It’s late and I’m on a train back to Bristol. I’ve just done a talk about a book I worked on, about race and immigration and I’m wearing the name of the book – The Good Immigrant – across my sweatshirt.
It’s late and I’ve spent the evening talking at people, so I’ve bought myself a burger and a beer to keep me company on the two-hour journey home.
The train is packed until Reading, as it always is, and then deathly quiet. Bored and with a need to stay awake, I put on a crap Jason Statham film, perfect company for the long journey. The action-packed thrills will keep me awake because if I fall asleep and miss my stop, I’m ending up in Swansea.
The further the train gets from London, the more it empties out. I don’t really notice it at first. I’m too engrossed in the film.
Around Swindon, three men get on the carriage shouting loudly. They sit around me and talk. I realise, looking at them, and around, and up from my Jason Statham film, that the carriage is empty, except for me and for them. They are carrying beer cans and talking in that high octave slur that carries most lads home from the pub after closing time. One of them looks at me and my sweatshirt then gets up and moves closer.
As he stands, he says: “There’s no such thing as a good immigrant.” I hear him because I’ve lowered the volume of the Statham film. Something about the encroachment of space has made my skin itchy. Almost like their placement on the seats nearest to me when the entire empty carriage is on offer is a purposeful move.
I suddenly feel terrified. Why is he talking about me? Is he talking in a way that is designed for me to hear? Is he having a private conversation with his friends? About my sweatshirt? I mute the film, watching it in silence while I listen to their exchange.
Aside: watching an action-packed Jason Statham film on mute is a strange experience.
“What you saying?” one of his friends says. I clock where they all are. The original commentor is across the aisle from me. The friend who just spoke is sitting in front of me. A third person is behind me.
“That guy’s jumper. It says good immigrant. No such thing.” He laughs. “Maybe we should show him how we treat immigrants round here,” the person behind me says. “Nah, CCTV mate,” says the man across the aisle.
What the hell? Are they threatening to beat me up, but backing down because of CCTV? I watch Jason Statham shoot some people.
“Why would you wanna be proud of being a good immigrant? Makes me sick. I wanna knock the guy out,” the person behind me says. “Yeah we should sort him out,” the person in front of me says. “Leave him, you’re pissed,” the person across the aisle says.
The only person I can see is the guy across the aisle. I am terrified. I am pressed entirely against the window, trying to get my body as small as possible. I will not move. I cannot move. My feet want to thrash out. I want to run. But there is something keeping me rooted to the spot. Fear. Fear that I do not know how to be in this situation. If one of these men decided to sort me out, I wouldn’t know how to defend myself. I wouldn’t know the right way to take up space.
It’s just a sweatshirt, I think. I can wear whatever sweatshirt I want, political slogan or not. But sitting there, alone on the train, without the confidence to just stand up and move away, I feel afraid.
After 30 minutes, they head to the bar and I gather my things and move to a part of the train where other people are. I am very awake now. I will not be waking up in Swansea. I feel like I haven’t breathed in an hour. As I get off the train in Bristol at 1.30am, I think what might have happened. I don’t know how to defend myself.
To be continued…