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A man, let’s call him Len, approaches a set of four seats on a small commuter train at Marylebone. Two of the four seats are already occupied: one of the window ones by a woman, slumped asleep. Or dead maybe. For the sake of narrative clarity we will refer to this woman as Fred Perry. It is the name embroidered on her shirt, over the nipple. From Len’s perspective it is almost impossible to define her age. Her hair is dark, but dyed so. Her face is hidden in the seat. She’s wearing plimsolls, the like of which have not seen the light of day for years and the soles of which are coming away. Her jeans appear ill-fitting.
Kitty-corner from Fred Perry is a large, for want of a better word, chap with a look-at-me walrus moustache: Tash.
Tash sits with his knees wide apart. His arms are folded over his belly; his hands intertwined and pink as sausages; his thumbs rotating this way and that like a village fête tombola.
“Excuse me,” says Len to Tash, “is anyone sitting here?”
Tash could see this coming a mile off.
“Not unless he’s very, very small, my friend.”
“Just messing,” says Tash. He gestures be-my-guest with his eyebrows, adds a wink and a smile because it costs nothing to be pleasant, and resumes doing nothing.
Len takes off his raincoat, and folds it neatly inside-out so as not to gather the muck and dust of public transportation upon the nap and weave. He places the coat carefully on the luggage rack above the seats. Next, he dials a predetermined set of metal numbers on the combination lock of his attaché case. The briefcase opens, and some anonymous important-looking documents are brought out and placed neatly on the table that separates the four seats.
A flask. A banana. A newspaper. A puzzle book.
An mp3 player.
The briefcase snaps shut; its combination lock twizzled to deter any possible industrial espionage, and the case safely, and neatly, stowed overhead. He then dusts the seat clean with his newspaper.
Len sits down. Then stands up. Adjusts his trousers at the crotch and arse. Sits down. Coughs. Organises the array of items before him. Drops pen, picks pen up. Kicks Tash accidentally. Checks to see what he has kicked.
“Sorry,” he says.
A pause. A check of the mobile phone. A study of the timetable. A look at his watch.
“This is the train to Birmingham?” he says.
“Nope,” says Tash.
There is a terrific and sudden panic in Len.
He stands, knocks over the flask, clutches at his papers, his banana, sends banana to the floor. He climbs on to the seat to reach for his briefcase and his raincoat, both of which he now grabs to his chest, and descends from the seat with the haste of a man about to miss the train to a very important meeting.
“I’m joking. I’m joking. Sorry chum. Yes—yes it is the Birmingham train,” says Tash through his moustache.
“It is. I was only having a laugh.”
Small pearls of perspiration appear upon Len’s forehead.
“Honestly, chum. Don’t worry.”
Thumbs spin backwards, forwards.
“Ah.” Len tries his best to do one of those laughs, an empty noise that attempts to suggest he is in on the joke, or not so much in on the joke as having caught up with the joke. Understands the joke. Doesn’t feel like a complete cock for being taken in by the joke.
Feigning casual indifference he puts his armful of papers down and places the flask back on the table; re-folds his raincoat and places it, along with his briefcase, back on the rack and once again settles down.
Then stands, adjusts his trousers at the knee and crotch, and sits.
Only having a laugh.
Len checks his phone. Looks at his watch.
Adjusts his tie.
Does not look at Tash.
Somewhere north of Wembley. Len is engrossed in a Sudoku. He pauses. Back gardens, extensions. Conservatories and barbecues. Every other garden with a trampoline.
Catches Tash’s eye.
“Crossword, eh?” says Tash.
“Wish I’d invented that.”
“Gets the old grey matter ticking, eh? Trains the brain. On the train. See?”
“Things I wish I’d invented,” and here Tash pulls out a large hand and forms a big fist in the air. The thumb springs loose, his eyebrows rise. “I wish I’d invented: Sudoku.” Now a forefinger: “Rubik’s cube.” A middle-finger: “Caesar salad dressing.” Ring-finger: “Them Tetra pack things.” And finally the little-finger, the pinky: “And cappa-arseing-ccino.”
“Yes,” says Len.
A splayed hand and now the other thumb makes six: “And those bloody things.”
Tash’s eyebrows stare at the iPod on the table between them. “The money you can make from other people’s boredom,” he says.
“I don’t really listen to music.”
“No. I listen to audio books.”
