20 APRIL 1991, Page 52




Narrative train

Tom Castro

In Competition No. 1672 you were asked for a sonnet beginning, 'Opposite me . . .', and describing a ghastly railway journey, in the tracks, as it were, of Rupert Brooke. It was good of Jaspistos to draw this poem to my attention. It is the antithesis of honey for tea, and I hope he fares better in his own travels this week.

In Brooke's sonnet it was two Germans who snored and sweated opposite him in a foetid compartment before dawn on the way to Milan. The competition entries were notable for their misanthropy. Your objects of hatred were, most commonly: children, Walkmans, drunks, football fans, kissing couples, litter and smells (whisky, deodorant, beer, smoke, vomit). I seemed to detect too a certain amount of snobbery among what might be called the clattering classes. One thing is clear, travelling by BR, whether as a commuter (on a so-called

Network) or on an InterCity train is a nightmare; the most common metaphor you used was hell.

Commiserations to Roger Woddis (whose disapproval of post-coital smoking in a mixed carriage was oddly reminiscent of the man on the Woolwich train in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell; are they by any chance related?); Basil Ransome-Davies (smoking hell); P.I. Fell (smoking and walkman leading to murder); and Katie Mallett (breast-feeding, football fans, hell). Those printed below win £14 each. I am pleased to say that Chivas Regal are generously offering another year's weekly bonus of their 12-year-old de luxe blended whisky,

the first bottle of which goes to Jermyn Thynne.

Opposite me and sleeping like a log

Was one old man, but otherwise the carriage Was empty, and the unremitting fog Whitened the window. My ill-fated marriage Preoccupied my tired and bludgeoned brain Which mouse-like ran around its cage of fault And courses-open-to-us, till the train Juddering slightly as it left Mill Halt, I sensed the man in front of me was dead. The eyes were shut, but he was ghastly white, Should I have touched him? What could I have said?

Besides, my knowledge of such things is slight. The greatest agony of all is doubt.

I sat still there till my stop, and then got out.

(Jermyn Thynne) Opposite me the toilet door swings back, Poises and hangs, slams on its broken lock And bounces open; down its reckless track The ageing diesel's rocking rolling-stock Pitches and yaws, as if to dislocate And wrench its fractious units each from each. Two seats away, a lone inebriate Sulks in forbidden smoke, or, moved to speech, Hurls slurring curses, sacred and profane. • Across the aisle a lady sits, grim-faced, Unused to squalor, swaddled in disdain. Her eye meets mine; the gorge of her distaste Ejects a single, all-censorious `Tut!'.

Opposite me the toilet door slams shut.

(Philip Dacre) Opposite me a lady dressed in black Looked like a Countess at the very least; In all her ordered beauty was no crack: Nothing was out of place, and nothing creased.

I'd bought a sausage roll at Waterloo, And I was ravening as any beast; I put it to my mouth; she made a moue As of a witness to some ghastly feast.

She turned her head, and set herself to stare Out of the window; in my desperate hand The pastry shattered, drifting in the air; I saw one flake upon her stocking stand. My hand stole forth to save the situation; She turned her head, and screamed. I'm on probation. (Paul Griffin) Night Train North: End of Hilary Term Opposite me two students smoke and snog And smoke again, the Walkmans in their ears Tinnily buzzing; rucksacks piled in tiers Block every gangway; through the man-made fog I lurch and stumble to the door, then jog Awkwardly down the corridor; my fears Well justified by what at length appears — A loo that really has turned to a bog.

Outside, wet fields and flaring cities pass, Alternate, without sense of time or place, A limbo that awaits the final stroke Of judgment, unsurprised . . . the streaming glass Dimly reflects my pinched and anxious face: Opposite me two students snog and smoke.

(John E. Cunningham) Opposite me, as I awoke, I saw, (Barely a blur, as I'd mislaid my specs), A sight that filled my mortal heart with awe The Blessed Virgin, purest of her sex!

White apron; dress as blue as sky or sea; And Lamb-white nimbus bright upon her head. Heaven's Hope and Glory! Mother of the Three!

At last she spoke. 'Don't pick your spots!', she said.

Gobsmacked, I gasped: 'You're not the Virgin Whatsit!'

`No — Staff Nurse Reid from Dermatology. And if, like some fool child, you scratch those spots, it Will spread like wildfire, Friend, believe you me.'

Oh, that stern tone. I'd more than met my match.

Two hours — two aeons — dying for a scratch. . . . (Steve Bremner) Opposite me, a harmless-looking bloke Sat sensibly. He did not wear a pair Of headphones tintinnabulating, smoke, Nor challenge the inspector on his fare.

He did not ask for crossword clues, nor check My knowledge of recherché TV sagas, Nor try to burst a boil upon his neck.

He never lined up seven different lagers.

He did not smell. His clothing? Inoffensive.

I was not treated to his traveller's tales.

It's just that at Penzance, and rather pensive, He leaned across to murmur 'As the rails Rush us to Aberdeen, our common goal, Please rest assured — I'm praying for your soul.'

(Ern L. Wellbilge)