I had a strange and unnerving experience on a train, I told Amy.
So did I, she said.
Would you like to hear mine?
The other day I went out into the country, to a village that you would not expect to be served by an express train direct from London. It was on the old Great West Railway, west of Paddington, and the station was of the sort that you get in television adaptations of books by P G Wodehouse, except that in the television adaptation the sign board with the name of the place would be in the same satisfactorily carpentered style but with a fictional name on it.
Escaping on first train to London after disgraceful episode at dinner the night before?
Just so, I said. You have it exactly.
Is Hampshire west of Paddington?
Possibly south-west. But it is not served from Paddington, it is served from Waterloo. Wodehouse’s characters would come and go from Paddington and might travel to the Continent from Victoria but they would probably not use Waterloo: Waterloo’s rather middle class.
Ukridge might, Amy said, when prowling the Surrey suburbs in his morning suit, scouting for shop girls.
She had me there.
I speak of the Wodehouse of the classic years, I said.
My story is a Waterloo train. With Hampshire.
Good, I said. Mine isn’t. We may yet come to yours.
It was an unpleasant evening, I continued. It was raining steadily and cold, just above freezing. The people of the village had retired indoors, to their homes or pubs. A few lights could be seen through the drizzle in the distance but no one was around and it was very dark. I had consulted a time-table to find out when my train would arrive. The time it gave turned out to be entirely different from that on the electronic board and with some irritation I settled to a forty-minute wait. I paced the platform to keep my feet from freezing and was unable to find anything consoling to listen to on my iPod.
Then, some fifteen minutes early, an express train roared in.
Roared? said Amy, her eyes wide.
Figuratively. It was a great express train, on its way from some western metropolis, such as Hereford. Suddenly the dim country station was flooded with light.
Flooded? said Amy.
Again, I said, a metaphor. It was as if light poured down from the windows all along the platform, which was already shiny from the drizzle and reflected it back, like lovely electric triangles. Inside were laughing, happy people.
Like Orient Express.
Just like the Orient Express. You have it exactly, the sudden irruption of colour and sophistication into the dim village station.
Orient Express Poirot. Not P G Wodehouse. Agatha Christie.
I looked at Amy critically. Was she taking the piss? It appeared not but when it comes to inscrutability she has always had me.
You can take these things too far, I said. Anyway, I got on. As soon as I was seated there was an announcement:
Well (it said) we’ve got here early. Nearly fifteen minutes early. We’re not going anywhere for fifteen minutes. If you like smoking, why don’t you get off and have a cigarette? There’s plenty of time. Nearly fifteen minutes.
There was a pause, and then he said:
This is a non-smoking station, repeat, a non-smoking station. Smoking on the platform or elsewhere on the station premises is strictly prohibited. But there’s a gate right there into the car park, and the car park’s all right. And there’s plenty of time. Nearly fifteen minutes.
I would like to report that the passengers flocked out with laughter and enthusiasm, handing round their Passing Clouds, calling cheerily to each other, one of them perhaps with a guitar, another a picnic basket, yet another a hip flask. But no, they all sat there staring glassily over their crisp packets and lager to see who would be the first to break ranks, who would voluntarily jeopardise their seat in the pursuit of pleasure…
Who admit be smoker, said Amy.
Train man not send very clear message about health risk.
A lamentably unclear message, I said. But as it turned out no one took the opportunity to engage in the filthy habit, so no harm was done. We sat there for the fifteen minutes and then the train set off again into the darkness, a band of brilliant light threading through the silent countryside, leaving the little station in darkness once again.
How you know? You don’t see. You on train.
Imagination, I said. My strong point. But what about your story? What about Hampshire?
Very different story, Amy said.
Good, I said. Variety. Good.
And not for today.
She sought to soften the blow.