Lurch… Stop. Lurch… Stop.
My weekend trip to Wales was not kicking off in the best way possible.
The circle line train I’d caught from Kings Cross was, I had noticed, not the quickest at accelerating away from stations, but here we were at Edgware Road, just one stop away from Paddington, and it had forgotten how to accelerate altogether. It wasn’t moving at all, despite the driver’s best intentions.
That’s not strictly true. It moved about an inch forward, at which point there was an impressive bang, and we moved back an inch again.
And then, the doors opened.
Everyone did that terribly British thing of looking at the floor, the ceiling, the seat next to them, their hands, the tube advertising, the window, the lights, the handrails, the door, and the floor again - all with a strangely impassive expression.
An elderly woman opposite me pulled at her carrier bag containing a pristine, and unread, copy of the Telegraph.
An announcement started on the platform, assuring us that everything was running just ticketyboo.
Everyone looked at each other, realised they had eye contact, and furtively looked at the floor, the map above the door, anything other than anyone else.
Then, high drama. Someone moved. It was a young bloke to my left, and, naturally, everyone else watched him.
He was trying the interesting but ultimately pointless “Looking Out Of The Door” move. This is where you stay in the train, but lean out and look down the outside of the train towards where the driver might be, in the vain hope that you might be able to ascertain what’s going on. For added drama, you can put on an expression. Some try the helpless look, which says ‘please mr driver, try your best’. Some try the ‘typical, bloody thing does this all the time’ look. Young bloke was trying the ‘if a member of staff walks near enough, I’ll whack him’ look.
Normally, the very act of Looking Down The Train brings results. The result is normally that the driver tells you what’s going on - either so quietly you can’t hear them above the whirring of the train’s pointless fans, or so loudly that you jump out of your skin on their first word and it makes your ears ring.
But, Looking Down The Train for this young bloke produced the Holy Grail: it fixed the train all by itself.
As if by magic, the doors peeped their closing warning, young bloke sits back down, elderly woman releases her grip on the Telegraph, and we’re away.
We arrive at Paddington tube to the sound of the PA telling the train driver not to leave because the supervisor wants a word with him, and the sound of me gnashing my teeth because I’m too late to make my chosen train to Wales.
. . .
His dirty shirt was held shut, for some reason, by a piece of string that stretched round his stomach about an inch up from his trousers. Since the shirt appeared from my vantage point to have fully-functional buttons, this seemed to be a slightly pointless exercise, but I wasn’t about to start arguing.
I was on the train from Swansea to Carmarthen, which was a little, fairly modern, two-carriage push-me-pull-you train. I had walked past string-shirt man when I got into the carriage.
String-shirt man was the second thing I noticed. The first thing I noticed was an unpleasant smell, a major component of which was body odour.
I sat down, facing string-shirt man further down the carriage, almost opposite an oldish, prim-looking woman with a red nose.
String-shirt man was accompanied by a porter’s trolley, which he had manhandled onto the train at some point further down the track. The porter’s trolley was full of obviously cherished suitcases, cardboard boxes, plastic boxes and other assorted containers - some held shut with string, others held shut with sticky tape. I guess that it was probably all that string-shirt man owned, and that he was going to make himself a new life in some South Wales town. String-shirt man was mumbling under his breath.
The doors closed. The train rumbled off. String-shirt man, satisfied that he was on a moving train, disappeared.
Now, I don’t know if you used to read Viz, but there were a number of slightly mad characters in it with big bottle-top glasses, spiky hair, slightly too-large ears, at least one large mole with hair sprouting out of it, aged about 60, who always used to say the word ‘Gibber’. They were generally train-spotters, and they pretty much always carried slightly worn plastic bags.
Gibber sat down right in front of me.
There were four things I noticed straight away. His slightly mad, spiky, receding, blond hair. His slightly mad, large, bottle-top glasses. His slightly mad, large, mole above his top lip, replete with a small tuft of blonde hair. And, last but not least, a strong whiff of slightly warm urine.
The old woman with the red nose shifted a little in her chair away from him.
I looked round for an alternative seat, but it would have been really obvious what I was doing, so I decided to stay put. Until the next stop, at least.
And then he spoke.
“Bere is dis drain dowing?” he enquired of anyone that was in hearing and/or smelling distance. He didn’t actually add the word ‘Gibber’, but he might as well have done.
I didn’t reply, preferring the ’no eye contact’ defence. Perhaps he might think I was deaf or something.
“Bere is dis drain dowing?”
It was the red-nosed lady. Huge error. Fatal, incredible, pointless, mad error. Gibber turned in his chair to look her in the eye.
“Boes it dot go do Bilford Haven?”
“No. You’ll need to change.”
“Dang on,” said Gibber, getting out from his large and quite well worn Tesco bag a few transport maps. With every movement, fresh whiffs of still-warm human urine wafted towards me. Our knees were almost touching. I moved my knees so that they were pointing into the aisle.
String-shirt man reappeared, pushing past my knees. Aha, that’s where the body odour stench was coming from. Somehow he had acquired a corduroy jacket with one arm that was hanging rather precariously off, flapping open at the top. He looked rather pleased with it.
Gibber pushed his bottle-top glasses onto the top of his head, and stared at close quarters at the map. “Is bere a drain between Pembroke Bock and Bilford Haven?”
“Yes, there’s a bus”, said the red-nosed woman. “You’ll need to go to the bus station, though.”
And so followed a rather complicated set of directions. It seemed that, although red-nosed woman was getting off earlier than Gibber, she had been to Pembroke Dock - possibly even twice - and she did appear to know the way between the train and bus stations. At least, if she looked straight ahead and scrunched her eyes closed.
I tried to take a mental note, but I can’t quite remember the way. It seemed to include a police station, a lot of ’turn left, or is it right’, and a few ’then turn right - no, left’.
And then, along came the stop for Llanelli: a changing point for many of the train.
For string-shirt man, it was his point to get off - and, doubtless, to set up a new home somewhere on the streets of Llanelli. I guess that’s one benefit of carrying all your possessions around with you - if you get tired of your surroundings, you can move. This man wanted to move to Llanelli, apparently. I’ve never been to Llanelli. It might be, if you pardon the pun, right up his alley.
For me, Llanelli was the point at which I made my break for non-urine freedom, a few seats down the carriage.
For the red-nosed woman, it was the point at which she decided to move from sitting next to Gibber, and instead sat in my old seat.
For Gibber, it was the point at which he decided to take the seat that red-nosed woman had been sitting in. Presumably he fancied a warm dry seat.
And so the train pulled off again.
Gibber looked rather alone, but he soon decided that he needed to know the price for the bus, and red-nosed woman was being slightly less helpful. “I wouldn’t like to say,” she said. And added for good measure, “I really wouldn’t like to say.” There was a pause. “But I’m sure it won’t be much.”