Knowing Strangers


Britany let out a too-loud cry of joy as she stood in St Pancras station’s concourse, under the black departures signboard that had just changed to show her 17.50 train to Paris! ‘Finally’ she thought. After five years of interning and working as a lacky in the food industry, she’d arrived at this point. Well, technically four and a half years if she discounted the summer-job at the McDonalds drive-through to save money for her move to the beautifully engulfing London of her dreams.

Britany recalled having allowed herself the luxury of getting excited when she first found out that she’d finally been chosen to manage the company’s stand at the Annual World Foods Exhibition in Montemarte. At last she was she was going places. She envisioned herself walking through the departure gate that would see her board the Eurostar train and on towards a brighter future. Then she would be in Paris where colourful images of caramel and pistachio covered brownies awaited her, melded with those of singing choux pastry profiteroles – perfect rounds filled with cream and dripping decadently with salted dark chocolate, all balanced perfectly atop the Eiffel tower, as she skydived down and picked one up with grace and elegance (to cheering crowds below, naturally).

Britany smiled briefly, then looked round and stood taller. She scolded the self that dangled upside-down above the Paris landmark – of course that thinner dream version of her instantly dismounted and walked sensibly into the capital’s crowds.

There was no denying that Britany knew the new deserts backwards, having won Miss Food Inc three months in a row for her “outstanding product knowledge”. This young lady was ready to promote her company’s sugar and preservative laden ‘home-made’ but undoubtedly delicious baked goods to the large suppliers who would attend the Exhibition. She passed the time on her mobile, by checking for updates across her social media profiles, tweeting ‘Ready for #Paris @worldfoodexpo. #Excited!!’ to her 456 followers. She scrolled through, then, and commented on the feed of the influential and anonymous food critic @foodl0ver67, noting excitedly that he’d given a rare five star rating to a new Shoreditch café-come-bookshop; she enlarged the image of wooden tables and purposefully mismatched chairs, noting she’d definitely visit it on her return. In the meantime she was focused on her goals, she knew exactly where she was headed, and that was up up up the career ladder, eventually owning her own chain of Marcus Melts organic, gluten free, vegan, health deserts bakeries. She had a plan and would not let anything get in her way. She knew there was no other option. She had to achieve this.

Over two hours later, an impatient crowd of would-be travellers had formed around her, eyes peeled, urgently awaiting updates of snow related delays. She’d grown tired of standing, cursing her choice of footwear in this weather. The newly bought 3 inch burgundy heels pinched at the sides now and rubbed at the back as she moved from foot to foot in an attempt to make the standing less painful. Of course she knew it wouldn’t help; the universe wouldn’t allow her to be both stylish and comfortable at the same time. It had been over an hour since she’d stopped trying to look anything resembling chic.

Needing a distraction, she glanced at the international faces of the crowds, careful not to linger on anyone too long. In front of her a young couple stood calmly as two toddlers darted in and out of their legs, the youngest boy clearly didn’t sense her private rule not to interact with children, and stared up at the funny hoping lady. Britany averted her eyes, this was the last thing she needed. Then the announcement came, ears pricked as a faceless voice spoke through an invisible microphone “all trains to Paris are cancelled this evening.” “Repeat, all Paris trains are cancelled”

“Please no!”, Britney exclaimed, to no one in particular. As if in reply, the voice continued,“please make other arrangements to continue your journey, tickets will be valid tomorrow.” A pause. Then the same information in a French accent and language she had never quite bothered to learn in secondary school. For some reason she found herself wishing she’s paid attention, as if it would have helped her somehow “non, non non!!” she muttered now, knowing she was going nowhere.

Minutes later her mobile buzzed in her pocket, she took it out, gratefully noting that she still had 50% battery remaining. ‘Mark – work’ the phone informed her - a text from her boss. “Just heard about the trains, bad luck eh? No worries, Philip from the Paris office is kindly covering it for us, phew” Followed by an afterthought and another text “Take the weekend off! smiley face. Mark”.

