Friday, January 30, 2009

Reading in public

On London’s transport network, you read over people’s shoulders. Everyone does it, you’re packed too closely together not to read the interesting-looking story about the two criminals who were escaping while hand-cuffed together, went either side of a pole and then slammed face-first into eachother (not the smartest tools in the shed). Or you’re trying to figure out name and author of the book you’ve now read four pages of between Kings Cross and Edgeware Road because you now care what happens to one of the characters. Or there are the other things. Reports, someone’s email about dinner off their Blackberry (because you don’t really want to read it, but can’t look away because there is no where else to look unless you’re staring at someone, and that’s not allowed).

And then, then there are mornings like this one, where you casually sweep your eyes across what the guy in front of you is reading, and realise that it’s a letter.

It’s at least several pages long, as the woman (and you know it’s a woman, the handwriting has loops and just looks feminine) has considerately numbered the pages, at the top, with each number in a small circle so it is clearly visible and so that the reader can easily keep them in order. Because this isn’t just any letter, it’s one of those letters.

The letter where you’re saying all the things that you can’t say in person, that hurt too much, or you simply can’t get out, or you think that saying it in writing will somehow make what you’re saying easier to bear for the person reading it. Or maybe you’ve just written it in a letter because you can’t watch the face of the person you wrote the letter for crumble or morph into fury or remain indifferent one more time.

It’s like a train wreck. I know that it’s intensely personal, as he turns the pages his hand is visibly beginning to shake (or maybe that’s because I’ve been watching him for a while now), but I’m now caught up and can’t look away. There are phrases like ‘I’ve tried to explain’, ‘I’m sorry, but’, and ‘I just can’t do this anymore’.

He’s reading this on the Tube. Surrounded by hundreds of people. He’s got to know that someone is reading it as well as him, he can’t have lived in this city and taken the Tube every day and not know that someone around him is reading this letter along with him. Maybe he’s doing it because if he reads it in public he won’t allow himself to fall apart, and he has a whole work day to get through before he can do that. Or maybe he just needs to not feel completely alone at the end, where she says that she’s not going to be there any more. I keep glancing from the letter to the sliver I can see of his face, straining to see his reflection in the window of the carriage.

He reaches the end, carefully reorders the pages, and painstakingly folds it and gently puts it back into the envelope it came in before tucking it into his bag. Then he leans his head against the window, for just a second, and it’s like in that one second he’s trying to shove it all down inside him, because when you get a letter like that you simply can’t leave it until later – and that’s really why he was reading it on the Tube. His entire body is tense. Then his shoulders slump, his head comes back up, he’s blinking furiously, and he disappears into the crowds at Kings Cross.

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