Silence. Tash is looking hard at Len.
“I actually prefer listening to audio books to reading,” says Len. “I’ve no time for reading,” he says. “I’ve not read a book in three years. I have books read to me, see. By famous actors. Sean Bean mainly. I had Kenneth Branagh yesterday. His Mankell is awfully good.”
Tash spins his thumbs.
“In fact. I think you could say that the popularity of audio books is a revival of literature in the aural tradition.”
A pause. The girl with the buffet trolley pushes past them. Her arse at face height.
Len continues: “I mean, story telling. It’s verbal really. Books? Books are dead.”
Rooftops, small trees, satellite dishes. The ubiquitous magpie.
There’s a transparent image of Len projected on some passing suburb. A rash from this morning’s shave irritates his neck.
Empty squares. Lots and lots of little empty squares.
“Stuck?” asks Tash.
“I’m not with you.”
“Easy? Intermediate? Hard? What are you? Which level do you do? What level?”
The corner of Len’s page curls.
“Intermediate,” he says.
Tash is nodding at the book. Len catches a glimpse of something yellow beneath the whiskers.
“Please, be my guest,” he says, and hands the book to Tash.
Tash stares at a virtually empty grid on the page. Len has only filled three small boxes with numbers. There’s a doodle of a pig with a moustache. Several scribbled workings out.
Intermediate my arse.
Tash stares sharply at the blank boxes. Len twiddles his pen.
“That’s a seven. And that’s the eight.”
Len leans in. Keen.
“Here,” says Tash tapping an empty box on the page. “A seven, chum, that’s a seven. And the eight.”
Len nods like he understands.
“You do these too?” he says, attempting to hide his surprise.
Tash hands the book back to Len.
“Must be a little Japanese man sitting on millions somewhere,” he says. “That’s what we get for Hiroshima.”
Golf courses and swimming pools.
Len is pouring himself a coffee from his flask. Is thinking he had a banana somewhere but cannot remember for sure whether he has eaten it or not. Chooses to flick through some of the pages of numbers in his documents. Like he understands them.
“Bring Your Own.”
Tash pulls out a half bottle of whisky. Own label. Half empty.
“Cannae interes’ ye in a wee dram?” he says in a pub-joke Scots accent, the bottle cocked to pour.
“No. No thank you.”
“Warm up yer bevvy?”
“Very kind, but I’m fine.”
Len’s eyes fix on his spreadsheet.
“I haven’t offended you?”
“No, no, no, not in the least.”
“These days pal … you know. Smoking. Drinking … Farting and breathing next, eh?”
A pause. Tash swigs like it was mouthwash. Swills and swallows.
“You on business?”
Another pause. Tash’s eyes tell Len he’s not off the hook that easily.
“I’m in marketing,” he adds.
“And what do you market? In marketing? What are you marketing?”
“I,” Len swallows hard. “Printer cartridges. Stationery. Office supplies. I’m presenting to the marketing committee of a printer cartridge firm this afternoon. Plans. You know.”
“I see. Printers, eh?”
“Cartridges. There’s money in that, alright.”
The dog has brought the ball back. It must be thrown again.
“And you? On business?” asks Len.
“Me? Nah. Just along for the ride with me-lady here.”
“Oh. Oh! I see.”
“She’s up in front of the bench at two.”
“Oh. Right. Right. Your … wife?”
“Only joking. Never seen her before in my life.”
“You wouldn’t be offended if I listen to my book, would you?”
Len is with Kenneth Branagh whilst reading through some of his important looking papers. All sales charts and numbers, projections and market-share percentages. Tash is swaying to the rhythm of the train, his knees especially so.
The young woman, Fred Perry, stirs from her sleep.
“What station was that?”
“Princes Risborough,” says Tash.
“Thame and Haddenham Parkway,” says Tash.
“You are joking.”
“Man. Thame and where?”
“Had. Ock. And. Chips. Something. Maybes,” says Tash.
“Watch yer language.”
“Yeah. Shit. Sorry.”
Fred Perry pulls out a mobile phone.
“Not in here you don’t. Quiet Zone,” says Tash, his eyebrows pointing towards a sticker on the window that shows a mobile phone with a big red cross through it.
“No signal anyways,” says Fred Perry. “You sure that was—”
“But I do know it wasn’t Wem-bur-ley anyway.”
“Doesn’t matter though.”
“’Kin does, that was my stop.”
