The True Story of the Man Who ‘Self-Loved’ on the Train Next To Me

Warning: This post contains things children shouldn’t read.

Public transport is mostly boring, but occasionally it gets disturbing.

 

A long journey with strangers usually implies staring at a book or not breathing near the person who smells of sick. Since this incident, though, the words that cross my mind when someone gets too close are “please don’t wank on me.” 

 

It happened on a dark night on my way home from an intern position at a London magazine. That’s fancy talk for making tea and photo-copying whilst trying not to look frightened by each new assignment. I got on the train as usual and found it virtually empty. In my peripheral vision was the stubby figure of a man in dark clothes, a somewhat lonely looking middle aged sort who smiled hopefully at me as I sat down. He sat next to me. “Oh, God,” I thought, “I cannot be bothered with a conversation, I’m going to move.” So I did. I got up and moved clear across the carriage onto one of those two-seaters that nobody wants to share if they can help it. I gazed out the window and sighed with relief. He followed me. “Odd,” I thought, but because I’d somehow decided moving again would seem rude (!) I stayed where I was. 

 

The carriage filled up and, sitting on some seats within vision of us, was a mother with an eleven year old girl. That fact will continue to disturb me. While we set off on our journey I passed the time by looking at some photos I had in my bag (remember those days, when everything we owned had a physical presence? We live in the future now). “Are they of your holiday?” asked the man next to me.

 

“No,” I said quickly. I knew I was in a situation I had to get out of, though it didn’t dawn on me until later that he’d asked because he was probably thinking of my friends and I in bikinis. I hid my pictures from him and turned my face nearer to the window. He began making a strange rocking motion, nudging an arm into me again and again. I stayed put and stared at the reassuring images in front of me like they were a gateway to a safe happy place. Like someone in a horror film I just didn’t want to take that final peek at the monster behind me. Still he shuffled about and, tensing myself, I looked.

 

I could try to sugar coat this but I feel it would detract from my experience. What I saw sent a scream running silently throughout my body. He’d placed his blue jumper over his front but it had slipped down, revealing a paltry scrap of meat held between his fingers. I was no longer present in myself. I simply reacted by jumping up, kicking his legs when he wouldn’t move out of the way quick enough and running further down the train. All the while he mumbled “Sorry, sorry,” and, as I ran, I caught the eyes of several shocked and confused passengers, including the young girl who would then have looked right at him. 

 

I ran to the last of the carriages, all the while thinking: ‘My God, you are so dramatic. Wouldn’t most people have just told him off and moved quietly elsewhere?’ But no, not me. I flung myself breathlessly down on a seat and blurted out to a group of old ladies, “a man just showed me his willy!”

 

“Oh, that’s terrible,” they clucked.

 

“Are you in trouble?” one lady kept asking me. I believe now she had meant ‘can you get home alright’ or some such thing, but at the time I was just trying to figure out when ‘a man showed me his willy’ had become code for ‘I just murdered someone and stole their bag, you’ll never take me alive copper.’

 

“Erm, no,” I replied, and she seemed satisfied with this. My stop came and they watched as I staggered off nervously. I actually had to ask my friends at the station if they thought I was over-reacting (answer: No! Phone the transport police!) I’m 100 per cent sure he was caught with this fantastic description: “He looked normal…and had a blue jumper.” Dammit, why didn’t I take a good look at something other than the penis that was thrust into my eyes?

 

So it was over, and the event became another string in a rich tapestry of Odd Things That Have Happened. I considered getting angry with him but I couldn’t, I even said to the police at the time that I thought he seemed a bit simple. When it comes down to it I suppose I got off fairly lightly compared to what happens to some girls, and really it must suck to be him, at least I don’t have that daily struggle to worry about. So the only thing to do was move on and continue as normal but, of course, I’m always aware of that instinctive voice that says, “Please don’t wank on me.”

The pagan moot

On an impulse in May 2007 I decided to see how a local Pagan group did things. I wasn’t quite sure why, other than the fact that I have an avid interest in any subculture. I’ve always found it quite interesting that Paganism, which is in itself a collective term for all ancient religions, exists in modern life still; growing and evolving from the forgotten past to modern day, celebrating nature alongside concrete buildings and road-signs.

