The first time it happened I was a few stories up the Eiffel tower on a sweltering day in July, nonchalantly taking in the views as a 13 year-old with not much interest in views would.
A group of Spanish-looking girls on a school trip were a few feet away from me, jostling each other for space on the narrow walkway whilst laughing hysterically. I was with my parents. There was no jostling or overt laughing from me, I was just being sensible me. I noticed a couple of the girls look at me for longer that I thought normal. Bold brown eyes that immediately caused mine to flicker away, ashamed at having noticed their beauty. “Do I have something in my hair? Is my T-shirt not that cool? Are you laughing because I’m with my parents? What is it!?”
I wasn’t particularly confident around girls having been in an all-boys school since I was 8, so any encounter with them always raised a lot of self-deprecating questions in my head. One of them smiled directly at me. I was convinced she thought I was someone she knew and that in a moment she’d tut and move on.
Then it happened — her friend lifted a camera that had been by her side and took a picture of me.
The roll of film whirring along to the next frame, getting into position for the next unsuspecting character that would be caught aghast in its 35mm prison. I didn’t even have time to express any kind of confusion. Click, whir, laugh. It happened again. Before I could even crack a confused smile or frown they slipped the camera into a bag and calmly walked back to the rest of the group, leaving me with so many questions and whole load of teenage confusion.
“Come on, we’re going for lunch now”. My dad breaking me out of my trance and forcing me to reconsider my presumptions that I was invisible to girls.
I was sitting on a train to Woolwich the second time it happened. The nightly scrum to get on the train at Charing Cross had once again raised tensions between the suit-wearers, their daily frustrations bubbling over in a short but sweet outburst: “no you move along you fucking cretin”. Repeat ad nauseam.
I’d somehow managed to blag a seat next to the aisle that ensured my body and spirit were still entangled with the menace that lingered in the carriage. At London Bridge the carriage emptied out somewhat enabling me to see more than a sterile briefcase and the arse of a man in cycling shorts. My eyes fell upon a man sitting diagonally across from me on the right. His legs folded over each other with a backpack sitting across his lap whilst his hands were busy doing something I couldn’t see.
Usually a cursory glance is all that is needed to ascertain whether a person is of any further interest, but there was something clearly intriguing about him as I found myself look over again. He glanced up at me, met my eyes and then lowered his head to concentrate on whatever he was doing behind his backpack. Before I had started to move my head away from his direction he did it again. A quick snap of the head upward towards me, a quick scan and then back to whatever he was doing.
As we pulled into the next stop he had to move his legs to let a passenger off and it was then that I noticed what was on his lap — a sketchpad. His right-hand gripped a pencil whilst he steadied his impromptu sketching station with the other. I tried not to look directly at him rather trying to catch occasional glimpses of him whilst his head was down. There was no doubt about it — he was drawing me.
Woolwich was the next stop, my final destination of this strange encounter. My curiosity egged me on. I got up casually and lifted my bag from the over-head compartment with delicacy so as not to drop it on any unsuspecting passenger below. As I approached him I noticed him shuffle again to let another passenger by, his knees pointing towards me in an accusatory manner. I drew level with his shoulders and glanced down. There I was — sketched in clean lines and calm smudges. My head was slightly turned away but my eyes were looking straight at me, exactly how I must have looked at him when his head was down. I wanted to say something, anything: a thank you, a well done, a what the hell are you doing; but before I could utter a word the man with the cycling shorts was behind me urging me to get off.
The train pulled away as I stood bewildered on the platform as if somehow a part of me had been left behind in that carriage, a part that I’d never see again.