He looks like a trout. Or at least, he has the kind of facial expression that you’d think a trout might have. If the trout were on a train, that is. Pursed lips, pale skin as if he’s not used to coming out into the light, one of those creatures of the deep. A baseball cap pulled down low, snakey hips. The first class carriage is almost empty, just myself in one of the big chairs along the side with my own table, and snakey-hip trout-face, sitting at the big four-seat table near the door, thumbing his mobile phone.
I think I fancy him.
He’s wearing a tracksuit, this prominent cheekboned lad, all bright colours, red and white reflecting back from the dark window like there’s two of him, a team mate, perhaps, in whatever sport the tracksuit advertises. He looks confused as he fumbles with his phone, and the tracksuit makes his body shapeless and crumpled. I can only guess at its proper shape and definition. Oh no, Troutface is now making a phone call.
‘Aaron . . Aaron . . Listen to me . . Listen to me . . Aaron . .’.
I pretend to read my book. I’ve only paid ten pounds for this first class upgrade, but still, if the likes of Troutface are allowed on too then what’s the point of a bit of distinction? And then I castigate myself for being so snobbish. He’s not doing any harm, is he? I’d rather have something pleasing to look at, rather than some sweating businessman. And then I castigate myself again, for sexualising a complete stranger.
‘Aaron . . What the fucking hell do you fucking think you’re fucking doing, you fucking idiot?’
He then smiles over to me and points at his phone.
‘Sorry’, he says, ‘Kids , , ‘.
He’s wearing trainers, and he’s got big feet. His legs are stretched in front of him on to the opposite seat, bright red tracksuit legs and big, big feet. Should I really be thinking about this, on the way back from my uncles funeral?
‘I don’t . . Fucking . . . Ah, just fuck off, you fucking fuck’.
He hangs up and slams his phone down on the table with a loud clatter. I try to read the same paragraph of my book again. Within a second he picks his phone back up again and starts tapping away on the screen. Whatever he’s doing must take a lot of concentration, because he looks more like a trout than before.
Nicely defined cheekbones, though. And long, long fingers.
‘Fucking hell’, Troutface whispers.
The train manager looks like a 1980s television comedian. A rotund, red faced individual, with big bushy eyebrows. He checks my ticket, and then he advances on the young man.
He lets out a sigh.
‘You see, it was like this , , ‘.
‘I’m sorry, sir. You need a first class ticket to sit in this section’.
And off he goes.
Lulled by the motions of the train and the small bottle of red from the buffet car, I begin to doze after a while, so it takes a few moments to realise that someone is sitting at the table again, even though the train hasn’t stopped at any stations to pick any new passengers up. I look over, and with a start, realise that it’s him again, only this time he’s wearing a white t-shirt, he’s got his baseball cap on the opposite way round so that the brim is at the back, and he’s rolled his tracksuit trousers up to his knees so that it looks like he’s wearing shorts.
‘Alright?’, he says.
And it must be said, his legs are really nice. Architectural, slender, the right amount of hair so as not to make him look like a Neanderthal but enough to hint at an underlying masculinity.
‘Hey’, I say, by way of a greeting.
‘Do you want to see my insurance?’, he asks.
‘It’s a little thing I do, to make sure that nobody sits next to me. No matter how crowded a train can get, it always works. I call it my insurance ‘.
He reaches into his bag and pulls out a six pack of lager, then plonks it down on the table in front of him.
‘Bingo’, he says.
‘Bravo’, I reply.
‘Cheers’, he says.
‘What’s with the trousers rolled up?’
‘Ah, that bastard conductor. Threw me out of first class, didn’t he? Wrote down my description in my notebook, said that he’d sling me off the train if he caught me in here again’.
‘So I can say now, look, where in your notes does it say that I’m wearing shorts and a white t shirt. See?’
‘Ha ha, very good’.
‘I can’t go back in there’, he says, gesturing towards the standard class carriage. ‘It’s hell in there. Once you’ve had a taste for the high life, you can never go back. Screaming babies, and dodgy types like you wouldn’t believe. There’s no way I’m going back in there’.
‘Actually sounds quite sensible’.
And I don’t want to tell him, of course, I don’t want to tell him that I rather enjoy him sitting there. I’ve always had this sense of clinging to people who look like they might offer protection, only I’ve never really figured out from what I might need to be protected. He looks like he might be somewhat handy with his fists, does Troutface. The world can be full of nasty surprises, if you let it.
‘Lager?’, he asks.
‘No. But thanks anyway’.
‘What’s your name?’
‘It’s Robert. What’s yours?’
‘Names have never been that important to me’.
‘You must have a name’.
‘Well, OK, its . . Doug’.
