The following tale may well sound a little like a parable. If you have read some of my other musings, you will be aware that I will sometimes let my imagination go off on a little wander. But what I am about to describe happened for real. It was a defining moment in my life and one that I will never forget. When I look back on it, I often catch myself asking 'did that really happen?'
This really happened.
When I first started working in Sheffield, I did not have a car and used to travel on the train every weekend to see my daughters who live in West Yorkshire. The first leg of the journey was the Virgin Trains service from Sheffield to Leeds. On a Friday afternoon, this service was always extremely overcrowded and it was rarely possible to get a seat. It seemed that Virgin were more interested in profit than safety and people would pack the train, sitting or standing in corridors, their piled luggage worryingly blocking emergency exits. After a couple of weeks, I was so used to this scenario, that I never bothered looking for a seat on the train. I would just go straight to the corridor and sit myself down on the floor, usually just outside where the toilet cubicle was in case I wanted to use it.
One afternoon, there I was as usual sat in my favourite floor space. The rest of the corridor began to slowly fill up with people less familiar with the situation who had wandered up and down the train looking for a seat before eventually resigning themselves to the same fate as myself. As the train pulled away, I looked up to see who was sharing my little bit of corridor this week.
Furthest away from me at the far end was a man who I guessed was a bit younger than myself. He wore a smart off the peg suit and had removed his tie so that his pale green shirt collar was open. He was reading a copy of Esquire magazine and occasionally taking a sip of lager from a can that he managed to skilfully hold in one hand at the same time as using it to turn pages. Next to him were two young women in their early twenties. I assumed by their attire and luggage that they were students on a trip after a week at one of Sheffield's universities. One of them had an MP3 player and kept regularly handing one of the earphones over to her friend to share in the track she was listening to. Their faces came close together so each one could reach one of their ears with the little speaker. It was a touching show of friendship and bonding. Further along there was a young Asian lad, perhaps in his late teens. He wore clothes that one would associate with the stereotypical 'hoodie': expensive looking trainers, tracksuit bottoms and hooded top, the hood of which was currently down so that his dark shoulder length hair which could probably have done with a bit of a wash was visible. Between the Asian lad and myself was a woman who looked like she was in her late 20s. She was sat on top of a suitcase which she had propped up against the wall. She wore a hippy style big billowing brown skirt and a multi coloured woollen jumper. Friendship bracelets adorned her wrists. Her blonde hair was fashioned into dreadlocks. I was surprised to note that someone so young had reached into her handbag as soon as she settled and fetched out some knitting which she proceeded to click click with, her rhythm providing an interesting sub-beat to the sound of the train wheels bumping along the track.
The interesting part of my tale begins with the young Asian fellow, who five minutes after we left the station, proceeded to light up a cigarette, apparently oblivious to the 'No Smoking' sign on the wall behind him and the general societal trend towards dislike for the pastime. I looked at my other fellow passengers, all of whom showed signs of displeasure on their faces, but apparently not quite enough to actually say anything. So that task fell to me.
"Do you mind, mate?" I asked the young lad.
"Ay?" He replied with a not unexpected level of eloquence.
"Can you put that out please? It's no smoking on the train," I continued.
"Oh, is it? Sorry feller. I thought it was all right in the corridor," he innocently explained.
"OK, well it isn't all right," I said and indicated the no smoking sign behind him with my eyes. He turned to look.
"Oh, sorry," he said and then stubbed out his cigarette on the smooth grey wall, leaving a little black mark where he had done so. Not to waste any, he put what he had left back into the silver packet and slipped it back into his tracksuit pocket. The journey resumed as before, with each of the passengers described above returning to their activity of choice after the minor disturbance.
Half an our passed with little to report apart from the ticket check and the occasional visit to the toilet cubicle by a passenger who was lucky enough to have boarded before Sheffield and therefore be in obsession of seat. Then suddenly the relative peace was shattered by the unmistakable laughter of drunk blokes. I could not see them at first but was nevertheless pretty sure a couple of minutes before they hoved into view that there were some drunk blokes about to grace us with their rowdy presence. Although I do not drink any more, I have done my fair share in my youth and the happy exuberance that I could hear made me chuckle inside. They staggered through the sliding door at the end of the corridor and stumbled towards the toilet, deftly managing not to tread on anyone's toes, a feat which defied the apparent lack of coordination in the rest of their bodies. They appeared to be in their forties. Each was wearing jeans and a Celtic football shirt. The shorter of the two was balding and had shaved his hair close in a gesture of acceptance. His taller pal had dark hair brushed back in a style that might have looked a bit like Elvis, had he had used a bit more gel and refrained from running his fingers through it.
"All right folks?" said the shaven short arse. "This is George. He's 40 today and life has well and truly begun, hey Georgie?" This raised a few nervous smiles from my fellow passengers.
"That's right, Dave," answered George with a relaxed slur. "And when we get to Leeds, it's going to begin some more!" said George, clearly thinking he had told a quite superb joke and seemingly oblivious to the fact that something can't begin more than once.
