Tracking faces

Something very strange sometimes happens to trains traveling to and from London. It's as if they turned themselves inside out and approached the metropolitan terminus or country station from the wrong direction. Train buffs explain this by the fact that there are so many different tracks, but I am not convinced.

I am always trying to catch the moment when the impossible happens, but it's insidious; one moment the train is travelling East to West and next it appears that the reverse is true.

Once I thought I was beginning to detect the change and I started to look out at the surrounding countryside, anxious not to miss a treble U turn in the track , when the man on the seat opposite raised his eyebrows enquiringly. I thought he was about to speak, and I was just about to ask him whether he had noticed anything, when I realised that my companion was a very well known English actor. I hastily averted my eyes in true British fashion and for the rest of the journey pretended that the seat opposite was empty. This led me to reflect on a moot if tangential point: do the famous enjoy being ignored? After all they originally set out to capture public recognition, but if not recognised their reward is to sit at nonexistent tables in restaurants, travel in invisible limousines and form pockets of emptiness in theatre foyers. Paradoxically the unknown are sometimes taken for the famous and similarly ignored until somebody is rash enough to break the unwritten rule. Under such circumstances I have been mistaken for a wide number of totally different actors and dancers.

All this made me consider the point that I'm no better than anybody else, and various relations complain that I have treated them as famous and passed them with averted eyes in the street. I have tried to reform and, getting off a bus the other day, I thought I spotted a distant cousin. Catching him by the arm, I asked him about his boat. (He loves his boat.) ''Sorry,'' he replied, ''no English.'' I bowed a lot and retreated. Next time I was more careful; while waiting for the lift at my local underground station, I thought that the teen-ager standing a few feet away looked very much like my son, but he, I knew, was at home. I was peering impatiently up the lift shaft when a voice said, ''Hello Dad, don't you recognise me?''

But the climax came when I was walking down the street the other day. A man, approaching from the other direction, raised his eyebrows enquiringly. As we drew level, I thought he was about to speak, so I greeted him. We talked for a while, exchanging pleasantries and when he asked me if I had yet been on the revamped Orient Express, I said of course that'sm where we had chatted! He was thoughtful for a moment, then he smiled and said we had never spoken before, merely sat opposite one another on a local British train. He remembered me because I had seemed vaguely troubled about some part of the journey.

Well, that brings me the long way back to the beginning of this essay. He asked, hoping he wasn't being indiscreet, what had been worrying me on our shared journey. I told him about my delusion that trains turned themselves inside out.

He nodded and said that he often found that too, but worse, in his opinion, was the manner in which whole streets shifted from one part of London to another.

With some relief I was able to assure him that this was not one of my problems. I then asked if I might greet him by name as I had wanted to do on the train.

He had started to say goodbye but at this he took my hand and spoke, quite poignantly, in his famous mellifluous voice. ''I thank you for dispelling my suspicion that I was becoming invisible.''

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