It was the 2:09pm train from Fortitude Valley to Caboolture. At first it was only an announcement, a distant sound, and then it was there; old, tired-looking, filled with people – many more than expected at this time of day.
I didn’t relish the idea of getting on board an overcrowded, dirty train. Visions of decrepit Indian railway services unreasonably conjured themselves up in my head, and I half expected to see chickens running out as the doors opened. People push themselves forward; there are very few seats. Out of resignation I do not push, do not shove. I take my time to board. Inside the train, I find myself standing with a small crowd and sharing a pole with one other man. The seated crowd gaze up at us blankly, enquiringly; not really interested, but perhaps wondering what it might feel like not to be sitting. Perhaps forgetting that we are not entertainment or television screens; we can look back and register their glances. We are people.
The gentleman standing next to me is a sixty-something carbon copy of Morgan Freeman. He wears an old Triple M cap and sunglasses. In his free hand he holds a bag containing a loaf of bakery bread. His outfit is plain, and does not indicate his profession in any way. He wears a simple pair of navy slacks and a white polo shirt which I never glimpse the logo of. He seems very aware of my presence. For my part, I am feeling quieter than normal and a little preoccupied. I don’t immediately notice him.
This man, this Morgan Freeman carbon copy, speaks to me. I can’t exactly understand what he’s saying (it is noisy; he talks quickly) but his tone of kindness is unmistakeable. His teeth are very white. Finally I understand. He is saying what a shame it is that so many school children are sitting in seats, and young men also, while a young woman such as me (all done up in interview clothes) is left to stand.
I smile and tell him that it’s ok. I shrug as if to indicate, us modern women, we can’t have it all. He isn’t convinced. He very seriously asks me if I would like him to find a seat for me; if he might assist me by asking another to forfeit his seat for my comfort. I tell him no, but thank him very much for the thought. He says something about chivalry, and asks where it is gone, and I smile and say I don’t know. There is more I want to say but can’t: it is noisy, I am dispirited and my progressive, liberal convictions suddenly amount to nothing in the presence of such sincere, gentleman-like conduct.
He keeps talking to me, quickly asking questions, filling in the silences, painting himself as a character. The entire carriage is silent except for our conversation, in the middle and standing above the crowd. I can see in their faces: here is the aging man chatting up the nice young woman. Here is the nice young woman agreeing with the old man; fulfilling her unspoken duty to be gracious and polite in all circumstances, even those involving strange men in dirty, crowded train carriages.
Yet his attentions do not bother me. I feel a great sincerity and kindness in his words. He seems to have made it his mission to entertain me, to elicit a smile. Something tells me that he is trying to cheer me up. I take in his presence, and look him full in the face. I am suddenly reminded of a famous spiritual book I once read, which advises readers to always be kind to strangers, as your spiritual master or guardian angel can take the form of a human being and turn up in your life at any time. I look at this man, this jovial Morgan Freeman, and it crosses my mind that maybe he knows me; that his outer garments may in fact cloak an old and familiar friend.
I am polite and agreeable to his chatter, and eventually I am genuinely entertained. I am like a small child whose parent is doing their best to cheer them up. I am safe and right whether I laugh or not. He will continue to try; he is of a breed that fears neither criticism nor cynicism. Here’s yet another rabbit from his hat, another ace from his sleeve. I begin to smile genuinely, feeling my mouth stretch wide, taking pleasure in his company.
He is in the middle of telling a story. He uses me as an example to illustrate a point. He indicates to me, waving his hand familiarly and says, “…my friend Julie, for example…” For a moment I am surprised; I never told him my name, never once mentioned it, and nor was it visible on my person. He continues on, and the moment is lost. I am willing to let it flow away; perfectly happy to accept that there are times when a stranger knows your name.
After five stations he starts to move towards the door, still talking animatedly. As the train slows he extends his hand and says (in front of dozens of people) “It has been lovely talking to you. My name is Alan. What’s your name?” I offer him my hand and say, “Julie.”
“Ah, Julie!” He makes a face of mock surprise and taps his head. “How did I know that? It must be the sixth sense!” He gives me another wide smile and leaves, waving and calling out goodbye as he passes through the door.
An old lady seated behind me taps my back. She gives me a commiserating look, full of knowing, and points to a spare seat. I thank her and sit down. Yet I refuse to meet her eye again, refuse to confirm her idea that I had been kind to endure the strange man’s conversation, and that I had somehow done him a favour. Whether angels walk amongst us literally or figuratively, I met one on the crowded train who gave me exactly what I needed when I needed it: kindness and a smile.
He even knew my name and looked like my favourite actor.