Bernard and Serena

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I remember one of my first drama lessons at school. I must have been 7 or 8. The teacher put us into small groups and we had to act out being at a bus stop, each playing different stereotypical bus users. She also told us that one of her favourite things was overhearing other people’s conversations on public transport. I have to say, I agree with her.

I have a good memory for conversations, as it turns out. I like nothing more than getting home and retelling what I heard on the bus/at the till/ over a garden fence. I mean, I don’t always even mean to overhear. But once my brain is tuned in, I find it impossible to resist soaking it up like a sponge.

Although I have found one thing that tops a bit of earwigging, and that’s actually speaking to strangers in public. I do it mindfully, on purpose, wondering if that day will be the day I’ll acquire a new little story or catchphrase that will keep me warm for years to come. Sometimes it comes to nothing. Sometimes I end up talking to very strange people indeed, which is par for the course I suppose.

A couple of months ago however, I struck gold when I caught the train to Cambridge to visit an old friend from university. I found my reserved seat at a table, seated diagonally across from a man and next to his wife. We struck up a conversation because it was particularly cold in the carriage and he had been complaining to the conductor that the heating had been broken since Leeds. As someone who is naturally nesh (feels the cold easily) I could relate to his complaint. Sylvia and I talked about how I was going to meet up with my friend and she told me about the old friend she visits in Birmingham, even after all these years.

Over the course of that journey, which took a couple of hours, I couldn’t quite believe my luck or the pace and variety of conversation. We talked and talked. I learned about where they live, how Serena is the tidy one but doesn’t drive, how they still have the same oven as the day they were married and have only owned one camera in their whole lives (which they still use), where his family comes from, how they long for more grandchildren, what each of their sons does for a living and much more. And all the while, my new friends, Bernard and Serena, bounced off each other like a comedy duo. Somehow we got onto the topic of McDonalds.

S “We enjoy coffee in McDonalds when we go to London”

Me “Do you collect those vouchers from the sides of the cups, to collect a free cup?”

S and B in unison “Oh yes!”

B “Our son who lives in London sometimes sends us an envelope full of those coupons. He picks them up from abandoned cups. You see, *people in London* don’t have time for such things”

Me “I had no idea”

B “You know there are almost 50 McDonalds in London now?”

Me “Really? 50?” Quietly doubting the source of this statistic…

B “You and your friend could go to McDonalds in Cambridge”

S “No Bernard! She doesn’t want to go to McDonalds, she wants to go somewhere nice. They have a nice Debenhams cafe in Cambridge you know. I’d go there”

I particularly liked the way she chastised him, in that way that only people who have been married for several decades can.

And just before I got off the train to get my connection to Cambridge we were talking about how Serena’s tidy streak sometimes has disastrous consequences. It turns out that one day when they were having a tidy of their loft, she accidentally threw away a box that contained all of Bernard’s letters to her from when they were courting. Of course, this was really Bernard’s fault for not putting them in a correctly marked box. Luckily, they still have the letters she wrote to him, so they can still piece together their memories.

B “Serena still writes letters you know (mimics handwriting) *WITH A PEN* she is quite a prolific letter writer”

And I can’t believe I didn’t take my chance to take down her address. I would have loved to have got to know them better. I haven’t had a penpal in years and I missed my chance. That’ll teach me.

Posted in: You had to be there



  1. Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I love this, it’s like a little insight into someone else’s life… Maybe I should try it, we do all tend to shut up in our little iPod/laptop/phone/book worlds don’t we? xxx

    • admin
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I’d strongly recommend it. It does open you up to some pretty strange people, but then occasionally there are some lovely ones and you’ll remember their story forever.

      • Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

        This is true, but strange people can be interesting too. Like the guy on the train one time who asked me to come with him and be his princess in the new world, after the armageddon came. That was a fun chat.

        K x

        • admin
          Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

          Nobody has ever asked me to be their Princess. I haven’t lived.

          • Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

            He was drinking brandy from a brown paper bag at the time, but I was still pretty excited at the princess offer.

            K x

  2. Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    This is so wonderful!

  3. Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    I love this. I have a reputation for talking to strangers wherever I go, to shop assistants, to people on public transport, to random people in the supermarket, pretty much to anyone who comes into my vicinity. It’s because I have the tendency to vocalise my thoughts aloud, and also because I smile a lot.

    Recently met an elderly man in a supermarket, he was buying a ready meal curry because he’d been taken for a curry for the first time in his life the week before and he enjoyed it so much. He was telling me all about the experience, what he ordered and what he liked. He was so nice and chatty and friendly, and so obviously going home to eat alone. I left him as cried in my car in the car park for 15 mins because he was so lovely.

    K x

    • admin
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Katie, I could cry over that story, that’s wonderful. Please elaborate and send it in to me? Pretty please?

      hello {at} life of barbara {dot} com. I have just the photograph to accompany it.

      • Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        Okay, I shall. I shall also probably cry again when I do so. I actually wanted to hug him.

        K x

  4. Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Awww what a great train conversation. They sound wonderful. I particularly like that their son is thoughtful enough to save vouchers for them and B’s insistence that *people in London* don’t have time for such things. Brilliant.

