London, King’s Cross
It’s Thursday and I am on the train. It’s the 09.00 to Edinburgh, Seat 45, Coach M – the Quiet Coach. I wanted the Quiet Coach because I planned to write up my notes for this afternoon’s meeting, but the meeting’s been cancelled, so now I’ve nothing to do for four hours, which is bliss. I don’t know why I bother making notes for the meetings anyway. Nobody listens to me. Nobody listens to anybody. At our company, it’s meetings for the sake of meetings. Mid-month we even have a meeting to schedule next month’s meetings. Never mind. Three more years and I’m done. The pension kicks in – and Portugal, here I come.
But today, to be honest, who needs Portugal? The sunshine is streaming in through the carriage window. We’re only 30 minutes out of King’s Cross, but on either side there are green and yellow fields stretching out as far as the eye can see. England at her best is scudding past. Shall I doze or shall I keep going with my diary? It’s weeks since I last wrote anything here. Nothing much of note seems to happen in my world.
I dozed. I didn’t sleep – the sun’s too bright. I had my eyes shut, so I didn’t see her when she first sat down. She must have got on at Peterborough. I only realised she was there when one of her feet knocked one of mine under the table and she said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry’.
I opened my eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t asleep. I’m supposed to be working.’
And I buried my nose in my laptop.
That’s what I’m doing now: pretending to work. She’s reading her newspaper – and smiling. It’s strange to see – rather unnerving. I’ve not looked at her properly, but even at a glance she’s attractive: short, blonde hair, in a boyish kind of cut; very little make-up, but noticeably lovely skin. Early forties? Early fifties? No, younger. I’m not good at ages. She’s wearing a stripy top and a pale blue denim jacket. I wonder what she does.
‘How far are you going?’ she asked.
‘Edinburgh,’ I said.
‘What do you do?’ she said smiling. ‘You don’t mind if I ask?’
‘No, no, of course not,’ I said quickly. ‘But I don’t do anything interesting. I work in an office. We store data.’
‘Oh?’ she said. She pretended to look impressed.
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘Guess,’ she said.
‘I can’t. I’m not good at guessing.’
‘I can’t. It’s something high-powered, I’m sure,’ I said awkwardly.
‘Well,’ she laughed. ‘I used to be a high-flier of sorts. I started out as a trapeze artiste.’
‘I own a circus. I own three, in fact.’
‘A circus? With lions and elephants – that kind of a circus?’
‘We have dogs and ponies. We don’t have wild animals any more. We used to.’ She rolled up her sleeve and showed me a scar as large as a kitchen knife, on her forearm. ‘One of our big cats did that – she was being affectionate. As part of the act, I used to put my head inside a lion’s mouth.’
‘Yes!’ She laughed. ‘Do you fancy a coffee?’
We talked for an hour. She’s gone to walk the length of the train now. She says it’s important not to sit still for too long. She says it’s important to keep moving. She travels all the time. Between them, her circuses have visited more than 100 countries. South Africa, Sri Lanka and Russia are her favourites. When I told her I’d only once been outside Europe, on a business trip to Baltimore, she didn’t believe me.
‘I don’t like flying,’ I told her.
‘You’re frightened of life,’ she said, still smiling. ‘You need to start putting your head in the lion’s mouth.’
When she came back she brought two small bottles of wine with her. She opened them both and poured us each a glass.
‘It isn’t even lunchtime,’ I protested.
‘It is somewhere,’ she said, grinning. ‘We should drink to our brief encounter.’
I raised my glass to her. ‘You know the film?’
‘Brief Encounter? Of course, it was my mum’s favourite.’
‘What’s your favourite film?’ I asked. ‘The Greatest Showman?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘Paddington 2. Have you seen it?’
'No,’ I said. ‘I don’t go to the cinema much.’
'Oh my,’ she said, pouring out more wine. ‘You need to get out more often!’ There was a pause and then she leant forward and clinked her glass against mine. ‘By the way, what’s your name?’
John,’ I said. ‘John Smith.’
She shook her head in disbelief.
‘And yours?’ I asked.
‘Alice Sanger,’ she replied. ‘Pleased to meet you, John Smith.’ She raised an eyebrow. ‘Are you married?’
‘Yes,’ I said, truthfully. ‘My wife’s called Jane. And you? Are you married?’
‘Sometimes,’ she said, still smiling.
I’m sitting in Costa at Waverley Station waiting for Jane to pick me up. I know what she’ll say. ‘How was your journey? Did you play your usual game – chatting to a stranger, pretending to be John Smith, a boring man with a boring job?’ And I’ll give her the answer I always do: ‘Yes, because I’m a writer and I get some of my best ideas meeting strangers on a train.’ I’ll tell Jane the truth (I always do), but this time I’m not sure I will tell her the whole truth. Alice Sanger got off the train at Berwick-upon-Tweed. ‘Don’t give me your number,’ she said, ‘but let me give you mine – in case you ever fancy a night at the circus.’
I have just called the number and a recorded voice said: ‘Welcome to Dreamland, a world of adventure where dreams come true.’ I have now googled Dreamland. It’s a funfair and pleasure park in Margate, founded in 1870 by the Sanger family. On the train, I thought I’d met my match and Alice Sanger had invented her whole story to amuse herself – and me. Now I am wondering if, in fact, she was telling the truth. Either way, I’m not going to keep her number. It’s not safe to put your head in the lion’s mouth. I don’t want to get scarred.
About Gyles Brandreth
Gyles Brandreth is an writer, broadcaster and actor. He has appeared on Countdown more than 300 times, and hosts podcast Something Rhymes With Purple. His written work includes books on puzzles, Scrabble and jokes, and he co-founded the Games & Puzzles magazine. His fiction includes The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries.
This short story by Gyles Brandreth appeared in the September 2019 issue of Saga Magazine.