Her ankles gave up the pretence of stability then and she sat her down on the spot where she’d heroically stood for hours. She was too tired, the early starts and late finishes caught up with her then. Britney didn’t care about how she looked for once, what did it matter, everything she’d worked for, how could everything she’d worked so hard for, everything she had given up to get here be ruined by a few snowflakes? It just wasn’t fair! She wanted someone to blame, so she blamed herself, for having had hope and dreaming impossible dreams.


Close by, an old man looked towards the crowd of wood-be travellers, searching for an opportunity to rest his tired legs. The increasing lack of benches in public spaces was a particular bug-bear of his. Yinka had remembered to wear his trainers when leaving Sheffield in the early hours of the morning, out of practicality rather than a love of sportswear. He’d teamed them with comfortable cords and his navy blue and orange patterned dashiki tunic that still came on special occasions. Yinka had to admit that the cotton was too thin now, more suitable for his younger self and the sunshine of another continent; still he’d learnt to layer thermals under everything many years ago.

Having spotted the young lady sat confidently on the ground Yinka decided to join her. He sat down clumsily, too close to the woman actually, but not wanting to appear rude he remained where he sat. She looked around the same age as his Julius – 24 or 25 perhaps. Yinka couldn’t help looking over as she frantically looked down at her phone. Yes it was the way of most young people these days, but there was something else, a sense of desperation that reminded him too much of his son Julius. She stared into the device as if all the answers of life would magically present themselves through this 7 inch screen. He noticed that tears rolling unforgivingly down her cheeks, he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words without welling up himself. Her eyes remained transfixed, she didn’t seem to notice him despite the proximity. She did raise her head momentarily from time to time to glance at the departure board, unfortunately for her the majority still announced delays or cancelations.

There was something about her that made him decide to take action and try to help somehow. Perhaps it was the timing. Maybe it was because she was here when Julius clearly wasn’t. Yinka had never stolen anything in his life but she radiated an energy that told him she needed saving. “Okay.” Yinka said to himself, “I can do it.” He knew that he had to at least try.

A young boy of two or three came racing up towards them then, trying to hide from his parents who could clearly see him dart between people and fall straight onto the girl’s lap. She was clearly shaken and got up instinctively, shaking the boy away as one would an annoying fly. Strange. This behaviour didn’t stack up in Yinka’s instinctive impressions of her, but it made him all the more curious. The old man took his opportunity to lean over then and pick up her dropped phone and purse. Keeping one eye on the toddler, Yinka gently placed her belongings inside his jacket pocket; all the while waiting for someone to stop him and shout “thief,” but no one did. As the old man tried to lift himself up, the boy’s father reached out a hand to help, while apologising profusely to the young lady. She didn’t respond, instead she continued to wipe away some unseen remnants of the child from her skirt.

“Whaaaat the *****” Britney found herself shouting a couple of minutes later – too loud! She got up and franticly looked round, trying to pinpoint where her belongings had disappeared. Her suitcase was still there, but that was the least important thing for her then. She lifted her case, tilted it to the side and even said a little prayer, but nothing. Those stood around her were lost in thought, on a myriad of hand-held devices, deep in conversation, or staring ahead with emotionless expressions. No-one seemed to notice or care that her stuff had been stolen and that she was slowly unravelling. She ran over to security by the departure barriers, mumbling the story of how she’d lost her things. The guards were useless of course, taking her number in case her mobile turned up! Exhausted she sat down where she was, back against the wall, feet stretched in from of her and in the way of passers-by, shoes now placed to one side.

Yinka walked purposefully past the pink Visitor Information sign, turned speedily towards the Currency Exchange Bureau and made a beeline to the Left Luggage office. Afraid to look round incase he was stopped. He felt lighter once he’d handed in her belongings, hoping they could eventually trace her and return her things.

