Being shortsighted, I thought the problem was that I was trying to read the details from a distance, so I moved to just beneath the display boards mounted at the coach station. Despite my squinting, still, I could not see my train. Having spent the afternoon partaking something other than water, I began to fear one for the road had become one too many for my mind. Was I really in the right place at the right time?
I fished out the train ticket from my wallet again. It confirmed that whatever the problem was, it was neither with my head nor my watch because I was 20 minutes early. And my early arrival, too, had nothing to do with tipsiness, but rather, my experiences earlier in the day.
I had hitherto not experienced the overland trains. Lumbering slow, the latter don’t look, from the outside, very different from the colonial relics operated by the Rift Valley Railways in Kenya. When you compare them with the sassy buses that are their alternative, it is really a no-contest.
But to a student, the trains have a distinct advantage. They offer a 30 per cent discount to “mature students” subject to a 30£ membership card. Aside from the implied insult to other students who don’t belong in it, the particular category deceives to flatter those who have overstayed in college. It also applies to others who, like me, have returned to class when their age mates are busy looking for their kids’ college fees!
Being new to the experience, and itching to recoup my card expenses, I had arrived at the station in the morning 40 minutes before schedule. I had read in the ticket a barely visible line warning that trains sometimes leave earlier. The particular coach heading to Sheffield had malfunctioned and got stuck on the rails. My low opinion for the trains was reinforced.
We were ushered to an alternative train. But it left 15 minutes ahead of schedule. I overheard the coxswain explaining the early departure was to cushion the longer distance from the cover trip. I wondered what happened to passengers who arrived on time only to find they were late!
It is this disrespect for scheduled times that was driving me jittery about the return journey. I took the flight of stairs to the first floor where I had seen more display boards. But even here, my details were conspicuous by their absence.
Now my calm was fraying and the time was ticking. Britain has been very successful in discouraging me from asking human beings for help with directions.
Whether from the help desks or the stranger next to you, the answers are often the same: Do you know how to read, sir? Have you tried the map? I’m sorry, but isn’t the information on display?
With apprehensions getting the better of me, I felt compelled to go back on my acquired reluctance. I fortified myself against another potential polite rebuff, silently practiced my British accent and, with a rehearsed smile, approached an elderly man.
In truth, the stranger was not a random pick. I had noticed a Manchester United scarf sneaking into his brown cardigan. Less than an hour after the Old Trafford club walloping by Tottenham, I suspected he was consciously concealing his loyalties to a club that is fast catching up with Arsenal legendary capacity to heartbreak its fanatics. My similar scarf was safely folded inside my backpack despite the evening chill.
“That was a horrendous performance, wasn’t it?” I asked while pointing at his scarf. He looked at me, first with a scowl on his face that left me nursing fears my small talk was unwelcome. He then moved his eyes and his hands to the scarf as if surprised that it was still identifiable with the club despite his apparent attempt to hide the evidence.
His face broke into a wry smile. “Stupid marriage!” he said without looking up. The emotion in the phrase left me startled because I took it at the literal value. I imagined the scarf was perhaps a gift from his wife or to be safe with words, his partner. I offered my sympathies with two, quick-fire “I’m sorry!”
“No need to be sorry pal. It’s all my fault, isn’t it?” he retorted as he unfurled his scarf. Now, that is a tongue-tying awkward question. Responding by seeking details could make you sound like an information voyeur. Keeping quiet could be construed to being unsympathetic. Saying it wasn’t his fault without the benefit of details would have been false empathy.
There was a palpable pain in his tone and the conversation was beginning to whet my curiosity. But I was running out of time for my train. I apologised for having to interrupt the conversation with my inquiry. It turned out we were looking for the same information. Unlike me, though, he knew where to look at if it was not on the display board.
We descended the stairs to the ground floor and to the notice board. Here, there were printed details of each train. And there I saw it: “Sheffield- Leeds, Platform 1B, 19.36”
There were just a few other passengers already waiting. Next to the waiting bay is a bar and the man asked if I minded a quick drink. We only had around seven minutes to boarding time and not being good in gulping alcohol, I declined.
We sat next to each other like in a funkier version of face-me-darling matatu. I was itching to revisit the story of his “fault” and the “stupid” marriage. But I lacked the courage to bring it up or a clever way to trigger it without sounding gossipy. But I didn’t have to think very hard or long because he soon fell asleep.
He was snoring so loudly that it kept me awake throughout the one-hour journey. To keep myself busy, I imagined about all the many possible things inside his huge tummy that was heaving up and down to the rhythm of his snoring as he lay supine, saliva drooling onto his cardigan.
I woke him up at the Leeds station. I must have interrupted his dream because he shouted “Bloody Dutch!” He then stretched his massive hands while simultaneously yawning and broke wind so loudly that a young girl a few seats away laughed at witnessing her grandfather’s age-mate in a public act of bad manners.
“I ope Van Gaal is gon by morn. Damn useless Dutch geez, isn’t he?” he said as he recovered from his embarrassment with a rough rub of his eyes.
“Otherwise I’m done mate. Done Man Utd. Bad luv right there,” he continued as he gestured obscenely.
He must have been sixty something. “We are doing a beer pal,” he said as we walked out of the train station. It sounded more of an instruction than an invitation. Walking behind him, I imagined myself at his age, troubled by football nightmares and delirious over whether the coach would be fired or not. It felt like a case of arrested development.
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