Wednesday 10 April 2024

The Man on the Train by Michael Barrington, a gin and tonic tall with lemon twist


The Man on the Train

‘Good morning, George.’

‘And a good morning to yourself, Harry,’ he replied with a smile. ‘It’s another beautiful day and we are still walking upright,’ he quipped. It was the same remark he made every last Thursday of the month, and had been doing so for as long as Harry could remember.

‘It’s the usual, then.'

‘Yes, thanks, Harry,’ and he handed over the six pounds and ten pence through the narrow ticket office window for the round trip. It was always the same; Crawley to London Victoria station and he always took the same train, the 8:17 a.m. And you could practically set your watch that he would return on the 5:11 p.m.

‘He’s a very nice but strange bloke,’ Harry had confided to his friend Alf, the station master, over a cup of tea. There was no train for another hour and a half. ‘Never says much and I’ve been selling him tickets for almost twenty years. What do you make of him?’

‘I dunno,’ Alf replied. ‘Seems like a proper gentleman to me. Look how he’s dressed. Nobody wears clothes like that nowadays; black jacket, striped pants, bowler hat, rolled umbrella and briefcase.’

‘Yeah, I’ve heard he’s retired long since,’ Harry replied, ‘but still goes to the city one day every month. I wish I had a good-paying job where I only had to work a few hours.’

‘Somebody told me he’s a bigwig in the financial district,’ Alf said. ‘An advisor to the government or something.’

‘Oh, I can add to that,’ Harry quickly replied. ‘I met a chap last year who came into our pub and we somehow got to talking about some of our regular passengers. When I described George, he said he knew all about him. ‘He’s the person responsible for advising the government when a new budget is being prepared. A genius with figures. A local Einstein,’ he said. ‘I lied and told him you and I had already figured that out.’  

George looked for his usual seat in the second carriage from the front, facing forwards. He hated traveling with his back to the engine. He liked to see where he was going, to look out of the window and enjoy the countryside. Having found his place, he carefully laid down the Financial Times on the seat next to him with the headlines clearly visible. Then, opening the London Times he smiled and snickered quietly as he read, his glasses almost touching the page. But he never failed to  notice the inquisitive and furtive glances of the other passengers.

‘I can’t believe what’s happening to this country,’ a friendly voice chirped. ‘Brexit, more bloody likely, Brexshit to me. It’s getting to the point where I might have to give up smoking. It’s becoming just too damned expensive. We should never have left Europe. Give it a few more months and we probably won’t be able to buy a bottle of French wine, or if it’s available, will cost an arm and a leg. Got your ticket George?’ A smiling ticket collector, held out his hand in anticipation.

‘Well, good morning to you too, Syd,’ George beamed. ‘You’re in fine fettle.’

‘I would be if I was as close to the source as you are,’ he said looking down at the Financial Times. ‘You must be making a fortune with your investments. Couldn’t you just give me one small tip. But no,’ he said holding up his hand, ‘I know it’s illegal, insider information and all that. Just pretend you never heard me mention it,’ and looked quickly around at the other passengers. But all seemed to be engrossed in their newspapers or on their cell phones.  ‘I guess I’ll just have to go on dreaming or get on that TV show. What’s it called, How To Become a Millionaire?’

‘I’m sure you’ve got millions salted away already,’ George joked. ‘Aren’t you intending to buy a house in the south of Spain?’

‘Well, that’s the dream plan,’ he said wistfully. ‘But I just wish that earlier in life, I had entered a profession like yours. You're so damned lucky. And now a part-time job, once a month and just for a few hours. You’re a lucky sod. And I’m sure your wife can afford anything she wants too. Not like my missus. Works three days a week as a care giver at the old folks' home so she can earn some money to play bingo every Tuesday and Friday, and enjoy a weekend boozing with her girlfriends.’

            Handing back his ticket, Syd continued, ‘Same time, same train next month, George and I’ll still be here.’ And with that, he moved on with checking tickets.

As the train pulled into Victoria Station, George gathered up his briefcase, papers and umbrella and joined the crowds heading for the exits. His next stop was across the road to the confectionery shop. Aldermans had been selling sweets of all kinds since the time of Charles Dickens, but for the past many years it was owned by the Turnbull family who had kept the trade name. George’s purchases never varied; two Mars bars, a box of Cadbury’s milk chocolates and a box of Pontefract Cakes.

‘So nice to see you again, George.’ A rather rotund, curly, grey-haired woman, probably in her early sixties, gave him a disarming smile. ‘It’s amazing how time flies. I can’t imagine it’s been a month already. How long has it been now? Must be almost twenty years we’ve known each other.’

‘Actually, twenty-three,’ George replied.

‘Oh, yes, I remember now,’ she said, ‘that was after you got the promotion. You tried not to show it, but I could tell you were very happy. And look at you now, only having to work one day a month. The government must be very lucky to have you. I’m sure you could fully retire if you wanted to.’

‘You are too kind, Mabel. And what about you? Aren’t you getting ready for retirement?’

‘Oh, Mr. George. I wish. But you know my William has been unable to work for so long. We have to make do with what I make here at the shop, which, thank God, continues to give us a living. His disability check hardly pays the rent. But I’m afraid of this Brexit thing. It will slow down the number of tourists coming into the city, and I rely so much on them. Not everybody is a regular customer like you. I’m so grateful for your business. You are so fortunate to work for the Bank of England. I’m sure you’re well paid and no doubt your wife has everything she wants.’