The old man walked around the area he’d last seen the girl a couple of times, before spotting her slumped by the security gates. He felt mildly guilty at making her situation worse for the moment without himself knowing why he’d done so.

“Are you alright Miss?” Yinka asked, hovering over her. She lifted her head slightly to see who’d addressed her, then without any further acknowledgement she carried on looking ahead into nowhere. I mean she hadn’t actually asked him to leave her alone had she? Yinka reasoned with himself as he turned her no reply into an invitation of sorts and sat down facing her, careful to leave a more respectful distance this time.

Britany was exhausted and no longer cared. Her one chance at making management notice her and networking with the international crowd of influential foodies had been pried away from her. If she had really wanted to get to the exhibition she told herself, she should have found way, but she’d failed instead. Her train being cancelled was something out of her control and that was what she hated. Since the day she’d lost her son, Britany did everything in her power to keep careful control over everything, yet here she was, stuck and waiting. She couldn’t stop her mind wandering now: the child falling on her when he had, forced through memories she’d held away for so long.

The thoughts kept on returning, they came back at unexpected and unwanted times. Britney knew how hard she’d worked to clean herself up after social services granted full custody of her soon to her ex-husband. She’d married too young of course – everyone had told her that. And she was ill-prepared for the responsibilities of motherhood; the courts had clearly spelt that out, as if she hadn’t known it already. She’d done her best to change things, was working her way to something Marcus could be proud of. He would look for her one day, when he was older, and when he found her she wanted to tell him what she’d achieved. Despite feeling like a child herself, she needed her son to be proud of her. When she’d finally got an internship at Food and Co she knew she had a chance. And now, when she was so close, the dream had been snatched away from her.

She was tired and didn’t feel like talking to a frankly creepy old man who kept on appearing around her. He wasn’t deterred by her ignoring him annoyingly and spoke louder, addressing her as if he knew her. Brittany tried humming to block him out, but he sat down directly in front of her! ‘Whatever,’ she thought, and didn’t move, couldn’t be bothered to.

Clearly she was ignoring him, but a strange pull kept Yinka on the spot, making even himself uncomfortable. Maybe his whim of taking her things had been too much and he’d pushed her over the edge, he thought guiltily. The old man wondered, at a loss with what to do next as he fidgeted with his wallet and stared at the old photo of Julius. His son was 16 and laughing at the camera, the image was taken almost 10 years ago, just before he’d dropped out of school to “follow his passion and work in the restaurant business.” Yinka had been furious at him, a month later and his son was gone. All Yinka had left was the annual pilgrimage to London and Kings Cross - the place they’d met that one last time. The station held memories of having to let him go.

This girl was still here though and he was drawn to try again, to save her at least - from what? That he didn’t know yet. He did know that he couldn’t just give up so easily with her though.

“OK” the girl was addressing him now.

Her curiosity had gotten the better of her, wanting to ask about the photo he looked at so intently. “I’m OK I guess” she said softly, a delayed reply to his earlier question. Yinka hid the photo quickly, not wanting to invite questions. “Your wife?” she ventured incorrectly. The old man lifted his head and shook it to the negative. Britany could tell he didn’t want to say more about it, so she told him “I’ve lost my phone” it was something to say. “And my purse, my train tickets, and my future” she continued, not really expecting a response.

“I’m sorry” Yinka said, and he was. “How is it that you’ve lost your future?” The old man waited attentively, as if he actually cared about her answer. Genuine concern from a stranger threw Britany off guard. He’d managed to get under her skin and extract the details of how she’d arrived at her current situation.

“Can I buy you a coffee?” Yinka asked then, sensing she had more to tell.

