The scene: 10:30pm, Brixton Station, a couple of weekends ago, waiting for the 133 bus.
Me: *munching on a hot lamb pattie* (ooh, vaguely topical!) *Freezing*
Stranger: *makes fleeting eye contact, starts to wander over*
Me: *eyes darting wildly, looking for escape routes*
Stranger: “You look like you’re enjoying that.”
Me: Mm hmm. *does universal gesture of ‘can’t talk – eating’*
Stranger: “Waiting for the 133?”
Stranger: “Going to the Elephant?”
Me: *discovering I can’t chew forever, swallows* “Nope. The whole way.”
Stranger: You look West African – Ghana?
Me: *internal sigh* No.
Stranger: *with look of triumph* Then you must be Nigerian.
Me: *tired nod, unwilling to encourage further conversation*
Stranger: “You’re certainly not Ibo or Hausa. So Yoruba. ”
Me: *wishing he was wrong, wanting to claim Ijaw or Urhobo* Yup. You got me.
Stranger: *pleased smile* I knew it!
After listening to him for about 30 seconds, it hit me. He was a ‘normal’, a friendly stranger. Just an older gentleman, wanting to strike up a conversation with an unknown woman at the bus stop as we both waited on an unseasonably cold night. That’s all. Oh.
I often say – with pride – that I am a keen and excellent user of the ‘London face’. It’s similar, I imagine, to the ‘New York face’, the ‘Mexico City face’, the ‘Lagos face’ or the ‘Any Big City face’. My London face is a snarl at half-mast, a knitted brow, a pursed mouth, inside which a forked tongue is waiting to unleash hell on a foolish stranger who tries to interact. It is pre-emptive and forbidding. It is a signpost saying a succinct ‘Fuck off and don’t look back’. It is a mask, an invisibility cloak, a warning and a lesson (“my face is stuck this way – because some other idiot tried to talk to me. Approach at your own peril.”). It is a deterrent, a symptom and a cure.
In the end, we waited about 20 minutes. And me and this strange man spoke for almost every one of the seconds of those minutes. We covered my career – him: “A writer? Hmm. Why not law or medicine?”, the foolishness of British youths when the sun comes out – me: “they’re young and therefore they’re required to dress foolishly, even if that means freezing to death.”, money over happiness, how to go about seeking happiness, philosophy and of course, more weather chat.
It didn’t change my life or anything, and my hackles were still semi-raised even after 20 minutes of conversation. But it was nice. We got on the bus when it finally arrived and our chat ended when we hurried out our goodbyes: “Nice to meet you!” “Have a good night!” and waved. He stayed on the bottom deck and I climbed to the top. By the time I eased into my seat, my ‘London face’ was back on. It felt a little tight, that half-snarl, but we’re taking it one day at a time. Let’s not get too hasty.