Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Two Fifteen From Havana To The Midlands

   Weird things happen on crowded train journeys.

   I never meant to make one yesterday; it was supposed to be a regular journey complete with space to stretch my legs and no requirement that I be breathed on from a distance of less than six inches by a fat woman whose ludicrous layers of slap somehow failed to disguise a Tolkienesque beard.

   But so it goes with trains.

   It only takes one points failure, one delayed connection, for an otherwise pleasant experience to be transformed into a weird kind of torture. Add to that a dead husky sled team on the line and you’re talking torture orchestrated by a sadist savant.

   So as everyone is jockeying for space in the aisle — those fortunate enough to have bagged a seat pretending to be more disabled/ill/dead than those standing — this old black guy sidles up.

   Actually, ‘guy’ is the wrong word — he’s more of a gent.

   Struggling to hit 5' 6", he’s dressed in a smart jacket midway between lime and sage with a neatly folded handkerchief sitting elegantly in the top pocket. His trousers are pressed, his shoes are smart, and atop his head is a straw boater
— all of which gives him the appearance of a man bound for Havana rather than Walsall.

   He perches his slender backside on the edge of a table, somehow managing to maintain his poise and composure among the assembled throng of the twisted and stiff, and had it not been for his distinctive scent, my curiosity would have passed on to some other traveller, maybe flitting back to my mystery gent from time to time but certainly not remaining with him for most of the journey.

   It was an odour I haven’t encountered for thirty-odd years — an unmistakable whiff from days gone by when football shorts were made of real cotton and chafed the insides of your thighs.

   This smart little gent smelled of mothballs.

   I’m tempted to ask what became of mothballs but I suppose the answer is obvious because they make your clothes stink. But it does beg the question: whatever happened to moths? Why did they stop inhabiting cupboards and wardrobes some time around 1977? Personally, I blame nylon underwear.

   While my nostrils are busy processing this new old information, arranging it next to the ming of sweaty bra, bearded lady and inevitable egg and cress sandwich, Mr Havana takes out a book and proceeds to read, his hands cupping its hardback cover like a polished lecturn. It’s a book about trades and shares — a very ‘on the money’ topic given the number of world economies suddenly on the skids. Problem is, it looks like it’s been lifted from the dusty back shelf of a failing Oxfam where it’s resided for the past half a century between the 1911 Pears Cyclopaedia and a margerine carton full of ear wax bound for Ethiopia.

   The remainder of my uncomfortable journey lasts another half an hour and I can’t take my eyes off this strange man. He doesn’t move and he doesn’t shuffle about but I can tell by the slight shrinkage of his jacket and the fixity of his knees that he’s working very hard to maintain this posture, poised on the edge of a table on a crowded train with book in hand. He reads it with a studious look on his face, like he’s weighing up these facts and figures of yesteryear and applying his new-found knowledge to today’s financial woes. There are graphs, which he traces with his finger like he was stroking a fluffy caterpillar prone to eczema, and he goes back to the words again and again as if re-evaluating their import in light of insights flashing beneath his boater.

   All the way to Walsall, in a haze of mothballs, he reads

   This out-of-date hardback book about trades and shares.

   All the way from page 7 to page 7.

   When the train finally groans its way into the station, I’m tempted to follow him, to see where he goes, but having been barred from the loo for the final part of my journey thanks to the crush, I badly need a wee.

   Disappointed to let this curious chap slip away, I follow the bearded lady into the Gents...


Old Kitty said...

You have loos on your train station!??!! Take care

fairyhedgehog said...

Cedar and lavender. That's what's taken over from mothballs, thank heaven!

jjdebenedictis said...

As far as possible scents to discover upon your train/bus/subway-mates are concerned, mothballs is quite acceptable.

Page 7 of 7. Now that's disturbing.

Whirlochre said...

Old Kitty

Loos, yes — with hand dryers a foot off the floor. I reckon they must have been installed by a hobbit.


How lucky we are in this brave new millennium...


Very odd, yes.

Sylvia said...

What an intriguing man! I wonder where he was going. I wish you could have followed him...