So what does it mean to be a modern day Pagan? Well, that would take years to find out, so my main aim was to find out what it meant to a specific small group. I arranged to meet for a ‘moot’, a gathering to hold rituals.

We entered the pub feeling a bit conspicuous; I had realised that I had chosen today to dress like a fortune-teller. We noticed a small group of people out the back. “That’s them,” nudged my friend Steve. I turned to see them looking our way; four people, two men and two women. I suddenly felt very nervous.

The first thing I noticed about everybody was that they were roughly early to mid-twenties. One girl had a blue nose stud but otherwise her clothes wouldn’t mark her out from the average crowd. Two young men were sitting on comfy seats, both with long hair. They were burly outdoor types, not the pasty thin Goth kids I had been expecting. In the seat next to me was a young girl with thick, wavy black hair and a lip ring. Her clothes were the most archetypal Pagan, that is to say floaty, and I liked it.

We were given leaflets with brief explanations on the basic beliefs of Paganism, and what seemed like beginner’s questions and answers, the most obvious being “What is a witch?” The answer given here is: “A witch is a follower of witchcraft or Wicca. Today the words…are interchangeable. S/he is essentially Pagan, worshipping the deity force of the universe personified usually as a God and a Goddess. Witchcraft can be described as one of the priesthoods of Paganism and, as such, Wiccans are also known as priests and priestesses.” The leaflet talked of Covens, and how they were close-knit groups of Pagans.

More arrived, including a woman who kept phoning her children’s babysitter and a shaven headed man in his early thirties. We were waiting for someone who would lead a ritual. Apparently he preferred to perform them in the woods but this particular coven liked to relax with a few pints.

As I asked the girl next to me some questions. She was very open about her religion and her workmates weren’t unfriendly to her because of it. It was “mostly making fun in a friendly way”. The other girl however admitted she had experienced some bullying from workmates.

After a while, the man who was leading the ritual arrived. By this point I was itching to see exactly what we would be doing. He was quite a tall, broad-shouldered man, also with longish black hair. We all headed out to the beer garden.

It was deserted, and would have been very dark but for the windows shining and the full moon overhead. Unsure of what to expect, I took the hands that were offered me as everyone linked to form a circle around a large white table. We were instructed by the ritual leader to take deep breaths, and close our eyes. We praised the traditional four areas of nature, earth, air, fire and water. With each one I heard a match being struck and a candle being lit. The general atmosphere was very calm.

As we opened our eyes, one of the boys said: “Now we can all start cutting ourselves” to laughter and chastisement from the others. The solemnity broke, and as part of the monthly ritual a fight between two Pagan figures was re-enacted, albeit very stiffly, by the two boys who had been there from the beginning. “Put some more effort in, “I called, “It looks like a computer game.”

Back inside the pub it became once again like any other social outing. From what I could gather this particular coven was, like other groups, a comfort and something that offered a sense of belonging and acceptance. We all look for this in one way or another be it religion, the WI or simply a group of friends.

The weirdest job interview

Hands down this has to be the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had. I’ve tried to find the name of the company it was with but I’ve not come across them, and it was back in 2007. My memory with names is cloudy like a Scottish mountain.

I like to try all different kinds of writing; scripts, comics, stories, books, so when I saw a vague ad on gumtree for an advertising firm in a nearby town I wondered if they needed any copywriters.

I applied and was offered an interview, so along I went to a smallish office building in Colchester and saw another nervous looking girl. “What time is your interview?” I asked.

“Two,” she replied. Same as mine. Odd, I thought, they must have two different interview rooms.

But no. They didn’t. A man in his early twenties and rivers of gel in his hair opened an office door and invited us both in. I wondered if we would have to fight to the death.

“This company,” he said, “gets everyone to start at grass-roots level, so we all have experience of each different part.”

I furrowed my brow. Surely everyone didn’t work in graphics, not everybody can do that?

“I’m only 24,” he continued, “and I have my own office and blah blah blah…” I began to drift away. He just went on, and on, and on about how great it was to have loads of money. It’s not my money, what do I care?

We both had to answer a myriad of questions, pretending to be people a company would want to hire. Eventually it came to an end and we went our seperate ways, but I quickly realised I had no idea what I’d just been interviewed for. The answer to every question I’d asked had floated deep within a cloud of management-speak.

