The man sat in the seat opposite and Henry focused on appearing entirely engrossed in his book. In fact, he was not enjoying the book: some dark Noir that made him feel vaguely anxious.
“Going far?” the man asked.
He was plump, this man, and sweating. Henry felt bad for noticing it. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Hmm?” he responded casually, as though emerging from the depths of the book.
“Long way to go,” the man said. “Have you far to go?”
“Oh, I…to Manchester,” he replied.
“Ah,” the man responded, as though he knew something about Manchester that Henry did not. He redoubled his efforts to appear engrossed in his Noir.
“They say it’s best, don’t they?” the man remarked.
“To take public transport.”
“Do they?” Henry tried hard not to appear annoyed, but couldn’t this man see? Couldn’t this man notice that he wished to read his book and be left alone with his thoughts? That he really didn’t wish to engage in small talk with strangers on trains and that his talking to him was really quite intrusive and unnecessary? He was far more comfortable with uncomfortable silences than he was with superficial chitchat.
“For the environment,” the man said. “Saves on carbon.”
“Oh,” Henry responded. “Yes, yes.”
“I mean…” continued the man. “Imagine if all of us here, on this train…” He gestured down the coach beyond Henry, who turned to look at the rows of people: the blank faces and the families, the business people in dark suits with their mobile phones and laptops, the students with their headphones (he’d have to remember that one for next time – a book just didn’t cut it anymore), and the small groups of pensioners laughing like schoolchildren out on a day trip with their packed sandwiches and flasks of tea. “…Imagine if all of us here hadn’t taken public transport,” the man said.
“I know,” Henry replied, not being quite sure what the man was getting at.
“Think of all that carbon,” he added.
“Well, yes,” Henry said; but then he really thought about it for a second: all those people, all the people on this train and on all the trains in all the world: how much extra carbon that would amount to if each one of them had taken a car instead of the train. He suddenly became anxious that the rail services just weren’t doing enough to promote this sort of thing. Briefly, for a fraction of a second, he considered selling his car, but concluded life would be much too difficult without it. In his circumstances, that is, and you had to examine these things on a case by case basis.
“Think of all the people in the world,” the man said.
“I know,” Henry responded.
“It’s frightening,” the man added. “Quite frightening.”
The driver’s voice came through the PA system, loud but unintelligible, and Henry considered how easily he could be sitting on the wrong train. Of course, this man, this curious man, had quite clearly heard him say that he was travelling to Manchester and hadn’t even slightly questioned it, so of course he was sitting on the right train. But…was he? Was he going where he wanted to go?
“Yes…” he said. “I suppose it is frightening.”
“How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“How old are you?”
Henry squirmed in his seat and really wished that this man would go away. Perhaps he could change seats, pretend to go to the buffet car and find somewhere else to sit. “I’m forty-seven,” he said.
“Had you older,” the man remarked.
Older? Did he look older? How much older? Henry’s mental image of himself had more or less become fixed at about thirty-five. He frowned heavily.
“Oh, not that much older,” the man said. “About fifty, I thought.”
Fifty? Did he look fifty? When had that happened? When had he gone from thirty-five to looking fifty years old? Did his wife think that he looked fifty? He came to the unsettling realisation that he really wasn’t sure what his wife thought about anything. And fifty was just around the corner. He’d been avoiding it, this milestone, putting it off. He wasn’t ready to confront being fifty, not least on a train journey from London to Manchester on a Tuesday morning in September with a complete stranger that he found disdainful. Fifty! How had that happened?
“Not far wrong,” the stranger said. “And did you know,” he went on “that there are more than twice as many people on this planet as there were when you were born?”
Henry began to feel unwell, clammy, a panicky feeling in his stomach. His head wobbled with the motion of the train, swaying in opposing rhythm to the man. His whole body seemed to oscillate back and forth in a sickening way.
“Really?” Henry said.
The man nodded vigorously and brought out a packet of mints from his jacket pocket. He put two in his mouth–a small, puckered mouth with full lips–and offered the packet to Henry.
“No thank you,” he said.
“That’s twice as many people on this train than there would have been when you were born,” the man continued. “Twice as many people driving cars, buying stuff, eating stuff, consuming resources,” he said, drawing out his vowels in a most unpleasant way.
“What can we do about it?” Henry said.
“Well you tell me,” the man replied. “You tell me.” He stared expectantly at Henry as if actually waiting for an answer. It made him feel responsible somehow, personally responsible, and he felt the blood filling his cheeks.
“I…I don’t know,” he stammered. “What can we do?”
The man looked at him with ambivalence. “Exactly,” he said. “Exactly.”
Henry felt himself to be deeply disturbed by this whole conversation. He stared out of the window, watching another town pass by with its tower blocks and flyovers, its cables and construction sites, and the whole complex mess of human life. Steadily, the town gave way to the suburbs, and then back to open country, and he began to feel better.
“How old did you say you were?” the man asked, suddenly. “Fifty, was it?”
“No, no, I’m forty-seven,” he answered, feeling his stomach tighten into sickening knots again.
“My father died when he was fifty-three,” the man said. “Imagine that.”
Henry did the quick calculation and was horrified at the thought of only having another six years to live – six years – what would he do? What would he do?
“Yep,” the man went on. “Aneurism. Went just like that.” He clicked his fingers and it startled Henry more than it ought to. “Knew nothing about it,” he added.
“Terrible,” Henry said. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s a long time ago, now,” the man said. “That’s life I suppose.”
Henry nodded gravely and stared out of the window. Cars made their way along country lanes as though in slow motion as the train, surged past. He had the sudden feeling that his life was going too fast – way too fast – and he wanted it to stop a moment, just pause everything for a moment while he got his breath back, while he stopped to figure things out, decide what he wanted to do, how he wanted to live, where he wanted to be – except he couldn’t stop things and everything was racing on too fast and too inevitably in one direction without pause. And why was it so difficult to keep things on track and keep things straight, shape life the way he wanted it to be? When had he become fifty? When had his life started to go wrong?
“You might want to get checked out,” the man said. “You can never be too careful.”
“No,” Henry answered, as the train, at last, pulled to a stop at a small station somewhere in the Midlands. He couldn’t even see a station name; a nowhere place, he thought, perfect. “This is my stop,” he said, and he stood up and grabbed his coat and bag from the overhead luggage rack.
“I thought you were going to Manchester,” the man said.
“I don’t know where I’m going,” Henry told him, and he handed him the book. “Here,” he said. “I’ve finished with it.”
He walked down the coach and stepped from the train onto a deserted platform. He stood there holding his bag, facing the carriage, as though waiting for something to happen. The man was gawping at him through the window, holding up the book for him to see, as though Henry might have simply forgotten to take it after all. Then the train began to move off, and the man continued to stare after him, the book pressed up to the window as the line of carriages pulled away down the platform, on down the track, and eventually, out of sight.