Once again I am on a train travelling south to London, and once again it is winter. I’ve made this journey many times since I last wrote about my fellow-travellers in January, but today it is quite cold outside and the people who have crowded on to this train are much more reminiscent of my January acquaintances than any I’ve encountered since.
Today, the people travelling in first class (it is very cheap on this service) are lively and cheerful. Most are talking to each other animatedly, so there is less scope for me to guess about their backgrounds or attribute murderous motives to them. Some are clearly business people, but many are going to London for a day out, to shop for Christmas. Several appear to be families engaged in both activities: the man (or woman) poring over spreadsheets or reports while other family members chat noisily over his or her head. One conspicuous difference at this time of year is that all the blocks of four seats around the large tables are taken. The ‘airliner’ seats for one, each with a smaller table, have mostly been shunned. I love the airliner seats, which are usually in heavy demand, but today I feel anti-social, sitting here in solitary splendour tapping away at my laptop.
The most extraordinary thing about these pre-Christmas travellers is that not one of them is glued to a mobile phone. There are no raised voices enunciating “I’m on the train”, intruding upon others’ thoughts with infuriating penetration; no ever-so-busy women spending the time from when they board the train at Doncaster to when they get off it at King’s Cross systematically calling everyone in their address book (it’s surprising how often my journeys have fallen victim to one of these); no raucous men calling their mates to reminisce about having had a few too many the night before.
The only thing that disappoints about this group – and the disappointment is a big one – is that not a single one of them seems to me to be likely murderer material. I realise that murderers come in all shapes and guises, but they have one thing in common: if they’re not being paid to kill, they exhibit some kind of negative excess. All are excessively desperate, or vengeful , or greedy, or deranged. It is hard to believe that any of these joyful, excited people now sharing the carriage with me harbours such qualities with sufficient intensity to be transformed to a killer.
So what shall I say about them? Guessing what they’d like for Christmas might be fun.
I’ll start with the easy ones. The two femmes d’un certain age sitting opposite me are both swathed in expensive scarves: one sports a bright red pashmina-style creation with tassels, the other a svelte black velvet cravat discreetly patterned in silver. If they buy presents for each other, I’m sure that it will be festive scarves again. Again? Well, the ones they’re wearing were probably last year’s reciprocated presents.
The man at the next table, still hunched over his report as his wife and two teenage daughters chatter and wave their arms, is making occasional notes with an ancient, chewed biro that looks as if it might have started life as a promotional gift from Kwik-Fit. If he really has to toil so hard for the whole journey (and is not just taking the soft option by ignoring his family), I feel that he deserves a decent pen. A Waterman, at least, if not a Mont Blanc. The two girls, both dressed in gauzy tops with lots of silver jewellery, huge eyes accentuated with expertly-applied make-up, are probably expecting to receive more of all of these things… and a lot more besides. The elder looks old enough to drive …. so Dad probably does need to keep on with the grafting. His wife, fingertips nail-barred to perfection, is sporadically reading on her Kindle between joining in the laughter and the chat. I doubt that Kindle vouchers will hack it for her, though. She, too, is wearing jewellery, much less than her daughters, but items of a different order from theirs: two sleek rings, one with a diamond embedded; a slender gold necklet; studs in her ears, which look suspiciously like diamonds. Her watch is probably gold, though mounted on a plain black leather strap. I’m sure she’d like an upgrade: a new gold watch for her, complete with a gold bracelet this time, please.
Time to hazard a guess at the tastes of the more inscrutable passengers now. The three companionable men sitting together: what would they like? They don’t look like football fans and, mercifully, aren’t discussing sport. One is reading the paper; one (I’m pleased to say, silently) listening to music; one sipping coffee and looking out of the window. No clues there. I could award them all new boxers and socks, but it wouldn’t be very enterprising of me. I think I’ll take a risk and give them all tickets for a murder mystery weekend. I know that Walton Hall, near Wakefield, has a couple coming up. I might even go to one of them myself. I may not be able to spot any latent murderers on this train, but there’s no harm in getting some of its occupants into the right frame of mind.
In January, I wrote about a train journey to London during which I observed my fellow passengers and assessed them for potential as fictional murderers.
Yesterday, I made another train journey, this time to Cambridge. I didn’t set out with this intention, but, by the journey’s conclusion, I had been compelled by an uncharacteristic bout of Swiftian disgust to appraise the potential of some of my travelling companions as murder victims.
The journey from Wakefield began in a civilised manner, until the train pulled into Grantham. There, a group of schoolchildren boarded, evidently bound for some kind of daytrip destination (possibly London – this was the King’s Cross train). I say ‘schoolchildren’ – they were fifteen or sixteen, possibly first-year sixth formers. Until that point, I had been occupying a table to myself. Three of them joined me, two girls taking the seats opposite and a boy the one beside me.
The boy was very polite. The girls were shrill horrors, bred on a diet of Hello and reality TV. One of them was particularly inane. She made it quite obvious that she fancied the boy. She asked him what time he’d got up that morning. He replied 5.30 a.m. – he’d had to do his paper round before setting out. She said that she herself had got up at 6.30 a.m. – and it was a good thing that she did, because she, like, put on the T-shirt she meant to wear today and there were, like, two inches of bra sticking out at the top. Cue: shrieks of laughter from both girls. She then asked which of her companions would like to play ‘I-Spy’. (I was astonished at this choice of game, which most self-respecting ten-year-olds of my acquaintance would have scorned.) The other girl declined. The boy – still patiently polite – agreed. ‘I spy with my little eye something beginning with t,’ said the first girl. ‘Train!’ said the boy. Another burst of giggles. ‘I don’t believe it!’ she said. ‘However did you, like, guess that first time around?’