‘Yeah, I know, makes me sound like something you do in the garden’.
‘Short for Douglas?’
‘Nah, my parents just called me Doug. They didn’t realise it was short for Douglas. Named me after my Uncle Doug.’
‘And he was a Douglas?’
‘No, that was his nickname. He was a gardener. Which is weird, because that’s also my family name. Garden.’
‘So you’re Doug Garden?’
It looks like this might be a rather enjoyable journey. We both sit back, contented and at one with the rhythms of the train. Me and my protector, and his rather nice legs.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake!’
Maybe I shouldn’t have guzzled down the whole bottle of red, even though it was one of those little bottles, a tantalising aspiration of what it must be like to have a full bottle. I’m feeling quite mellow and not a little woozy, like there’s a layer of fudge between myself and the world, and the slightly surreal experience of being in an empty first class carriage. The train rumbles on like it doesn’t really want to, and I start to feel a little bit lonely without my Doug.
I must have drifted off to sleep again because the next thing I know is that I am being summoned back to reality by a gentle prodding of my shoulder.
‘All right? All right, mate? All right?’
A young man with blond hair gelled and combed straight backwards from his face, and the most exuberant black handlebar moustache I’ve ever seen, and very large glasses which magnify his eyes to an incredibly mad degree, is prodding me on the shoulder.
‘Hello?’, I say, rubbing my eyes, for want of a better question.
‘It’s me. Doug’.
‘What the hell are you . . .’.
‘It’s a disguise. I always have it with me. You never know when you’re going to need it’.
As my eyes adjust I realise he’s also wearing a white lab technician’s jacket.
‘And what’s with the . . .’.
‘I’m a dentist’, he says, ‘OK, I’m not really. But that’s the story, right? I’m a dentist. In case anyone asks, I’m on my way to a convention of molars’.
‘Why would I need to know all this?’
‘Because I know my rights,’ he says, sitting down in his customary seat and spreading his long, bare legs on to the seat across from him. ‘As soon as that bastard comes in, I’m going to pretend to be asleep. They’re not allowed to touch the passengers, I can do him for assault, you see. That’s the law. So if he asks you, I’m Doctor Hetherington-Smythe, on my way to a molar convention’.
‘Is he really going to ask me all this?’
‘It wouldn’t harm if you knew my back story. Oh, and my favourite food is toasted tea cakes’.
‘Is he going to ask me that?’
‘Just in case you were thinking of going to the buffet car’.
‘You don’t look like the sort who likes toasted tea cakes’, I tell the young man with fake glasses and moustache and a lab technicians coat.
The train rumbles on and we both relax for a bit. He gets out his mobile phone and starts thumbing away, the white coat slung in a leisurely fashion around his shoulders. He gets bored of this after a while and we both chat for a bit on a wide variety of topics, from the eternal question of why men have nipples, to the interesting observation that the song Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover only mentions about six. The only interesting moment comes when a woman walks past along the aisle and stops right between us.
‘Dr Hetherington-Smythe!’, she says. ‘Thank you so much for that work you did on my incisors. I can chomp into anything, now!’
‘No problem’, he says.
Although the look that she gives his six pack of lager is somewhat priceless.
‘Mistaken identity’, he says, as she walks off. ‘And a touch of coincidence’.
We then start a new conversation about ankle bracelets and the number of men who now seem to be wearing them, when the carriage door opens.
As if on cue, Doug immediately collapses back into his seat with his eyes closed and his mouth open.
The conductor advances and I run over the back story. Dentist, molar conference, toasted tea cakes. But it is not to be. The conductor sees my moustached companion, bends over him, and bellows in a very loud voice, ‘TICKETS!’
Doug startles from his slumber.
Within a minute or so, I am on my own again.
And all of a sudden I’m in a suburb of a big city in 1950s America, in a single storey house with picket fences and a bright green lawn and pastel coloured wood cladding, and it’s so hot you can smell the tarmac but that doesn’t matter because the house has air conditioning, and I’m busy in the kitchen preparing dinner and the radio is on and it’s playing Buddy Holly, and in the back garden I can see another perfect lawn, and more picket fences, and the neighbouring houses, and the skyscrapers of the city in the distance, and there’s lots of firtrees, and blue skies, and everything is perfect, and the front door opens and I hear my husband ringing out his sing-song voice, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’, and very excitedly I put down my tea towel and I run through the plushly carpeted living room to the front door to give him a peck on the cheek, and it’s Troutface, and he’s wearing his trackie bottoms rolled up to his knees, and his white t-shirt, and his lab technicians coat, and his handlebar moustache, and his fake glasses, and he’s saying, ‘Mate, mate, mate, wake up!’
