Thursday 5 December 2013

What Is Your Greatest Story?

What is your favourite story to tell?

Out of everything you have done and experienced in your life, what would you say is your greatest story that you love to share with people?

This may not perhaps be my greatest, but it is certainly one I am very fond of.

This is what happened when me and a complete stranger on the London Underground decided to take fate into our own hands for just one evening.

I jumped on the tube at Victoria, excitement bubbling in my stomach. I was off to the theatre to see the first ever performance of my playwright best friend’s first ever show.
The rickety train rattled on through a few stops, with the carriage getting increasingly busier. Then, a boy in a burgundy beanie, and a pale blue anorak jumped on, and was forced to stand in the only cubic centimetre of standing space left on the train - directly in front of me.

Within less than a second it was awkward as hell. We were facing one another and so cramped together, both standing in the fearful knowledge that one unexpected jolt of the train would have sent us tumbling into one another.
Then without being able to stop myself, I just began to giggle.
I tried looking at the floor, biting my lip and even squeezing my fists together, but I just could not stop snickering.
Because it's just funny, isn't it.
We were two strangers, thrust right up in each other's personal space, desperately trying to look anywhere to try avoid acknowledging each other, whilst both clearly and painfully aware of the others' existence.
Perhaps we were both trying to pretend that if we didn't acknowledge the other, then we didn't have to acknowledge the awkwardness of it either. Our bodies could not have genuinely been closer without touching, and we were still acting as if we were not even aware that the other was stood there.
Maybe it's just what we British people are like, or maybe it's just a human trait, like when you go into a public toilet, and you see someone in there, perhaps by the sink or looking in the mirror. You might give them a polite smile or mutter a little greeting, but soon as you step into the cubicle and shut that door, you're on your own, buddy. You can hear people on either side of you, but you daren't acknowledge their existence for breaking these unspoken social boundaries. Can you just imagine being in the middle cubicle with strangers on either side of you, and amid the painfully awkward trying-to-pee-as-quietly-as-possible silence, just piping up "So...anyone done anything interesting today?"
Social etiquette is such a funny thing.
So, in my peripheral vision I could see this boy looking at me, but I upheld my part of the unspoken bargain and refused to look back. Then, in a veritable dance of dares, I slowly went to look up at him, only to just catch his eyes quickly flicking away from looking at me.
So, apparently the rules were now that we were allowed to acknowledge one another, but we weren't allowed to be caught acknowledging the other. It just made me laugh more.
Finally, as the train pulled up to my stop, I finally broke the rules, looked him right in the eye and grinned as I stepped off the train. He smiled at me sheepishly.

I strutted off through the Underground with a happy little face; boy oh boy, I do love strangers.
My smile only vanished when I went to get on my next tube connection, and in the same carriage, sure as hell, he got on too. That's not how you play!
So, with a whole new level of super-stranger awkwardness we continued a few stops before I hastily jumped off, heading for my final connection on the DLR.
And low and behold, who do I find already in the carriage when I alight the train? I decided to break the barrier.
"Look, I promise I'm not following you.”
He smiled at me with a whimsical expression.
"I.. I didn't think you were."
I leant against the side by the doors, retrieving my phone to tell Florentine I was on my way.
"Where are you headed?" He said. I surveyed him momentarily.
"I'm off to The Greenwich Theatre."
"Ah sweet. I'm going to my friend's gig."
"Oh cool."
I felt a twinge in my soul. Lady Silver was awakening and I knew that if I left it there, then that would be it. We'd part lives forever, this brief encounter soon forgotten. I knew that if I took a chance, then something ridiculous was going to happen. I could feel it in my bones.
I couldn't shake the feeling that this was meant to happen.
"Tell me," I said to the boy, choosing my fate, "Are you silver or are you grey?"
He blinked at me. "...Sorry?"
"Are you silver,” I said slowly and carefully “Or grey."
He surveyed me quizzically for a moment before speaking.
"...I think I might be silver?"
"I think you might be too."
There was a pause.
"...Well what are you?" He said.
I raised an eyebrow and gave a wry smile. "Honey, do you even need to ask?"
He laughed. "I guess not." He muttered.
"Listen," I said, feeling adventurous, "What are you doing after your gig?" I said. The rolling LED sign told us that the next stop was his.
"Uh, nothing."
"Wanna do something crazy?"
"Uh, yeah... screw it. Yes. I do. This is what London is all about." he laughed.
"Come here." I said, as the train began to slow. I grabbed a pen out of my bag and hastily scrawled my number on his hand.
"Call me." I said as the doors opened, and I gave him a gentle shove toward the door. He smiled in absolute bewilderment and with a courteous nod, disappeared onto the platform. The doors closed behind him, the train departed, and I looked around to see everyone in the carriage staring at me with small smiles on their faces. I grinned to myself and sat down. Boy oh boy, do I love strangers.
If the play had been written by anyone else, I would have absolutely adored it. Because it was written by Florentine, I was full on head over heels in love. Regardless of bias, it was genuinely one of the most beautiful, thought-provoking, insightful and hilarious pieces of theatre I have ever had the pleasure of watching.