“’Kin doesn’t cos this train don’t stop there anyway, Miss.”
Fred Perry looks worried. There’s something of last night’s fish and chips about her.
“Where’s London? Which train is this?” she says.
“You are joking?”
“I never joke about Birmingham.”
“I can’t believe this. Man. Jesus. Fuck. I’ve just come from there.”
“I get off at Wembley,” says Fred.
Tash laughs some more.
“It’s not funny,” says Fred.
Tash is still laughing.
“I’ve got to meet this bloke. In Wembley, see. Fuck. Can’t believe this. Can’t fuckin’ believe this. Man.”
“I get off at Wembley. This isn’t right.”
Tash is on laughter wave number two.
“No, listen. I was up at five this morning to get here. I’ve got to meet this bloke in Wembley or else. There’s a pause. Then: Listen. Where’s the next stop?”
“Banbury? You are joking?”
“Now Banbury is funny, you’re right. But no.”
Fred Perry stands up quickly, makes to leap over Len.
“Where’s the emergency stop thing? I’ve got to get off this.”
Len pulls out his earphones to see what’s going on.
“’Scuse mate, I’ve gotta get off.”
Len gathers himself to let the young woman pass.
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere my girl,” chimes in Tash. “And you’re certainly not going to pull any emergency cord, or you’ll not be thanked by these fellow passengers of yours. And especially not by me, yours truly here.”
“But I’ve got to get off. I’ve got to get to—”
“Wembley, right. We got it. There’s nothing you can do ‘til Banbury.”
Len smiles thinly and plugs his ear-buds back into his ears. Turns up the volume.
“I don’t believe this,” says Fred Perry dropping back into her seat. “I’m dead.”
“You will be if you stop this train.”
“I’m s’posed to be in Wembley. Can’t even get a signal. And now me flamin’ battery’s gone!”
Fred Perry throws her mobile onto the table in disgust. Knocks Len’s flask.
Which Len then instinctively moves away from her.
Tash eyes Len’s BlackBerry lying on the Sudoku book.
“Use this.” His eyebrows point at the phone.
“Sure I’m sure. Just: out there, not here. Quiet Zone.”
“Cheers mate, you’re a star.” Fred Perry grabs the BlackBerry, jumps up and makes to leave. “‘Scuse me,” she says to Len.
Len again gathers his papers and stands awkwardly. Fred Perry slides buttocks to crotch past Len and out into the gangway, then heads up towards the vestibule.
Tash waits patiently. Spins his thumbs.
“She’s. She’s. She’s fucking stolen my fucking phone!”
“She has. She’s fucking taken it. She’s fucking stolen it.”
“She has. It’s gone.”
“She has not nicked your fucking phone—”
“Where is the little tart?”
“She’s borrowed it.”
“Borrowed it. I told her she could borrow it.”
“She needed to make a call. Good Samaritan and all that.”
“You gave her my phone?”
“But you’ve no right to—I don’t—you can’t just go around lending out other people’s mobile phones!”
“You weren’t using it. She needed it.”
“That’s not the point.”
“What is the point then, chum? Tell me that.”
“It’s my phone.”
“I’d lend her mine.”
“Why didn’t you then?”
“I don’t have one.”
Len is turning purple.
“You can’t lend… She could be calling… God knows where… She’s… Jesus Christ.”
“You got a problem, chum?”
“Yes. Actually. I do. How would you like it if I went about lending your stuff? Your… Your… Your car?”
“You could try.”
“Where is she? Where is the little bitch?”
Len stands looking down the carriage. He can just make out Fred Perry in the vestibule on the other side of the sliding door. The door keeps opening and closing as Fred Perry paces back and forth over the pressure plate. Len’s mobile stuck to her ear.
Before Len can engage feet and brain, Fred hangs up and is on her way back to the seats.
She sees Len. He appears to be standing to let her in. She nods a thanks.
Passes the mobile to Tash.
“I’m in big shit, me.”
Tash laughs. Passes the phone to Len.
Len pockets the phone.
“Oh. Ta. Thanks” says Fred, awkwardly. Gives Len a little thumbs up.
Tash looks at Len. Len looks at his paperwork.
“She said thank you.”
“Yes, I heard.”
“Least you can do is be civil back.”
