The man I am sitting next to on the bus is anywhere between a well-preserved 80 or a hard-living 65. He is wearing a hat and an overcoat, and when he starts talking to me, the first thing I tell him is how great I think his hat is. It's one of those soft trilby numbers. Old men get away with wearing hats in a way men under sixty could never hope to. Hats are a serious item of clothing, and when a man who hasn't earned the right to be serious wears one, it can disturb the symmetry of a whole room.
This man wears his hat in a way that implies he knows when to take it off as the situation requires: when a lady walks into a room, when someone is playing bagpipes. We start to talk. Like all old English people, he is amused by the idea of me. "I know an Irish girl when I hear one!" he says, but what he's really saying is "We used to own you, you know! Troublesome lot, you!" I do not take this personally.
"Do you like Peckham?" he asks
Nobody likes Peckham. It’s the kind of place that Londoners italicise when they're talking about it. Example: Peckham? What are you going to Peckham for?
"I've lived here my whole life." he says proudly "Well, except for during the war years."
The war years. This is what's so great about English old people. Because Ireland never officially fought in a war (aside from The War of Independence, of course, which I think is recognised by the rest of the world as a strop on our part) all they have to talk about is some grizzly tales about being screwed around by the Brits. English people get a kick out of beating up Nazis, though, and this guy is no exception. Then, suddenly:
"I spent three years in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp!"
"I'm sorry, what?"
"After the war. Three years. I worked on the railroad. In Burma? You know the railroad? You heard of that?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"That was us."
At this point, I notice that my stop is getting incredibly close, and if I want to get off, I'm going to have to stand up right now. I can't though, because that would mean asking a man who spent three years in a Japanese POW camp to stop talking about it. In that moment, it seemed like the rudest thing I could possibly do.
"And... how... was... that... for you?"
My friend shrugs. "Fine."