The train was heaving. Not a seat to be had. Latecomers and their luggage obstructed the aisles. The Guard offered repeated apologies. One passenger who had set out for the Buffet Car hours earlier was declared legally dead by his partner.
I had had the foresight to reserve a seat.
A heavily pregnant woman walked down the aisle struggling to overcome the obstructions. We, the smug seated, concentrated on our newspapers, laptops, books or the passing scenery rather than catch her gaze. She was followed by an elderly gentleman, shuffling unsteadily with the aid of two walking sticks. War hero or not, this was my seat. Not to be given up.
I flicked through my copy of The Economist, humming quietly to myself as I did so.
“Greensleeves?” the man next to me asked.
“You were humming Greensleeves.”
He began to hum the tune too. The man was an excellent hummer. Rich tones and expressive. He honoured Henry the Eighth’s greatest gift to England (although the Dissolution of the Church may have run it a close second. I’ll let Academics argue about that).
“You are a good hummer.” I said.
A mother and toddler tottered passed. The child bawled inconsolably. A man looked up from his spreadsheet analysis, annoyed at being distracted. She wore the weary look of the desperate. Keep moving Mama, I thought to myself. The man spoke again;
“Was Three Counties Humming Champion in the Seventy Eight. I Saw off Jeff Belcher that year. A combination of Greensleeves, Hard Day’s Night and Jerusalem. Belcher couldn’t live with me. I was mustard.”
I became wary. He might have been after my seat for a pal. Old people are like that when it comes to seats on public transport. Crafty.
“Humming’s a dying art these days. Top level humming anyway. Bloody Whistlers.”
“Whistlers are hardcore. Fanatical about the purity of freeform oral expression. Succeeded too. Bastards. Drove us Hummers underground. And when we went underground, mime humming reared its ugly head. Drugs too. Steroids mostly. Ruined the sport. Wally McEwen vowed never to hum again because of Belcher’s shenanigans at Humfest ’81. Wally was the best. A humming Sinatra. May he rest in peace.”
“So you don’t hum competitively anymore?”
“No, no. I got hit on the head by a golf ball.” His eyes moistened, “I was in Confession, a lengthy list to be contrite about, when out of the blue I’m struck on the head by a Slazenger 7 Series. Father Maloney was practicing his short game apparently. God’s vengeance for coveting Kathleen Doherty’s ankles I thought.”
“Did she have nice ankles?”
I was slightly aroused.
“When I competed for the Three Counties title the next day, I fell apart. Greensleeves was fine. Stairway to Heaven immaculate. I had planned to finish with My Way, but instead out popped a very poor version of Father Abrams and The Smurfs. God knows where that came from. Belcher played it safe with Yesterday, Danny Boy and Hound Dog. He took the trophy home. I never hummed competitively again. It broke me. Where did the Smurfs come from? I’ve asked myself that question over and over agan. Must have been the golf ball. Lost my faith in God and humming. Now I ride the rails to forget.”
I felt for this Hobo Hummer.
The train rolled into Didcot Parkway. There was unsightly scramble for vacated seats. A young woman, student by the cut of her gib, was knocked to the ground by a business woman as they both pushed towards a spare seat at a table. Both had nice ankles.
“See that fella over there?”
I looked across and saw a middle aged man, heavyset, thin on top and wearing a pair of gold rimmed glasses. “That’s Tony Thrubb, the only man in The County who could hum “Flight Of The Bumble Bee” He paid a terrible price though – now suffers with chronic Humming Lip.”
Tony’s top lip was in a state of continuous independent motion.
“Busy train!” The man said.
Silence fell between us for a few minutes.
I began to hum Greensleeves. The man accompanied me. Then Tony Thrubb fell in with us, spraying his neighbour with saliva as he did so. But a magical thing happened. Other passengers joined in, one by one, humming the golden melody. The overcrowded conditions were forgotten as an opiate like euphoria descended upon our Carriage and the air of Greensleeves seeped into all our beings.
Laptops were shutdown. Daily pressures and frustrations ignored. Broken hearts temporarily fixed and over powering body odours forgiven.
We hummed with pride. We hummed with pleasure. We hummed with joy. And for a fleeting moment, sadly just a fleeting moment, we were all free.
“Thanks for making an old man happy.” The man said.
I alighted at Swindon.
I later found out that the pregnant woman had given birth to a baby boy in the toilet between Carriages A and B. Complaints were made about her agonised cries from passengers in the Quiet Coach. Mother and son are doing well. The baby’s name?
I wondered if it was a coincidence or not. It probably was.