Trains are a great place for inspiration. Trains are where writers watch, listen and drink in ideas. Take Paula Hawkins’ best-selling, ‘Girl on a Train’, Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, or Albert Camus’ ‘L’Étranger’ – they must all have been inspired, one way or another, from journeys they’d made by train. I’m not necessarily saying one travels by train purely to eavesdrop, but it’s almost impossible not to hear what is being said three feet across the table from you, and it can be enlightening as well as entertaining. And so, yesterday, I had high hopes when two women boarded my northbound train at Newcastle sitting just arms length opposite me. A large bag of popcorn and two cans of pre-mixed gin and tonic were produced from beneath the table, rabbit from a hat style, and they settled down to chat. Great – I thought – this is going to help with this week’s creative writing homework: scriptwriting and dialogue. By the time I had reached Alnmouth (24 minutes later), it was clear I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were fixated on work bureaucracy and on one particular form. “No, no. If you receive it without a counter signature you MUST sent it back. The reference number in the bottom box of page one must match the UNR on your claim screen. Don’t ever overwrite it.” Window seat lady was holding forth and I was sure that aisle seat lady’s eyes were glazing over as quickly as my own. It was a Saturday, for goodness sake, they were drinking gin, and still they were talking about how best to process the SMTS form (I had christened it the send-me-to-sleep form).
I thought I would distract myself by purchasing an hour of wifi. I entered my details and got to an online form where I had to prove I wasn’t a robot. I was shown a screen shot of cars on a motorway with a square grid over it. ‘Click the box(es) in which you see a vehicle’, the instructions read. Did it mean I had to see a whole vehicle in any one box before I could click, or could I click on any part of a vehicle in any box? I clicked every square. I failed, saved £2 and had myself confirmed as a robot. I reckoned the expert bureaucrats in sitting opposite me wouldn’t have failed. They were still droning on; there was no inspiration to be had here. I closed my eyes to zone them out, retreating into my own reverie. In an instant, a hot spring bubbled up from a deep memory pool, a forgotten story I was once told about form filling.
K. was at his desk and a young woman – his intern – came in clutching a sheaf of papers. He was new to the job and new to the country; still getting his head around the Northern Ireland accent and how quickly people could speak. The intern – let’s call her H. – was promising: efficient, interested and showed initiative. “I’ve got the Orgy Sex form for you at last!” she said as she swept in, waving photocopies in front of him and looking pleased with herself. “And what did you say?” I asked him, not knowing where the story was going. “Not much,” K. told me, “I bought some time. I didn’t look up, just kept working at what I had been doing, but really I was thinking – I’ve just heard her say ‘orgy sex’, but I know she can’t possibly have said ‘orgy sex’ and maybe this is a trick for me to say ‘orgy sex’ back at her, and then I’ll get the sack….you know how things are there days?” Indeed I did. “So what did you do after you had time to think?” I pressed him. “Well, I said to her, ‘H., I think I’ll have a look at that form before I sign it.’ And she said to me, ‘it’s straightforward; every orgy sex claim has to be signed off at your level or above.’ And eventually she passed me the form.” It seemed to me that H. couldn’t possibly have said ‘orgy sex’ quite as often as K. said it in recounting the story to me! It turned out the penniless intern was keen to have her ‘RG6’ expenses claim form signed off as quickly as she could.
Smiling at the memory I opened my eyes and looked across to aisle-seat lady and our eyes met. Maybe it was my imagination, but her look said to me, “Save me! We’ve now passed Berwick and she has not come up for breath, she’s still talking about these bloody forms!” I tried to make my return look one of gentle sympathy before I closed my eyes once more and wondered how I had managed to let CrossCountry trains brand me a robot.