Sometimes you meet someone, maybe only fleetingly, and they make such an impression on you, that you never forget them. If you’re a writer, then sometimes these real people you met once, begin to become characters – sometimes they actually make it into into a narrative, along with other characters, sometimes they don’t, for no particular reason, they just don’t.
I’ve been thinking about trains recently; where we live isn’t that far from the railway line, just over half a mile as the seagull flies I would guess, and from my little upstairs room where I write I can hear the trains roaring past. I was looking out the window and was aware of a train, unseen, rattling its way either to or from the town and I had a memory of a short train journey I once made from an airport into London.
It was the old-fashioned sort of train, with carriages which seated eight people, and sitting opposite me was a man and a boy. I was about twenty, and the man seemed much older, but he was probably only about thirty. He was wearing grey trousers, a black jacket, white shirt and a tie. The boy was probably about twelve – maybe a very much younger brother, maybe a nephew or young cousin. He was wearing a grey school uniform – and in those days uniform for a lad of his age was shorts. What was most noticeable about the man was that he had what’s known as a port-wine stain across his nose and cheek.
He seemed very shy, and I wasn’t as confident as I am now about striking up conversations with people, but somehow we go talking. Now I’m writing about it, I think he had been reading a newspaper, but folded it up and put it in his brief-case. Somehow we got into conversation, and I must have told him I was a student studying English and History because we started talking about history. It soon became apparent that he was one of those extremely intelligent and knowledgeable people, but without trying to impress or talk down to less knowledgeable me.
I remember asking him about the Ancient Etruscans which seemed a mysterious civilisation – of course in those days all knowledge came from books and teachers and the radio – and no-one had taught me anything about ancient history, it’s only what I had read. Whether he had studied it, or maybe he was a history teacher or lecturer, but he knew plenty! I asked about the Phoenicians, because when I was at junior school we had history lessons, which started with the Phoenicians visiting Cornwall and bringing exotic goods in exchange for tin!
I was so sorry when the journey ended – we no doubt said good-bye and made some farewell remarks and then went our separate ways. I don’t suppose he ever thought again about that young student he’d chatted to, but I have such a clear memory of that journey, and of him.