A miracle happened on the Piccadilly line on Tuesday evening. They broke the rules. The flew in the face of convention. They boldly went where no man or woman had gone before. They trampled on the strongest known London Underground taboo.
Three strangers had a conversation together.
Notice how carefully I choose my words.
(1) Three: Not one person having a conversation with himself. This happens quite often – through alcohol, insanity, loneliness, frustration, whatever. Not two people getting caught up in conversation. This happens now and then. Maybe I experience this a bit more often because I’m a priest in a clerical collar, which gives an opening. But in this case three individual human beings, sitting on the tube, apparently normal people.
(2) Strangers: All three were strangers to each other. So this isn’t two friends plus another stranger; or three old friends who bump into each other; it’s three people who have never met before. Unless they were plants/actors? Maybe I was on Candid Camera?
(3) Had a conversation together: Not just ‘grunted’ (‘Oh for goodness sake'; ‘what are they playing at’) or ‘exchanged information’ (‘What’s the next station?'; ‘Green Park’) or ‘shared curses’ (no descriptions needed).
Someone threw in the opening gambit, the others dipped their toes in, they felt their way forward hesitantly, and then they went for it and actually talked to each other – for about ten minutes. As normal people would. About where they had been, where they were going, what they were doing. It was remarkable.
At first, being British, what did I feel? Acute embarrassment. A discomfort so deep it was beyond words or reason. I thought, ‘Oh no – they can’t do that! Don’t they know? Where is this going? How can this last?’ As if some natural order had been disturbed; a sense of foreboding. I looked away; I concentrated even more intently on what I was reading.
Then, after about two minutes, when I realised it wasn’t just a dream, I felt an almost dizzy sense of liberation, a gratitude; even a kind of awe in the face of the boundless possibilities that open up to humankind when people realise they can be normal and that they don’t have to play the games. More than an experience of the Emperor’s New Clothes; as if I had secretly believed that the train would crash and even darker things happen if we didn’t follow the rules. (Where did these rules come from? Were they given as an injection when we were seven days old? Something in the water?)
Ten minutes of conversation between three strangers. I had a small part in it, but I wasn’t one of the three main protagonists. It began, inevitably, with an enquiry about where we were; and when the second person couldn’t answer, I threw in ‘Boston Manor’ – and then sank back into my reading.
But now comes the truth. It’s all as I have said, and it was indeed miraculous. It’s certainly the first time in my 45 years that I have witnessed this. But it was the Piccadilly Line; and yes, we were travelling from west to east – in other words, we were coming from the direction of Heathrow.
So perhaps, for the social anthropologists who have been devouring this post, it wasn’t technically part of the Underground system – they will bring up some formal exemption; perhaps, because it’s almost a spur from Heathrow, it counts – in the sociology of urban space – not as a tube line but as an airport lounge; as if the category of ‘train’ or ‘tube’ was somehow suspended for the thirty minutes from Terminals 1,2 and 3 to Earls Court.
In an airport lounge, even in Britain, you are allowed to talk to strangers, even to two or three at the same time; as long as you amble in nonchalantly, and back off at the merest hint of disinterest or disdain. And yes, I admit it, the conversation was about where they had been (on their travels) and where they were going. Or in this case, where they had not been (because someone had missed their plane – it’s a long story…And maybe that’s why it was allowed to develop, because it activated the sub-rule that you can break the rule and talk about recent or impending public disasters; only this wasn’t public but private, but it was felt so intensely that it took on a public dimension).
So maybe it wasn’t a miracle.
But they did talk. And they were complete strangers. And it was the tube!
And I was there to witness it! Something to tell my great nieces and nephews in years to come.