I boarded the train and picked a seat which afforded me some seclusion: a refuge for reading through my backlog of weekend newspapers. I pulled them from my bag as I watched the stragglers hurry up the platform. A forty-something, overweight man in a blue suit bustled into our carriage, scanned the available seats and chose one facing mine across the aisle, claiming it decisively with his fat, scuffed black briefcase.
As the train left the terminus the “bing-bong” of the P.A. system sounded loudly and harshly to introduce Darren, our Train Manager, whose set-piece welcome speech was imbued with North Manchester nonchalance - in contrast to the automated, recorded itinerary which followed, with its disjointed, cut-and-pasted syllables.
My neighbour stashed his jacket in the rack above and, flopping into his seat, loosened his tie, patted his thin, sandy hair and began to busy himself erecting his laptop, checking his phone and spreading his papers.“Bing-bong.” Now it was Julianne, our on-board shop manager, inviting us to come and buy refreshments. I waited for the end of her spiel before settling at last to find something which was not too far past its read-by date.
“Hi Karen.” I looked up. “It’s Dave. Is Alan there? OK. Will you get him to give me a bell when he’s done? Yeah. I’m on my way back now. Right. Cheers”. So, now I knew my neighbour’s name, I wondered what his job was. Dave made several more calls, leaving messages each time, none of which provided me with any clues.
“Bing-bong.” Darren informed us we were about to arrive at Milton Keynes; auto-assistant reminded those alighting not to forget their possessions; then, as the train slid away, we listened to the welcome speech again – followed by another sales pitch from Julianne. Dave and I got our heads down until, “Bing-bong”, Darren announced our imminent arrival into the “Peoples’ Republic of Stoke-on-Trent”. He sounded more chipper now that we had left The South - but the tone of auto-assistant remained unchanged.
Nothing was moving at the Republic’s station. I wondered whether diplomatic relations had been severed. Then, in the hush of the motionless carriage, I heard the voice of Lou Reed singing “...and the coloured girls say...” Eventually realising it was my ringtone I scrambled to silence it.
“Is that Mr. Holdsworth?”
“Yes, it is.”
“I’m calling to fix your hospital appointment.”
“ Oh, good.”
“For security, could you just tell me your full address and date of birth please?”
“Er, well - just a moment.” I left my seat and headed for a more private space by the toilet.
My business concluded, I re-entered the carriage to the sound of Darren’s ritual welcome speech - and to Dave’s hitherto unheard ringtone “...gotta get up, gotta get down...” He checked the display and answered resignedly: it was not the call he had hoped for. He was being asked to choose his evening meal and opted for the quiche with salad - although I sensed that he felt somewhat coerced.
“Drinks? Snacks?” Julianne had adopted a more pro-active sales approach and now came trundling down the aisle with her wares on a trolley. Dave bought a sausage sandwich, a packet of crisps and a diet coke to tide him over until dinner.
“Bing-bong”. Darren, now sounding almost excited, announced our approach to Stockport. Auto-assistant once more reminded everyone not to forget their stuff and Dave obediently started to pack everything into his briefcase. Just then a large, angry-looking woman stomped past shouting at her phone “... ‘cos if you don’t, I swear, I’m gonna have a nervous breakdown!” Dave and I exchanged glances, for the first time, our eyebrows raised in alarm. “I’ll leave you to it” he said, smiling wryly and nodding a goodbye as he made for the door.
Eight minutes later Darren cheerfully announced our final destination, Manchester. I abandoned my papers, read or otherwise, despite auto-assistant’s pleas, and stepped on to the platform. Amongst the few people there to meet the train was a slight, anxious-looking man. Walking towards him was the angry woman.