The man on the train leans forward: ‘I did not put my ticket in the machine – is okay? I have not used the train before.’
‘It’s fine, as long as you have a ticket, yeah?’
He is tanned, with a friendly fatty face, roughened by stubble. His eyes and nose bulge disarmingly. Spanish.
He complains about the number of stops to Oxford: ‘Is 20 stops!’
‘You going to Oxford then?’ I ask.
‘No, Hayes,’ he replies. ‘I have never been outside London. Except to Brighton.’
‘Yeah, if London had the sea…’
‘Oxford is quite nice though- the river and the, um… forests.’
I’m not too good on conversation.
Now I notice his red Ferrari shirt. I am confused. Italian? Surely not; he’s far too engaging.
Couldn’t he just be a Spaniard wearing a Ferrari shirt? I begin to doubt myself. Not Italian, not Spanish. I’m out of ideas.
‘Where are you from?’ I ask.
He replies: ‘Lebanon.’
The smile on my face freezes for a moment as I ponder where I have heard that name recently.
Holy shit, I remember: World War III just broke out.
‘Oh…’ I manage, eloquently, as I feel the muscles of my face frantically reconfiguring to register Concern.
‘Yeah. It is bad.’
At this point I am thrown into shock mode: I follow his monologue with little more than nods, shakes, tuts, buts and ahs.
‘Last night was the worst. My street, I live in South of Beirut, my street is bombed.’
He wrings his phone in frustration: ‘I have been trying. I cannot. My sister. They’re not answering.’
He looks pained: ‘No electric, no water – it’s summer, yes? People will die without fan, without water. They forget what is water, what is electric.’
I look down at my bottle of water.
‘South Beirut is like Zone 6 London: all tall houses for all the people, not small houses like this,’ he gestures out the window to a field of warehouses.
‘All tall buildings, all gone. You must understand: all Lebanon is Hizbollah: they are not army, they are not terrorists, they are people.
‘I am Hizbollah, my family is Hizbollah, you are – like you are English – they want to kill everybody.
‘Like Hitler bombed London in 1940, 1945, 1948, I forget these dates, he aims to get everyone. Israel wants to kill everyone.’
He gestures constantly, out the window, at my water, with his phone, up to the sky. His eyes thrust in every direction; my retinas burn when I meet his look.
‘When will it stop? They say today it will not stop. It will stop when we give them anything they want.
‘Since Wednesday they are bombing the airport. And there is English, American, French there on holiday, you know? Helicopters come to take them away – what about us?
‘How can Lebanon defend itself? It is big country against small country – like England against London.’
He realises this doesn’t capture the scale. ‘Or Britain against Luxembourg or…’ His eyes light up and a finger punches into his palm: ‘Malta.’
‘This morning the Israelis say to the border towns you must leave they want to make it to the ground.’
‘They want to flatten them?’
‘Because they want…’ He stares accusingly at the fields rushing past through the window and slices his hand through the air, palm down. ‘… A clear view.’
‘And all the people in these border towns are poor, not like the people in London, in Oxford – they are all rich more or less, not like in the border towns. They are all poor and the UN says no to these people because you know in 1996 the UN building it gets…’ He punches down through the air.
‘And the UN says no so the people get into trucks you know, trucks that they load with stones and rocks, and the Israelis bomb them.’
‘Newspapers here don’t show anything. You must see these pictures – find an Arabic channel, you’ll see the pictures: a child’s arm, you know,’ he bares his arm and grips his shoulder, ‘without the body.’
‘A baby’s head,’ he cups his hands together, ‘smaller than, smaller than…’ He leans forward describing a small sphere in the air with his hands frantically before throwing himself back in his seat, eyes despairing his linguistic failure.
‘Smaller than… a football.’
‘The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Mirror they are all for the Israelis. Hitler did not do so bad to Jews as they say, he didn’t burn them, kill them… Anyway that was in World War.’ He brings his hands together to indicate global cataclysm.
‘Americans, English, French always with Israelis. We have only god to help us, we forget about these people: we live, we die. Not like here where you live, you enjoy, you die.
‘If we die now, 5 years, 10 years is no matter for us. And then they make a film, Hollywood film, out of our lives and will only show Israelis dying.’
I proffer support: ‘But not everyone is with the Israelis, I mean, the intelligent, none of my friends agree with what the Israelis have done…’
He cuts me off: ‘Well they must do something. They are meeting now in St Petersburg and Bush says Israel are defending themselves. They must stop this now.’
We both see Hayes and Harlington pull into view.
‘I must get off here,’ he says. ‘It’s been nice talking to you.’
I shake his hand as he stands; I struggle to my feet and touch him on the shoulder, desperately signing comradeship.
‘I hope your family are alright.’
‘It is life, my friend.’
He is gone. I sit down heavily and gaze hopelessly at the people around me, they seem unaware of our conversation.
I wish I’d asked his name.
This conversation occurred on Sunday the 16th of July 2006 on the 13:48 train from London Paddington to Oxford, between London Paddington and Hayes and Harlington. I spent the rest of the journey writing down everything he said.
The 2006 Lebanon War is believed to have killed between 1,191 and 1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis.
It severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure, and displaced approximately one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis.