Life I was passing through James Street Station on the way home from seeing this, and after buying a newspaper I passed through the ticket office (or 'booking hall' as the electronic voice in the lift indefensibly calls it) and noticed one of the station masters talking to girl and pointing at a map. I thought nothing of it, and waited for the lift down to platform level. I found the correct side, as I looked up at the departure board I noticed that the same station master was talking to the same girl and pointing again at a different map. I heard him exasperatedly saying 'Lime Street. It's two stops along. Two stops.' The girl was looking at him blankly, looking at the map, looking at him and sighing and saying 'Sheffield'.

I walked up and grinned. 'She getting off at Lime Street?' I asked.
'Yes, mate.'
'I'm getting off at Central Station. I can tell her the right stop.'
'Oh. Thanks mate.'
I grinned at her. She looked at me with the look of someone who is wondering what the hell is going on but really doesn't know what to do.
'I'll show you where to get off.' I said.
She looked at me blankly. I pointed at the map, at Lime Street printed on the map.
'Here.' I said softly.
She glared at the map. She glared at me. She glared at the station master who was disappearing up the platform. Although oddly he turned and asked: 'Are you getting off at Central?'
'Yes.' I said.
But then I looked at her. She's about my height, thin. Long sandy coloured cardigan, head scarf. I looked at the map. I thought about what to say next.
'Actually' I said knowing full well she had no idea what I was saying but needing to say it, 'I'll get off at Lime Street - I can get off at Lime Street and I can show you the right was to go.'
She nodded. I'm not sure if she understood what I was saying or humouring the clown.

The train arrived. I pointed at the train. 'The one.' After the passengers had alighted we stepped on - I followed her onto the carriage. We passed by a few empty seats and I wondered if she would sit. But she was looking for an empty section. We sat. The train left the station. She looked out of the window into the darkness, I looked ahead. I wanted to say something but there was really nothing I could say.


Lime Street. I jumped up and she followed my lead. We stepped off the train and she stood and looked both ways before then standing in the queue that was waiting to go back on the train. I pointed again, this time at the exit from the underground to the mainline. 'This way.' We walked. Into the tunnel towards the escalator. I didn't think anything of it but somewhere along the line we'd ended up walking next to each other.

We stepped onto the escalator, at the bottom. And I felt a hand grab hold of mine. She was holding my hand and I was steadying her as she stepped onto the escalator. I might have done a better job of it if I'd known because as the stair slipped automatically upward, she was swaying, then stopped just about keeping her balance. And for the first time she was laughing. I was laughing too.

And then there was an uncomfortable silence as we both realised that we were still holding hands. I didn't know what to do and I don't think she did either. Eventually she simply let go - I asked her about getting her ticket out for the barrier which she did - she got it out of the blue folder she was carrying then put it back again. We nervously stumble off the top of the escalator turn a corner and there's another one. This time I put my hand out at the right time, she laughs and we stepped in time. This time the hand holding is resolute as though it's the most normal thing in the world.

There's some fun at the ticket gate because she flashes her ticket for Sheffield but the ticket man lets us through the barrier. We walk though the subway up towards the mainline and use the hop-skip-handhold again up the final escalator. As we emerge onto the main concourse at the mainline station I look across expecting a flash of recognition.

Nothing. She looks even more lost than before.

I ask to see her ticket, she pulls out of the blue folder again. It's a single to Sheffield. So however she'd ended up in Liverpool it wasn't through the station. I can't leave her.

She follows me over to the departure board and look across and realise that the right train is the route I used to get to college, ten to the hour. Right.

'Platform Eight, ten to four.' I say, again with the pointing.
She shrugs. I look up at the station clock. The train isn't for another twenty-five minutes. I suddenly become worried about what'll happen between me leaving her and her actually getting on the train as though no one else could possible shout louder or make the kind of weird gesticulating hand gestures that I'd been embarrassingly attempting.
'I'll show you.' I say and put my hand out in the way you often see people do in television dramas to get someone to follow them.
We're walking towards platform eight.
'So we're you from?' I ask.
'Congo?' I repeat like a loon.
I nods recognizing my loonity.
We reach the platform and I realise I now have to tell her what time the next train is.

I hold my finger up. 'I'm going to count. You count - how long you have to wait.'
I hold my hand up and move it forward. 'Five''
I hold my hand up and move it forward again. 'Ten.'
And again. 'Fifteen.'
She shakes her head. She points at her finger. 'One.' She says.
'Ok.' I point my way through my fingers, 'One, two, three, four ... ten, eleven, twelve .... sixteen, seventeen ... oh this isn't going to work...'

She reaches into her bag. She pulls out a pen and paper. She starts to write: '17h'
I take the pen and write, '15h 52m' then realise that if she turns up at that time she'll miss the train. I write as well, '15h 45m' That's the time. She seems to understand, now I'm confused.

At this point I know you're thinking, oh bless him, he saw her onto the train. I know you're thinking that because I thought about it too. But really I didn't want it to get to the stage were I'm actually on a train to Sheffield with her to make sure she got off at the right station and suddenly my life really is a sitcom. On reflection I might have waited to see the guard, but really at what point does this become obsessive and sad? Don't answer that.

I look around the platform and notice a Virgin Trains kiosk. I have plan. I grin, probably maniacally, at her again, and point at the floor. 'Wait here.'

I step into the kiosk and look about. There's a woman sitting next to a table covered in capital of culture leaflets. 'Excuse me.'

I tell her the story, about meeting this Congolese girl at James Street, about the escalators (not sure why) and about my predicament. 'I was wondering - it's the next train in at the platform - could you possibly - if you see her - make sure she gets on the train ok?'
'Bless you,' she says, 'Of course I will. How will I know her?' I'm pointing again, 'Oh her.'

I walk about up to my new friend, 'Right that woman in there' she turns with me and we look in the kiosk, almost on cue the Virgin woman waves 'will show you which train to get on when.' I make the universal gesture for OK. 'Ok?' She nods. 'Sure?'

'Thank you.' She says, and she grins again.

And I walk away and head into a shop to buy a pint of milk. I turn around for a moment on the way to see what's happening. My new friend is stepping into the kiosk. After the milk buying I look back again and she's sitting on the platform.

I do hope she left the train at Sheffield...


Anonymous said...

What a gentleman.

Anonymous said...

Very noble, but would you have been so quick if it where a man in distress ? I'm not being funny, it's a genuine question.

Stuart Ian Burns said...

I think I would, and have but not to this extreme. I'm always asking people, sometimes men, looking puzzled at maps in street if they need help. I keep remembering the times when I've been in the same situation and no-one has asked. It's intimidating being in a strange place. But I do think men have an issue with asking for help -- they like to think they know everything even when they're completely lost. Heart of hearts though it's a judgment call.

Anonymous said...

I wanna hold your hand ;)