George ignored the last remarks, a skill he had developed over the years. ‘Well, I’m sure every little helps,’ he replied, placing his purchases in his briefcase. ‘Do take care, Mabel, and I’ll see you next month.’ He returned to the station and took the escalator down to the underground. As if on auto pilot, he followed the overhead direction panels to the Blue line that would take him on a fifty-minute journey to Walthamstow. It was always a crowded line, and difficult to find a seat until it had passed Kings Cross, which took about twenty minutes. The whole journey lasted almost an hour.

From Walthamstow, George took a cab and as it swung into a long, familiar tree-lined driveway, a huge red brick building rather like an English stately home, surrounded by trimmed lawns and well laid out flower beds, came into view. A sign at the entrance read, St. Anselm’s Residential Home.

‘How nice to see you again, Mr. Hatfield.’ A pleasant looking and smiling woman looked down at him from the open doorway. ‘Your sister has been eagerly waiting for you all morning. She will be so happy to see you.’

‘And you too, Mrs. Williams. I trust you are well.’

‘Well enough, indeed, sir, in spite of a little arthritis in the knee. But let me escort you through. You know the routine.’

Indeed, he knew it well. George understood that going through the metal detector was mainly for his own security, and once inside the locked door, was always surprised by the serenity and cleanliness of everything. Soft music played through a public address system. The décor was modern and in pastel colors, staff wore civilian clothing and there were plants and flowers everywhere. Mrs. Williams led George to a huge glass-covered sun lounge, where a couple of small groups were engaged in conversation. Her face lit up the moment he entered, and she rushed towards him, holding him in a tight hug. A slightly built, woman, wearing a brightly patterned dress, her grey hair pulled back and tied in a bun, Alice was three years younger than George. He stood there for a moment holding her, then gently eased her arms away and kissed the top of her head. Leading her by the hand to a small card table they sat opposite each other. Her care giver, Sandra, a wonderfully sensitive and capable young woman from Trinidad, withdrew to a discrete distance. That was the signal for Alice to take hold of George’s briefcase. The routine never changed.

She took it and momentarily held it with both hands, looking at George expectantly, then placed it next to her. She knew precisely what would happen next. Taking the two newspapers from his coat pocket, he handed them to her. In a lightning move, she picked up the Financial Times, turned to the crossword puzzle, took a pencil off the table and waited. Alice giggled. George took out a pocket watch from his waistcoat and holding it in his hand, said ‘Go.’ The woman never looked up and only once seemed to hesitate, pausing for a moment as she chewed the end of her pencil. Then it was over. She laid the pencil down and looked at George. She heard him press the stop button.

‘Four minutes and fifty-seven seconds, Alice,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ she replied in a sort of distant voice, but her eyes never left him.

Picking up the London Times, he waited until she had found the correct page, looked at his watch and then at her as she raised her pencil.

‘Go,’ he said.

These were their games. He couldn’t remember exactly when they started, it was so long ago. But he did recall it was after the doctor informed him that his sister suffered from autism and was a savant. She could do complex mathematical equations in a fraction of the time it would take the average person, and they also discovered she was a genius at solving puzzles. In addition she had a photographic memory for words, yet she rarely spoke, lacked basic social skills and lived by routines. If ever they were broken or changed, it caused severe mental stress. But Alice also suffered from excessive mood swings and needed regular medication. George learned she was not capable of living on her own and needed twenty-four-hour care. St. Anselm’s was the perfect place for her, and she seemed to be very happy there.

With a click, he stopped the watch. ‘My goodness,’ he exclaimed, ‘you are getting faster each time I come. That was exactly five minutes and twelve seconds. You deserve a nice reward. Will you please open my briefcase and see what’s inside?’

‘Goodies,’ she cried as she momentarily fumbled with the clasp then took out the two Mars bars, the Cadbury chocolates and the Pontefract cakes. There was no need to ask what she would eat first. Sandra came over and watched as Alice set aside one Mars bar, then took out four chocolates, one from each corner of the box and placed them in a line on the table. Next, she carefully tore the cellophane wrapper and extracted four Pontefract cakes setting them on top of the chocolates.

‘Here is a paper bag I brought for you,’ Sandra said softly. ‘Why not put them inside and enjoy them throughout the day? I will hold the rest for you. You know I will help you ration them. You can enjoy them every evening when you watch the Wheel of Fortune.’

‘Yes, goodies tomorrow and next tomorrow,’ Alice cried, ‘That’s two full days, forty-eight hours, one hundred and seventy-two thousand, eight hundred seconds.’

Other than the seasons and the weather, the meeting never changed. For George, this was the way it had been for more than twenty years.

As he rode the train back to Crawley, and the regular passengers nodded at him, he realized that nobody in the whole world knew who he really was, and smiled inwardly. For more than thirty years, he had worked as a janitor at the London Stock Exchange. As his eyesight, that had always been poor, deteriorated, he went out on disability. That was his sole source of income. He wasn’t married, didn’t smoke or drink and lived frugally in a one-room apartment in a converted large Victorian house. He had one pastime; he was writing a novel about a man who wanted to be a stockbroker.

‘A good day at the office, then?’ Alf asked solicitously as he walked out of the station to take the bus home. 

‘Never, better,’ George replied with a smile on his face and spring in his step. ‘Never, better.’


About the author 

Michael Barrington, is an international writer specializing in historical novels: Let the Peacock Sing, The Ethiopian Affair, Becoming Anya, The Baron of Bengal Street, No Room for Heroes. His forty-three short stories and articles have just been published, Magic at Stonehenge. He also blogs on his website:

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