And then the giant panda bends in and tried to eat me.
‘Molar bear!’, I shout, for some reason.
‘What? Huh huh huh’.
‘What the hell?’
He’s dressed in a panda bear big fluffy onesie.
He sits down in the same chair at the table across the aisle. The panda bear onesie has padding around the stomach to give him the appearance of being rather rotund. He puts his fluffy padded legs on the seat opposite from him and plonks the six pack of lager on the table next to him.
‘Call me . . Xander’.
‘Xander the Panda. Wotsit?’
He offers me a packet of crisps.
I come over to his table and sit in the seat next to his fluffy panda legs. There’s no denying that he looks oddly attractive in the panda onesie, the juxtaposition of the exaggerated cartoon proportions of his outfit and the angular, chiselled grimace of his face. There’s always something lurking inside, I tell myself, whether a teddy beat or a snake. And this kind of combines with the dream I’d just had.
‘Where you going, then?’, he asks, as we both eat crisps.
‘I’m on the way home. I’ve just been to my uncle’s funeral.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that ‘.
‘He was married for sixty years. His wife, my aunt, she passed away just a couple of months ago, and he looked after her right until the very end. And within a very short time, he, too, was gone.’
‘Life’s a bitch like that’.
‘I often wonder if it’s too late for me to find someone, you know, true love. Who’ll be there for me in the final months?’
He reaches across the table and pats my hand with his big fluffy paw.
‘There’s a whole life to live, first’, he says.
We cannot see much out of the windows. It seems like we’ve run out of things to say. I look at the reflection of the two of us sitting there, anyone would think that we were friends, or even in a relationship, the way we seem so comfortable in each other’s presence. Mind you, the alcohol helped.
‘When I was a kid’, he says, ‘I thought there were no good people in the world. I don’t know why, but I looked at everyone just rushing around, living their lives, and I couldn’t comprehend that they could, even for a minute, think about someone else. And I suppose this became ingrained nto me, this belief that we live in a very individualistic culture. And sure, that’s good, if you want to dress up and wear different things and behave in a certain way. But it’s great every now and then to get out of the groups that we make, trying to achieve this. Do you understand? I suppose, what I’m trying to say is that nobody can be bothered to look beneath the surface any more. That’s why I sit here with a six pack of lager. I don’t mean that I don’t want people with me. I just want those who don’t judge, you understand?’
‘You know ‘, I say to him, ‘The first class upgrade was only ten quid. You could have saved yourself a lot of bother if you really wanted to sit here.’
‘Yeah, easily’, he says. ‘But where’s the sport in that, eh? Life is an adventure at the best of times. I might as well just add to the fun’.
At this moment a mother and her daughter walk down the aisle past us. The kid stops and points.
‘Mummy! Why is that man dressed as a . .’.
‘Shush!’, her mother replies, yanking her away by her hand.
‘The thing is’, I tell him, ‘Maybe it’s the funeral, or the long day I’ve had, or the wine, but I feel like I know you really well. I’d like to know you . . You know . A bit better’.
‘You know, I’m straight’.
‘Yes, and that’s no problem. There’s more to life than that side of relationships. I just like people, you know, being with them, and being friends’.
‘Me too’, he says. ‘We’ve got a lot in common. And remember, I also like toasted tea cakes’.
‘Sure. Yes. I’ll get a toasted tea cake. In fact, I’ll get two. The two of us, regular friends having toasted tea cakes. Just like people do. What could be more relaxing?’
At that moment, the conductor enters the carriage.
‘Yes’, I say to him. ‘I’d like to buy this gentleman a first class ticket upgrade’.
‘Certainly’, he replies.
And Doug smiles.
‘Great. That means I can take this thing off’.
‘Are you wearing anything under there?’
‘Damn’, both I, and the conductor, say at the same time.
The conductor issues the upgrade ticket and I pay for it, and then he leaves us. Doug shrugs out of the panda costume and back into his normal clothing, he then adds his baseball cap back on to the top of his head. Neither of us says much as the miles roll past. His normal clothing reminds me how much he looks like a trout, especially when he starts fumbling with his mobile phone yet again.
‘Isn’t it more comfortable’, I say to him, ‘sitting here and knowing that you don’t have to move?’
‘Actually’, he replies, ‘yes. I think I’m going to enjoy the rest of this journey’.
He stretches out, and I stretch out, and I feel ever so mellow and at peace with the world.
Robert Garnham has been performing comedy poetry around the UK for ten years at various fringes and festivals, and has had two collections published by Burning Eye. He has made a few short TV adverts for a certain bank, and a joke from one of his shows was listed as one of the funniest of the Edinburgh Fringe. He was recently an answer on the TV show Pointless.