'Never discuss sex, politics or religion with a stranger,' said the man on the train. After which he proceeded to explain to me why monogamy was an unnatural state, Tony Blair was an idiot and the Catholic Church was run by gamblers, drunks and perverts.
'The best thing they ever did is drop that bomb on Hiroshima.'
'It saved so many lives.'
Abraham Lincoln's Y-fronts! I did a quick mental calculation of how much longer I would be sharing a train with this man.
'Is this your stop?' I asked, as we pulled up to Bromsgrove.
'No,' said the man. 'I'm going all the way to Hereford.'
Which meant, as I was getting off at Worcester, it would be a good half an hour.
'It's tribal, you know.'
'How's that, then?' I asked.
God, I wished I hadn't.
* * *
Let's give you a mental picture... The man was a well-preserved sixty-one. He had short, smart, 'salt-n-pepper' hair and a fake tan. He had a Brummy accent. Not a really broad one, more of a confident, middle-class, I-could-have-been-a-managing-director-but-I-chose-not-to sort of accent. He wore a blue blazer, light pink open-collared shirt, beige slacks, brown leather shoes with expensive stitching and he chewed gum. What sort of sixty-one year old chews gum?
He was kind of annoying. In that I-have-an-opinion-about-everything-and-you're-darned-well-gonna-hear-it kind of way. We stood in between carriages. The train was crowded. I couldn't get away from him. The half an hour felt like half a day. My face and neck ached from the constant smiling and nodding. Oh, and the bit between my eyes, from the sincere frowning.
'The way the regime is today, it's either that' - hand gesture - 'or that' - hand gesture.
'The political system today is full of bullshit.'
'I met Margaret Thatcher, you know. You've probably never heard of her.'
'Your next station stop is Worcester Shrub Hill... Worcester Shrub Hill, your next station stop.'
I could almost hear the gentle whooshing of the opening doors; feel that initial onrush of air like angel's breath on my skin.
Then, two minutes before the station, the train slowed... then stopped.
'This sort of thing never happened before privatisation.'
Let me out! I screamed in my head, as I mentally banged on the glass. Let me get off this train to hell!
But the gods of the railways either did not exist, were not listening or had chosen me for a pawn in one of their cruel games.
* * *
I daren't look at my watch. Time, in that little crowded space between carriages, seemed to exist in a vacuum. Einstein said that time is relative. He said something about time passing differently for people inside a train travelling at nearly the speed of light, than for those outside. This train wasn't travelling at nearly the speed of light. Far from it. I was sure, however, that what someone on the outside experienced as five minutes, was actually five hours on the inside. It didn't just feel that way... It was that way. The man with the 'salt-n-pepper' hair and the expensive stitching on his brown leather shoes was bending the spacetime continuum. He was bending it by saying things like...
'Let's get back to basics. There are no free lunches in this world. Let's go out there and earn them.'
He was manipulating the very fabric of reality by uttering the words...
'The time for my generation is over. It's time for your generation to decide what you believe in, get out there and vote, and change the system.'
And he was readjusting the very notion of the sequential perception of events by declaring boldly that...
'What you believe, your own personal belief, is right.'
He was a series of unrelated soundbites. I'm sure he said something in between those soundbites, but I was unable to hear the logical glue which stuck them together. For all I know, there could've been no glue. He could've said...
'The political system is...
...ibble-bobble custard pebble cabbage factory sausage Colonel rancid Fanta mapa mundi Tina Turner's Tonsils...
...and it really wouldn't have made any difference. Not to me. Not to my poor ears, who didn't care whether they were being assaulted by breeze blocks or twenty pound halibuts; it still hurt just the same.
'Do you realise that, young man?'
'That you're the future.'
Oh... well... yes, of course!'
'You've not been listening to me, have you?'
He raised his eyebrows.
'Yes, yes, I was! It's just... I was... erm... you know...' - I feigned an enormous yawn - 'Ooh, it's been a long day... This journey is so long after a long, tiring day, don't you think?'
'It's forty-five minutes.'
'Yes, but... I mean... on a train... you know? Especially when you-'
'Especially when what?' said the man very slowly, as he thrust his hands deeply into his deep, beige pockets.
The spade which appeared in my hands was tiny and seemed barely adequate to create the hole from which I was now staring at the expensive stitching on the man's brown leather shoes. I had not noticed before that he was wearing white sports socks with two green stripes at the top.
Then his mobile phone rang. Blessed relief!
'Yes, I'm approaching Worcester. The train's stopped. I'm having a conversation with this young chap.'
Conversation? This was no...
'Conversation?' I said.
Did I just speak?
'I'll call you back...'
The train didn't move for another twenty minutes.
* * *
Did I say twenty minutes? Like I said, I didn't look at my watch. I did, however, catch the occasional glimpse of someone's mobile phone. I didn't consciously look at the phone. I may have merely caught its reflection in the night-darkening glass. In fact, all I really remember was being vaguely aware of the numerals drifting in and out of vision.
As the words of the man drifted into my ears, then drifted out through my skull, causing pain...
'...youth of today...'
...a tingling in my scalp...
Then I punched him.
I picked him up and threw him against the glass.
I'll give you military service, you fascist, opinionated bastard!
I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck - he tried to scream, but his collar was constricting his throat. I looked into his eyes...
The other occupants of the carriage looked on in horror, as I shook him, banged his head against various parts of the train - and finally, with one almighty shove, out and through the door, and into the invisible night beyond.
Silence. Shocked faces.
And then, mingling with the applause...
'Sorry for the delay. This was caused by a small twig which fell from a nearby tree and was nudged onto the track by a passing vole. The vole has now been captured and donated to medical research, the twig has been removed from the track and we should be resuming our journey very shortly. Apologies for any inconvenience caused by this short delay.'
And then the train resumed within about two minutes. I got home in time for Will and Grace, and all was once again all right with the world.
* * *
'People don't make the effort.'
I opened my eyes.
The train had started moving again.
The man in the beige slacks was concluding his tirade on the state of Modern Youth. His words, however, merely mingled with the sounds of the train and thickened the air between us like social cornflour.
I missed half of Will and Grace - that is to say, I missed the second half, as unconsciousness claimed me during the ad break.
I'll never know whether the vole/small twig incident was real.
* * *