The first time I saw the black plastic lapel badges they had been pinned to two well groomed young men on the Tube. The men wore dark suits and had the pleasant, alienated directness so irresistibly simulated by Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks. They were sitting either side of a student with a laptop yet did not appear to be accompanying him. As I idly watched they started chatting to their fellow passenger. They had good teeth and all of their conversation took the form of questions. They seemed very pleased to make his acquaintance and more or less took turns asking him pleasant things whilst smiling.
Because this was London and we don’t talk to strangers my interest was piqued. Where was all this going? At the next station the student got off. The badged Jimmy Stewarts from Mars continued to look quite pleased and I turned my attention to their badges. One bore, in incised white letters, the words ‘Elder John’ and the other was similar, with a name I couldn’t read. I felt I should know what this meant but I couldn’t place it.
On the train back from Dorset with my younger daughter and her friend we found ourselves sitting across the aisle from two American women in their early twenties with pleasant smiles and black badges pinned to their dresses. One was Sister Harriet and the other’s chest wasn’t in my line of sight. They smiled at me and my teenage companions. I donned my headphones and started reading my book. Some decades ago I would have allowed them to question me pleasantly in order to rebut them spiritedly but that was then and now I can’t be bothered. Reading is much more fun.
The teenagers plugged a headphone set into an iPod and took one earpiece each. They could pretend to be engrossed in Taylor Swift whilst actually listening to what was going down in stereo nearby. Unfortunately for the man sitting right behind me his son of perhaps five was sitting with him. The boy was saying things quite loudly. Sister Harriet and her sister Sister beamed at him and asked him questions. His responses were apparently delightful. The Sisters congratulated the father and began asking him questions. According to my daughter, who had been rolling her eyes and mouthing conspiratorially to me throughout this leg of the journey, they had secured the names of father and son, the occupation of father and wife, the town in which the family lived and, the cherry on the cake, a phone number. By the hesitant way in which the father gave the number to the Sisters, it was plain to my daughter that he was making it up.
The Sisters disembarked at somewhere or other, presumably to work the town, leaving the father to contemplate his good luck. Just before they left they asked him “Do you believe in the message that family is for ever?” The father mumbled his reluctant acquiescence. The Sisters said they looked forward to talking more on the phone. If it was a fake number then that shouldn’t be a problem – they could work whoever answered.