Numbers start lifting off the page before Len’s eyes. Never liked numbers. Not really. Not really ever fully understood them. What they mean. How they work. A foreign language of shapes, figures, digits. Aggregates, double entries, summary P&Ls and EBITDA. EBITDE. EBITDUM.
“I said. The least you could do is be Seville back to my girlfriend here.”
“Don’t worry mate,” says Fred Perry. “Ta anyway.”
The square root of minus one. The sine and the hypotenuse. The cosine. What about the cosine? If a + x = y, if x is 10 what is y? What, exactly, is y?
“Did you get through?”
“Yeah. Fucking hell.” Fred Perry rubs her mouth. Rubs her eyes. She passes her hands through her hair. “How far to Banbury?” she asks.
“Another ten, fifteen, maybe.”
“Jesus. This bloke in Wembley see. He’s not… I don’t know. You know?”
“But you spoke to him?”
“You don’t speak to him. Not him. One of his people. Not him. You don’t speak to him, not directly to him. Never really. Through one of his people, see. That’s the trouble. If I could speak to him, see, he’d see. See I was being straight. But it’s the people around him see, you know… they distort things. It’s them, see. They change things, make things look uglier than they are, see.”
“Vicious it is. In Wembley.”
“All tickets and passes please!” A long, thin man in an ill-fitting uniform is making his way along the aisle. He leans gangly to one side, a ticket machine weighing him down.
Thank you… Thanks… Thanks… Thank you very much… Lovely, ta… ta, lovely… Thank you madam.
Len slips his wallet out of his jacket pocket and pulls out his ticket, ready. Tash watches.
“Bet you wish you’d gone First Class now eh, chum? On business like you are. In marketing, like you are.”
Lovely… Thank you… Smashing… Thank you very much… Change at Banbury lovely… OK thank you.
“Shit. Man. I’m on the wrong ticket.”
“Tickets and passes please, thank you sir, that’s great, ta.” TicketsPlease looks at Fred Perry. “Tickets please, Miss,” he says.
“Wait ‘til you hear this.”
“See, I’m meant to be in Wembley.” Fred Perry proffers her ticket.
TicketsPlease looks at it like it makes no sense. Like it was the worst thing he’s ever seen—ever held in his hands.
“No, see this is the wrong ticket this is,” he says.
“Yeah, I meant to get off at Wembley.”
“But. This train doesn’t stop at Wembley. It’s the Snow Hill fast.”
“Yeah, I got on at Snow Hill, meant to get off at Wembley—”
“We don’t stop at—”
“On the way down.”
“You should have got off at Wembley then,” says Ticket.
“But I must have fallen asleep, see.”
“Well this is the wrong ticket this is… Next stop Banbury… I’ll have to charge you full Single to Banbury, you get off there then catch the next train to Wembley… But you’ll need another ticket back.”
“But I’ve got a ticket to Wembley. See.”
“You can’t use it twice, Miss. It’s a Single.”
TicketsPlease presses buttons on the machine slung around his neck. Says the price of a ticket from Marylebone to Banbury.
Fred Perry pushes her crotch up towards the table and digs around in her jean pockets for money. Pulls out some fluff. A tissue. A fiver and some shrapnel. Not enough.
“Do you have a credit card, Miss?”
“Debit card? Maestro. Delta. Solo. American Express. Diners Club?”
“You’ve got something, though? You have to have something, though?”
Fred shakes her head.
Len looks hard out the window.
Tash looks at Tickets.
Tickets seems struck with something. It’s thumping inside him, makes him sits down heavily on one of the vacant seats across the gangway from the other three. The ticket machine hanging around his neck like an albatross.
“But you have to have something, though, something?” he says gently. His voice cracking a little.
“I haven’t, though.”
“She hasn’t, though,” says Tickets, covering his eyes and nose with his large bony hands. A disappointed priest.
“Do you,” says Tickets slowly and with another lengthy and deep inhalation, “have any… means. Any at all?”
There’s an odd train silence.
“At Wembley, yeah. Get paid at Wembley. Cash in hand.”
Tickets drops his head, the blood having been drained from him. Sees a banana on the floor under the table. Picks it up. Then, after some contemplation, gathers himself and comes up for air. Studies the colour and shape of the banana hard. He is the first person in the world to see a banana.
“Listen, Miss,” he says peeling the fruit slowly. “I’ll ask you once more. Think before answering.”
“But I ain’t.”
Tickets breathes deeply and bites the end off the banana.
