Ian McMillan: When a choo-choo nearly chewed my loose shoe

This is a story about the kindness of strangers. It’s also a story that involves a long stick with a hook on the end and a pair of badly-fitting shoes, but mainly it’s a story about the kindness of strangers.

Let’s start with the badly-fitting shoes, a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews almost sang in Mary Poppins. The events I’m speaking of happened a number of years ago when, as soon as I entered a shoe shop, I was desperate to get out. A lot of men of a certain age feel the same. So, I’d gone to buy some new shoes and was, as usual, disconcerted by the cathedral-like hush of the shop, by the intimidating women who wanted to measure your feet, by the rows and rows of shoes sticking their tongues out at you. I tried a pair on, ignoring the web of holes in my socks that made them look like small black string vests. The shoes were far too big and hung off my feet like barges but I said, “I’ll have ‘em!” and hurried out clutching the bag.

The next day my old shoes finally collapsed so I put the new ones on and went to catch a train. Memory has wiped the actual station from my mind but it could well have been that I had to change trains at Sheffield. My connection from Barnsley was a little late so I ran down the platform to catch the Manchester train. Running is too good a word for what my XXL footwear made me do: I slobbed and slipped and moonwalked along. Passers-by assumed I was drunk and stepped aside, protecting their children and elderly relatives. I got to the train, breathing deeply.

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I stepped up to the train, the opposite of what Tom Jones did in Green, Green Grass of Home. At that moment my huge left shoe, loosened by my stumbling run, fell on to the track between the train and the platform edge. It didn’t Mind the Gap. As it did so, the guard raised his whistle to his lips. I gestured to him to stop and said: “I think my shoe’s dropped on the line.” I don’t know why I said “I think.” I knew it had. My foot was cold.

He put his whistle away. He shouted to a colleague: “This bloke’s dropped his shoe on’t track!” and his mate went to get the long stick with the hook on the end. At the time my shoe fell trackwards, I assumed I was the only person this had ever happened to since the time of Stephenson’s Rocket, but the existence of the hooked stick told me otherwise.

A small crowd gathered and rumours spread. A dog was on the line. A wallet was on the line. A ticket was on the line. A twenty pound note was on the line. Somebody’s job was on the line. Passengers got off the train but, interestingly, they were more benign than irate. The man with the hooked stick fished around. “I can see it,” he said, to a murmur of appreciation from the onlookers, “but I can’t quite get to it.” They groaned.

Then, to a round of applause, he hooked it and hauled it up. He held the shoe in the air like a fairground prize and gave it to me. “Be more careful next time,” he said, like a gentle old-time copper. I thanked him profusely and climbed aboard. A whistle blew.

The kindness of strangers. You can’t beat it.