It was early July, 2006. A weekday like any other. I was on the train going home. Standing, but I’d got one of the ‘good’ standing spots, in front of a single seat, not wedged between the armpits holding on for dear life near the door.
I didn’t notice the man I was standing in front of at first but as the train took off I realised he was talking to me.
He was wearing overalls and a beanie, was covered in splotches of paint and his speech was punctuated with sips from a can of vodka and coke in his hands. He took the beanie off at one point and I saw he was bald – bald with a long beard. He looked rough, and that, together with the fact that he was slurring his words meant all the commuting office worker types around him on the train were steadfastly averting his gaze and trying to pretend he wasn’t there.
I would have been the same once, but a friend had recently taught me that people that make an effort to talk to you should be treated with dignity and not ignored. Besides, he’d offered me his seat when I got on, and I’d met his eyes as I said, “Nah, mate, she’s right. Thank you.”
He told me his name was George and he asked if I’d been watching the World Cup, in Germany. As it was, I had, and he talked enthusiastically about the Socceroos for about a minute or two before suddenly announcing, “I’m Greek. What nationality are you?” When I said I was Greek too he asked me where my parents were from and told me where his were from.
He rhapsodised about life in Greece, how wonderful it was, how everyone there had their priorities straight.
“That’s the life! Work to LIVE! Not live to work!”
I used his name once and he said he was really touched that I’d used his name and that I was talking to him.
“You’re really nice! Not like those other people! They’re all ignoring me – like I’m some leper!”
The carriage grew silent as his tone raised in anger.
I waited a minute before responding. “Don’t be too upset with people on the train, George. They’ve all had a hard day at work or whatever, just like you. They just want to have a bit of quiet time now so they can recover, you know? Before they go home.”
I could feel people’s eyes on me. I could feel them nodding, ‘Yes’.
He was silent for another minute, maybe thinking about what I’d said. And then out of the blue he told me that his father had died in October the previous year. In fact, what he said was, “I buried my father in October.”
He said, “It really upset me” and explained that was why he had turned to drink. He said he’d always looked up to his father but feared he had never made him proud.
“Now I’m a drunk – he would be so ashamed of me! I’m ashamed of myself!”
You could have heard a pin drop in the carriage. Everyone was listening, their eyes on their books and newspapers but no one reading a word.
George’s eyes had filled with tears.
“I’m sure your dad knew that you loved him and I’m sure he understands how upset you are now that he’s gone. I don’t think he’d be ashamed of you.”
I didn’t know what else to say.
George stood up. I thought he was offering me his seat again but he explained he was getting off at the next stop.
As the train pulled into Camberwell George moved towards the doors and I took his seat. He turned to look at me.
“Thanks…okay? Take care of yourself, alright?”
I nodded. George’s eyes had dried up and his face had hardened again, preparing to feel the cold outside, both physically and emotionally.
I sat and watched him go, tears now welled up in my own eyes as if they’d been transferred from his. Unable to say or do anything else, I offered a weak smile of support as he got off the train. The tears began to flow.