They are sitting opposite me on the train. He has a soft Scots accent; hers is European, though I can’t tell where it is from. They’re reading a copy of Metro. He points to the article about the man who was beaten senseless before he was ejected from a plane. I can’t stop myself. “Have you seen the video?” They hadn’t; nor can they understand how it could happen.
So we start talking. First, about America and its paradoxical love of ‘freedom’ and ferocious observance of rules. I quickly drift into talking about Angie Thomas and the book I’m reading, The Hate U Give, about staying with my mum and dad in Washington DC and seeing, first hand, the day-to-day segregation that still exists. I mention that we – I – cannot conceive of being put into the situation of a young African American, scared of every encounter with a police officer, scared that they might die.
“Yes, we are lucky that we don’t have to put up with that,” the woman replies. I summon the courage to ask, “Where are you from?” “It’s complicated,” she says, “I’m very international.” I’ve already told her that I’m a diplomat’s brat, so I press on. She’s from Ukraine, though her family were Austrian Jews who’d fled from Poland. She’s lived in Zambia and, for many years, in Portugal. Before she retired, she worked with small groups of recently arrived immigrant children, helping to settle them into English schools.
We talk about children. I describe the little Romanian boy, seven years old, who stood speechless and staring at the floor of his North London classroom while his Hungarian teacher screamed, “Why are you late?” at him time and again. How he’d been silent, without language, in September but had tugged on my sleeve in December to say, “I can speak English now” and to invite me to his house for Christmas. I tell her about the three Polish girls in my Year 6 class: one fluent in English, one with a smattering of the language and the third, a tall, angry girl, subject to routine sexist and racist insults but unable to respond except with her strong fists.
She tells me about David, an Eastern European child of a similar age, who had appeared to ignore his teacher’s instructions and had been sent to the Head for his disobedience. “His name was Davv-eed,” she told me, “not Day-vid. The teacher couldn’t be bothered to learn how to say his name, so when she shouted out to him in a line, he didn’t recognise the word she used. I had to take him back into his classroom and teach his teacher how to say his name. The trouble is that they have no idea what it is like to have no language.” She describes how she staged a conversation with two Polish children in a class of English-speaking pupils. The three of them spoke only Polish: she asked them questions and they answered. Turning to the bemused English speakers, she said, “This is what it is like to come into a class with no English.” Though I can barely remember it, I recall being without Urdu in my Lahore classroom.
Her name is Barbara. I find this out because she describes how Russians call her Var-va-ra. They are going to the Russian revolution exhibition at the Royal Academy. We talk about the upheavals of the twentieth century, how children today need to know how different it was. He is old enough to remember learning about the six and three minute warnings before nuclear attacks, finding out about the death of George VI at school. She mentions that her mother remembers when Stalin died. “A man was carrying a newspaper announcing his death, but he had it wrapped inside another magazine, in case anyone got the wrong idea about him.” She describes how she taught children about grammes and kilogrammes by showing them how little a bread, sugar or butter ration might have been. He mentions that he remembers rations as a child; Barbara laughs and adds that her mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, would kiss the bread before she ate it. That casual aside silences me.
We have an opportunity to learn from each other. We have a duty to speak to and listen to each other. If we don’t, young people will continue to be shot before they have a chance to explain themselves; children will grow up angry and speechless; and another generation of the elderly will raise their bread to silent lips.
This was an unexpected encounter, though I have a habit of talking to strangers.
He walked over from Warren Street station. I’d just finished my Big Mac and was ready to leave. The seats on the street were empty apart from mine. He sat down next to me and made his large frame comfortable.
A tall man in his fifties, heavy-set. Shaven headed. Black leather boots, white-laced up to his knees, tight bleached jeans, a shiny green bomber jacket. I wanted to look away, to get away. He frightened me.
Then I glanced at the badges, the patches on his jacket. A rainbow flag, an anti-racist slogan. I relaxed but it was still time to move on. So I stood up and walked off towards my next appointment. And then I stopped. Why had I been scared? Why did I feel different now? I walked back to him.
“Hello,” I said. “I just wanted to say that a few minutes ago I was scared even to look at you because forty years ago a skinhead plastered my nose across my face with a head butt.” A ‘but’ hung in the air, waiting to be said. He smiled and replied, “But I’m a gay skinhead.”
Apart from his kind, smiling eyes, what struck me was the softness of his accent, the calm in his voice. He started to tell me about the different kinds of skinhead, gay and straight, British and from other countries, how they all met up and had a grudging fraternal respect for one another. He’d been a city lawyer before he became too ill to work. Now his skinhead identity was full-time. He talked dismissively about the skinheads who’d turn up at clubs with their identities in their rucksacks. He felt that he was authentic. He felt that being yourself, being true to yourself was important.
Somewhere along the way through the story of his life, he told me about coming out in Ireland. His mother and father had thrown him out and had never spoken to him again. Only his oldest sister had contacted him after he’d left; she had travelled to see him. “That meant so much. She gets it.” His mother didn’t, even though she went out of her way to help a couple of gay men who lived locally. Not her son. “The night of my mother’s funeral, someone threatened my life. Told me I’d brought shame on my family. Held a knife to me and threatened to push it right in.” He gestured to his heart. “I came straight back to England.” Then, on Millennium eve, he stood on one of central London’s bridges, watching the new year arrive along the Thames. “And no one said Happy New Year. Not a single person.” He decided he didn’t want to be alone.
Soon after, he met his husband. “I met him seventeen years ago. He had the most gorgeous arse.” They shared the same interests and it just seemed right. “And then he told me he was HIV positive. I was devastated. I spoke to my friends. They said I should listen to my heart and listen to my head and follow whichever seemed best. As you can guess, I listened to my heart. Back then, being HIV positive seemed hopeless. His partner had died, riddled with cancer.” He smiled. “But I fed him back to health. He was eating junk; now he’s been healthy for all these years.” The smile dropped a little. “They’ve found cancer. He’s had a biopsy. He doesn’t want treatment because it’ll weaken his immune system. If he dies, it’ll break my heart,” he said. “It’ll break my heart.”
He had to go; I wanted the conversation to carry on indefinitely. “I have an appointment at the hospital,” he told me. He pulled out a small, slim case, opened it, then took out and lit a cigarette.
Just then, a stranger walked over from the station and stood beside us. “Excuse me,” he said, “but do I know you from somewhere?” The skinhead laughed, “Two meetings in one day.” The stranger had a long thick beard. His lower lip was tattooed and pierced. The sides of his head were shaved and tattooed. His ears were pierced in various places. He smiled. They went through all the different sites and scenes they might have shared – rubber, BDSM, Manchester, London pubs. “What do you do?” the skinhead asked. The stranger said he was a nurse, working in the community. Together, they narrowed it down to one place and one interest and accepted the likelihood that they had indeed met before. “What’s your name?” asked the skinhead. “Jeremy,” the stranger replied, “and what’s yours?” “I’m James,” said my companion.
I stood; James stood. I reached out my hand to shake his; he opened his arms to me and we hugged, a long, hard hug. “Goodbye. I hope I’ll see you again.”