I caught myself doing that thing I do when I’m on trains. Couldn’t help myself – watching and imagining. Profiling according to what people are reading, or doing. The man in front was reading a history of the Korean War; he was ex-Australian Navy. Not that I gleaned that by the cut of his jib, rather, I deduced it from the insignia on the fleece he was wearing. I suppose he could have borrowed it, but I’d imagine that if you are ex-forces you wear your past with pride. He politely asked me (in an Australian accent, further evidence that it was his top) if I could move my bag so he could plug in his computer. “Of course,” I responded. He was far too young to have been in the Korean War himself, maybe it had been his father. We were seated in the quiet carriage, so I wasn’t able to ask him. Not that I am a slave to the rules, and I probably wouldn’t have anyway, but any inclination to begin a conversation was scotched by a terrifying portly version of Jessica Fletcher, with a strong Fife accent, who was patrolling our carriage. “This is the quiet coach, if you want to speak on your phone you should take it out there,” she gestured imperiously to the wasteland between carriages where the toilet is. Some poor young man who was whispering into his phone had been rumbled.
If I have given the impression she worked for the train company, she didn’t. She was just going as far as Doncaster, but she was jolly well determined that we were all going to get there in silence. There was something about her overly zealous approach to rule enforcement that neither made me cross, nor pleased me; it just made me sad. I always think one should never be too enthusiastic about instructions, and I instinctively mistrust those who are. One of those qualities that is steadily climbing the charts with me, is that ability, when things aren’t quite right, to, nevertheless, leave well alone and not meddle. It reminded me of another incident on a train a few years ago when an older man got on and sat beside. He had been to the agricultural show in Ballymena and was going to Belfast. He had huge hands with callouses on his palms from constant heavy work and square cut nails with ground in dirt, remnants of the earth he worked, impossible to shift, no matter how hard he tried to scrub them clean. He was dressed up, slacks and a sports jacket: Magee tweed, or something like it, and a tattersall shirt. An effort had been made for the day out. In one hand he had a small flask, and in the other (however he had come by it) he had a china teacup patterned with pink roses. As soon as he sat down, into the china teacup he decanted a little of the flask’s contents: whiskey. And he settled down for a chat. Sure enough, he was three sheets to the wind, but he was as harmless as a six year-old boy wandering home from school and trailing a stick along a set of iron railings so that it makes that ‘tick-a-tick-a-tick-a-tick-a-tick-a’ noise that can grate on some peoples’ nerves. The fact was, he wasn’t annoying me in the slightest. We had 30 minutes to travel and I was happy to hear about bleating Texels, Cheviots and Black Welsh and mooing Dexters, Herefords and Belties – life’s about learning. He was a gentle soul, and I appreciated the inoffensive gesture of drinking from the teacup. Had it not have smelt like it did, it could almost have been a lightly drawn Earl Grey tea. Then the meddling came. A woman, seated behind me, decided it was her mission to save me and she rose to approach the old man to hector him and demand he stop harassing me. “We’re all right here, thank you,” I told her, but she wasn’t to be stopped. Of course, he was easy pickings, and he drooped his head like a thirsty plant for the rest of the journey. Why couldn’t she let things be?
The man from Australia had left the train at Durham and been replaced by a little bird of a student, wrapped up in her college sweatshirt and reading fiction. She was one of those travelling companions that you forget is there – still and small, dissolving into the seat. I hadn’t even noticed that she had tucked her feet up under her bum to get comfortable and have a bit of a snooze before we hit the capital. “Would you do that at home, would you put you feet up on the sofa at home with your shoes on?” the suited man who got on at Stevenage barked at her. She made a quiet deferential noise and straightened her crossed legs. More easy pickings, and he was picking at it.
What’s it all about? This sweating the small stuff? We all have enough of our own to be getting on with, maybe we’d do well to let a lot of things be.