On any other day on a train I’d have my earphones on and my nose stuck in a book to avoid the inanities exchanged by anonymous strangers. Friendly’s moves were exploratory gambits; public transport, sport, books, but Lillian, I suspect, has no truck for the safe road.
‘You said there are two things drive the middle classes, fear and, what was it? Aspiration, was it?…That’s a posh way of saying ambition, isn’t it?’
It was like a three card trick, she could pull an ace out of anywhere. I was nailed, but in a gentle way.
‘Yes, you’re right,’ I acknowledged, ‘but the two go together. I mean , it’s fear that drives their ambition.’
‘And there’s a lot of that about today,’ Friendly Eyes piped. Lillian and I looked at him. There was a beat of silence.
‘Ambition or fear?’ asked Lillian.
‘Fear, I’d’ve thought,’ said Friendly Eyes.
‘The Collapse of Capitalism, Recession, Negative Equity, Debt…there’s not much room for ambition anymore,’ I said, thinking, am I speaking with capital letters?
I could see Friendly was in more comfortable territory. Lillian was chewing on the thought.
‘ I never believed in borrowing or owing anything.’
‘But now we’re paying off in taxes the debts of those who did,’ I added. A popular bugbear, safe ground. I wanted to quote the advice of Polonius to his son, Laertes in Hamlet,
“ Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”
I smothered the urge. Such restraint.
‘I am in the process of retiring,’ Friendly Eyes offered. ‘I have my own business but now I’m passing it on.’
‘To someone in your family?’ I asked.
‘No, I’ve sold the business and I’m glad to get out of it now when after thirty years of success, a bank manager might refuse you finance.’ He was silent. We waited.
‘It was only a small business but I employed 30 people and I’m responsible for their livelihoods and income. It’s a huge burden to carry.’
‘My son’s lost his Christmas care bonus because of the cutbacks,’ Lillian said. ‘My own carer’s allowance was reduced.’
I was on my way to visit my daughter and my new grandson. What does the future hold for them?
My stop approached. I shook hands with Friendly Eyes and we told each other how much pleasure we got from this chance encounter. Lillian took my hand and squeezed it. I wanted her phone number, her email address, I wanted to eat chocolate éclairs and almond rings in Bewley’s with her while she told me of her latest literary discoveries and described adventures in foreign galleries. I knew I wouldn’t ask.

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