An Irishman's Diary
My local milkman, charming as he is, has a voice that could smash a milk bottle with one lingering vowel. It bounces relentlessly off nearby houses before crashing through my window. "I like meeting people," he boomed at an elderly neighbour recently, "but on cold mornings like this, I'd rather be wrapped up in bed." At least he's used to it. The last time I woke that early was when the Pope visited Ireland in 1979.
His favourite topics include his ex-wife, his impending retirement after 30 years in the job and a forthcoming trip to Chicago to see his daughter. He clanks his milk bottles with extra fervour when he mentions his holiday. Having only ever seen the top of the man's head from my window, he definitely comes under the category of familiar stranger - a not uncommon one in large, sprawling cities like London.
Familiar strangers are everywhere, not exactly known to you, but part of your routine nevertheless. You see them every day in your local shop, at the bus stop or on the train. Striking up a conversation with neighbours is sure to unleash a never-ending exchange of twittering, early bird pleasantries.
In London, thankfully, people tend to mind their own business. A friend recently lamented that she could not get to know her opera-singing neighbour who lives in the decadent, crumbling mansion across the street. We are all entitled to change our minds ... but after 12 years? Let it go, I told her; to come out of the wilderness now would be a grave mistake. The relationship between so-called strangers, therefore, is both a non-relationship and a complex one.
Strangers on the Tube
London Underground is a case in point. Contrary to popular myth, people constantly make fleeting eye contact with each other in a coy, almost addictive fashion. They share such a lot, millions upon millions of germs for a start. It is impossible to travel on tubes without catching something. Tube carriages, as a result, resemble a cargo of nervous, irritable wild animals. Even if the same familiar face is sitting to your left, reading his newspaper, you're never quite sure who's sitting to your right - Jeffrey Dahmer or Judith Chalmers.
Peak times will bring out the worst in people who will do just about anything to gain that elusive prize: a seat. Weapons such as rucksacks and umbrellas are popular, though handbags stuffed with makeup cases and hardback books by the likes of Judith Krantz are the most effective. It's not unlike a daily game of musical chairs, without the music or the sporting chance.
Passengers need sustenance before going into battle. From a crowded train some weeks ago I spotted a young woman making a beeline for a lone blind man on the platform, who was obviously in need of assistance. "Oh, good," I thought, "someone to help him." To my amazement, she walked straight past him to a nearby chocolate dispenser. There he remained: still standing, still awaiting guidance.
A rare occurrence
On rare occasions, though, strangers on the Tube do pull together. Late for a friend's birthday party one Saturday evening, I was shuttling along mole-like to the Portobello Road. As the train pulled into Victoria it groaned unpleasantly against the tracks. Then the lights in the carriage went out. As the commotion on the platform increased, the lights flashed back on and doors slid open.
Two people had fallen under the train. "It couldn't have been suicide," one passenger said in one of those rare moments when people actually speak to each other. "Not with two people." Drunken voyeurs and London Transport Police swarmed the station. Ambulance sirens blared in the distance. I, meanwhile, continued my journey by taxi, trying to brush the incident aside as one of the perils of London live.
There was nothing in the papers the following day, or the next. And having been in the vehicle that ran over them, it was difficult not to feel involved. They were strangers, but I needed to know what happened to them either way. Did they survive? And was it just a simple case of suicide? But, most of all, why on earth would someone throw themselves in front of a train?
"There is no discernible pattern for suicides," a London Underground spokeswoman told me afterwards. "We don't speculate, we're a rail service, not psychologists. The coroner decides whether an unexplained death on the tracks is accidental or not. Of course any death is deeply regretted, but you have to take them in context. We see 2.8 million passenger journeys every day."
Maybe the last thing they want is a private, anonymous exit, although that is exactly what they get. Suicides on the tracks are, oddly enough, calculated by the financial year. From 1997 to 1998 there were 27 suicides and another 23 attempts. It is one sure way to leap into the record books of London Underground's statistics department.
So what happened that Saturday evening? "It was two guys," she replied. "They were skylarking. One pushed the other, who fell onto the tracks. His friends decided to go in after him. When the train came by they were lying in the depression between the rails with no limbs hanging over the edge, so they were virtually unhurt. These lads were lucky, lucky people."
Since finding out what happened I've slept easier. The absence of my noisy, chatty-happy, bottle-clinking milkman, who is now visiting his daughter in Chicago, hasn't done any harm either. His holiday has allowed me an extra two hours' sleep in the morning. It must be said, however, that this fellow's caffeine-inspired perkiness will go down a treat in the Windy City. To my surprise, I'm actually looking forward to him getting back. I can't wait to hear how his holiday went.