Strangers on a train

20 Jan

One of Richard Branson’s railway beasts pulled smoothly out of Manchester Picadilly. Last Thursday I was returning from a sad family visit and had pampered myself with a first class ticket. I was quietly happy that my little area was empty and I spread myself – room to set the papers down here, J.K.Rowling’s enormous A Casual Vacancy (why am I reading this?) there, phone, notebook and so on. Ah here comes the wine waiter with my large red. Food ordered (the slow-roast pork belly) and a couple of hours of bliss ahead.

The Stockport happened. At this improbably early port of call a woman (forty and careworn) and son (thirteen, I’d say) bustled and apologised their way up the carriage to their allotted resting place – just opposite me. She was all instruction to the calm, unspeaking young man: Put your bags over there; do you want to sit facing forward or not?; I’d prefer to have my back to the engine; these seats are tight for first class; that’s my phone going. And so she spoke at length into her device as she sank into the rear-facing seat above which a sign asked travellers not to speak into such devices.

Her son ( I assume he was the offspring, though the little that I learned about him in the following two hours suggested that he could not possibly have been a product of the nervy, control freak opposite) took to his iPad and, as the modern user can be, was all contentment. Not so his mother who was busy with conference calls which were vital – her words to explain to the polite boy why she couln’t lavish all attention on him. The calm waiter arrives – a lifesaver she called him before she quizzed him on the range and quality of wines. I can’t drink anything really dry so a Pinot is better than a Sauvignon but I’d like to taste it first. The brilliant rejoinder of ‘We’ve only one white on offer and it’s medium,’ stopped her only temporarily in her tracks. Next was the negotiation of food.

Why Virgin train managers don’t print a little card with the choices on baffles me. The new man, less taciturn than the wine guy, went through the six options. Too fast of course – and she told him so. Can you repeat more slowly? (no please). At this point the near-dumb youngster sprang into life and rattled off, verbatim, the entire menu. Wow! The lights are off  but there’s definitely someone at home. She drew breath to consider – What do you want darling? The pork. His reply was instant. Ah that sounds good but does it have any nuts or cream? I’m not good with either. Well no nuts but just a little cream. I can’t risk it; I can’t risk being up all night. I remember the last time I had a bad meal on a train. Perhaps one of the other options madam?

Meanwhile I had finished my first merlot and, as luck would have it, the wine man was passing and filled my glass with the chummy knowing smile that said ‘I know you’re listening to what’s going on and I know what you’re thinking’. He was right. A Casual Vacancy was open in front of me but not a word was being read for the time being.

Back to the menu-drama. Well she decided on a vegetarian salad sandwich. The wine waiter spun away from me to fill her glass with the medium. I’ll taste it first ( as if she had an option if she didn’t like it). It’s fine, she said curtly – and added, I do have to be careful actually. Not sure for whose benefit this was as the waiter had disappeared sharpish. More calls – by this time I was less interested and more irritated. The pork arrived for the two of us eating it. Her anaemic sandwich appeared at the same time attractively parcelled in plastic. Well I could predict the next exchange…that looks nice, your pork. Doesn’t look too creamy…oh excuse me, could I change my mind? I could manage the pork, I think and I’d like a glass of red now – a fresh glass of course. The waiter-grunt said more than most primaeval noises of their type.

Meanwhile the young lad had shown how good he was with his pleases and thank-yous. Must be paying for his education I thought, somewhat unworthily – he can’t have learnt too much at home anyway. Waiter  no. 2 returned with the pork and the merlot (presumably the wine waiter couldn’t face another exchange). You can take the sandwich away, she said gracelessly.

No madam, please have it on the house.

2 Responses to “Strangers on a train”

  1. Rocket January 20, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    Paul, apparently Hugo Williams (1942 – ) had a different experience …


    I wonder will I speak to the girl
    sitting opposite me on this train.
    I wonder will my mouth open and say,
    ‘Are you going all the way
    to Newcastle?’ or ‘Can I get you a coffee?’
    Or will it simply go ‘aaaaaah’
    as if it had a mind of its own?

    Half closing eggshell blue eyes,
    she runs her hand through her hair
    so that it clings to the carriage cloth,
    then slowly frees itself.
    She finds a brush and her long fair hair
    flies back and forth like an African fly-whisk,
    making me dizzy.

    Suddenly, without warning,
    she packs it all away in a rubber band
    because I have forgotten to look out
    the window for a moment.
    A coffee is granted permission
    to pass between her lips and does so eagerly, without fuss.

    A tunnel finds us looking out the window
    into one another’s eyes. She leaves her seat,
    but I know that she likes me
    because the the light saying ‘TOILET’
    has come on, a sign that she is lifting
    her skirt, taking down her pants
    and peeing all over my face.

    Well – let’s face it, we’ve all been there!

  2. simplysorro January 21, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Nice one Clive – haven’t read this before but echoes of similar unrequited experiences on the 406 bus from Ewell to Kingston, circa 1966.

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