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Hell on wheels

Tom Chesshyre endures some mercifully brief encounters

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

During pre-covid times, my commute took me between Mortlake and Waterloo — and the train was invariably packed at rush hour, all seats taken.

So I found myself early one evening, squashed in the middle seat of three, facing three other office toilers, one of whom sat diagonally to my left and took out his phone. He dialled a number and began the most inane, loud conversation I have ever had the misfortune to overhear.

“All right Keith?” he began. “How are things?” Pause. “Really?” Pause. “Hmmm.” Pause. “Anything else?” Pause. “The weather’s not so good today.” Pause. “Hmmm.” Pause. “Yes, I’m on a train. I went to work today.” Pause. “Hmmm. Yes, the train is busy. Did you go to work today?” Pause. “Hmmm. What are you going to eat later?” Pause. “Hmmm. Maybe the weather will be better tomorrow.” Etcetera, etcetera, right from the off.

By Wandsworth Town, I had had enough. All five of us in the section of six seats in the otherwise silent carriage were listening. So were other nearby passengers. I could see that a few of us were struggling to read our papers and books.

What to do? I had had a long day and wanted to relax. So I said: “Excuse me, could you please end your call as it is disturbing us?” To which he ignored me, continuing his conversation with a note of petulance, asking Keith about
his car. I sensed a twitchiness among my fellow passengers. I also saw red.

“Excuse me, I think I can speak for us all in saying that your conversation is incredibly boring and we would all like you to end it now,” I said. Within earshot, all attention was now on this “showdown”. The man looked at me as though he would like to kill me, and with great reluctance finished his call, upon which there was a small round of applause. A sweet moment of victory on the 18:31 to Mortlake.

Altercations on trains can happen. When you are squashed together, good manners help. Lack of consideration for others can cause flashpoints — sometimes when you are not quite sure why.

On the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing, a drunken Russian with a crewcut and a bowling-ball belly almost attacked me. He looked ex-military and had been drinking vodka steadily for many miles, occasionally patrolling the corridor. Unfortunately, one of these patrols coincided with my return from a bowl of borscht in the dining carriage.

His face was full of rage and his eyes like bullet holes. He muttered something in Russian, which I took to be an attack on Western geopolitics, for which I was to blame. His fists were clenched. He looked as though he would like to strangle me and throw me from the train.

Fortunately, at this precise moment, a provodnitsa with spiky dyed-red hair stepped in. Provodnitsa is the name given to the mainly women (very few are men) who attend carriages on the Trans-Siberian. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she said in English. “He drinks too much.” And so my life was saved by a spiky-haired provodnitsa, somewhere north of Mongolia in the middle of Siberia. I will be forever grateful.

Agatha Christie hit a rich seam with Murder on the Orient Express. And she would have had a field day with the Indian Pacific service covering 2,720 miles from Perth in Western Australia to Sydney. Partially this is due to the free drink in the gold-class lounge carriage and the length of journey: 65 hours.

I took this trip during my train travel book, Ticket to Ride: Around the World on 49 Unusual Train Journeys. Part of the style of this book involved getting to know fellow passengers, hearing stories as we clattered along the tracks.

By the bar in the gold-class lounge, the drinks and the tales merrily flowed. Dave, Joe and June told me about their lives as civil servants, carpenters, miners and barmaids, how much they loved rugby, the importance of the Western Australian wheat belt, how one farm we were passing though is “bigger than Lebanon” and how kangaroo train damage is common.

All was going well. I returned to my cabin to watch the outback rattle by for a while. Later, back in the gold-class lounge, however, the mood had turned.

The feeling seemed to be that payment for stories was now required and that a nosy Pom (i.e. me) ought to put his hand in his pocket. Copious Crown lagers and glasses of chardonnay appeared to have settled this matter. Cold shoulders and darting looks were the order of the day as we rolled on through the bush. Like the man calling Keith, I had (somehow) become an outcast with nowhere to hide. It made for a memorable (and uneasy) ride.

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