The journey from Norwich to London was supposed to take two hours. It took a little over four. When we left Norwich, all seemed on schedule. Then they got us to leave the train and wait on the platform in the cold East of England wind. By the time we got loaded back on, the Abellio Greater Anglia train company had somehow managed to squeeze three trainloads of passengers onto one (if animals were to travel like that the European Union would probably intervene).
Next to me, a young woman, apparently impervious to the discomfort of close physical proximity to her fellow passengers, pulls on a ball of wool at the bottom of her tote bag on the floor as far as the thread will reach, and resumes crocheting. I’m not sure whether to get irritated by the space – already reduced by circumstances – she lays claim to, or admire her refusal to have her plans altered. I stare at the purple and orange egg-shaped dome forming between her fast-moving fingers. Is it a future baby mitten? Or an aspiring sock? Leaning against the gangway wall opposite me, H. is absorbed in a volume of Georges Simenon. I wonder if I have enough room to open my Donna Leon novel and hold it far enough for my long-sighted eyes to focus on the print. My reading glasses are in my rucksack, and there’s definitely not enough space to turn around and take it off my back.
I ask if delays are usual on this line. Heads nod, long suffering. The tall, youngish man on my right has earphones plugged into his ears. “Are you listening to the match?” I ask.
“Yes, do you want the score?”
“Belgium’s just scored.” He looks around, as though checking for anyone who might be listening. “I’ve probably spoilt it for everybody else now.”
A slim, elderly lady with a short, blonde, spiky haircut with a shock of pink, overhears. “Are you Belgian?” she asks.
“No, but we’re currently living in Brussels. Have you been there?”
She shakes her head, while the man nods, saying he’s been there once, briefly.
“It’s quirky,” I tell them. “Fantastic Trappist monk ale.”
The train stops in the middle of the countryside. Are we in Essex or Suffolk? There’s an announcement on the loudspeaker but it’s too faint to hear.
“Excuse me… Excuse me…” A very young man wearing glasses, in train company uniform, edges through the crowd. I tell him we can’t hear the announcements. He nods and says that’s what he’s here for. He steps over people’s bags, feet and bodies and finally reaches the staff cubicle to make an announcement. This time, it can be heard loud and clear over our heads. We’re informed that there’s a broken down train ahead of us, and we can’t move until that’s been removed. Sadly, though, nobody has any idea when that will happen. Then he fights his way to the buffet and brings out a large bagful of small bottles of still water. They get passed around. I hand one to H. “Aren’t you thirsty?” he asks, offering it to me. “Yes, but there’s no room to get to the loo, afterwards,” I say.
The train moves. A man in a suit wants to get past me, and I squash myself against the wall to let him through. He says he needs to get off at the next stop. No sooner does he speak than the train slows down and grinds to a halt.
The man with the earphones turns out to be a book illustrator. He often travels from Norwich to London and says such delays are not infrequent. “Oh, so that’s why Norwich rents are so low,” I say.
He says the train company has received funding for new trains which will travel a lot faster. The only problem is that no funding has been received yet to upgrade the rails. So the fast new trains will have to go slowly, anyway, since they can’t whizz on the old rails.
The train starts again.
The lady with the shock of pink hair asks me about Bruges. I tell her it’s beautiful but that she should also visit Ghent. “How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix,” says the man in the suit. “Or is it from Aix to Ghent?”
The illustrator and I stare at each other for a second, trying to remember. I don’t recognise the quotation. The lady with the shock of pink hair thinks it’s “from Ghent to Aix”.
I turn to H. “That’s one for you.”
He looks up from his book. “‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix‘ – Robert Browning.”
The train reaches the next station, and the man in the suit gets off, saying goodbye to us.
The illustrator slides his finger in the screen of his smartphone. “Here it is. ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.”
He hands his phone to the lady with the shock of pink hair. She reads:
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he:
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
I feel my knees have locked after hours of leaning against the wall. Outside the train, the East Anglian countryside is flooded by a magenta sunset. The train speeds up. We listen to the lady with the shock of pink hair.
And all I remember is, friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ‘twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgess voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.
Outside the train, it’s now dark. The train pulls into London Liverpool Street. We say goodbye to our fellow passengers. Everybody smiles. “It was really nice meeting you,” we all say.