Whatever that means
The modern commuter train was designed either by the most parsimonious space solutions consultant or by a social psychologist with a pointless interest in how strangers negotiate confined space. The ingredients are all there: the seats are too small for all but the thinnest people, the only separation being a thin, shared armrest with the default position of up. The table is too small, inviting newspaper and luggage incursions across the invisible lines passengers imagine separates their territory from others’. The distance between seats is guaranteed to result in a tangle of legs as passengers try to get in and out while wrestling with coats and bags and umbrellas.
I should have registered the signs before I sat down. Lord knows I spend enough time casually people-watching and professionally examining the gaps between what people say out loud and what their body and face are saying. Without saying a word, the body and face of the woman sitting opposite the seat I was squirming my way into were unhappy. Her hair seemed deliberately arranged over rather than around her face. She sat trying to be close to and looking out of the window, her body half curled, trying to be small and invisible. She made no attempt to move. She seemed painfully aware of the inevitability of contact – the feet and knees of anyone opposite, thighs and arms from the side. She held her bag close, protected and protective, embraced partly from necessity given the width of the table and the need to only occupy a quarter of it, and in that posture, looking like a child holding a too-big cuddly toy. Across the outside of the bag was a huge cartoon head – Eeyore. And hanging from the zip was another Eeyore, a keyring, both of the Eeyores looking typically Eeyoreish, an expression that, on reflection, mirrored that of the woman herself. Somewhere deep the oddness was registered: an unhappy woman in her late-twenties carrying Disney Store luggage.
It’s generally a mistake to say anything to other passengers. There’s no need. Commuters all understand that this slotting in and rearranging of legs needs to be done and needs nothing more than a combination of glances and embarrassed half smiles. It was meant to be friendly, perhaps subconsciously over-compensating for the disturbance of someone desperate not to be disturbed. Looking at the keyring and nodding in the general direction of the bag I said, “my daughter has one of those.”
“Yeah, she’s two.”