Jennifer O’Connell: Life lessons can be learned from earwigging on the train

The Philosopher says he’s going outside. This is surprising because the train is moving

‘Is it always this crowded? It’s a disgrace,’ says Pink Jumper, making a show of rummaging in her bag, while the ticket inspector waits. ‘You’d really want to put an extra carriage on.’

‘Is it always this crowded? It’s a disgrace,’ says Pink Jumper, making a show of rummaging in her bag, while the ticket inspector waits. ‘You’d really want to put an extra carriage on.’

 

I’m on the train again, and I’m trying not to earwig, but she is very loud, this woman whose privacy I’m trying not to invade.

I have my headphones in, and I’m playing Spotify’s Music for Concentration playlist. There are two reasons for this particular playlist. The first is that I should actually be concentrating. And the second is that, should there be a headphones mishap, it’s much less embarrassing to be caught listening to electronica and modern classical than Bonnie Tyler. (I speak from experience here. I’m sure that column is still available in the archives somewhere.)

“They won’t teach Irish in schools anymore,” the voice of the woman I’m trying to ignore is saying. “It’s disgraceful, that’s what it is.”

“Why not?” the voice of another, older woman asks. They don’t seem to know each other, these women.

“Because there’s too many other religions.” I give up trying not to listen, and turn Music for Concentration down. 

Pink Jumper is not buying the sleep story. He was up to no good in the toilet, she says, and he needn’t bother suggesting otherwise

“You can’t say ‘God bless you’ any more. You can only say ‘Excuse you’. I read it in the paper. It was in the paper on Sunday.”

“Was it now,” the other woman says in a tone that would quite like to put an end to the conversation. I steal a look between the seats. The woman who is worried about her the erosion of her religious and cultural freedom is nicely dressed in a fluffy pink jumper. Her glossy lipstick is slightly smudged. She has a water bottle on the table in front of her, but the liquid inside is an odd colour for water. 

“But I believe in God. And I want to say ‘God bless you’. And now,” she says, slapping the table like a barrister rounding off their summation, an effect only somewhat diluted by the slight slur in her voice, “it’s against the law”.

“Allah means God too,” the man on her left suddenly says, in a clear voice. He has a very particular tattoo on his face. I can’t describe it in case it identifies him, but it gives him a philosophical look. 

Missing ticket

The carriage falls quiet as everyone stops to consider whether this is a call for greater tolerance and an appreciation of the futility of religious prejudice, or whether he’s just sharing something he recently learned. Pink Jumper tuts and looks out the window. I go back to Music for Concentration.

After a while, I hear the Philosopher excuse himself and get up. He’s going outside, he says. This is surprising, because the train is moving, and we’re nowhere near a station.

When he’s gone, the wind seems to go out of her sails. She stares after him, and out the window, and then she puts her head down on the table as if she’s going for a sleep. “Would you wake us at Carlow please, thank you so very much,” she says with exaggerated politeness to the woman opposite.

When they get to their stop, he seems unable to move for himself, and she has to help him off the train

She jolts awake a few stops later, at Athy. “Remember: CAR-LOW,” she says loudly. The woman dutifully wakes her at Carlow, but she only briefly lifts her head.

She wakes properly when the ticket inspector comes around. There is no sign of her ticket, and still no sign of the Philosopher, whom – she suggests in a long, and increasingly convoluted explanation – must have her ticket, only she doesn’t know where he is.

“Is it always this crowded? It’s a disgrace,” she says, making a show of rummaging in her bag, while the ticket inspector waits. “You’d really want to put an extra carriage on.”

The ticket inspector says he’ll come back when she’s had a chance to find the ticket.

At last, the Philosopher reappears. He is a bit unsteady as he takes his seat beside her. “Where were you?” she demands.

“Toilet,” he says.

“You were in there for nearly an hour,” she says. “I was busting me gut for the toilet there, and I couldn’t get in.”

Uncertainty

He went to the toilet for a sleep, he says, his words spilling out in a slow, thick drawl. He hadn’t put his head down since 7 o’clock in the morning, and 7 o’clock every morning before that, and what did she expect him to do?

But Pink Jumper is not buying the sleep story. He was up to no good in the toilet, she says, and he needn’t bother suggesting otherwise. Clearly, he won’t be suggesting otherwise. There will, it seems, be no further interjections of any kind from him. 

He now looks very far away, a man who has checked out of the here and now, his eyes tiny, distant pinpricks focused on something only he can see. 

“He left me to raise one baby alone, and now he’s going to leave me to raise another one alone,” she tells the carriage in a forlorn voice. Suddenly, this woman who, not so long ago, was holding forth about the erosion of her religious and cultural freedom and giving out about crowded trains and foreigners, looks a lot less certain of her place in the world. She looks very young, and very alone. 

When they get to their stop, he seems unable to move for himself, and she has to help him off the train.

As they shuffle past, this tiny woman with the much larger man draped around her, I hear her say: “You’re going to leave me alone to raise another baby, so help me.” And I’m worried that, on this at least, she’s right.

joconnell@irishtimes.com

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