Ian McMillan: The quiet carriage it wasn’t

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I’m sitting on a crowded, rattling, squeaking, screeching train going between one small Yorkshire town and one slightly larger Yorkshire town; you might think the noises I’ve just described are referring to the din created by the ancient rolling stock that prowls these particular rails, but I’m actually talking about the passengers. Everybody in these crowded carriages is communicating, one way or another.

There’s the middle-aged bloke who is bellowing into his phone as though it’s a tin can attached with stretchy string to a tin can in his wife’s hand in their bungalow. He’s told the bloke next to him he’s going to ring her to tell her he’ll be home soon. “Can tha hear me?” he shouts; then he shouts again “I say, can tha hear me?” The rest of the train, indeed the rest of the rail network, can hear him, but his wife can’t. He’ll continue to raise his voice for the next three stations. I think he might need some new string on his tin can.

Then I text him and he text me and I text him and next thing I know he’s text Gladys.

The woman opposite me is telling her friend about a message she’s had, and she does that very Yorkshire thing of not using the past tense of the verb “to text”. “He text me and then I text him,” she says, meaning “texted”. “Then I text him and he text me and I text him and next thing I know he’s text Gladys.” The woman’s friend is as amazed as I am. How did Gladys come into it? “I thought she were dead!” the woman’s friend says. “No, she’s not dead, and if she were, she’d be texting from Hell!” the first woman hisses with a vehemence that suggests Gladys is not the top of her Christmas present list. “I say, can tha hear me?” the middle-aged bloke yells, emphasising each word as though this will help them travel towards his wife’s waiting ear.

Some young people are standing up at the end of the carriage near the door and one of the girls says to one of the boys: “I’m not talking to you. Do you hear me? I’m not talking to you.” There is a silence in the group then the boy who has just been told he’s not being talked to says: “Well, I’m not talking to you neither.” There is another pause and then the girl says: “Well I’m never going to talk to you.” The woman’s mate says “Are you sure Gladys isn’t dead?” and the middle-aged bloke shouts: “If tha can hear me, tap on’t receiver! Tha’s no need to talk if tha dun’t want!”

A businessman in a suit so sharp even the stains on it are sharp is typing away on his laptop as fast as a concert pianist approaching the climax of a concerto. He pounds the keys, hitting them so hard I’m amazed they don’t break. It’s like very heavy rain on the roof of a caravan. He stares fiercely at the screen and thumps the keys harder as though they’re a slab of bonfire toffee and he’s trying to break of a bit to chew. The kids at the end of the carriage tell each other they’re not talking to each other and the woman says to her mate: “Yes, Gladys moved to Ingoldmells that night our Ronald had to ring our Arthur to fetch him back from Halifax without his cap.” The middle-aged man howls into his phone: “I. Say. Can. Tha. Hear. Me?” each word like a clap of thunder.

And me? I just sit and write it all down.