I was joined on the Cambridge connection by a tall young man with Jesus hair and a Tonto headband. He was dressed in an Afghan-style coat and was reading a book on philosophy. He seemed a pleasant enough travelling companion until he yawned. I was assaulted by breath fouler than could have poured from the mouths of half a dozen dragons after a brimstone-eating spree. I moved to the seat beside mine so that he and I were diagonally opposite each other. A middle-aged woman then boarded and sat next to him. She was immaculately dressed, all her golden curls sprayed firmly into place. She was clutching a cup of Costa coffee. I looked up a few minutes later: The white plastic lid of the coffee was smeared all over with her red-orange lipstick; so was her face. She took a packet of Monster Munchies from her bag; they were pickled onion flavour!
At Ely, another tall young man joined us. I stood up so that he could take the seat opposite dragon-breath. Their long legs clashed. The newcomer smelt even worse than his counterpart. It wasn’t just his breath: he had an all-over aroma of mingled mould and sweat.
I was delighted and relieved when I could finally disembark. Cambridge station, drab at the best of times, had never seemed so inviting. Jonathan Swift, I am sure, would have imagined eloquent and appropriate comeuppances for their various vile traits. I could think only about who might murder them and how. Motive would not have been a problem… but engaging the reader’s sympathy for the victims? Perhaps a little more of a challenge!
I’ve spent a great deal of the bank holiday weekend cooking: two types of muffin, cheesecake, bread, meringues, fish pie, quiche and barbecue sauces, since you ask. And today, Sunday-style lunch for my guests before they depart, with rhubarb crumble.
I live just outside what is known as the ‘rhubarb triangle’, a smallish area near Wakefield in West Yorkshire famous for early ‘forced’ rhubarb. In Lincolnshire, too, rhubarb has always thrived. It seems to like cold, wet regions with severe winters. When I was growing up, every garden had a crown or two of rhubarb. The forced rhubarb industry uses heated, dark, forcing sheds to encourage the rhubarb plants to mature early and pickers have traditionally harvested the stalks by candlelight to preserve their sweetness; but generations of amateurs have employed the simpler method of planting it in a sheltered spot and placing an old tin bucket or a more picturesque terracotta bell over one of the crowns.
Rhubarb was a family staple; even though my mother detested it, she would cook it for everyone else. Her first job, in 1945, was quality control technician at the local canning factory, where rhubarb was processed in bulk. (It was war-time, and jobs were plentiful: I believe her main qualification for this was that her school leaving certificate said that she’d studied biology!) Years later she confessed that she’d never had known if there was something wrong with the rhubarb, because it all tasted poisonous to her. I think that it’s one of those foods, like Marmite and peanut butter, that you either adore or loathe.
I’ve always found it rather an enigmatic – fruit or vegetable? I’m not sure which it is. To me, there’s always been something rather mysterious and exotic about it. There’s even poetry in the names of many of the varieties: German Wine, Riverside Giant, Valentine, Sunrise.
One thing’s certain: you eat the stalks and not the leaves, which contain such poisons as oxalic acid. You’d have to eat a lot of very unpalatable leaves to die, however, though boiling the leaves with soda apparently increases their toxicity.
My imagination is caught: the means by which a murderer might do away with someone by serving up a tasty crumble, laced with pulped rhubarb leaves and soda. Ms. James, in the dining room, with neither rope nor lead piping in sight. 😉
Yesterday evening, I went with my husband to our favourite local Italian restaurant. It’s quite an amazing place to find in a small city like Wakefield: housed in a large building with two floors, it has been handsomely fitted out. The tables have marble tops; there are tasteful pictures and mirrors on the walls. The waiters are impeccably polite and wear a crisp informal uniform of white shirts and black trousers. The menu has always been varied, the prices reasonable. This restaurant has succeeded in combining professionalism with a personal touch.
For the past three years or so, its appeal has been enhanced by the services of an inspired and dedicated Portuguese manager. He told us that he brought his family to Wakefield because there was no work in Portugal; that he had tried Putney, but found the cost of living in London too high; that he was proud to be running what has many times been described as the best restaurant in the city; and that, aside from returning to Portugal once a year for a family reunion, he is not interested in holidays. Under his aegis were instituted a daily ‘specials’ board, cheaper prices for pasta dishes and pizzas on weekdays and free hors d’oeuvres for diners while consulting the menu. For regular customers like us, he always added something extra: free tomato bread with the main course, or a complimentary limoncello with the coffee.
Yesterday he wasn’t there. He could have been taking a day off – it was Monday, after all, and the restaurant wasn’t busy. I don’t think so, however. We had more than an inkling that he had moved on, attracted perhaps by the higher salaries on offer in a bigger city, or snapped up by one of the big Yorkshire hotels. We didn’t ask the waiter, who was as attentive and polite as ever, but subtle changes suggested that the Portuguese manager was no longer influencing operations. There was no ‘specials’ board; there were fewer choices on the menu (the vegetable-based pizzas had disappeared and several types of pasta were no longer on offer); there were no weekday reductions. Although the waiter recognised us and gave us a friendly greeting, we received no complimentary extras.
The food was as good and as well presented as ever, the service faultless. If it had been our first time dining at this restaurant, we’d have left well-pleased, extolling its virtues. As it was, we felt slightly short-changed… and more than a little sad that we’ll probably never meet the Portuguese manager again; conversations with him meant much more than the extras. It made me think that, although it’s true that excellence creates its own rewards, each time you set the bar higher you are creating more demanding expectations from your loyal customers. For every writer (and every blogger!), that is a challenging thought.