After congratulating and cooing, soaking up the cultural atmosphere inside the theatre and telling Marcus about the most curious incident which happened on the train , I hear a voice.
"There you are."
And I turn, to find standing in the lobby of the theatre, miles away from where he was supposed to be, with a big black cross on his hand, the boy from the Underground.
He'd caught me off guard.
"What... what are you doing here?" I said, completely astounded by his courage to just show up out of the blue. Perhaps I'd found a worthy adversary.
"I text you but I wasn't sure if it was the right number..." He said showing me his rain-smudged hand. “I was in the area and I just thought y’know… I’d kick myself if I couldn’t find you again.”
"I'll catch up with you later, okay." Florentine said with a knowing grin, before heading off to locate her wandering family.
I guess after I’d received no text or call, I kind of assumed I’d never see the boy again. Hey, at least I’d taken the chance. Yet here he was now, stood before me, completely out of the blue. My evening had suddenly been blown open by a whirlwind of opportunity and my excitement was overflowing, but a tiny niggle played at the back of my mind. Be careful, it warned with a stern gaze and folded arms.
I really looked at him. He certainly didn’t look dangerous… but I guess the nasty ones never usually tend too. I decided to keep my guard up, assured I had an exit strategy and thanked my lucky stars I was wearing flat shoes, should the unfortunate circumstance arise that I’d need to run. I assessed the potential danger of the situation, and made my decision.
"Well," I said with a resolve, deciding that I was going to make the most out of the night, "Shall we?" I motioned toward the door and my fear started to ebb away. It’s kind of sad that my first reaction to the unexpected kindness of a stranger was suspicion of potential malicious intentions. But equally it was important to be aware. I knew that as long as I remained in control of the situation, everything was going to be fine.
As we walked toward the exit, I was filled with a quiet, dancing excitement.
The other side of that door could hold absolutely anything. In a metaphorical sense, clearly. Really, it just held a dingy backstreet and maybe a few bins. But as soon as I put my hand on that door to leave the theatre, the adventure would begin, and I could only dream of what was going to happen. One thing I knew, was that it wasn't going to be normal.

