Quite literally as I write this, I am on board a train heading west to chair an event at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. It’s a murky day beyond the window, all autumnal browns and muted greens under zinc-grey skies and drizzle. Not much to look at then and so, having finished the book I was reading, my attention has focussed on my fellow travellers.
Across the aisle from me is a long haired fellow in his mid forties who seems to be living under the misguided impression that it is possible to be a Goth while having grey straggly hair, appalling dress sense – largely a collection of five hoodies of various sizes and colours, all worn one atop the other – and a fascination with the inner geography of his nasal passages. While somewhat unpleasant, it’s his life and none of my affair, but what does get my goat and has for most of the hour and a half since we left Paddington is the appalling and regular sound of him clearing his sinuses. It’s been happening every 5 minutes now. I can almost set my watch by it. He seems completely oblivious to the fact that the honking, grating, echoey noise he makes while doing it has led to raised eyebrows, sighs of indignation and I’ll swear that one woman looked at the little knife she’s using to peel an orange with more than necessary longing the last time Goth-man honked. Frankly he’d almost deserve to have a lung punctured if it would stop him from making that horrible noise and us from feeling cross. I’m minded to ask him to stop but something’s holding me back. It would be easier if I could pass him a pack of tissues as a subtle hint but I don’t have any.
Some years ago now I found myself in a similar quandary. I had boarded the train, heading back to London from chairing another literary event, and had found myself the sole occupant of a table. A rare and special moment this as it allows one to spread out papers while writing and generally treat the place as one’s own. It was not to be however as just as the train pulled out of the station, a chap walked past all the vacant seats in the near empty carriage and plonked himself down directly opposite me. I nodded a quizzical but partially welcoming hello as I attempted to take up less space on the table and went about my work.
He had the air of an avid walker or rambler but without any of the equipment I normally associate with such fine folk. No rucksack, no binoculars, no woolly hat or stick. Indeed he wasn’t carrying anything at all. Not even a map. He was wearing an army surplus camouflage jacket with jeans beneath and what looked to be size 16 trainers on his feet and it was the footwear that was to prove the problem. Or rather the footwear’s contents. For he took his trainers off and released a stench would have felled lesser men. The cheesy, vinegary, sulphurous cloud that rose up from beneath the table would surely have contravened all the United Nation’s carefully drafted resolutions on the use of chemical and biological warfare. I have – and I’m not proud of it, but it’s true – smelled corpses that were less revolting. Truly this made me almost retch up my kidneys on the spot, even the perfume of rampant gangrene would have been preferable. I didn’t quite know what to do. Should I ask him to replace his footwear? Should I just move and forsake my table? I didn’t want to of course but in the event, and fearing him to be mad, packed up my things and moved on, feeling cowardly and confused.
Perhaps on reflection, regular flamboyant sinus clearing isn’t as bad as the alternative.