Fear on the Saturday afternoon train from Carlisle


by Kenneth Roy

If a £10 book token flutters out of Boswell’s diaries, and it has been there for at least five years since the diaries were last opened, and if you live where I live, it is just as convenient to exchange the forgotten gift in Waterstone’s in Carlisle as it is to trudge up to Glasgow and along an overcrowded Sauchiehall Street to the city’s only remaining bookshop.  To cut a long sentence short, I took the morning train to England last Saturday.

On the afternoon train back, there were 40 passengers – customers as they are called these days – on the stretch between Dumfries and Kilmarnock, of whom 16 were behaving badly.  If this turned out to be a microcosm of my native country, 40% of the Scottish population – 2,068,196 people – behave badly.

Only one, so far as I could tell, was behaving illegally – which would adapt to an all-Scotland total of 129,262 lawbreakers.

That left 24 people on the train who were behaving well, including a number of young men in their late teens or early twenties.  For the purposes of our poll, we arrive at a figure of 3,102,295 people in Scotland who behave well.

But was the 3.08 from Carlisle truly a microcosm of Scotland?  It feels all too plausible.

I had better tell you what everyone was up to on this train of national significance.

As he came unsteadily down the passage, I prayed hard that he would not settle himself on the aisle seat of the table opposite.

At the table immediately behind mine, there were two small children, a brother and sister, in the care of people I took to be their grandparents; he almost elderly.  The children reacted as children do when they are mercilessly tickled.  For the duration of the journey they existed in a self-contained nuclear unit, a pool of hilarity, oblivious to the auditory pain of the external world.

My casual typecasting proved to be flawed.  The girl called the old man ‘daddy’ and the woman I had down as granny addressed the girl as ‘Paris’.  I never did discover her brother’s name, but I began to speculate wildly.  I saw them as Paris and Brussels McGroarty.

At the far end of the train – the 40 us having been contained within two carriages – four older boys, early teens, were leaping over the seats in so physically challenging a fashion that they had had created a natural exclusion zone of several rows.  They carried on, unchallenged, all the way to Kilmarnock and perhaps beyond.

So far I have dealt only with the minor players, the walk-on parts.  I’ll turn now to the Oscar short-list.

At Dumfries, a character familiar from most train journeys joined us – the menacing one with the straggly beard.  As he came unsteadily down the passage, I prayed hard that he would not settle himself on the aisle seat of the table opposite.  It was a day of prayer.  Earlier I had said a small one in Carlisle Cathedral, as the last of the pale winter sun glanced off its walls.  But not all prayers are answered; the aisle seat of the table opposite might have been pre-destined for this man.

Fortunately, Paris and Brussels were too much even for him.  He gave them a malevolent stare, muttered something under his breath and continued down the train until he found company more to his liking – two girls dressed for a long, eventful night in the clubs of Glasgow.  Before long he was half on his seat, half off it, as he stretched over to the table opposite, grabbed one of the girls and put his arm around her shoulder.

He had lit a cigarette by that stage.  The other girl produced a mobile phone and took a photograph of the happy encounter.  No one in the group was quite sober, but no one was quite drunk either.  The mood was casually lecherous.  It could have gone either way.  It was 3.30 on a Saturday afternoon.

The scene around the group was one of frozen passivity.  The faces of the well-behaved registered blankness, but what lay behind the mask?  Disgust?  Resignation?  Fear?

Of course I thought of the Big Society.  I supposed this must be the sharp end of what the English public schoolboys who run the show have in mind – only the active citizenship necessary for the fulfilment of the scheme was missing here.

At Auchinleck, the home of Boswell, of riot and occasional shooting, five junior football supporters boarded the train.  The match was over.  Auchinleck Talbot had thumped Sauchie Juniors 4-1.  The supporters, Auchinleck men living away, were in boisterous good humour.  Out came the Strongbow and the Tennents, and soon the tables were awash with cans.  It is only in that feeble miniature, the modern novel, that we behave out of our predictable stereotypes.  In the life of the train, we are all conforming to them.  The late middle-aged men with the shaved heads, the Auchinleck supporters, were conforming and soon so was I.

He said that, if I wanted to experience seriously bad behaviour, I should join him on the last train out of Carlisle to Dumfries on a Saturday.

On one of his infrequent appearances, I asked the guard – they are known as something else now; customer service advisers or something of the kind, but I will call him the guard for old time’s sake – I asked him for a policy statement on the smoker.  I used to smoke on trains myself; I am not opposed to smoking or smokers; but the law is the law and I thought we had a law prohibiting smoking on trains.

“You have to catch them doing it,” he explained.

“You would catch them doing it if you patrolled the train more often.”

“I walk up the train after each stop to check the tickets.”

“But you do know who I’m talking about, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said.  “He’s given us trouble before. But you have to catch them doing it.”

When the train pulled into Kilmarnock at 4.50, he emerged from his locked cabin and we had a further conversation.  I asked him if it was always as bad as this.  He nodded.  He said that, if I wanted to experience seriously bad behaviour, I should join him on the last train out of Carlisle to Dumfries on a Saturday.  He said that train would rock.  Literally rock.

“Don’t you carry mobile phones?”

“Yes,” he said, “but …”  He left the sentence unfinished.  I took it to mean that the use of mobile phones was only possible in an emergency.  He was a young man.  I pictured him with a wife and small children.  Did I blame him for not confronting his own passengers – his ‘customers’?  Did I blame him for not accosting the deeply unpleasant smoker? I didn’t.

For him, the ordeal of the 3.08 from Carlisle, carrying the weight of 40% of the Scottish population who behave badly, was far from over.  The train from hell continued all the way to Glasgow.  On the platform at Kilmarnock, two police officers observed 20 more joining the train.

“Take care,” I said to the guard.

“See you around,” he replied.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.