I sat in the compartment alone until after we pulled out of Bristol Temple Meads. It was early, the light just creeping across the July sky, turning fields and towns first grey then hazy pink. The distant puff and chuckle of the engine, combined with the rhythmic beat of the tracks below almost lulled me back to sleep, my eyelids drooping pleasantly as I watched the light English drizzle spatter the car window. The vague scent of tobacco that lingered in the fabric of the seats reminded me of my father, a man I admired, looked up to and emulated, following him first into the air force, then into civilian life as an accountant.
If there was one man who never showed me an ounce of kindness, it was my father.
“He would have his hair cut or he would find another job.”
I drew in a breath through my nose and turned around to find a man in a black suit, carrying an umbrella, about my age, about my height. Him, of course, not the umbrella. His hair was longer than it ought to be by a good two inches, swept to the side untidily. “Good morning,” I replied, smiling.
“You don’t mind if I…” He indicated the bench opposite mine.
“Not at all.”
If he were a man in my employ, I thought, I wouldn’t stand for that kind of thing. He would have his hair cut or he would find another job. He cleared his throat as he sat, placing a bowler hat on the seat beside him before proceeding to unfold a newspaper onto his lap, clearly with no intention of reading it.
“Pleasant morning,” he remarked.
“Yes,” I agreed, assuming he meant the weather and thinking that it was no more pleasant than it ought to be, and in fact a deal less given the season. “Business good?”
“Oh yes,” he said, then frowned, somehow turning the gold-brown of his eyes a shade of sea green. “Well, as good as can be expected, I suppose.”
“It came out as ‘hobo’ rather than ‘homo’ due to the cigarette in his mouth.”
“What line are you in?”
“Desserts.” He leaned across, holding one hand in his lap so that the newspaper wouldn’t fall. “Gerald Newgent.”
I shook his hand firmly, again reminding myself of my father. His handshake could crush bone. “Ward,” I said. “Vernon Ward.”
“And your line of work, Mr. Ward?”
“Vernon, please. I’m an accountant.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said, sitting back down again and leaving the newspaper where it was. “I never was very clever with numbers.”
No, I thought, but didn’t say it out loud. Instead I smiled as though indulging a child.
“I suppose you’ve heard the news.” He shook his head and drew a packet of cigarettes from his breast pocket. How vulgar, I thought, seeing the brand. “Parliament and all that.” He waved the packet in the air, then tapped out a cigarette before offering them to me. I took one, though I didn’t really want it. “Terrible business if you ask me. Homo-sexuals.” He lengthened the word, it coming out as ‘hobo’ rather than ‘homo’ due to the cigarette in his mouth. He struck a match and took a moment to light us both before tapping the headline on the front of his newspaper, which I couldn’t see to read. “Slippery slope.”
I noticed with irritation that Newgent had a stain on the collar of his shirt. Certainly, the shirt itself had been washed, but the stain – mustard, I thought – had not been given the proper care and attention. What kind of company was it that he worked for, that would tolerate a man with a mustard stain on the collar of his shirt?
“It’s the way it always happens.” He shook his head, making his too-long hair fall messily around the forehead. “First, there’s the breakup of morality and legality. Something that we know is immoral becomes legal.” His voice rose as he got into the swing of his argument. I began to think he would have made a great lecturer. A godawful one, but weren’t all great lecturers pompous imbeciles? “People start to wonder if it’s immoral at all. And that,” he pointed his cigarette at me, “is what leads to destruction. Family, church, civilisation as a whole.”
“Well, hardly any better, even if he had no intention of reading it.”
Ash dropped from the tip of his cigarette onto the newspaper. My father always read The Times, but I supposed Newgent to be a Daily Mail man. I still couldn’t see the front of the newspaper to confirm my assumption. Certainly, though, the two of them would agree on this.
“I disagree,” I said, irrationally supposing that vocalising such would somehow bring me out of my father’s shadow.
Newgent laughed. “Better not let your wife hear you say that.”
I took another puff of my cigarette. His cigarette. I stubbed it out and tossed it through the window.
“Still, you can’t deny it, breakup then destruction. Homo-sexuals. Slippery slope.”
I stood, and saw that I was wrong about the newspaper. The Express. Well, hardly any better, even if he had no intention of reading it. “This is my stop,” I informed him. Though the train was still moving at a brisk pace, the station was just around the corner. “Pleasure to meet you, Newgent.”
He nodded. “Likewise,” he said, nodding and puffing at his cigarette. I considered, for a moment, offering him a job. That way, I could fire him next week for his untidiness. But it would have done no good. He was not, after all, my father.
“Well, good-bye,” I said, and exited the compartment.