This is weird.
I find I am sitting next to the same guy on the homeward journey as on the outward.
There was a time when I’d have made something of that.
The train is nearly empty this morning, yet nearly every seat is proudly displaying a white standard – “reserved”. Being a rather unreserved individual I hunt for a seat appropriate to my calling. There are none to be found. I enter the next compartment and see one unreserved. There is someone sitting in the window seat. Although it clearly is an unremarkable seat in every particular, with typical British reserve I ask if the seat is taken. It obviously is not, but I ask anyway. You can’t just sit next to a stranger like that without the preliminary but obvious question. The second question usually has something to do with the train’s destination, the unreliability of the train service in general, or… the weather.
The ritual is observed.
This is not my usual train, I have to go via Manchester and make a connection and I know that timing is crucial here. The train is scheduled to pull in to Piccadilly five minutes before my outgoing train pulls out. If I miss my connection I will have an hour to wait.
I’ve done this before.
I know which platforms the trains arrive at and depart from and the shortcuts to and from. My exit from the train, or alightment as they insist on calling it on whichever foreign owned train company this is, is carefully planned. I know that I need to be in the second carriage, which is the one that stops nearest to the platform stairs.
As soon as they train leaves Oxford Road, I get up and stand by the door with every intention of being the first one off the train.
I also know how fast I shall have to run.
The return journey is relatively stress free, the train is timetabled to arrive at Manchester with absolutely no time whatsoever to catch my next train out. But, no worries, I only have to wait about seven minutes for the next one. I’m so relaxed that I fall asleep on the train and I’m slightly confused as it comes to a halt at Piccadilly. I read and re-read the platform signs but still can’t quite take it in. What makes it more confusing is the fact that we have stopped behind two other trains and this, the very edge of the platform is unfamiliar ground, usually the sole reserve of train-spotters. The platform clock strangely declares we have arrived ten minutes early. This gradually sinks in and I race to catch the early train.
I discover how fast I can run.
I arrive on a crowded platform as the train approaches. It only has two carriages and the platform is heaving. I get swept into the crowd as we scramble through the narrow doors and I scan the aisle for the first empty seats, fall into it and look ahead with relief.
The stranger in the window seat speaks.
It is the same guy I sat next to that morning. The ritual begins. I don’t believe this. I normally miss this train and catch the next one. This is not his usual route either. This could be mere coincidence.
And then I realise – a decision has to be made.