I recently read a rather brilliant pair of books by Shortlist columnist Danny Wallace: “Awkward Situations For Men” and the sequel, “More Awkward Situations For Men.”
Mister Wallace (as he goes by on Twitter) is a fantastic writer. His hilarious navigation of uncomfortable situations in the life of a man – how do you walk behind a woman at night? What do you do when you get stage fright at a urinal? – are not things I can relate to, but nevertheless I enjoy reading about them. Which probably makes me a little odd.
I started to think about the awkward situations in my own life. I mean, there must be loads. I’m sure I make people feel uncomfortable all the time! Yet, for a while, I couldn’t think of anything. (Just a bit of Writer’s Block – nothing an aspiring journalist should worry about). Eventually, inspiration struck, as it so often does, while on the tube.
I live in Camberwell, but study in Maida Vale, which means that each day involves a bus ride to Elephant and Castle station, followed by an epic underground journey up the Bakerloo line. Sometimes I get some work done, but mostly I read the trashier publications that people leave on the seats.
My problem is that I am too friendly, and therefore rubbish at tube etiquette. I have yet to master that blank, disaffected stare which is the polite London thing to do. It is my nature to smile, to greet, to make polite small talk. I’m just a small town girl. I’m from Shrewsbury, for goodness sake. We don’t know how to be blasé.
One morning, I hop onto the Bakerloo line at Elephant and Castle as usual. I take out my coursework notes to revise, think better of it and begin flicking through an abandoned celebrity magazine instead. The carriage is empty aside from a forty-something man a few rows down from me. I say good morning, as I am wont to do. He returns the greeting and asks me if I’m Filipina (I get this a lot, although usually in the Philippines). He’s from Vietnam. Polite pleasantries exchanged, I bury my nose in some soothing gossip and think that’s the end of it.
But no. He tries to chat. I resolutely stare at my magazine, prominently display my bright white Apple headphones, and pretend I can’t hear him. Mr Friendly is undeterred. He must think that I, his future wife, am simply playing coy. He decides to erase the distance between us that I have carefully maintained and gets up to sit next to me. By this point, there are other people in the carriage too, clearly pondering the mystery of our interaction.
He plops himself down on the seat to my left. He continues to babble at the side of my head. I watch his nose hairs quiver in my peripheral vision and try to concentrate on an inane article about Pippa Middleton’s bottom. I bet she never has to deal with tube weirdos, I think, resentfully. Perhaps if I did Pilates and had a smaller bottom, I wouldn’t have to take public transport. At the next stop, I leap up and move to another carriage.
On another morning, I am minding my own business waiting for the lift when a guy behinds me tries to strike up a conversation. “Hellooo. How arrrre you?” he purrs, like he’s bloody Roger Moore or something. “F*ck off, you creepy b*st*rd,” I say in my head. “Fine, thanks.” I stutter nervously in real life, before turning away and pretending to find the tube map fascinating. He leaves it for a while, but as I’m rushing around the ridiculous rat maze that is Elephant and Castle station, he tries again. “Excuuuse me…” “No,” I say, ever so politely. “No. Sorry.” Undeterred, he sits down in my carriage. And while I’m sure he means me no harm, it doesn’t stop me from leaping out and finding another one. I look on the bright side and count these games of musical carriages as my morning cardio.
This awkwardness is not confined to the tube, and gets even weirder as a journalism student. We are positively encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers, but no matter how prominently I display my London School of Journalism folder, people still get the wrong idea sometimes.
On a recent assignment, I find myself in the local pub, quizzing some of the afternoon drinkers. We chat about local events like the new pub movie nights on Monday evenings. I thank them, and head outside. That was easy, I think, before realising that I have been followed out onto the street by Justin, a friendly type with the physique and complexion of a carrot left out in the sun. He wants to know if I am “doing any other journalism in the area later”. I pretend that I’m not doing any other journalism, anywhere, ever.
The problem is, you can’t tell before you strike up a conversation. Sometimes, I will chat to someone who turns out to be a lovely person and/or a useful contact. At other times, half way through a conversation, I will realise that my new friend has that “I want to wear your skin to my birthday” glazed look in his eye, and I will have to make a swift exit.
Being a friendly, country girl in London is just one awkward situation after another.