Usually I get the train to work. I can drive & do drive often. It takes a little longer by train. But I take it because I like the extra time to myself. Especially since I’ve become a parent.
Time to read. Time to think. Time to scribble in my notebook.
Which was what I was doing some years ago when I noticed an elderly gentleman opposite was peering over at my notes.
I don’t use the term elderly anymore. When I was a young girl, elderly meant anyone other the age of 50. In my teens, it moved to over 60. In my twenties, it was 75 plus. Now I think it’s an almost redundant phrase. Most 75 year olds (& older) are as spritely as someone half their age, nevertheless this gentleman was elderly.
He had a great thicket of white hair, tamed (with a great deal of wax) into delicate waves on top of his head. He wore a dark black suit, very neatly contrasted with the crisp white of his shirt. The gentleman had a walking stick, made of a deep, dark wood.
His face was contoured by furrows & lines, particularly around the eyes. He seemed very frail. He was a little too skinny, a little too gaunt, a little too worn around the edges. Staring out the window, he wore an enormous grin.
He peered over at my notebook again. I leaned away from him.
‘You’re aren’t going to the science conference in Dublin by any chance?’
I shook my head.
‘Oh,’ he went back to staring out the window.
‘Unusually mild summer we’ve been having.’ He said after some time.
‘Yes,’ I looked up from my notebook. When he smiled it showed how every wrinkle had formed on his face. Creases comfortably moulded around his eyes.
‘They say we are in for a bad winter. But it’s a lot of nonsense. You only have to study the weather patterns from the 1800s onwards to see we will have a mild winter again. It’s all there, if you know where to look for it.’
I nodded then popped my head down to write some more.
He leaned over a bit.
I closed my book.
‘What are you writing?’ He was blunt, I’ll give him that.
‘Um, a short story.’ A short story is my code for ‘a novel that will probably be half finished’. I have a dozen ‘short stories’ lying about the house.
‘What’s it about?’ He beamed.
‘Not much of anything at the moment. I’m just taking notes,’ I lied. I’m sure it was probably the start of chapter three or four of a story that was abandoned shortly afterwards.
Despite the two lies I had told him, I was surprisingly open for me. He knew I was writing a story, which was more than I’d shared with anyone else.
‘Have you been published?’
‘No, I just write for me.’ A half lie I suppose. I haven’t been published & I do write for myself but I’d be a complete liar if I said I didn’t hope to be published one day.
‘Do you write for a living?’
‘No, I’m in IT.’ I said rather flatly.
‘Oh. I’ve been published,’ he smiled. ‘A textbook though, not fiction. I’m a physicist. I’m going to Dublin today to give a talk. I’m retired but it’s good to keep your hand in these things.’
I nodded like I understood the world of retired phyicists. He was silent for some time, again looking out the window.
‘If you like to write & you think you’re good enough, you should try to get published.’
I shifted in my seat.
I don’t like talking about my writing. That’s why, if it comes up, I say I write short stories. If I say I write novels, people expect me to have been published, to have at least finished writing one or (worst of all) tell them what story I’m writing at the moment.
Really, I’m just a curator of discarded half books & post it notes with semi-thought through ideas.
‘Can I tell you a story?’ He said in a warm voice.
Like all people who start a sentence with ‘can I tell you a story’, he launched straight into it without waiting for an answer.
‘When I was a young man, I played the piano. I was good enough to be a concert pianist. I really was. My teacher told me, to play professionally, I needed to practice more often. At that time, I was starting to become interested in physics. I had the mind to do both but my teachers told me I needed to focus on one. So I chose physics. Since then I regret choosing physics over the piano.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘I thought physics was the safe option. A concert pianist might struggle for many years on next to nothing & maybe never get anywhere in life. That’s what I thought as a young man but since I’ve retired, I’ve taken up the piano again but I’m nowhere near as good as I was.’
His smile was dimming.
‘Well, if you chose the piano over physics, perhaps you would be reading physics books in your spare time instead.’
He grinned & nodded. Then let out a chuckle.
‘Yes, I suppose I would.’
We talked a little more of his life. He was nearly ninety & had never married, but he came close twice. In general, he was happy with his life. He was an expert in his field, highly revered. He travelled a little with his work, mostly to give talks but the nagging feeling that he should have been a pianist stayed with him.
I think about him often.
I think about the advice he was trying to impart. Trying to let me know I might regret not giving my writing a chance. That choosing a sensible career over a creative life might seem like the best choice, but I could find myself on a train at 90 telling someone else to follow their dream.
I took his advice to heart, as they say.
Although if I were to meet him again, I wouldn’t listen to his weather predictions. In spite of what the weather patterns of the 1800s indicated, we were to have the worst winter since records began.
I don’t know if this should colour my judgement but there we are.