This happened on a train. The train was going from Streatham to London Bridge. I was reading Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’, while other passengers in the same carriage were browsing an assortment of media, fumbling with phones, toying with sleep etc. Right in front of me was a father and son, side-by-side. Let’s call them Bertrand and Junior, for want of their real names.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…” Bertrand kept repeating. He rocked backwards and forwards, barely keeping focus on any one object for longer than half a second. He wore his shirt open to his belly and his belt hung free from its buckle.
Junior sat stock-still. He couldn’t have been more than 6-years-old. He had the same close-cut and ragged haircut as his father, suggesting they’d had it cut by the same hands.
“Oh my God, oh my God-” Bertrand went on. His voice was loud and slurred.
Everybody else in the carriage knew that everybody else was stealing glances of the two of them. The nervous tension of Bertrand was irresistible. I had been slogging through one of the more political chapters of ‘Home to Catalonia’ for some time, so needed no excuse to slip into the mere pretence of reading, while keeping the book up as a shield between them and me.
“It’s all gone. Zip. Done. Gone,” Bertrand said despairingly. He was presumably talking to himself. “All gone.” His voice was an uncomfortable blend of anxiety and sorrow.
Neither Bertrand nor Junior appeared to have any notion that we strangers were staring at them. It was as if they were specimens and we were scientists inspecting them from behind a one-way mirror.
“Look, here it is,” Bertrand said, making a real effort now to stare directly into the eyes of his son. “We spent a tenner each,” he said earnestly. “You: ten. Me: ten.”
The boy sat in silence, as if lost in a day-dream. Bertrand continued:
“Both of us, a tenner. I got lager and baccy. You got two cokes, burger, chips. That was it.”
Junior’s face screwed up, like an animal smelling something foul. Yet he remained silent as Bertrand went over the same ground again and again:
“Me, one tenner. That went on the lager first. Got myself a lager. Then that packet of baccy, d’you remember that? From the second stall. Then you got all that gubbins, didn’t you? Two of the big cokes. Burger. Chips.”
“I never!” Junior objected, even louder than his father. “I never got no burger! Two cokes and chips – that’s all I got. One coke before and one after.”
“What? What do you mean?”
It was clearly difficult for Bertrand to take this onboard. I made the assumption that he was either acutely drunk, now, or had been permanently affected by being chronically drunk in the past.
“What?” he went on, “Two cokes. Didn’t you have a burger? There was somebody having a burger –”
“I never got no burger. Two cokes and a chips.”
“Well let’s go over it. I just got the lager and baccy, didn’t I? Ain’t that right? And then you got all that snacks. So that’s a tenner each. That’s where it went.”
“No!” Junior spat back at his father, trying to maintain eye contact. “Two cokes. Each coke cost £1.15. And the chips cost 1.10p. So that’s £3.30. Ain’t it?”
The arithmetic just hung in the air like that for far too long. I was convinced that everybody in sight was engaging in furtive addition.
“Well look,” Bertrand replied, “let’s just – I mean, it’s all gone, ain’t it?”
“I’m just saying I didn’t have no burger.”
“All gone. But where, eh? Where could it’ve gone? I just got that lager, now what was that? Six? And the baccy – that’s another four. So that’s my tenner. So where did your tenner go? Jesus. Ain’t that what it cost?”
“Look, follow me. Six for the lager. Four for the baccy. Ain’t that ten?”
“Well then.” Then, after a considerable pause: “So what are you going to tell ‘er?”
Junior shrugged. It seemed as if the issue had been laid to rest, but then he added: “£3.40. That’s what I used.”
“When do we need to get off?” Bertrand stood up, his movements erratic, and peered out of the window in all directions. “What do we need?”
“Well what was the last stop?”
“I don’t know. Something… something Road, I don’t know. Did we miss it? We missed it!”
“We need Peckham Rye.”
“So we need to change for that one, ain’t it? No? Three changes. We changed twice, so-”
“I think we just stay on this.”
“Just stay on this, OK, yeah, OK,” Bertrand said, sitting back down, making almost theatrical gestures of ‘taking it easy’. “Is she going to be there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well she has to be somewhere.”
“I don’t know.”
“What are you going to tell ‘er?.. You’ve gotta go through all of the bits. Six on the lager, four on the baccy. You had your food and drink. All those sweets.”
“I didn’t have any sweets.”
“All the food and drink though, do you know what I mean?”
Bertrand paused for a while, rolling his head, appearing defeated. Then: “Well exactly! How are we supposed to know? Oh my God. I think we’re on the wrong train.”
“Tell ‘er you had a burger. Burger and some sweets. Because something silly must’ve happened. You know?”
“I had two cokes and a chips.”
“Yeah but are you sure? Tell ‘er,” he implored, fairly casually. “Tell her a burger and sweets.” Then, slightly softer: “I often get you sweets, you know? Don’t I?”
Junior was excellent at being somewhere else. He very rarely looked at his father, never at any of us, and nowhere else in the room. “Two cokes and a chips.”
“Zip.” Bertrand made a quiet, solitary clap. “All gone. Just like that.”
“Look out for Peckham Rye.”
“Yeah I am, ain’t I?” Bertrand replied, looking out of the window all of a sudden in another theatrical manner. Then he hung his head in his hands and rubbed his whole face again and again. “Just tell ‘er it was a tenner each. Done.”
The train started into Peckham Rye. It was Junior who noticed the sign.
“Come on dad, get up.”
“What?” Bertrand said, startled as if having just been awoken.
“Get up. It’s Peckham Rye.”
Junior led his father, who stumbled off the train. They were both still completely oblivious to all of us nosey passengers. Bertrand almost fell over as he lumbered down the platform. Junior offered his shoulder for support. There was a woman there, who waited for the boy. There was no smile or hugs. Bertrand was sloping off in the wrong direction, as Junior went to stand before the woman. We couldn’t hear what was being said by the woman. It could simply be determined that she was furious.
Part of me was getting up, going outside, and explaining the known facts. But a much larger part was, of course, just sitting and pretending to read.
The doors were beeping; it was too late anyway.
We still couldn’t hear anything. Junior was being talked to by the woman and he was looking down at the floor. He was muttering something but it was impossible to tell what.
The doors closed. Outside was silent to us.
Then the woman seized Junior’s hand and slapped him viciously hard on his knuckles.
The train began to pull away slowly. I tried to ease my conscience by picturing Junior as some bold, heroic protagonist. He’d told her he’d had a burger and some sweets, and that they simply didn’t know where the rest of the money went. He’d promised her he’d try to stop his father from drinking too much. He’d told her that he loved her and this was all she needed to hear. He’d promised to be a good man and lead a good life.
The train rattled on and I returned to my book.