There was something very strange about someone who started a conversation by saying: “‘ow do!”. Especially when you had both been sitting together for some while in a railway carriage – self-consciously ignoring each other, while wishing that one of you would kindly check the door’s window so as to stop the draught of the unseasonably cold June day. So not really ignoring each other at all, but directing wishful thinking from one mind to the other without any real confidence that either of you were getting through with various modes of desperate or aggressive telepathy, sporadic bouts of thought-transference between random strangers on a train.
Why didn’t you get up to inspect the window yourself? Perhaps the man was too hot and would be annoyed at the window being deliberately draught-proofed. Ask him first, then! But you rather felt that a woman couldn’t be the first to speak in such a situation. How could she know what sort of Pandora’s box she was opening by the very act of opening her mouth, where a man and woman, lifetime strangers so far, were alone together in an enclosed space that had an hour yet to expire before arriving at its destination.
But the matter was suddenly taken out of her hands, out of YOUR hands, as the man leant forward in the seat opposite and said, crisply, clearly:
After a period of almost a silent hour, since being in this carriage together, she thought this was a strange opening gambit, even for a stranger to address to another stranger.
“Pardon,” she said as a reflex. Polite till the end, she thought, even if he were an axe murderer! On the contrary, he looked quite ordinary, quite UNstrange, didn’t he? Why expect the worst?
Now that made no sense at all, did it? At least ‘ow do’ was acceptable in the context, if still being a strange opening to any conversation, trainboard or otherwise. But OO EE was decidedly interpretable as a downbeat prospect for any continuation of the conversation. Most relationships struck up between strangers during train journeys could traditionally grow into full life histories after the testing or teasing ground of small talk otherwise harmless to anybody participating in such chance meetings. Sometimes tall stories were told. Or merely complaints shared about British Rail travel experiences as well as tales of eating stale buffet sandwiches.
“oo ee, I think I have lost my ticket.” He rummaged in his jacket pockets, including those secret fabric containers inside and the near vestigial one just under the collar. “The man who checks them will soon be here. Oo deer.”
For a moment, she assumed he meant the ticket man checking his pockets, but not being at cross purposes for long, she soon realised that he meant checking his ticket.
So far, she had plumped for saying nothing beyond what she had already said as a reflex. You had indeed forgotten the draught from the window, either because it had ceased to be a draught at all and become simply more air than you needed or because he, the other passenger, had taken the wind from your sails with his evidently growing concern over his lost ticket. And you believed it was definitely a LOST ticket rather than any ticket present and correct that you could place in the palm of your hand to inspect – or perhaps an imaginary ticket that he had never had in the first place. Or perhaps it was a ticket he had DELIBERATELY lost so as to create a diversion from his act of propositioning you. And if deliberate, it was presumably not lost at all, but resided in one of those inner compartments of his jacket.
This was one of those trains with a corridor, a fact that had given you some cause for comfort. The leather tongue on the door indicated that we are not here talking about modern times and she was indeed no modern lady but one with a fashion sense from the 1950s, so it all seemed to ring true. She wouldn’t have got on if the train hadn’t got a corridor. She eyed the red chain in the alarm slot above the questionably weather-proof window. Belt and braces, she thought – and even the 1950s had a sense of health-and-safety, she was relieved to remind herself. A ‘ladies only’ carriage would have provided a third safeguard, but you couldn’t have everything. A ‘ladies only’ carriage usually had a large green triangular label stuck to the window.
The man seated opposite had evidently heard the approach of the ticket inspector down the corridor. You looked round to check, just as a shadow was thrown across you.
“‘ow do,” the new arrival said with a smile, as he slid the inner door open.
(‘Pardon’ = almost an exact anagram of ‘Pandora’, I have just suddenly realised after finishing this new story today!!)