He asked in such a fatherly manner, that Britany looked over to the open and buzzing Pret counter, pretty safe she concluded and answered “sure.” Feeling lost with nowhere else to be kind words and the offer of a warm drink sounded magical to Britany at that moment. As she waited for her coffee she still hoped she would get to France before the evening was out. For now she was sat more comfortably, with another stranded traveller she assumed. Despite her natural guard there was something about the caring manner of this stranger that drew out of her what she hadn’t told anyone since it had happened, anyway she’d never see him again so that made it was easier.

Having heard the young lady’s story, Yinka wished he could help, but knew he had nothing to give. “You haven’t lost everything” he said, “there are always second chances.” As he said what he thought would help her, he found himself hoping this was true.

The deep pain of not knowing how his own son was doing grew heavier for Yinka as the years passed. He had always hoped that Julius would return one day, and hated himself for telling him that he couldn’t.

“…I don’t want to talk about it anymore” Britany announced eventually, bringing the old man back from his melancholy. “I’ll stop boring you now, I don’t know what came over me.” Then, “sorry” she added as an afterthought.

Not knowing what else he could say Yinka simply added “I hope your trains start again soon”

“Yours too” she replied. Yinka didn’t correct her, he couldn’t bring himself to share with the girl what he was really waiting for.

“Would you mind if I borrow your phone” Britney asked. Then, “do you have a mobile?” She hadn’t checked her messages for hours and felt out of the loop of real life. Yinka handed over his Samsung and in an instant his phone was ‘online’ for the first time since he’d bought it. It was actually a smart-phone Britney noted with relief; she’d half expected one of those old mobiles with a green screen that allowed you to play Snake as the main selling point.

Not knowing the number of any of her friends Britany’s first call was social media, she posted a status update on Facebook, checked her emails to find one from her boss telling her they were busy so she should return to the London office tomorrow. She bit her tongue then to stop herself from welling up again in front of this old man who must already think her crazy. Instead she focused more intently on her twitter feed. It was then that she saw a message from @foodl0ver67, he’d replied to her early tweet about snow delays at the station. Her favourite food blogger was actually coming to hand out care packages from his own luxury food brand! A smile spread over Britany’s face, she’d been following him for years and looked up to this self-made entrepreneur. Twitter updates informed her that he’d arrived at the station at 8pm - that was half an hour ago!

The girl rushed up without saying a word, Yinka’s phone still in hand she ran into the station not knowing where she was heading. The anonymous blogger had decided to reveal himself today and in part due to her tweet, she could hardly contain her joy.

That must be them, she was sure, as she spotted a group of people in blue t-shirts teamed with chef’s hats - food baskets in hand. Britney zig-zagged her way through the crowd, past a teenage girl with green hair, a business man with netbook in hand, and a little boy holding onto an adult’s hand. One of the food team saw her, walked over and offered her a pastry from the basket. She leaned forward and took it, scouring the uniformed group for any tell-tale signs of @foodl0ver67.

As she held onto her freebie, a voice reached out over gathered heads and hit her.

“Brittany!?” came the sound, in an old but unmistakably familiar voice. A young man appeared on the other side of the sound, her ex-husband faced her, wearing a chef’s hat.

“What are you doing here?” he asked her, astounded.

Shocked, Britney managed “H h h how did you know I was here?”

“I didn’t know” he exclaimed. “We’ve been looking for you for years. I only came to gift some of my products after seeing a tweet from a fan.”

The child holding his hand faced her then, he looked up at her with her own eyes and his dad’s dimples, eyes she’d not seen since she held her baby son at 6 months old.

Amongst confusion and tears, she thought of her fateful message, typed in the dismay of missing her train. “Oh Shit!” Britany realised with shame that she’d stolen the kind man’s phone. But she stood glued on the spot, staring at her son, not able to move. She looked back briefly in the direction of the café however, but couldn’t see the phone’s owner.

Facing her ex-husband again, Britany found him looking strangely distracted, staring intently at something close by. “Dad!” Julius exclaimed excitedly, as she followed the direction of his gaze. The old man stood next to her then, tears of joy streamed down his face.