July 31, 2013
It was early July this year and I was going out to Surrey, England for the day. My train was leaving from Waterloo station.
Upon picking up my tickets from a self-service machine I made my way over to the Costa Coffee outlet midway on the station concourse. I queued up and when served I ordered my usual cappuccino accompanied by a chocolate twist pastry.
I looked outside the shop for a seat and spotted a vacant chair at a circular table in a tiny corner. I made my way over to the seat and noticed an elderly gentleman seated opposite to the vacant chair. I asked him if the seat was taken and he nodded to indicate that it was free.
As I sipped my coffee I became more aware of the man. He looked to be a couple of decades older than me and was looking down at his coffee cup drinking without raising his gaze. He wore a dark blazer and trousers with one leg crossed over the other. He wore thick milk-bottle top glasses and his grey hair was wispy and thin on the scalp. Looking at him he gave the impression of a lost soul in the big city that is London.
"Hello, how are you?" I asked.
"Not bad," the man replied, unsure as to why this stranger was conversing with him.
"Going anywhere nice?" I continued.
"I'm going to Bradford-on-Avon for the day," He offers.
"That sounds nice, are you visiting friends and family out there?" I inquire.
"No, I'm from Rotherhithe, my doctor has told me go out and spend time outside of London," he explained.
This response was the floodgate for the man and he then went on to tell me about himself, his family and why his doctor had recommended that he go out to the country.
His name was Alan and he was 65 years of age. His mother had passed away recently and he had taken over the tenancy of the apartment he had shared with her. Alan was a born and bred Londoner and was feeling extremely lonely as his family was dwindling away, compounded by the loss of his brother a few years back. His friends were also slowly passing away. His doctor had recommended that he take days out into the country just to break up the monotony of living in an inner city borough. I guessed it was also a tonic for the man's mental health and wellbeing.
"Hello Alan, how are you mate?" we were interrupted by a National Rail customer service agent.
She walked over to Alan and asked him if he had his tickets for the train to Bradford-on-Avon. He replied that he did have his tickets and his train was leaving at 10:30am. The agent told Alan that she would be back later ensure he got on the train and went on her way.
"London and the people living in it are not what they used be," Alan continued.
"Would you like to share my pastry?" I offered twisting the pastry in half and giving it to Alan.
He initially hesitated then took it and bit a piece off.
"Nobody talks to anyone these days, everyone's busy to talk to anyone and it's too fast," Alan stated breaking me out of my train of thought.
"I don't like it at all," He shook his head sadly whilst taking a sip of his coffee.
"I agree, it just seems that every year that goes by daily life speeds up just a little bit more, with no time to catch your breath," I replied.
He looked up at me now and asked, "So where do you live?"
I explained to him that I lived across the river from him in Tower Hamlets, and that having lived there since 1979 I have seen a lot of the changes in the city-scape as well as the make-up of its citizens.
"How old are you then?" He asked.
"Forty three," I replied.
"And what's your star sign?" He probed.
I smiled at his question and his inquisitiveness, "I'm a Scorpio".
"I'm a Virgo," He offered.
I got a feeling that his spirits had lifted a bit and was enjoying the conversation we were engaged in.
The customer service agent returned and explained to Alan that another agent would come by and escort him to his train. He thanked the lady as she went about her duties.
I asked him what he was going to be doing in Bradford-on-Avon. He explained that he found the town to be quieter and more serene than the tourist ridden city of Winchester, Salisbury and others in Wiltshire. He went on to say that he was going to have some lunch and a drink at a pub and return before the end of the day.
I then asked him how much money he had to spend. I knew this was a risky question that could go very wrong, but asked anyway. He shifted in his chair and said he had a ten pound note.
"If you don't mind Alan, I'd like to give you this," I drew out a twenty pound note and slid it across the table into his left hand, conscious of not wanting to attract attention. Alan took it and slipped it into his left trouser pocket.
"Have a nice lunch Alan and a few beers when you're out there today," I continued.
"Thank you," he replied with smiling eyes.
I then bid farewell to Alan and shook his hands, wishing him a great day out in the country and headed towards the train platforms.
My encounter with Alan was one of those moments for me that stopped me in my tracks, to "smell the roses". It made me realize that life can and does take twists that we can sometimes never prepare for. Goodness knows what the full story is behind Alan, however for me it hit home the importance of living in the here and now.
It made me further realize how important friends and family are to me. It made me appreciate the support , the companionship and love that they give without question that brighten my days. It made me think about pausing, putting away my to-do-list and savoring those precious moments with those closest to me. Even though I may not see my friends and family every day, every week or every month. They are always there in my heart and mind.