Monday, 23 June 2008

On The National Express

AFTER a year of such dramatic events - graduation, travelling, moving to a new city (London at that) - it seems strange to be settling down to a routine and old habits. Take trains, for example. A few years ago I toured England by train, for fun, and then and since have made many journeys by locomotive - each journey with an exciting story to tell. But since last September, it all got more advanced: 10 flights around the world in four months, then separate trips to Oslo and Budapest, the latter via Vienna, as you may have read. So it was strange then to find myself on Saturday going on a train adventure to Nottingham, but it didn't take long for the joys of train travel to return.

There are standard events - children screaming, other children wandering and pestering (one took great interest in Len, my mp3 player) - but unexpected events too - once I had a lady opposite me composing a breakfast of cornflakes and sliced banana with a dash of fresh milk; on Saturday I just had a lady painting her nails (the fumes amplified by the steamy weather).

Once when I was travelling up to Birmingham from Devon, I became surrounded by football fans who had come aboard at Bristol Parkway after attending a pivotal game at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff (I forget what the game was, but I believe it was an FA Cup round). I was keeping myself to myself, reading through some notes for an essay I was due to write on evolution and the origins of life, or more specifically the theories on these topics. My good friends the drunken supporters decided to take an interest.

"What are you reading?" one of them asked.

"About the theory of evolution," I answered.

"Well, now, we can tell you all about that" they began. "You see, there was once this chap called Darwin. Charles was his first name. Now he came up with this theory, about adaptation, natural selection and survival of the fittest. However, many people don't like this theory. They say that there are flaws with it, particularly the gaps in the fossil record. How could humans have come from monkeys, if there were no cave men or primitive men in between? Well I'll tell you a secret - these people did exist. They still do. They're called Manchester United supporters."

My favourite story from the Golden Age of train travel, excluding the impromptu excursion to Machynlleth that Rachel and I made last year, comes from Westbury, the premier train station of Wiltshire. Westbury has since confirmed itself as the hub of unusual activity on my mental rail map, but the story of the bearded man of 7/8 (yes, the month after 7/7) is for another time. On this occasion I was heading to Cardiff, but because it was a Sunday, I had to go via the middle of nowhere. Changing train at Westbury, I wandered the platforms looking for a clue as to which train was mine. All of the announcements contradicted each other, and the man on the platform wasn't in the least bit helpful. So I boarded the train that was there waiting, and asked a passenger if this was the train that I required.

"Goes to Trowbridge."

"Is that on the way to Cardiff?"

"I dunno. I'm going to Trowbridge."

"Right, thanks." I disembark, but with no better plan and now fairly confident that it did indeed go on to Cardiff, I got back on again and went on an adventure to Trowbridge.

I sat near to the man I had spoken to, but quickly regretted it. Discarded empty cans of Special Brew all around him, it didn't take long for him to strike up conversation once more.

"What's your name?" he asks.

Given that it would be rude to ignore him, I answered.

"Ah Simon," he said, "I think that was my name once."

I balked. How could this be so? How can a man forget his name?

"What do you mean?" I asked. "What do you call yourself now?"

His response was one of the most magnificently bizarre answers I have ever heard. He said, and I kid you not, nor do I paraphrase or exaggerate:

"Fungus of the Valley."

He claimed to be aiming for the world record for the longest fungus-related name ever. His full name he presently told me - I can no longer recall it, but every word was in some way mycotic, and there were a lot of words. This was a truly bizarre man, and ever so slightly creepy. I continue to wonder if he was on something stronger than Special Brew.

I now know where Trowbridge is. It's the first stop from Westbury on the line that indeed terminates at Cardiff Central. Which is a relief.

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