"The gig was terrible," He said as we stepped out into the cool night air. "I thought I'd come and see what you were up to."
In my head I was screaming WHO DOES THAT? But I said nothing and smiled. We walked on over the cobbled street in silence for a moment.
"You know," he said, "After I got off that train, I couldn't make up my mind if you were actually real or not." I gave a small laugh.
"Why is that?"
"That sort of thing just... doesn't happen."
"I know." I said with a smile. “It’s kinda fun that way right?” He nodded.
"When I got to the gig I told my friend what had happened, and he said you'd probably come out of a time warp from the 1950's and I'd never ever find you again."
"Well, it kinda looks like we're in an episode of Doctor Who right now, don't you think?"
The dark Greenwich street we stood on was paved with cobbled stones, and lined by brick walls on either side, with the far end opening out to the marina, with the perfect view of the Cutty Sark. The only light which graced the scene was from the distant flickering glows across the water, the big silver moon and one lone Victorian street lamp. I walked down the middle of the road slowly, examining the buildings. They were beautiful.
"I wonder what this is." I said, noticing an abandoned and crumbling building and crossing the street to look at it.
"No..." I whispered as I reached it.
"What is it?" The Boy With The Crossed Palm said. I stared up at the flaking paint on the dark blue board above the derelict store.
Silver Street Studios.
"You just... you don't know how weird that is." I said. Silver or Grey… I put my hands up against the grates over the windows and peered into the shop. All I could make out on the wall was a peeling movie poster, for the 1951 film ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. The very same poster I have above my bed on my bedroom wall at home.
"Why is that weird?"
"Hmm... just a very, very strange coincidence." I said, backing away from the building, and turning to continue down the street.
"You don't give away much do you?" He said, jogging to catch up with me. I smirked as I caught the phrase 'Life is about the people you meet and you things you create with them, it’s not always about you' flash across my mind.
"Well, where's the fun in that?"
We turned and walked to the other end of the street and I listened as he began telling me about his evening. Suddenly we both stopped still and silent in our tracks at a sound.
"Did you hear that?" He said and I nodded. The sound came again and it was the unmistakable zing of a jazz trumpet. We turned a corner to find a tiny door, surrounded by ivy and flowers, with a wizened old man sat outside on a stool smoking a fat cigar. A sign above his head pointed to a spiralling staircase below, with the words 'Olivers Jazz Club' scrawled in calligraphy. The boy and I exchanged a look, smiled, and wordlessly descended down the stairs.

The interior was almost like a secluded Parisian cafe from the 1940's. We found ourselves a small round wrought-iron table at the back with a single red candle in the middle, and he bought us a drink each.
I got out a biro and started scribbling notes across my arms as in a hurry I'd forgotten my notepad, and there was no way I wasn’t going to write about this.
"Do you do this often?" He said, returning with the drinks.
"Thank you," I smiled. "Do what?"
He held his arms up and looked around. "This"
I thought carefully.
"Not as much as I'd like to, but probably a lot more than I should.” It was a bit of a lie, I’d certainly never run off on a random adventure with someone I met on the tube, but strangers had always fascinated and enthralled me.
He laughed. I told him the story of the first time I'd ever gone out of my way to talk to a stranger, and we’d ended up watching an Einaudi concert in Trafalgar Square as the sun set. I marvelled. That was almost a year ago.
"Why do you... do it?"
I frowned.
"I guess I don’t deliberately do it…” I took a moment to really think. "But strangers are just the most incredible people in the world. Do you not think?”

He gazed at me in puzzlement.

“I know absolutely nothing about you, and you know absolutely nothing about me. And all that you do know about me I've told you, and just could be a complete lie. Isn't that funny? And you'd never know and I'd have nothing to lose." I took a sip of my wine. "I haven't lied to you so far though. You're in luck."
"Okay well... good. I haven't lied to you either." He smiled.
"But you’re what..."
"22." He replied.
"You're 22 years old, and you've had a whole unfathomably complex life, 22 years’ worth of experience, characters, situations, problems, circumstances... and I never would've even contemplated that, or known you even existed if I hadn't laughed at you on the underground."
"Damn, I knew you were laughing at me."
We both smiled.
"But do you see? What was meant to happen was that neither of us said anything, we would be on the train, you'd get off the train, I'd continue on and come here and it would be nothing. Nothing. There would be that one window of slight marginal opportunity and it would just pass. I reckon stuff like that happens every single day, chances for our lives to change forever, but we don't realise it, millions of chances just gliding past every single second, and we're totally oblivious.
“Because I spoke to you, because I did what I wasn't supposed to do, we both inadvertently seized that window of opportunity and now whether we realise it or not, we've both just altered the course of our lives, forever.
“Because we've done this, we have altered the path that our lives were on, even just by a fraction now, but I think that whatever we will go on to do, where we will one day end up, will ultimately have been changed by this experience. We took destiny into our own hands and forcibly changed it. Things like that just completely baffle and excite me."
He stared at me in silence with a small smile on his lips.
"...But you do realise you sound completely insane, right?" He said after a while.
I gave a half-laugh, half-sigh.
"Pretty much."
We stayed in Oliver's for about an hour, talking, chatting and laughing, soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the bands. In my head, I thought about what he'd said. 'Why do you do this?' and it stuck with me. Why did I do this? I subconsciously realised that I actually had a set of rules of what I am now going to call 'Strangerism.'

