The Friday Train
I HAD taken my seat on the train a clear five minutes before departure. The 17.17 to Woking filled up rapidly but I had, through my own promptness and good organisation, gained a double seat.
It was a Friday night, the fug in the carriage thick with the body heat and poor odour of desperate commuters, shaking wet macs from their shoulders, shoving bags on to the overhead shelf, snarling into phones. I acted fast, unclipping the little table on the empty seat beside me and placing on it my neatly folded newspaper, my miniature bottle of wine with a plastic cup and a box of cheese and crackers.
These things are the treats that signify an end-of-theweek commute for me. It is very important to signal a Friday, I always think: and it’s the one day of the week when I really care about having a little elbow room. I placed my briefcase on the empty seat beside me, which now did a very passable impression of a full one.
The train had only just jerked free of Waterloo when a slender woman in her fifties approached my seat - I had already unscrewed the lid from the miniature white wine and poured some - and said, slightly imperiously, “I’m sorry, is anyone sitting here?”
I had a strategy ready. I always do. I had a strategy when I needed to sack half of my department last month and another one prepared when I needed to rid myself of a plump and self-pitying first wife two years previously.
I gave a heavy sigh and then said, in tones of exquisite politeness, “Oh, I do apologise, just let me move my belongings.” At which point, I begin to make heavy weather of lifting the plastic cup and pouring wine very slowly back into the miniature bottle.
Most people take the hint, and so did she. “No, it’s OK...” she said, and continued down the carriage.
As we flashed through Vauxhall, I settled back, lifting the plastic glass a fraction in a toast to my cleverness.
I toasted too soon. I had scarcely lowered the glass when a man whom I can only describe as a blancmange squeezed his way along the gangway, stopping as he drew level with me. I looked up at him, a huge soft mountain of a man with flesh spilling from his stomach over his hips as if he is wearing one - no, more than one - of those children’s rubber rings that prevent them from drowning.
He looked down at me, heavy-jowled and humourless, through bottle-thick glasses. He didn’t even speak, merely gesturing at the seat beside me.
I did the business with the wine, slowly, replaced the lid on the plastic box, fumbled with my briefcase for some time as it is rather large to jam beneath my legs, and the whole time, the soft mountain man stared down at me, his breathing laboured and harsh through his half-open mouth.
He had the sort of lips my father would have called “inside-out lips”. My father could not abide overweight people. Their size told you everything you needed to know about them, he said. I have a sneaking suspicion I may have repeated that to my first wife.
The vast, soft man eased himself into the seat without apology. His flesh spilt over the armrest between us. I could feel the heat from his pillow of a thigh. I squeezed myself close to the window, trying not to think that I was being punished for my refusal to let the small, slim woman sit down. As if to rub it in, when we pulled in at Clapham Junction, I saw her striding off down the platform. I had no doubt that blancmange man next to me would be with me all the way to Farnborough.
It began 10 minutes later, a crackling and screeching sound beneath the train, as if it had run over some planks of wood and the driver was applying the brakes. How quickly it happened, yet how slowly. I glanced across the aisle at the other passengers, looking at their faces for clues. The couple sitting opposite looked stricken.
Then I saw that, in front of them, a woman had extended her hand across the aisle to another woman. Two strangers were clutching hands. The oddness of this is what I concentrated on as the train lifted itself from the tracks and took flight.
I heard nothing then, no screeching or screaming, just an odd and empty silence, a sensation of weightlessness, a whiteness to the air around me, and for some reason I thought of my first wife’s scream as I told her she would lose the house and the blank look on the face of one of the men I sacked and then the fat man thudded into my shoulder, as heavy as a sack of flour, and I was buried beneath him, and I thought how, if I had allowed the thin woman to sit down next to me, I would not now be crushed beneath a man who has probably led a miserable life and is about to die a strange sort of death, twirling in the air in a train carriage that is being ripped open like a tin of pilchards.
Strangely, there was no fear, and no regret, merely the brief thought of something else my father said: “What goes around, comes around.” I was in that moment rounded off, as it were, perfected, complete.