However I was still pleased when I was asked back for another interview. This time there was no second girl and the gel-money-monster came to sit next to me in the waiting room.

“Today you’ll be shadowing these two,” he pointed out a male and female, both in their early twenties.

“OK,” I said, “but I wanted to ask, what exactly do you all do?”

“Different companies trust us,” he said, voice slanting into the ‘I’m giving a pitch’ tone once again, “to make other people aware of them and to raise their profile.”

“Yes,” I said, impatiently raising my hand, “but on a day-to-day basis, what would I be doing?”

“We inform the public of the companies we reperesent and let them know the work they do.”

“Right,” I snapped, getting quite cross, “so I could just stand out there,” I pointed to the window, “and tell people in the street?”

“Well, not exactly,” he said, blushing. “But anyway, go with (I’ve forgotten their names, I will call the girl Foofy and the boy Mr Fuffykins).”

So I got into a car with them, which seems a bit mental on reflection but at the time politeness forbids us from going against instruction. On the way Foofy pointed out a car she could see and told us how much she wanted one. She then informed us how close to purchasing it with all her recently earned lovely money she was. I wondered if I’d accidentally joined a cult.

The revelation came over lunch. We were eating fried chicken when I was told we would be literally trying to sell a company, or get people to sign up to it (I still don’t really understand) by speaking to them – cold-calling – door to door.

“You can do that can’t you?” asked Foofy.

“Um, yes?” I said. I still don’t know why I said yes.

We pulled into a residential area in Dunmow and I was given a jacket to put on.”I’ll take the odd number doors and you two take the evens,” instructed Foofy.

‘Speak,’ I told myself, and my voice sat at the bottom of my throat until I forced it up. “Um, I can’t do this,” I said in a weird, squeaky way.

They both stared at me. I made myself repeat it. “I can’t go door to door.”

They began to deliberate. “There’s a bus station nearby, it’s not far to walk,” said Mr Fuffykins.

“We can’t just leave her here,” said Foofy, a touch bitterly as though she wished they could.

In the end I convinced them to drop me off in town, where I had a coke and thought about things before I made my way home. The moral of the story is, when someone talks management-speak just start crying until they explain themselves.

Domestic pyromania

During this series of Tales of the Slightly Unexpected we’ve had suspension parties, living in a squat, acting in a low budget horror and being an intern at Bizarre magazine. Now its time for something much more mundane…the night I set fire to my room.

I had just turned 15. My room was decorated in that 90s ‘I’m an oddball’ fashion of suns, moons, stars, Nirvana and Radiohead everywhere and a friend of mine had bought me a joke present, a book of witch’s spells.

Halloween was in the October air as I flicked through the pages one evening, never intending to enact any of the ‘magic,’ as I was far too lazy to draw pentagrams or collect leaves facing only in a south-easterly direction on a Tuesday etc. However I stopped when I reached a particular page.

Being a normal 15 year old girl I had a crush on somebody, and the ‘love spell’ was the only thing that wouldn’t require lots of effort. All I had to do was write their name on a piece of paper and burn it. Easy, right?

I eagerly wrote the name down and got out my lighter – for candles and oil burners – and set alight to the corner of the paper. I watched the orange flame flicker and grow stronger and the thought occured to me…what now? It wasn’t stopping automatically, it didn’t decide ‘Maddie’s one true love is now waiting outside therefore I shall put myself out.’ No, of course it carried on burning and began to make a frightening roaring sound.

Me after the redecoration but before the broken dreams

I panicked and threw it away… in the bin. In the wicker bin. It really picked up at that point and consumed it with ease, growing taller and roaring and reaching for more. I watched it happen, doing a sort of hopping up and down dance. It hadn’t occured to me in my panic that my bin was under the curtains.

I emitted a helpless whimper as the bottoms of the material caught alight and the flame began to travel smokily upwards. I realised if I didn’t snap out of my shock I was going to burn the house down. My eyes flicked around the room…the empty glasses I was always being told off for! “Stop taking up a different glass every time you have a drink,” mum would say and yet here they were, calling out for me to use them.

