Breaking the ice...
Heather Skull considers why we should be reaching out to those around us in friendship and what the result might look like...
Over the past three years I’ve got used to commuting to places on the train. In the beginning to was to London Waterloo. These days it’s to Southampton. Readers of my blog will know how much I value these journeys. The destination is important, but so is how you get there.
I sincerely hope I never lose the thrill of spotting deer jumping through fields of waving golden corn or the black-tipped ears of a hare twitching in the evening sunlight as it quietly rests in a field. The lazy but purposeful soaring of the hawk searching for an unsuspecting mouse to feed its young with or the ducks going with the flow of the river.
This week I had to drive to a different railway station from the usual one that I use. When I got there, I had to wait while a flock of young geese crossed the lane in front of me. The bus driver who also had to wait while they walked across the tarmac, exchanged a cheery grin and a wave with me at the unexpected traffic chaos they’d caused.
And a few days ago, as my train was homeward bound, I managed to capture a picture of a rainbow spread across the sky above the hill just outside Warminster.
There’s a reason why I refuse to work on a train. There’s a reason why I would also rather be on a train than driving down soulless dual carriageways and clogged up motorways.
I still find it quite strange though that the community of commuters I travel with can often act like no-one else exists in their universe. Perhaps for them that’s true. But I often look around at those travelling with me and wonder what they are doing and where they are going.
I love that account in the New Testament of Jesus getting into a conversation with the woman coming to get water from the well. She was a feisty character, up for debate and argument and also aware that her past life would probably meet with disapproval. And yet Jesus just starts a perfectly natural conversation with her that leads to her realising just how special this Man from Galilee is and why what he says matters.
By the end of the conversation these two have become firm friends. And it started with Jesus asking for a drink of water. Such a simple thing. Such an amazing set of consequences…
I have made a few commuting friends on the new route. There’s the man whose Labrador is an endless source of entertaining stories – it’s the only dog I’ve ever known who got himself banned from obedience classes.
And there’s Jo who is always up for a chat about life, the problems of getting up early enough to put your washing out and whether it’s a Wine-In-The-Garden sort of evening.
But others who regularly get on the same train as me rarely get beyond a nod or a an occasional ‘Good morning.’ It’s almost like we’re afraid to speak to each other or engage with each other in case – heaven forfend – we start finding out about each other and became friends and LIKE each other. That would be shocking…
Except last Thursday I was sitting opposite a man who I’ve shared a train route with for many months now. We usually just smile at each other and occasionally nod a hello but nothing more than that. But on this occasion I was looking at updates on my phone for the cricket – because it was a little bit exciting. Having skittled the Australians out for just 60 runs (I’m never going to tire of reading, saying or hearing that), England had the chance to rack up a good score putting the game and indeed the series well beyond their opponents’ grasp.
As the train made its way towards Warminster though, the signal on my phone dropped and the page with the score on it disappeared. I put it down on the table with a sigh that must have been heard by the man opposite, as I suddenly realised he was looking at me and had seen what I was trying to find out on my phone. And then he grinned at me, turned his phone around to show me so I could see he was looking at exactly the same thing and said, ‘Here’s the score.’
From then on in of course, we started a whole conversation about cricket, from the Ashes of 2005, the various grounds where Tests have been played and what they were like, interspersed with telling each other the score as our respective phone signals dropped in and out.
From being total strangers, we became firm friends within a matter of minutes. From thinking we had nothing in common, we’ve now discovered a shared love of cricket and Wiltshire. We will now – no doubt – have more conversations when our paths cross on the train in the future. We might even – and I know this might shock the commuting world – actually deliberately sit next to each other to chat.
This kind of incident shows why relationships matter. It shows why it matters that we build bridges to each other. A fear of strangers might be about self-preservation and sometimes yes that matters too, but it also might put up a wall where there doesn’t actually need to be one.
Jesus once asked someone, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and made it clear that the answer wasn’t just those we know and like. It’s the stranger and lonely among us, it’s the prisoner and the free, it’s the people we find challenging. And it’s definitely the person sitting opposite or beside you on the train.
Go on, give it go. Break the ice. But maybe, just maybe, you should make sure it’s not an Australian before you launch into a conversation about how brilliant the cricket is…
Heather Skull is a former BBC Radio Wiltshire journalist and a member of Trowbridge Baptist Church. She blogs at tractorgirl66.wordpress.com, where this article first appeared