"Are you going in first or am I?" said Dave.
"We could go together," suggested George.
"Hey, steady on, pal! Jim warned me to watch out for you when you've had a few. You wait here and I'll be out in a tick. You can keep the crowd amused."
Dave went into the toilet and the big sliding door slowly shut. George leaned back against the wall and began to fish in his jeans pocket. He pulled out first a lighter and then a packet of Marlborough, which he began to open.
"Here we go again," I thought. Before George had the time to light his cigarette, I once again took the responsibility nobody else seemed to want.
"Hey, George," I said. "You'll have to wait 'til we get to Wakefield if you want that mate. The train normally stops there for five minutes and you can go out onto the platform. It's only another 15 minutes or so. Not in here please mate. It's no smoking." Once again I gestured with my eyes towards the sign which was on the wall behind him.
"What? Ah, bollocks! I'm gasping. How long did you say?"
"We'll be there in about 15 minutes," I answered him, double checking with my watch as I did so.
"OK, cheers, pal. You off to Leeds are you? Going out tonight? Maybe you can tag along with us. Here, have one of these," he said fishing into a carrier bag that he carried in his left hand. He pulled out a can of Stella and held it out in my direction.
"No thanks mate, some other time maybe," I said, not wanting to get into a lengthy debate at this point.
"Ah, the missus not letting you out tonight, hey?" asked George in a knowing tone.
"Something like that mate, yeh," I decided to go along with it. With that, Dave emerged from the toilet cubicle. He had used water from the sink to slick back his hair so that his Elvis look was much improved.
"He hasn't been showing us up has he?" said Dave to no one in particular as he nodded towards George. George used his hands to push himself away from the wall and then staggered into the toilet and the door slid shut once more. Dave continued with a bit of banter for a couple of minutes before George emerged and they both wandered off further down the train in the direction of the shop.
"Cheers, mate," said George to me as he left.
"Aye, cheers George," I replied. "Have a good night, fellers."
About fifteen minutes later, the train arrived into Wakefield station as predicted. An announcement came over the intercom system saying that it would be waiting on the platform for five minutes as it had arrived early. I wondered if George had remembered to take his chance somewhere further down the train. A few seconds before the alarm sounded to indicate the doors would be closing, onto the train stepped a quite extraordinary sight.
A giant of a man had to duck and turn slightly sideways as he came though the door. He looked like someone who Mike Tyson might hire as a bodyguard. He looked to be at least 7 feet tall, with shoulders that would have made Atlas envious. He wore a long black overcoat which was undone at the top to reveal a Mister T style penchant for gold chains. Gold teeth could also be seen when his lips parted slightly. He had tight afro and a black tattoo of an unrecognisable symbol on his left cheek. He came and stood against the wall directly opposite where I was sitting on the floor. I pulled in my feet to make room. There he stood, towering above me menacingly.
Then it happened. From inside his coat, he pulled out a gold cigarette case and lighter. He coolly flicked open the case and flipped a cigarette, catching it in his lips and lighting it one smooth piece of choreography.
"Oh, fuck!" I thought inside my head. But I really had no choice. If I did not stick to my guns on this one then I would not be able to look myself in the mirror.
"Excuse me mate," I said, drawing on my reserves of courage to prevent my voice from wavering. "It's no smoking on the train."
"Who says?" asked the man.
"I says, and the sign over there says," I answered him.
"And who are you?" he asked further. His voice conveyed a withering disdain.
Time seemed to slow down at that moment. I slowly drew another long breath and got onto my feet. Although I am quite a big man myself, I was still looking up at quite an angle as I looked him straight in the eye and held my gaze, unwavering. I was trying hard to show no sign of fear in my body language.
"I am someone who doesn't want to breathe in your cigarette smoke," I answered. We continued to stare. It was truly primeval. I held fast and did not flinch. To my overwhelming relief, after what felt like minutes in my mind, I noticed his shoulders relax and I knew that it was over. He smiled, showing just how many gold teeth he had and then went into the toilet cubicle and threw his lit cigarette into the toilet where it went out with a sizzle. He said nothing more. He just returned, still smiling. I remained standing, knowing we would soon be at Leeds station where I was to alight.
As I walked through the station towards the exit, I felt a tap on my back and turned to see the suited Esquire magazine chap who had been on the train standing there.
"I just wanted to say something, mate," he said to me. I raised my eyebrows invitingly. "That, mate, was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I wanted to say something to the first feller, but you beat me to it. I'm kind of glad you did!"
"Ha ha! Yeh. It did get a bit hairy at the end there. But once I had started ...."
"Seriously, mate. I just had to say something to you. You were magnificent. I wish I had half your bottle." He held out his hand to shake mine and I obliged with a smile before we both went our separate ways. I hadn't really thought about it too much up until that point. It just happened. But I paused and thought and in that moment I knew I had become a different man. Before I did not know I had that kind of courage. Before I did not know that I had the choice to be magnificent.
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