I grabbed as many as I could and ran to the bathroom, filling them with water and trying to breathe evenly so as not to spill too much on the journey back. It was working…the flames began to recede and I made a scrambling dash to the bathroom with more empty glasses. I heard a voice travel up the stairs: “Maddie, I can smell smoke, what’s going on?”

“Everything’s fine!” I called like a housewife on valium, and soon the fire was nothing more than a smoking, smouldering mess of wicker and black curtains.

“I can definately smell something, I’m coming up!” She did come up the stairs, and she wasn’t happy. I did, however, point out the life saving role the empty glasses had played. For some reason she wasn’t as impressed as I was.

The misguided squatter

What comes to mind when you think of squats and squatters? Hardcore people with dreads and mohicans, nostrils full of ketamine and all night parties, or me…sitting in my room reading Harry Potter?

OK, the Harry Potter book belonged to someone else, but you get the idea. A friend of mine who did actually have a nostril full of ketamine and a head full of dreads had left the room empty apart from a few things and I had found myself at a loose end. Clubs and parties in Brighton were starting to bore me and so was sitting on the phone listening to people moan about the service of American Express. I wanted to be doing something creative in London. I just didn’t know how.

Me at one of Brighton's squat parties

So I arrived in Stratford in 2005 eager and terrified. The squat was enormous; previously an old pub there were several floors and large bar rooms. I’d been naive – I had no plans and no need to find a job to pay rent, therefore I began a new routine of waking at 4pm, scratching myself for an hour or two and spending the rest of the night watching tv with a few of my housemates.

One of the people living there was a dealer. He was a nice bloke. Everyone else did actually go to work regularly and only a couple had what I would call a coke habit. One man was reaching his late thirties and beginning to realise the majority of his life had been spent outside the system, and he was starting to panic. Most of my time there, though, was spent on my own, not knowing anyone or how to begin my new creative adventures, reading this Harry Potter book left by my friend, and I was bored…bored…bored.

Some good memories did come of it. One day as winter hit hard I realised I would have to collect firewood or freeze. Myself and a hippie girl went out into the courtyard, searched amongst the tires and tiles and found enough branches and logs to take up with us. Once back in my room the frozen streets were hidden behind the pink sarong I’d hammered in place above the window (I’ve still got it with me today) and we stacked the wood and twisted newspaper in the fireplace grate just outside the door. Once I’d got it crackling we turned on the tv from its place on the makeshift stand ( a wooden box) and warmed ourselves. I fed the fire all night, smiling like a proud mother as it leapt up the chimney.

Another night the dealer had arrived back after one of his times away. I was always pleased to see him and his dog as they were the ones I was closest to. Hours of film watching and rubbish tv would take place in his room as the fire in his own grate roared more substantially than any I lit. He’d brought a smoke machine back from Brighton and everyone was standing excitedly round it in the empty bar. “We should set it off,” he suggested, and we agreed.

After several hisses large clouds obscured our vision. We giggled like children until the novelty passed and we went our seperate ways. I moved the sarong curtain in my room aside to check the streets…only to find a small crowd had gathered. They were shouting to each other and waving to me. Confused, I waved back. A lady formed a loudspeaker with her hands and called: “Don’t worry, we’ve rung for help.” Oh dear.

In the next minute a fire engine pulled up outside to rescue us from the building with smoke pouring from the roof. I ran to find one of the others. At the time it seemed like a disaster but only hours later we were laughing about it, and in my retellings I left out the bit where I panicked and begged my friend to go outside and speak to everyone.

A visit from Brighton police

When I lived in Brighton, Bath, Dorset, Stratford and Salisbury it seemed as if something crazy was happening every day. It was the usual mix of youth, hormones, absence of supporting family/old friends and neglect of self-care, and the effect was similar to wandering through an episode of Eastenders in full swing. Or Days of our Lives if you’re American, minus the Exorcism scenes (just).

Anyway, I arrived at my friend’s house in Brighton to see a police car waiting outside. Helen invited me in with a worried expression and I followed her tiny frame into the front room. She and her housemate Nikki, along with a distraught and crying girl I’d never seen before, were giving statements to one very earnest policeman while their female lodger wailed to another in a different room. “Bloody Hell,” I thought, “What is it this time?”

“She was being horrible to her girlfriend again,” Helen explained, indicating the lodger making all the noise from the other room, “and when I told her not to she just went mad and attacked me!” Helen did indeed look shaken and angry.