Tash clears his throat. Leans heavily towards Len.
“Why don’t you pay for the girl?”
“Be a nice gesture. After calling her a tart.”
“Called you a tart. Earlier, When you were gone.”
“You bastard. I ain’t a—”
“Please! Please!” says TicketsPlease throwing the banana skin on the floor. “Let’s… try to… have some decorum… some… equilibrium.”
“I’m not paying for her ticket,” says Len. “I don’t even know who she is. And she used my phone without my consent. Egged on by this man here, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Egged on?” says Tash. “Egged on?”
“Yes. Egged on.”
“I’ve never egged on anyone in my life, chum. But I’d happily shit on you.”
Ticket looks to the luggage racks.
“I’m under instruction,” he says. “To find an equilibrium,” he says. “Started seeing a woman on Thursday afternoons. Runs a group above a betting shop. Done wonders. She’s found my inner core, see? Strength. In here. She’s a miracle worker, by the name of Sal. Didn’t want to see her. They made me. Said it’d help. I was a driver. Train driver. Then I had a jumper. Just outside Twyford. Known for it, Twyford. Train at the right speed. Bridge at the right height. They’re not stupid, these people. They are stupid. Obviously. But they’re not thick. Things happen when you see a man turned to pizza. You go off pizza for a start. Now, thanks to Sal, and our Thursday afternoons, I’m comfortable with my own aura. Do you see? I’ve found a gravity, a core. An equilibrium. This. Now. This train. This job. See it as a vocation. A reason to be, at this moment. This is my church. You are my flock.”
“How far will this get me?”
“It doesn’t work like that, Miss,” says Tickets, pinching the bridge of his nose. Fighting a migraine or praying. Then he sits up straight like he’s made a decision. Takes Fred Perry’s hands in his.
“Miss. I’ll have to put you off at Banbury. I’ll have to put you off at Banbury and notify the BTP.”
“I have to.”
“I know. But it’s the R&Rs. No option.”
“I’ll pay you back.”
“I’ve been in your seat, girl. You need to find a Sal. Some gravity. And about twenty quid.”
He stands, but as he stands his legs buckle. He blames the track. Bloody points. His ticket machine swings over the table. Pulling himself upright, Tickets pulls out a small purse from under his uniform, unzips it and hands Fred Perry a twenty. It is crumpled into the young woman’s palm.
“Ask me for a Banbury Anytime Single,” he says.
The last they see of Fred Perry, she is on the platform at Banbury.
Len can’t quite make out what’s in the bags, overly full, nearly spilling out, all four bin bags, pulling her down, as she hauls one bag, then another, drags them, or tries to, by the tie-handles, and she’s got to make her way down the platform and over the over-bridge and onto the south-bound platform, back, back to Wembley, and each time she grasps one tie-handle she loses grip of another tie-handle… and she no sooner retrieves her grip on the lost tie-handle before she loses grip of another tie-handle, and she no sooner retrieves her grip of this newer lost tie-handle before she loses grip of yet another one of the tie-handles she had previously had hold of, so she uses her teeth, her lips, her jaw, to clamp first one set of tie-handles, then another while her hands grapple for the remaining tie-handles, and when she manages, after some observed struggle, to maintain a grip on all sets of tie-handles, whether by teeth and jaw or finger and thumb, and she commences to place one foot in front of the other and progress along the platform, yet she cannot, though she must, but she cannot continue, simply because the sacks are too heavy and the tie-handles are too thin, and cheap, and are stretching white, and she cannot move the sacks such as they are, all at the same time, that is to say simultaneously and concurrently, so instead she must move them one at a time, and she releases both hands of tie-handles, and her teeth relinquish their grip on their tie-handles, and, still bent double, bent in half, a stump of her self, she begins again. Or tries to.
Len looks down at the puzzle book. Sees that someone has filled in all the empty boxes of his Sudoku with the letters C-U-N-T, repeatedly.
Robert A. Crampton is working on a novel called The Thames Voyager and a body of short prose pieces called Cache. He has previously written a novel called The Absence of People, and a book for children called What’s the plan, Stan?, as well as several plays—one of which won an award.
Robert A. Crampton
Robert is working on a novel called The Thames Voyager and a body of short prose pieces called Cache. He has previously written a novel called The Absence of People, and a book for children called What’s the plan, Stan?, as well as several plays—one of which won an award.