I liked John, the train manager. Whether through boredom or sheer playfulness, he commented on each station we approached. ‘Welcome to the county town of Somerset and the tantalizing station we know as Taunton,’ he said. Tiverton Parkway was described as ‘titillating’; Exeter St Davids: ‘exciting’ and Newton Abbot apparently has a ‘naughty little station.’ There was a lovely ripple of laughter through the carriage whenever his voice came over the speaker.
As we were departing, he came on again and said: ‘thank you for journeying with us through the South West where the wheels of friendship travel with you.’
They were positioned at strategic points down the cobbled main street of the town centre – five of them, standing in the middle so they could reach the shoppers passing on either side. They were collecting for a children’s charity. I walked right by each one and none of them rattled their tin in my direction.
I loitered next to the last one, waiting for her to approach me. I was ignored. Why? I’m old enough to have children, I can feel sympathy, what part of my appearance meant I was excluded from their demographic? What was wrong with me?
‘Do you do diet coffees?’
‘Diet coffees? I’m not sure. What exactly do you mean by a diet coffee?’
‘The beans are mixed with antioxidants and a blend of special herbs.’
‘No, I’m sorry, we don’t do that here. We can do you a herbal tea?’
‘No, it’s ok, I’ll have a normal coffee – less calories. Do you use full fat milk or semi-skimmed?’
‘We can do either. Would you like semi-skimmed?’
‘Yes, please – or just skimmed if you’ve got it.’
‘No problem. Will that be all?’
‘No, I’ll have one of those chocolate brownies as well, please.’
On the 15th hole, away from the sight of the clubhouse, a man was found hanging from a tree. Next to the upturned stool at his feet was a suitcase containing the body of his pet dog, a vet’s bill and a suicide note. The Police dealt with the man but wouldn’t touch the dog.
In his note, the man asked permission for his dog to be buried on the golf course – it had been his favourite place to walk. However, by the time the note was read, the council had already taken the dog away to be destroyed.
The man on the opposite platform was in his 60s. He wore smartly pressed suit trousers and an overcoat buttoned up to the neck against the cold. As soon as he saw the London train approach he grabbed his holdall and ran over the bridge to my side of the station. It pulled in as he clattered past me, skidding on the ice in his shiny business shoes. There were lots of carriages and he fished a huge camera out of his bag as he ran but the train pulled away just before he had time to photograph its number.
It was dark, cold, January night. Coming towards me from the gloom, I saw a strange figure. Its black legs were long and distorted, tapering down to a point and wobbling under the weight of an enormous mane of blond hair. As the figure got closer, I saw that the legs were artificially elongated by stilettos and hot-pants; the hair back-combed with so much spray that even the drizzle couldn’t flatten it.
It’s a reflection of my age that my first reaction at seeing this attractive young woman wasn’t: ‘Christ, look at that,’ it was: ‘Christ, I bet she’s cold’.
Buying cigarettes, I was served by one of those huge women with 40-Benson-a-day voices – the kind that are likely to call you love in an over-friendly way. I asked her for a lighter, she asked me what colour and I said I didn’t mind.
‘This one’s black, is that ok?’
I feel as though these types of women always expect you to quip back with something but I was over-tired and off-guard so my reserve of witty/shit comments was empty. The first thing that occurred to me to say was: ‘Black’s fine, It’ll match my soul.’
She didn’t laugh.
The man in the shop at 8.30 this morning looked pretty smart. He was wearing designer jeans, a thin trendy jumper and black-rimmed glasses. I liked his style – he was sporting the same ‘Norwegian Fisherman’ beard that I have. I stood behind him in the queue; all he bought was a bottle of Listerine. Close up, I noticed that his jumper had several holes in the back and there was a strong musty smell coming off him. When I left the shop, I drove past him round the corner. He was hiding behind a phone box, gulping down the mouthwash.
The woman feeding ducks had dyed, overly black hair. She wore a fur coat and high heels and make-up that was so thick that the top layer was coming away. Her cheeks looked like open sores. The colours too: pinks, purples, reds and blues; her teeth were stained with maroon lipstick as if a child had painted her. It was impossible to tell how old she was or what she looked like beneath it all.
She threw enormous chunks of bread at the ducks. A scruffy man in his late 50’s wearing an anorak and bobble hat held her hand.
Standing smoking under the overhang of the tube station exit to avoid the rain, I could hear a histrionic American preacher shouting about fire and damnation. He sounded far off so I assumed it was one of those nutters who attack city centre shoppers on a Saturday afternoon armed with sanctimony and a microphone. I then realised that the glum old man next to me was carrying a stereo wrapped up in polythene. The preaching was coming from there. How lovely to be welcomed after a long train journey by being told that you’re going to burn in hell forever.