ON A train to London recently, the man sitting next to me was talking constantly on his mobile phone. My first reaction?
Commuter rage. One call ended, another began. He spoke loudly and confidently. He was wearing a suit and good shoes, and smelt of the office: aftershave, coffee and a freshly laundered white shirt. He had a laptop with a spreadsheet open, but he wasn’t working on it. These white men in suits think they rule the world, I thought grumpily to myself. No consideration for someone like me – an underslept and underpaid woman in her mid-30s in jeans and Converse, battling the inevitable patriarchy and travel sickness whilst tapping away on her shonky old laptop.
And then... I started to listen. OK, eavesdrop. At first I just caught snippets of his conversation – “scan”, “doctor”, “rare”, “cancer”. Words like fists, the kind that make you shrink away, even when they’re not directed at you. Also a couple of platitudes – “taking each day as it comes”, “staying positive” – the sort of orderly, familiar clichés that become indispensable when something deeply disorderly and unfamiliar is happening to you. Slowly, I pieced it all together. Something momentous was happening to this man and he was letting a few people know en route to London. He had just found out that he had a terminal illness.
Eventually he stopped talking on the phone and just sat staring at his screen for a while. We passed Darlington in a mutual silence that, to me, felt heavy with things unsaid and undone. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, felt sad for this man I had never spoken to or seen front-on. Finally, he turned to me. “And how are you getting on?” he said, as though we were in the middle of a conversation. He pointed at my belly and smiled. “Good, thanks,” I said. And so we got talking.
Here’s the thing. I am pregnant. For several months now a tiny, folded, mysterious person-in-waiting has been growing in my tummy. A baby. A baby boy, in fact. Someone who in 40 years or so could be this very man sitting next to me. This is how he began, after all.
So here we are: two strangers on a train, both heading to London on business, both randomly travelling in the same but opposite directions, both randomly colliding with life. One full of the start of everything, another full of the end. Life can get really literal sometimes.
We talked with the particularly intense intimacy of strangers on a train. He told me he had found out just last week that he has a rare form of incurable cancer that usually affects much older people. That was the bad news, and yes, it was extremely bad. The good news was that because he is younger there is a strong chance of him being around for up to another 20 years. “We all have to go,” is how he put it. “I just know that more definitively now than I did before.”
I told him I was having a boy, that this is my first baby, and so far everything is going grand. I told him I got pregnant the same year I found out that my mother, the one who kindly carried me in her tummy, had got breast cancer. He told me he had four children, and then looked sad. We spent the rest of the journey in a more comfortable silence. He did some work on his spreadsheets. I did some more tapping on my laptop.
As the train approached King’s Cross, he insisted on getting my bag down for me. Then we shook hands, said goodbye and good luck and went our separate ways.