Writer on a Train

This picture illustrated the story when it first appeared.

A story published in Cambrensis magazine in 1991.

My information was good. I could see that as the train curved slowly around the line to Pontgynlais Halt.

I counted seven people standing on the platform. Four of that number was made up by a noisy young family. The fifth was an old lady of benign appearance. There were just two men, standing apart from each other. One of them must be Geraint Roberts.

That was a relief. I could have kicked myself for not making sure that I knew what he looked like. True, I would not have been able to get hold of a picture of him. He had this peculiarity about cameras and had never yet allowed a photograph of him be published. But it would have been easy enough to ask someone to give me a rough description. After all, I had taken the trouble to read more or less everything he had written. Some of it was pretty good, too. I had to admit that, even though I really had one purpose in ploughing through so much of his stuff. Well, we were both from the same Valley, even though he had just returned to it after years of exile in London. Why shouldn't I be after a little help to further my own ambition to be a writer?

I hadn't written very much so far. All right: nothing to speak of. But I was going to the Cardiff Conference, just as he was. Even though he was to be one of the speakers and I would be one of the audience. Though I did have a plan to corner him for a few minutes. Perhaps I'd show him some of my work. All of it, with a bit of luck.

The young family got into the other coach, whilst the others made the longer walk towards mine. Good. Maybe I would even get the chance to speak to him here on the train. There weren't so many empty seats. One of them was next to me ...

No such luck. The old lady was first on the train and made straight to where I was sitting:

'Would you mind, young man?'

It wasn't such a big suitcase, but it was heavy. She must have been stronger than she looked. What did she have in it?

'I'm going to my sister's in Newport. Are you going far?'

'Just to Cardiff. You'll have to change trains in Swansea, like me.' I had visions of becoming an unpaid porter.

'They do put these luggage racks so high up, don't they?'

For a moment I thought that she was going to talk all the way to Swansea. Fortunately, she delved instead into her cloth bag and produced a tumble of unfinished knitting.

I looked around to find my writer. To my surprise, both the new passengers were sitting together. I was worried that, despite what I had been told, Geraint Roberts was not travelling alone. But a moment's observation eased my concern. The two men were not talking at all. Not only that, but the way they were sitting and their whole bearing was enough to show that they were strangers brought together by nothing more than chance.

It was easy enough to guess which of the two was Geraint Roberts. He had to be the one sitting in the seat by the window. The two of them were both in early middle age - I knew that Roberts had just passed his fiftieth birthday. The writer had long sandy hair, thinning quite badly in the front. His features were sensitive; almost bird-like. The other was a thickset, ruddy-faced type. His self-satisfied features were set off by a ridiculously 'Brylcreemed' wrinkle of black hair.

They made an odd couple, and I continued to watch them as they settled down for the journey. The writer pulled out a large blue notebook and almost immediately began to work. I was impressed. As for the red-faced character, he almost as quickly closed his puffy eyes and within moments gave every appearance of being asleep.

It was fascinating to watch the writer at work. His pale eyes would gaze out of the window, half-focus on the middle-distance for a moment or two, and then dart nervously back to his notebook. He wrote very quickly. I imagined I could hear his pencil - he used a pencil, just as I did - scratching furiously on the page. What was he writing? I wondered.

Once his glance fell upon one of the other passengers, an old man intent on a novel all of two inches thick. He seemed to be watching him in a very studied way. Was he working on something in which an old man would feature? In his writing he had always stressed the need for careful personal observation. It was a pity that he couldn't study the clownish character sitting alongside him. That would have been something of an exercise in descriptive writing.

An idea ... why shouldn't I do it instead? I got out a few sheets of paper and began to observe and write.

We were approaching Swansea all too soon. Still, I was pleased with what I'd produced. It was a good bit of prose, even if I say it myself. Perhaps some of it verged on the purple, and maybe I should have found a better word than 'proletarian' but, yes, I was pleased with it. I had given even the piece and him a name. 'Mungo' - it seemed just right.

I made up my mind. I would show this to Geraint Roberts instead of the other pieces I had brought with me. He would appreciate the humour of it, especially since - by way of contrast, you understand - I'd included a few flattering lines describing him at work. But, for now, I had better make sure that I kept him in my sights at Swansea.

'I'm sorry to trouble you again, young man. Would you mind? My suitcase?' Oh no, I had forgotten about her.

- 0 -

I wondered where he could be. He'd have to be here somewhere; he was going to give a talk after lunch. It was inevitable that I would lose sight of him in Swansea, what with the heavy suitcase and the interminable stories about the sister from Newport. I had not really worried. There were only about a hundred people here; it should be easy to pick him out. The long-skirted woman sitting next to me did not seem to be paying much attention to the speaker on the platform, so I whispered:

'Isn't Geraint Roberts supposed to be here?'

'Yes. He's speaking after lunch. Right now he'll be in the pub across the road. He never listens to the other speakers. If he goes to form he'll go straight to the buffet from the pub.

'Thanks. Excuse me, I've got to go somewhere before the lunch.'

Perfect. If I went to the other room now and waited for him, I'd get a chance to speak to him on his own. And I'd show him Mungo. As I passed the litter-bin, I boldly disposed of the other two pieces. They weren't really so very good. They didn't have the sparkle of Mungo. I ought to let him see my best.

I didn't have to loiter for long among the sausage rolls and rubber chicken. The door swung open. But it wasn't Geraint Roberts who walked in, but Mungo.

'Are you all right, boy?' It didn't take an author to read my amazed expression.

'Yes - yes, thanks. It's just that - I mean, I'm OK now.'

'Speaker that bad, was he? Old Hywel does go on a bit sometimes. Never mind - good one on this afternoon.'

'You mean - ?'

'Geraint Roberts.' His face, now shading towards purple after his visit to the pub, was wreathed in smiles as he proffered a hand. 'Pleased to meet you. Didn't I see you on the train this morning?'

'Er ... yes. But who was that sitting next to you?'

'On the train? Never seen him before. One of those university types. Mature student would be my guess. Mathematics, by the look of all those figures and symbols he was putting down in that notebook of his. Why do you ask?'

'Oh, nothing important.'

'Nice to see someone from home here in Cardiff, anyway.' He leaned forward confidentially. 'Want to be a writer do you? What's that you've got there. Something you've written? Maybe I could -'

'No! No - to tell you the truth I've come into the wrong place.'

'Well, now that you're here you might as well get stuck into the buffet. They'll never know. We can always say that you're my guest, anyway. Tell you what - why don't you come along and listen to my talk afterwards?'

'No. No thanks. There's something important that I have to do.

'Well, never mind. Writing is not for everybody, I suppose.'

I was only half lying. There was something important that I had to do. I had to make sure that Mungo found its true place in the World of Literature.

There was still plenty of room in the litter-bin.

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