'Strangerism (noun) - Consciously going out of one's comfort zone to considerably interact with the life of a complete stranger in an unexpected way.'

Rule #1 – Most importantly, keep safe. Use the best of your judgement to assess the situation accurately and do not take any unnecessary risks. People are not inherently bad, but you do not want to end up in a situation you are uncomfortable with. Have an escape plan firmly established if need be.

Rule #2 - Keep the mystery. It doesn't work if you give too much away, you have to keep as much information about yourself as ambiguous as possible. Strangerism loses the ability to inspire with the more detail you give away. Hold back as much about yourself as possible because it's not about you, it's about them.

Rule #3 - Keep romance out of it. As soon as it crosses that boundary it becomes tainted and sordid. This ain't about having one night stands. (For me anyway, I was not looking for love, but others may be.)

Rule #3 - Only ever meet once. (Again, I was not looking for love.) That one moment in which you choose to indulge in a bit of strangerism must be the only ever time you meet them. After that, the magic and mystery of that first meeting completely falls away and becomes less significant and the impact of it decreases rapidly. On both sides, Strangerism is about having just one singular profound moment with someone completely temporary, that will have an impact in your mind for the rest of your life. The main essence and basis of strangerism is the unknown - deriving meaning, finding reason and learning invaluable lessons from understanding all that you don't know.'

And I guess overall, Strangerism is about learning about yourself.
What information you choose to give away, how you decide to present yourself to someone entirely new, and seeing the judgments and opinions passed about you, from someone who could not have any bias or loyalty, or any knowledge of context about you. The only true honesty comes from someone who is entirely clueless. You can learn so much about yourself by talking to someone else.
From there on, we went on the most ridiculous adventure. We jumped on the tube and let it take us wherever it could, resulting in us tumbling out in Soho and heading for Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club. We told each other of all the most bizarre adventures we'd ever been on, and the adventures we wished we could go on. We managed to sneak into the club for free as he knew the Sound Engineer, and it turns out his influence went further than that, as we were plied with free alcohol the entire night.
We got a bit merry but I remember two distinct things. The first was just how much we laughed, and the second was the passion on the face of one of the pianists who was playing. I wish I'd got his name. I have never seen a more animated musician so avidly in love with what he was doing, and be smiling just so much.
"That's when you can tell it's real." The Boy with the Crossed Palm smiled to me.
We spent the evening sat in the plush red leather and dark wood booths, with him writing down his favourite songs, books, albums and films on my arm all across my arms in biro and I just smiled, being more at peace than I think I've been in a long time. The music was incredible, the atmosphere was dark and intense and the company was fantastic.

He found a pencil on the table, and I was struck with an idea.
"Here, I want you to keep this forever, okay?" I picked up the pencil and started to carve something into the wood. It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but when I finally finished, I proudly handed it over to him and he read it aloud,
"If ever finds you a moment where you so wish you could say something to a stranger, never, ever refrain. For you have but nothing to lose, yet to gain, the world."
And just looking at his face gazing down at that pencil and then flicker up to my face, I could just tell that from that day onward, his perception of the world, if only even by a fraction of a change, would forever be different.
Then perhaps one day, he'd be sat on a bus or on a train, and see someone that he would give anything to just say something to, he'd feel that pencil in his back pocket, and he'd just do it. He'd spontaneously pay for their coffee, tell someone they look beautiful, or go on to have an amazing adventure, altering the worldly perception of another person, who'd go on to do the same. Thus the spirit of adventure, life, strangers and silverness, would forever be inspired on like a tiny little silver thread of excitement running through the grey majority.
After walking for three hours through the twilit streets of Central London, I finally tumbled on to the first train home at 5.32am, feeling rather sorry for myself but with a massive grin on my face. I'd bumped into the stranger 10 hours ago, and I was just now, leaving.
So I bid my farewell, committing his face to my memory for I knew that it was over. I was never, ever going to see him again and with that, we parted and he was gone.

And after all that, he still never even knew my name.