When the train pulled out of the station, he was quietly pleased. He sat alone at a table with the other three seats empty. Two hours twenty minutes of blessed solitude until he arrived in Euston. He stretched, yawned luxuriously and pulled out a couple of books from his laptop bag, along with the laptop itself. The talk was written, but it would do no harm to check it one last time.
‘Utilitarianism vs Epistemology and the determination of public policy in the age of Trump and Brexit’ - a suitably arresting title for what was really a re-hash of the concluding chapter of his latest book. Maybe it would sell a few more copies for him? He doubted it, but it would be nice to afford first-class travel. He began to muse on the meaning of money in relation to individual worth, when the silence was shattered by a woman’s voice.
‘Is them seats taken?’
A woman was at his shoulder. Frizzy shoulder-length black hair, florid complexion and a somewhat bulky frame, she was pushing a wheeled suitcase, to which two hessian bags with a Morrison’s logo had been tied to contain the overflow. A little bit of his happiness bubbled up and floated away as he answered.
‘No, no - please…’ he gestured at the empty seats opposite.
‘Ta - Aye, would you mind if you sat there, though. I can’t travel with me back to the engine.’
A larger part of his good mood evaporated.
He rose as she backed away to let him exit his seat and push his books and laptop across the grey formica. He could see little of her as he turned around and levered himself across to the window seat, watching Lime Street station as it disappeared behind them.
It took her ten minutes to get settled in his old seat. Problems with the case, the bags, her coat and the swaying of the carriage reddened her face even more by the time she flopped down opposite him.
‘They don’t design these friggin’ things fer people, do they? Designed by computers fer friggin’ robots.’
He smiled and pointedly opened his book - the collected poems of W.B.Yeats. The sooner she got the message that conversation was unwelcome, the better. Alas, it was not to be.
‘Aye, Yeats - good stuff that. D’yer like poetry?’
‘It’s a pleasant diversion, yes.’ He put on his best patrician accent as he looked at her directly, for the first time. She was probably about his age - early fifties - and she had a pleasant face. A little over-weight, gap-toothed, no make-up and the unkempt hair. Still she made him feel relaxed, somehow.
So long as he didn’t have to talk to her.
‘I’m a poet me-self.’
‘Really?’ Now his heart sank. There was about two hours and ten minutes before Euston. What had seemed like a short holiday from day-to-day concerns now looked like being a holiday from hell. He noticed that her bright blue blouse had been wrongly done up, with a spare button at the top, the collar rising on one side to her jaw.
‘Did you know that your buttons…’
‘Come out in a hurry’, she said, and set about opening the mis-matched buttons to reveal a grey much-washed bra and the similarly grey flesh of the central strip of her torso. Once re-buttoned, she resumed the interrupted conversation.
’Yeah - just done me latest book - ‘Sonya’s Sonnets’ it’s called.’
‘And are they?’
‘Are they what?’
’Nah - pain in the arse counting syllables. But it’s a good name, though, init?.’
He smiled and picked up the Yeats again, but the smile had encouraged her.
Fourteen line sonnet
Taxes poor brain of poet
Best to use haiku
He felt obliged to leave Yeats for another few minutes.
‘Do you make a living out of poetry?’
‘Yer jokin’ aren’t yer? I’m on Produce at Morrison’s - fruit and veg and all that. Worra you do?’
‘I am the visiting professor of modern thought at U.C.L. In fact, I am on my way to a two-day seminar on Utilitarianism. Yourself?’
‘Me? I’m doin’ a readin’! Me sister runs a place in Camden. She’s fixed it up fer me tomorrow, and one at her mate’s in Hackney the day after. So I’m getting down there today. Up nice and early ter-morrow.’
He summoned up the smallest possible smile he could manage as the train pulled into Runcorn.
‘Well, good luck.’
As the train screeched to a halt a trolley arrived at their table. A small blonde woman in a maroon uniform gave them a beaming smile and a memorised script.
‘Any drinks or sandwiches? We have a small selection here - a larger selection is available in our buffet car which is located between first and second class.’
