It was a late autumn evening. Dark, damp, heavy-coat weather, but strangely changeable. The day had been unusually mild though, even sunny that afternoon. The train was packed, people stood crushed together – each trying to preserve their individual personal space in the cramped carriage.
“Innit great eh?” asked a slightly tipsy young man in the middle of the crush.
“Look at all these people…they look really glum.” He waved his plastic glass of wine around to demonstrate his point. He swayed somewhat and his friend grabbed gently at his sleeve.
“ Hold on Dan,” he advised and Dan smiled benignly at him.
The aisle was full of disgruntled passengers standing shoulder to shoulder in the ‘cattle truck ‘ that passes for a railway carriage these days. A silent clump of uncomfortable humanity, eyes down, phones on, avoiding contact of any kind as far as possible in that inhuman space. One passenger had looked up and caught the young man’s eye. He looked so gentle and happy, she felt compelled to respond.
“Yes, it’s grim isn’t it?” she’d remarked.
Somewhat encouraged, Dan asked her where she’d been that day.
“Just up to Town.”
“Oh, have you ?” he replied in an exaggeration of surprise, “and where are you going now?”
“To the end of the line…” she answered, a little warily now.
“Well,” remarked Dan delightedly, “That’s what I like about you. You really go for it…” The train lurched and Dan made an ill judged grab at a hanging strap.
“Do hold on Dan,” his friend reminded him in the hope of distracting him from the conversation. Dan had already turned back to the woman though,
” …and where is that then ?”
“Well we’re going all the way to Brighton,” she chanced, looking at her husband for support.
“Oh wow! – I’m going to Riddlesdown, but I’ve had a lovely day. Been to watch the cricket at Lords…” he saluted the assembled carriage with his glass and smiled at his friend. “Didn’t we…?”
“Yes, but remember we have to change at East Croydon Dan”
“So you had good weather for it then,” added the woman.
“Yes, until it was rained off. Dunno what happened though…”
“England won,” interceded his friend.
“Oh great. England won…Had a lovely day. What did all these people do I wonder ?” He beamed delightedly at the immediate group around him.
“They look as if they all need a hug. ‘Free Hugs’…he announced, opening his arms and offering his services to his fellow passengers who had all hoped to ignore him. Then his gaze lit on a young man leaning by the opposite door who was quietly smiling to himself.
“Hello,” said Dan hopefully, “What do you do?”
“I’m a carer” responded the young man.
“Oooh, a Carer ! ” enthused Dan, smiling benevolently as he took him in.
“I bet you’d be good at hugs.”
The atmosphere in the carriage had lightened a little now as people were quietly listening in to see the outcome of this exchange.
“Would you like a free a hug?” asked Dan
“OK, I’ll have a hug…” and to everyone’s surprise the young man stepped across and duly received his ‘Free Hug ‘ and a gentle kiss on the cheek.
“Oh, I knew you’d be a great carer. ‘ Free hugs ‘ everybody…” said Dan addressing the whole crowd, many of whom were smiling and laughing now. Delighted by this initial success, Dan turned to another passenger nearby.
“Hey, I bet you’d give free hugs too. Hugs are good…”
Before he can offer another one though, he noticed a young girl who’d carefully moved away from him and was concentrating hard on her phone.
“Look, she’s turned her back on me – doesn’t want a free hug…”
“I think it could be quite intimidating for a girl travelling alone,” remarked the woman.
“Yes, very well put I think,” said his friend – “now do hold on Dan.”
“Oh but you’re not intimidated though, are you ?”
“Well, I’m not on my own am I ?”
Dan smiled, doe-eyed and with arms open wide approached her – a hug now seemed inevitable and had to be exchanged. An amused chorus of “Aah’s” and good natured laughter circulated that section of the train. Thoroughly delighted and further encouraged, Dan, now on a roll proceeded to give and receive free hugs with anyone in reach. His success rate was quite surprising too. Then he noticed some other people further on and headed towards them. His friend was unable to prevent him approaching a rather stiff, older gent in a Fairisle sweater who stood disapprovingly looking on and grumbling to himself in the next section.
‘Damned 10.56 late again of course and the previous one cancelled. Packed like sardines in this bloody short train. Suppose I’ll have to stand all the way, squashed up against these damned people eating their stinking take-aways and chips. Shouldn’t be allowed, smells like a cheap greasy spoon in here. Let’s hope a lot of ’em get off at East Croydon and perhaps I’ll be able to breathe. The whole journey’s been a nightmare, not even room to read my paper; I’d just put it away when I noticed a young man looking a bit the worse for drink. Oh God yes, here he is. He’s got a plastic glass of wine in one hand and an idiotic smile on his face. There’d been some noise and commotion coming from further down the carriage and I guessed this must be one of the perpetrators.
When I’d caught a glimpse of him earlier, he was standing in the middle of a crowd of perfectly respectable passengers, swaying about and making ludicrous comments to people. Some such rubbish about the miserable state of things, and everyone needing a hug would you believe ? Hah ! Well blow me if some of the gullible idiots fell for it too. I actually saw him hug one chap. Bloody outrageous on public transport. He oughta be put away. Pity we don’t have conscription any more, that’d sort him out.’
“There’s love and joy in this carriage,” Dan announced as he progressed round the standing passengers, many of whom had responded to his offer;
but much to the gent’s annoyance, Dan had arrived in front of him and tried to engage him in conversation. His initial pitch being the offer of a free hug of course. Naturally, disgusted at being accosted in this manner the gent strongly objected to such outrageous and unexpected gregariousness.
Dan, unperturbed continued to offer hugs, and when rebuffed again admired the splendid Fairisle sweater. This somehow contrived to instigate an extended but slightly taut exchange on the quality of Scottish woollens. Somewhere along the line the subject of cricket and Dan’s enjoyable day at Lords ensued and to his surprise, cricket being an irresistible topic of interest to him, the old gent found himself drawn in to the discussion. This only ended as Dan was gently lured away to change trains, but not without having finally achieved a hug with his reluctant ‘victim.’
Cricket, the value of hugs and the quality of sweaters had been thoroughly discussed, and ‘Mr No-thanks’ finally having found a seat at Croydon, could barely express his astonishment.
“I’m still reeling from being kissed by a complete stranger,” he complained to his fellow passengers. He did, however talk animatedly for the next half hour about ‘Young people today’, and ‘Cricket isn’t as good as it used to be…etc, etc.’ all the way to his stop. His journey had been enlivened tremendously and he’d spoken to four or five people who he never would have engaged with before. Was he holding on, or was he letting go ?