The idea of the past being another country (“they do things differently there”) has become well-known since L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between”. It’s so eloquent, even people who never read the book seem to know the phrase. Sometimes I think that, other than using a computer and mobile phone, I live more or less in the 1970s. It’s something to do with style – I think my clothes could fit quite unobtrusively into any of the last four decades, but it’s also to do with living out of London and not having a proper job. When I’m in a crowded place back in the Smoke, or travelling there – that’s when I notice how just-landed-from-another-place I really am. In my imagination London is as it was when I properly inhabited it, which was actually pre-children. I am surprised by the coffee shops and kiosks everywhere. I am surprised by the swarms of people and by the expressions on their faces. No-one, I mean no-one, looks at ease.
On the train to Victoria the other day I found myself wedged in with three people, two women and a man, probably in their twenties, all staring at the screens of their mobile phones. The man’s phone went off with the sound of crashing crockery – one of the new ring tones I’ve heard before. He answered in Polish and I amused myself seeing how many words I could recognise. He looked ill; pale with large pink spots on his neck. When he finished speaking he carried on staring at the small screen, pressing buttons. The woman next to me was pressing buttons too. I tried to read over her shoulder to see what message might be there but couldn’t. I love you, it might have said, or did you know there is an unexploded bomb on this train. But most likely it was
Hi what you up to?
I’m on the train nothing much - you?
Nothing much either you seen Tom around?
Yes seen him yesterday he didn’t see me.
I imagined she would have a contract that would allow her to send a huge number of these messages each month. Endless hours. The woman opposite looked as unhealthy as the Polish man next to her so at first I thought they might be partners. She had spots on her face as well as her neck and was thin and pale, this last accentuated by her dark brown hair which was lush and seemed not to belong to her, as if a kind but thoughtless benefactor had taken a look at her and said, god you look awful, here – have this, and wedged a thick brown wig on her head. She stared at her mobile screen without pressing any buttons. She just stared and stared. She seemed not to have much in the way of eyelids. Perhaps there was a message saying her mother had died. Or her house was on fire, her children all gone. But she looked up and out of the window, then at the Polish man, then me. Her expression didn’t change and there was no gleam of anything in her eyes that suggested she took in what she saw.
A woman across the aisle suddenly grabbed at the holdall on the floor and rummaged. Looking for her mobile, I thought. But she lifted out a tattered blue A5 notebook and a blue plastic ballpoint and began to write in the book as though something vital depended on it. She carried on until we reached Victoria and even then, with the surge of people moving to get off, she was unwilling to stop. She pressed the tip of the ballpoint tightly with three fingers and covered line after line in blue-inked words. I could see that she had filled most of the notebook. It made me feel at home to watch her. She and her holdall could, like me, be from any decade, and the notebook was very 1970s. All she would have needed was a Bic ballpoint. It was only later I thought to read the signs – what I’m here for any road and decade. With notebook, travelling.