It was my Father’s opinion that a whistling worker was a happy chap. His assumption extended to a belief that a whistling worker, fulfilled and sated with his day’s toil, enjoyed evenings around the hearth with loved ones, chomping on hearty, nourishing fare and discussing the events of the day in tedious detail. Terrible snob, Father.
Several weeks ago, just as Summer was drawing to its soggy end, on a train to Derby I heard a strong, full lipped whistle.
“Coming through!” the whistler chirped. I peered over my newspaper and saw a sturdy man in paint splashed overalls manoeuvring a trestle table down the Carriage. He wore a mask. A mask like the Lone Ranger wore.
He set the table down and retraced his steps.
“Afternoon!” he said in a flat east Midland’s accent. He whistled a refrain from a Musical. South Pacific if my memory serves me. But I could be wrong. More a Gilbert and Sullivan man myself.
He reappeared carrying the tools of his noble trade. Dust sheet, bucket of paste, brush and rolls of wallpaper. Woodchip, nothing fancy.
“Decorator coming through!” Courteous as well as chipper. A rare commodity in the Great British workman these days. Even if he was masked.
He unfurled the dust sheet and threw it over the two rows of seats closest to him. It fluttered gracefully downward, covering an elderly couple in the process. They did not stir. Uncanny.
The train approached Birmingham. The decorator set up the table and began to paste (which appeared a quality adhesive) a roll of wallpaper, which he then hung on the Carriage window. There was a stencilled character on the wallpaper. A Star Trek character. Spock.
“Are we in a tunnel Desmond?” said a thin, reedy voice from under the dust sheet.
“No love, somebody has thrown a sheet over us.”
“Oh. I see. Fancy a sandwich? Cheese or Corned Beef?”
I don’t know if Desmond took one. The sheet restricted my view. It is something that I still think about now. Weeks later.
The decorator hung two more sheets. Chekov and a Klingon joined Spock in staring down on us. The intoxicating aroma of wallpaper paste (a smell I must admit I have always found erotic) hung in the air, as if it were a lost fragment of memory.
“Nice bit of work that!” a rotund Brummie said to the decorator as he walked by, “Have you got a card?”
“Certainly,” The masked artisan handed the man a card. He stood aside to let other passengers pass, holding a sheet of paper which revealed the forehead of Scotty.
Passengers boarding at Birmingham were raised from their travel miasma to look up at his skilled workmanship. As people walked past me I caught fragments of conversations, “The Phantom…………Cladding……………Broken Heart……….He decorates to forget…………Just like Robin Hood but with a step ladder.”
He continued. Through Tamworth, onwards to Burton. By now Spock, Chekov, The Klingon, Scotty, Uhuru, Bones and James T himself all graced the Carriage.
As the train neared Burton, the elderly couple under the dust sheet stirred.
“Do you need to go?”
“Not yet, in a little while.”
“Chew it properly. Mind your teeth.”
The old man rose from his seat with the dustcover still draped over him just as a smartly attired business woman, babbling into her mobile phone, entered the Carriage. To the woman’s mind she saw a ghoul levitate in front of her. She screamed wildly and sank her expensively shod foot into the bucket of paste. She continued to walk down the aisle in an encumbered fashion, foot still dressed in bucket but still managing to babble into her phone. The decorator saw it as a sign.
As the train pulled into Burton station, he packed up his belongings and bade us a safe onward journey. Then. He was gone. Like a decorating wraith, he was gone.
My neighbour, a fat man with a poor skin care regime, who up to this point had watched in stunned silence muttered, “The Phantom Decorator!”
“The Phantom Decorator?”
“Yes. He wears a mask to protect his identity. Like the Lone Ranger does. He doesn’t just decorate trains though, he’s laid patios in First Class, timber decked buffet carriages and is rumoured once to have pebble dashed a Eurostar. As it was going through the Channel Tunnel. At night. I didn’t think he existed. Until today.” He took a meaty bite of his jumbo sausage roll.
Patios on trains appealed to me. Rustic enchantment nestling in the vestibule. Nice.
The Train Guard appeared. After checking my ticket, he looked down the Carriage and moaned, “Has the Phantom struck again?” His shoulders sagged and his closely met eyebrows merged in beetled angst.
“Why can’t you catch him?”
“He wears a mask. Like the Lone Ranger does. And he never got caught.”
Not the greatest answer, but judging by the Guard’s demeanour any more insightful conversation was fruitless. He tried in vain to take down the wallpaper. It really was a quality adhesive. The old woman gave him a Cheese sandwich for his labours.
I searched for records of The Phantom Decorator. None exist. It is like he is like an….erm, Phantom. But he is out there. Wearing a mask. Like the Lone Ranger does. Maybe he is pasting, or painting, or stencilling, or sanding, or cladding or hanging.
But he will be whistling.
Like all of us should.
I hope you enjoyed the story – read another train travel tale “Worm ‘ole!” here!