He selected a cheese and tomato sandwich with a tea, she a ploughman’s lunch and coffee. As the blonde woman pushed the trolley onwards, he checked the time. Two minutes past twelve. Could that be considered lunchtime? He looked up in time to see a brown worm of Branston emerge from the woman’s half-eaten sandwich, form itself into a blob and fall onto her fingers. She turned her hand over and slurped up the brown blob, winking at him.
’I like a bit o pickle.’
‘Not a euphemism, I hope’, he said. The meaning of his words only struck him after he said them and his face began to turn red as she stuffed the last of the sandwich into her mouth. Why did he say something so crass? He opened his own sandwich to cover his confusion.
‘Works on many levels, mate’, she said, winking again. He hastily looked down at the sandwich and set about eating, taking small bites and chewing throughly. One half of the doughy bread and tasteless cheese was enough. He pushed the other half away.
‘You leaving that, like?’
On his nod, she picked it up and wolfed it down while he turned back to his book. It seemed a little dry and he wondered if he should engage her in a little more conversation.
It would be rude not to, he decided. He was about to ask her about life on the produce section when a young man in a football shirt and cheap, badly-fitting headphones walked past, treating the passengers to a blast of rap - ‘There’s no rhyme or no reason for nothing’, the last syllable fading as the automatic door closed behind him.
‘Eminem’, she said, ’that’s a bit old fashioned for ’im. Muss be ‘is Dad’s’.
‘Double negative’, he said, looking strained, ‘Why invent language and then mis-use it?’
‘Yeah - twice as negative. The evolution of the spoken word. I went to a lecture on it.’
‘Not sure I agree with the sentiment, either. Certainly there are some things beyond our current knowledge, but…’
’They say there’s no rhyme fer Orange, y’know.’
‘Possibly so, but there is a reason - it’s a vessel for the seeds which can create more oranges.’
’Though I remember a young lady who read a poem about orange when I was an undergraduate.’
Not for the first time, he was transported back in time. Jane had taken him to a poetry reading. It was the only poem he remembered from the night. Though it was the poet rather than the poem that had made the bigger impression. He was forcibly removed from his the past by the woman’s voice.
No rhyme for orange, they say
So are we stuck with grey?
No words for the rising of the sun?
The poets of the World struck dumb?
Let’s ditch RP for Scouse,
Leave college for the alehouse
Celebrate the morning globe of Orange
Wid a great big bowl of steamin’ porridge.
As she recited the words he almost remembered, his eyes widened and the past twenty-odd years were stripped from the face of the woman opposite. Thinner, shorter hair, paler skin - but the same eyes, the same mouth and the same gaps between her teeth. The mouth had featured in many a day-dream in the intervening years.
Dreams which he could never have confessed to Jane and now never would be able to. Over two years now since she had died. Years longer than any he had known. He had thought that Tom and Hannah would have taken it harder than him, but it was him that had folded like a punctured tyre - flat, immobile and useless on the uncaring tarmac.
’Tears?’ She interrupted his reverie, ‘It weren’t that good.’
‘I heard you recite that over twenty years ago. Reminded me of Jane - my wife.’
Her face reflected that she understood. She reached forward and patted his hand. For some reason he didn’t find this patronising.
They were already at Stafford and the journey in the noisy, rattling carriage seemed to have disappeared faster than he had expected. He wiped the remains of the tears away as the woman leaned forward.
‘Why don’t we meet up tonight fer dinner? You can tell me all about her.’
It sounded attractive, but… He thought hard about the ‘but’ while shaking his head in preparation for the arrival of the reason. Somehow the ‘but’ wouldn’t solidify in his head. He felt a little flutter inside him, as if a small bird was testing out it’s newly-fledged wings. He hadn’t felt like this since Jane died. Not since he first met Jane, really. She still had her hand on his.
’Come ‘ed, it’ll do you good. It’ll be great. I’ll teach you to rhyme, Prof. You can teach me to reason.’