  5. Helen
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    This brings back so many memories of my regular train journeys home from university! I met so many interesting people, both people I actually had a proper conversation with and people I ever so cleverly watched through the reflection in the dark window (or not so cleverly since discovering that it is quite obvious when somebody is staring at you through a reflection!) I drive most places now but I still love the romance of a train journey, I wish we still used steam trains (little nostalgic sigh)

    • admin
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

      Train journeys are romantic, you’re right. My dream is to go across Europe on the Orient Express. Delusions of grandeur, no doubt. Silly Barbara.

      I would love to share your stories, get in touch if you’d like to scribble something down to share on the blog x

  6. Posted February 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I travel on trains a lot for work, and eat out a lot at the place I end up staying. Last night in a Thai restaurant in Birmingham, I almost got the most awful giggles listening to a group of three men in their late 30s (all business types) talking very earnestly about one of them’s dog. The man basically thought that any dog would be an excellent guard dog and burglar deterrent, so he could afford to be a bit lax on his other security measures. His dog lay fast asleep as the burglars stepped over him in the hallway. Apparently he’s a lovely dog though but the man blames him for the loss of his laptop.

    On one train journey I sat next to a big jolly grey haired man, just coming home after a cruise. He was a widower and said that when his wife died (the ‘love of my life’) he decided she wouldn’t want him to curl up and cry so he would honour her by going on the cruise trips she always wanted to take together. He then said he met a nice lady on one cruise and they were now ‘courting’ but he only ever saw her at her best because she lived in a different city, so it wasn’t like he was with his wife, but he was sure she wouldn’t have minded.

    Then, he told me how he was researching his past because he wanted to pass this on to his grandkids so they didn’t lose touch with their roots. He said his dad was one of the main engineers on the Titanic but he only found out because he discovered a mysterious photo and went investigating. So, my friendly traveller had set up an interest group for people who’s relative had been involved in the Titanic build, he had the photo put in the museum in Belfast and had taken people on a cruise across to Newfoundland to see where some of the remains of the ship (and bodies) had ended up. He was trying to get this special photo up in a museum over there. He was so proud of his past and of his wife, and a little coy about his new lady friend, but so happy and enthusiastic about his travels and how he’d learned so much. He just wished his wife was enjoying it with him.

    A three hour train trip went so fast. He had tears in his eyes at times and so did I! I’ll always remember him. A lovely gentleman.

    • admin
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Lucy, these are amazing stories! Thank you for sharing them, especially the Titanic man. That has warmed the cockles.

  7. Posted February 7, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I met a strange boy on the train once, he told me his life story and vice versa… he is now my husband


    • admin
      Posted February 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      You can’t get much better than that, Julie x

  8. Christian
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    I once had a conversation with a very odd couple on a beach in….you guessed it…Canada. It was sunset in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island and I was the only one left on the beach, but I’d got my camera all set up for the amazing sunset that was sure to come when a man and a woman approached me. If you’ve ever seen Kalifornia, then if I say they were like the characters played by Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis, you’ll know what I mean and you’ll know why I was a little scared. They talked generally to me about what I was doing in Canada, where I’d been on my trip so far and where I was going to. The girl kept playing with her hair as I was talking, twisting it around her fingers. The guy kept laughing in a way not unlike Beavis & Butthead. They were from Campbell River, which I knew was in the southern part of Vancouver Island and which I knew had a reputation for the less salubrious sides of life. They appeared to be somewhat ‘drowsy’ and pink of eye, with slower than normal speech.

    It was actually starting to get a little bit dark on the beach and I tried to appear busy, but they seemed happy just to stand by me and they carried on talking to me about one another in the way where one of them tells you something about the other person and then asks the other person to agree, like ‘Jim doesn’t like mosquitoes. Do you Jim?’ The conversation eventually moved on to my camera and they were asking me about what kind of photos I like to take and if I make good money in the UK. I said it was mainly weddings, and they said ‘do you ever take photos of plants?’ I was slightly surprised by the question and said that I started out in photography by taking photographs of flowers. They started asking for my advice on what kind of camera would take good photos of plants. The guy seemed suddenly disappointed, saying that all the good camera stores are on the mainland, and then said ‘well, I can’t actually go to the mainland for a while.’ I decided it best not to enquire about that strange statement, but he proceeded to say ‘you see, it’s kind of why we’re here on holiday…I have to stay on the island. We’d love to see the UK, but I’m not allowed even to go across from the island to the mainland.’
    I said nothing.
    He wasn’t deterred.
    He said, ‘you see I was a little bit of a naughty boy.’
    I said ‘oh?’
    He said, ‘well you see I was growing the ol’ Mary Jane in my loft (insert Beavis & Butthead laugh) and so I had to spend some time ‘inside’, and the condition of my release is that my travel is restricted. Which is why I can’t go to the mainland.’
    I said, ‘Oh dear.’
    The conversation moved back to whether there was money in photography and he re-expressed his desire to buy a good camera and earn some money from photos:
    ‘there are certain magazines that pay money, like GOOD money, man, for really good photos of Mary Jane. Not just like leaves, but the buds. It’s the buds they want. You know if you could get a really good photo of a bud they would probably pay you A LOT of money.’
    It continued like that for a while, and then I gave my apologies that I had to go. We all shook hands and said it was nice to meet each other, and they said I should call on them if I passed through Campbell River, and I could take some good bud photos.

    (For those who don’t know- Mary Jane is slang for marijuana. Marijuana production is rife in British Columbia, with much of it being grown in so called ‘grow-ops’ inside residential properties.)

  9. Posted February 11, 2013 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    oh sweetie…..this is pure brilliance x

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