Strangers on a Train by Rosalind Stopps

I met Neil on the Amtrak between Seattle and Chicago.  I was between marriages, and doing the tourist thing to plug the gaps in my life and work out what to do next.  Like the short film before the main feature, only I had no idea what the big film was going to be. 

He was between divorces.

'I'm between divorces,' he said as if it was the greatest joke, and it was quite funny, only it took me a minute or two to realise that it was just another way to describe being married.  I guess I knew right then that he was a jerk, only that's the thing with me and first impressions - I'm usually wrong.  It had been so predictable that I had decided to like the people I couldn't stand, and completely ignore the ones who seemed really cool.  It could be confusing.

I'd stepped off the train in Spokane for a quick cigarette, and I noticed that most of the other smokers were Brits too.  Neil came right up to me as if we were old friends.  He was all beard and smiles and he asked me for a light.  I caught the New York in his voice straight away.

'Hey,' I said, 'a smoking American,' and he laughed as if I'd made a much funnier joke. 

'I'm a dentist,' he said, 'and I need the smoke to fumigate the memory of all those mouths.'. He'd probably said it hundreds of times before but there in the warm dark of the station it struck me as deep, really deep and quite intimate.  I'm very impressionable like that.  For example, I once fell in love with a man because he cried during Titanic, and I fell out of love with him when he cried at Shrek. 

'Are you travelling alone?' I asked and that was when he said his between divorces thing.  There was a silence after that while I thought about it and then he said, ' I've got some bourbon in my roomette.'

I've never been really adventurous but he had a nice, toothy smile and anyway, I've always had a weakness for bourbon.  My ex husband was teetotal, and look where that got us. 

'Ok,' I said.  It turned out that he was in the same sleeping car as me, which seemed a bit like fate.  I'd come across fate before, and believe me it's not always a good thing.  It seems like a kindly gift from a benevolent universe, but it's more likely to be a grinning gremlin pulling the strings, sitting in the corner with sharp claws and a bad attitude. 

The bourbon was good, with just a hint of mint from the tooth mugs.  He had the cabin to himself, so after a few obligatory tales of past triumphs and previous incarnations we ended up fooling around on the tiny single bed.  I'm not small, and it's been two years and several kilos of chocolate since I last saw two hundred pounds, but we had a good old try.  Good enough that I felt like one of those skinny film stars when I crept back along the rocking corridor, somewhere in Idaho. 

'See you at breakfast,' he called after me in a stage whisper, throwing an extravagant kiss.   'Sshh,' I said, but I couldn't help laughing.

When I got to my cabin the widow from Yorkshire was fast asleep on the lower bunk and snoring loud enough to drown out the train wheels.  I hopped up to my bed like a spring chicken but I couldn't sleep for some time.  This is America, I kept thinking, this is what freedom tastes like.

By breakfast time we were in Montana, which is big and beautiful.  Just like me, I thought and I giggled as I slapped on the make up. 

'I don't know what you're laughing at,' the widow from Yorkshire said, 'I didn't get a wink of sleep.'.

Let me tell you, if I ever go on that train again, I'll pay the single supplement like Neil must have done.

I went to the dining car for breakfast, my head full of night time adventures and hoping for grits or something else properly American.  I didn't want anything from Neil, you understand.  I knew that he was married and I was divorced but that doesn't mean I was  desperate.  A smile or a friendly chat would have done for me - maybe a suggestion of meeting up in another city or just a heartfelt, 'that was nice.'.  I've always been easily pleased.

But no.  Neil was something else.  He was in the breakfast car already and in the bright light of a Montana morning, with snow covered mountains out of the window, he looked different.  His teeth shone through the scenery of his beard like miniature glaciers, and he didn't even look up as I slid into my seat at the table next door to him.  His table was already full and he was surrounded by three middle aged women, all giggling and chatting as they were competing for a prize.  I tried to catch his eye but it would have been easier to catch a trout in a tea strainer.  He looked in just about every direction except mine so I gave up.

The grits tasted like wet sawdust and the coffee had no kick.  I tried talking to my dining companions but they were Mormons with a missionary bent and in my opinion breakfast has never been a good time for god.   The best thing was the doughnut, and I was really laying into that at the end of the meal and thinking that maybe things weren't so bad when I looked up and saw what he was doing.  Neil.  He was indicating in my direction to the three giggling fools, and their hysteria went up a notch until it could possibly only be heard by dogs.   I slunk back to my roomette as soon as I could, pushing past the Mormons.  They didn't miss a mouthful.

I dined alone for the rest of the day and decided against going to the viewing car for the East Glacier Park.  I'd been looking forward to that but America didn't seem so beautiful any more and I couldn't take the risk.  It's fair to say that I sulked my way through the rest of Montana and right across North Dakota.  I was in my bunk even before the widow from Yorkshire and  I resisted the urge for nicotine or conversation until we stopped at the Twin Cities the next morning.

I could see him on the platform straight away when I got off.  No women around him this time, just him and his teeth and his facial hair. 

'Hey,' he called, 'where have you been hiding?'.

I tried to look as if I could hardly remember him, to show how unimportant I thought he was.  'Oh, you know,' I said, 'here and there.  It's a big train.'. I wasn't sure if I sounded nonchalant enough but it seemed to do the trick.  He slapped me on the back as if we were supporting the same winning team.  'My fair lady,' he said inexplicably, 'fair rose from a distant isle.'. I wondered what on earth I had been thinking of in Spokane.  

'What time does the train leave?' he asked, patting his pockets, 'I cannot find my schedule.'. I knew that we left at 7.50.  I'd had hours in my cabin blanking out the widow from Yorkshire as she moaned about the heat, the cold, the food and America in general, and I'd memorised the whole damn thing.  Staples, St Cloud (like in the song), arrive at St. Paul-Minneapolis at 7.30, leave at 7.50.  It was 7.45 now and anyone with half an eye could see that the train was hunkering down and getting ready to leave.  Anyone except Neil.  I think he'd caught sight of his reflection in a window on the platform, and he turned a little to admire it more. 

'8.10,' I said, quick as a flash. 

'Have I got time to visit the little boy's room?' he asked me, still smiling slightly at himself in the mirror. 

'Twenty minutes,' I said, 'no problem.'.

'That's what I love about you Brits,' he said, ' so down to earth.' I never thought he'd fall for it, but with that he was off.  Probably in search of another reflective surface or hoping for a quick check of his private parts or both, I'm not sure. 

I've never been one to act on impulse but omg, as they say these days, omg I felt good.  My heart was hammering like a dentist's drill as I nipped on to the train and up the stairs to the viewing car.  The brochure had promised memorable scenery, and what I saw did not disappoint.  I got out my camera and snapped.  I've still got the print - an out of focus shot of  a red faced man, arms pumping.

If you look really hard, you can just make out a flash of white teeth as he ran down the platform after the train. 


© Rosalind Stopps, 2012

Rosalind Stopps lives and works in South East London, where the mean streets and unexpected loveliness provide most of her inspiration.  She has an MA in creative writing from Lancaster and is currently working on a novel (again). 

Strangers on a Train was read by Elizabeth Murray on 3rd October 2012.