“Oh dear,” I said helpfully.

“Right, well, she’ll be going somewhere else and we’ll be in touch,” the policeman explained as he got up to leave. Helen and Nikki’s lodger left with them and the flat fell into a heavy silence. The girlfriend of said lodger continued to weep.

“Shall I make tea then?” I offered, hurrying into the kitchen.

When everyone but the crying girl had the warm cups in their hands Helen explained that their lodger had been increasingly unpleasant to her girlfriend and Helen, always unwilling to ignore mistreatment, had had enough, leading to the attack. “You need to forget about her,” she said.

The girlfriend seemed to digest Helen’s advice. As I sipped at my tea she threw herself bodily against me and grappled me in a hug I wouldn’t give to my closest friends. Her tears dripped onto my shoulder. What could I do but hug back and stare fearfully at Helen, who bit her lip?

The hours passed, the sun rose high and soon she seemed to feel better. When she left we were all assured that tomorrow was a new day, that all would be well, and that she would begin a new life. That evening Helen got a call saying they’d got back together.

Journalism intern at Bizarre magazine

Want to be a magazine journalist? I did an internship at both Bizarre and Essex Life which has given me useful information to pass on, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want to know about the catalogue shoot for brown wellies I helped with or the article I wrote about Ladies What Lunch (I coined the term). No, you want to know about toe wrestling and making voodoo dolls.

It’s me!
Writers Denise Stanborough (left) and Alix Fox with a joker
What can I say?

The first thing you need to know about doing a Journalism course that will actually be helpful is that it needs to be accredited by the NCTJ, the National Certificate of Training for Journalists. Oddly enough the best place near me (Braintree, Essex) for this is Harlow College Journalism Centre. It’s got great teachers and facilities at a half decent cost, which was very surprising for a small town I’d never really been to.

During your time off at college you’re expected to contact a magazine (or newspaper, if that’s what you’re doing) and arrange a couple of weeks at least to go be their puppy. You’re probably missing out 100 per cent if you don’t. So, with my pathalogical love for the odd, I trotted along to Bizarre magazine after sending them an explanatory email. I thought about Fortean Times despite not actually believing in any of it but it’s literally just two people at a desk.

Each morning was spent checking over the new photos sent via the website to enter their ongoing alternative model competition Ultra Vixens. My eyes would drift to the stuffed animals on the shelf as I joined the staff around the large table. The room was filled with these tables, each belonging to the staff of a different Dennis Publishing magazine. It could become a problem when Monkey magazine next to us would play music wars, but mostly we all rubbed shoulders in piece like gentle Leviathans.

After adding the model’s pictures my duties included: typing up interviews (which included ‘psychic vampires,’ plus Neil Gaiman and Simon Drake in his House of Magic), going to Camden to find the ingredients for a voodoo doll photo shoot, interviewing Missy Macabre and conducting interviews at the Bizarre Ball, which I did two years running. As I wandered around Camden with my list of stuff for the doll on a warm spring afternoon, I vowed I would never again have a normal job. And I haven’t.

I got to do a surprising amount of writing while I was there, such as the step by step instructions on making a voodoo doll (turned out to be not so scary covered in pink glittery beads) and a review on a sideshow they sent me to one night on Brick Lane, The Fire Tusk Pain Proof Circus. I got to see comedy burlesque dancer Fancy Chance and glass eating Lucifire for free, which was very nice.

Cold?

Being an intern is exhausting because you have to be constantly aware of things you could be doing to help or ways of suggesting ideas, plus you have to be open to very last minute suggestions of tasks eg, the afore-mentioned toe wrestle. The man’s toe was enormous. Half the time in the office I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Twins
Twins

The Ball was always lots of fun, I brought along a friend and, as I misguidedly attempted to interview a girl in a gas mask, I turned and found said friend being spanked by a professional dominatrix, beautiful grey underwear on show. We got her card. There’s always a good photo opportunity there and the atmosphere is very friendly, but I’m sure you’ll be devestated to learn that I don’t have any pictures of the man wearing nothing but shoes and a cock ring.

So there we are, the life of an intern. The only thing you can count on is each day being drastically different. Good luck!

In the video below the lovely Alix Fox takes us sword swallowing: