The other day, everyone on the 11.28am from Brighton to Bedford was given the chance to contemplate their mortality. Other trains were also affected, but mine stopped next to a field between Redhill and Salfords and stayed there for hours, because there was someone on the line who had been hit by a train.
Being stuck on a train like this is not like being in limbo, for limbo is eternal. This is about the raw passage of time. When we started moving again – backwards, for it takes a long while to examine and clear up such scenes – everyone was now three hours closer to the grave than they were when they got on.
The man sitting behind me eating from a magic, bottomless bag of crisps was, unless I controlled myself, only a minute away from being disembowelled. In the end I moved seats. It could have been worse, I suppose. On the same day, my friend Alexis was sitting in a Pret a Manger and there were two people talking with their phones on speaker. As he put it: “I’d happily see both of them publicly executed, then seek out their funerals and disrupt their friends’ and relations’ tearful grieving by singing ‘Gimme Dat Ding’ by the Pipkins at the top of my voice.” I must say I admire the detail of his plan for vengeance. (I have since listened to the song to refresh my memory and it is an inspired choice, but then he’s a music critic, so is well-informed as to what to sing at the funerals of inconsiderate sociopaths.)
I wondered a little bit about the trains we catch. Had I not missed the 11.14, I would have already been back at my mother’s house, playing with the cat. The other day, on the Tube at King’s Cross, a woman opposite started staring intently at me. She then started mouthing words. I leaned forward. She was saying, “Are you Nicholas Lezard?” She didn’t look like a bailiff, so I said yes. It turned out she was L—, one of my most loyal readers – possibly the loyalest. Every so often she sends me some cash in the post – the odd £20 or £40 – with a kind of psychic talent for knowing when it would be most needed. And also the occasional email. She has a very good prose style. And the thing is, she lives in Sunderland. What she was doing on the Bank branch of the Northern Line I never found out, for she got off at Camden Town. But what are the odds, eh?
[See also: Hard times]
In the end it took eight and a half hours to get from Brighton to East Finchley. What else could I have done in that time? I could have flown to New York. If I’d put my foot down, I could have driven to the north Devon farmhouse I used to holiday in with my children, and back. I could have watched two productions of an uncut Hamlet, I think. Stuck at Gatwick, I bought myself a tuna sandwich and a couple of 25cl bottles of Malbec from Marks & Sparks. I holed up in a corner of Wetherspoons and chatted to a lovely young couple from Dublin. No one was going anywhere from Gatwick for hours. I wondered how long it would take for the airport to burst, as more people flew in, like flies into a web.
I am perhaps slightly prouder than I ought to be that at no point did I curse, even mildly, the unfortunate person who caused the delay. I had, after all, plenty of time to brood and speculate. And I speculated as follows, basing my conclusions on the very tiny hints of the driver’s announcements, and the faces of the emergency workers and Transport Police as they walked through the train: a young man, suicide. I thought also of the song “The Coroner’s Footnote” by Half Man Half Biscuit, which tells the story of a heartbroken young man who throws himself on to the line. The song ends with the words: “Well he thought of a love unrequited/And he thought of a life full of pain/It’s a pity he didn’t spare a thought for/The poor bastard driving the train.” (By an unnerving coincidence, the video accompanying the song is the famous speeded-up film of a train journey from London to Brighton in four minutes.) This is why there are laws, or used to be, against suicide, however absurd they were: it is rare for only one life to be destroyed by the act.
And that was my day, which ended rather better, with a cat happy to see me. She started off by being stand-offish, even hissing occasionally; she now follows me everywhere, and sleeps on the bed with me. Later in the evening my daughter came round and we ordered Chinese, and we chatted away for as long as it takes to fly halfway to New York, and I, for one, was happy to be alive.
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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid