Ian McMillan: Lost your mobile? It may be buried in a plant pot

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Sometimes my life feels like a story that someone has written down and I’m just retelling it. Sometimes it’s a love story or a horror story, a cowboy story or a comedy story; occasionally it’s a Story With a Moral Purpose. It can be farce or tragedy, epic or miniature.

The other day something happened to me that felt like a story I couldn’t categorise. I’ll tell it to you now, and see if you can work out what kind of story it is. One thing I do know is that it’s a story about the North-South divide.

I’d been working in the deep south; earlier that morning I’d changed trains at London Bridge and fought my way through the acres and hectares of slow-moving suits, briefcases and laptops that were rolling out of the station as I was trying to roll in. I’d spent the day in deepest Sussex and I prepared to go home from Etchingham in the late afternoon. If you want a point of reference for Etchingham Station, it looks quite a lot like Malton, one of my favourite Yorkshire stations. It’s got the same lovely little main building, the same kind of door that leads to a delight of a café. Mind you, at Etchingham they call the station café a bistro.

A couple on the station platform were holding up a mobile phone as though they were trying to get a signal; I sympathised because earlier I’d found it difficult to get some bars on my display screen and I’d only managed to get a sweet spot by standing beside a bush and leaning towards a bench. They saw me looking. “Just found this,” the man said, waving the phone, “and we don’t know what to do with it.” I didn’t really know what to say but I suggested they handed it in to the guard on the next train. The woman looked at me. “You’re that poet off the radio,” she said. I nodded. She turned to the man and said: “He’ll make a poem out of this, just you watch.” The man didn’t seem interested in verse. “There’s no point giving it to the guard because the phone is lost here,” he said, speaking slowly because he knew I was a Yorkshireman. I pointed to the café. “Drop it off in the caff,” I said. I don’t normally call a café a caff but I found myself playing up to his idea of me as a Yorkshireman. “It’s shut,” the woman replied, “but it reopens for the evening rush in about an hour.”

We pondered that fact, in our different North-South divided universes. To them it was the most natural thing in the world that a station caff (sorry, bistro) should close for an hour in the afternoon and then reopen just as the besuited hordes returned from their important jobs in the City. To me it seemed daft. Either stay open, or shut: that’s t’Yorkshire way.

I pointed to a carefully tended plant pot. “Bury it in that,” I said. They looked at me aghast. “Bury it in that plant pot and leave a note for the café owner.” I’d got a plastic bag in my pocket. “Put it in this,” I said, with a hint of Northern triumph. There was a moment of stillness.

And then, do you know what? They did it. They buried the phone in the plant pot in my plastic bag. And in this story the North-South divide closed, just a little.