Conflict In Coach B, by Shirley Muir
Her compact wheeled suitcase snagged on every seat and jutting item of baggage as she dragged it down the aisle of the railway coach. She crashed it into people’s shoes and bashed their knees as she trundled it along behind her. Under the faux fur coat Caroline felt a trickle of sweat sliding between her breasts. Her handbag slipped off her shoulder and thwacked a seated passenger across the head.
‘Oh, sorry, pardon me!’ she said as the elderly man replaced his dislodged spectacles.
‘Seat nine, ten, seat fifteen, sixteen – where’s thirty-two?’
Eventually, there it was. But oh dear, NOT facing direction of travel at all, as she had booked. She’d have to travel backwards and she hated that. The gossipy friendliness of the ticket issuer in Edinburgh train station had masked his inefficiency. He hadn’t allocated Caroline the seat she’d requested for the exorbitant sixty pounds ticket price. Old ladies never got what they wanted. People assumed they were stupid and could be fobbed off with anything.
Never mind, at least she had found her seat. After drinking hot coffee then bumping up and down footbridges with the suitcase and her swaying handbag Caroline had had difficulty locating the correct platform for her Edinburgh to Lancaster train. Once she found platform five she had struggled the entire length of the train to find Coach B where her reserved seat was located.
And then she had to haul the wheeled case through the whole coach because the blessed seat was at the far end from the door she had entered. She should have listened to her daughter when she had offered to escort her onto the train, find her seat and stow her luggage. But that would be accepting that she was feeble and doddery.
‘Come on, mum, don’t be annoyed. I just want to be sure you don’t miss the train this time. I could help you with your luggage. It’s hardly an insinuation of your incompetence,’ she had said, fizzing with frustration as usual.
‘No, thank you dear, I’ll be fine,’ Caroline had said. ‘Waverley Train Station is very different from Heathrow airport.’
‘You know I worry about you,’ she had said, giving Caroline a hug and watching her go. ‘I need to know you’ve caught the train and got home safely.’
Caroline relaxed at last, snapped down the extended handle of the suitcase and took off the wretched clammy coat. The case she rammed into the floor space between two nearby seats and the hot garment was stuffed onto the overhead shelf. She slumped into seat thirty-two with relief, the unruly handbag sitting safely on the table in front of her.
Above her a digital readout said ‘passenger Barrett’. Oh really! Could they get nothing right?
A booming voice assailed her. ‘That’s MY seat, missus.’
She looked up. Glowering over her stood a bear of a man in a chunky anorak, sporting a bushy black beard, and on his feet heavy-duty workers’ boots. She could smell vinegar, fish and chips but she couldn’t see any.
‘S-sorry? Your seat?’ Caroline’s voice shook.
‘Yes it is, so go and steal someone else’s place. I’ve booked this one.’ He brandished a ticket and set about assuming possession of her seat. He pushed her coat further along the overhead rack.
‘Come on, missus, get moving. Find somewhere else to park yourself.’
Fellow passengers threw looks of consternation as the bully harangued her. Caroline raked through her handbag, tipped out her spectacle case, handkerchief, lipstick, mints, keys, fountain pen and crumpled shopping receipts.
Finally she pulled down the faux fur from the overhead shelf and retrieved the seat reservation ticket from the coat pocket. Her cell phone fell out and hit her on the head. It bounced onto the adjacent seat and came to a halt.
The man appeared determined to oust her from thirty-two, despite the availability of several unreserved places close by. He could sit in an adjacent seat if he chose, Caroline thought, but oh no, he wanted to eject her from the seat she had taken so much effort to find.
‘Get up missus, I want my seat. There’s a whole queue of folk behind me.’
‘Steady on, mate,’ a polite young chap across the aisle piped up. His smart suit and whiff of expensive after-shave soothed Caroline. He stood up.
‘The lady’s got her seat reservation. Let me see your ticket, dear.’
He held out his hand, clean and pink, with immaculate fingernails. She passed her ticket to the young man, her body trembling. At least here was a person with some manners. And fragrant, too.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘I’ll sort this out for you.’ He inspected the ticket like a real conductor might, turning it over in his hand.
‘Seat thirty-two, it says here.’ He offered her a neat white smile and returned the ticket to Caroline and returned to his own seat.
‘She can’t have this seat reserved because I have!’
The bearded man pushed her handbag aside. He dumped a bulging carrier bag onto the table. It clinked with the beer bottles that protruded from it. A long grubby finger poked her in the shoulder, rucking up her cashmere cardigan.
‘Up!’ he said, with an upward gesture of his pudgy hand.
Fellow passengers began to comment, urging the man to desist. Hold on there – watch your language, have some patience with an elderly passenger… Caroline read disgust on their faces. Surely they would protect her from being physically cast out from her reserved seat?
A throng of people jammed up behind the man and the whole muddle prevented any passengers from seating themselves. Fortunately the train’s actual conductor in his smart uniform was making his official way forward to investigate the source of the commotion in Coach B.
‘Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,’ he chanted as he elbowed past the bunched-up travellers, his black leather shoes shining with authority as he strode. He addressed Caroline.
‘What seems to be the problem, madam?’
The ruffian was fuming.
‘Get this old biddy out of my seat,’ he said. ‘She’s holding up the whole carriage. The train will never get going at this rate.’
The chubby hand tugged at Caroline’s sleeve as if to dislodge her from the seat. Her cashmere cardigan was certainly being pulled out of shape today and now it was at risk of greasy fingerprints. She took a sideways look at the man’s hands. Just as she expected. Dirty fingernails and remnants of grease gleaming on the fingers.
The conductor kept his outrage in check with obvious difficulty. He insinuated his person between the aggressor and his prey and took a deep breath.
‘Pardon me, sir, please do not manhandle fellow passengers. Come with me and we’ll find you a seat.’ He turned to Caroline. ‘I’m sorry about this, madam. Please make yourself comfortable and I’ll be back to check on you soon.’
Two sturdy stewards in official railway uniforms materialised from nowhere and stood alongside the conductor. Their gleaming black shoes assured supplemental authority. The cavalry had arrived.
‘I’m not going anywhere!’ The bear-like face was incandescent, blue veins pulsing on his ursine forehead.
Several queuing passengers chimed in about the man’s unruly behaviour and disrespectful language.
‘He’s intimidating that little old lady,’ one young man in a back-to-front baseball cap said to the stewards.
‘I saw him push the poor woman back in her seat, that’s assault, that is,’ said another.
‘There’s plenty of spare seats, mister loudmouth, just choose another one and shut your face,’ said a woman with a snotty-nosed child clinging to the handle of her suitcase.
Caroline appreciated the tide of support brimming in her direction. She sighed at the increasing likelihood of a reprieve.
‘The lady has her seat reservation, too, don’t you dear?’ said the young man with clean fingernails.
‘Thank you, sirs, madams. I understand.’
The conductor glanced at the bottles and the carrier bag and addressed the man.
‘Please come with me, sir. We can straighten this out.’ The stewards picked up his clinking carrier bag, the conductor cleared passengers from the aisle and the man was bundled off the train. His protests and expletives were smothered by a flow of polite words from the conductor.
Reservation in her hand, Caroline wilted in seat thirty-two. She must phone her daughter from her cell phone and confirm that she was on the train and that she had found her seat without difficulty. Now, where was the cell phone? She remembered it hitting her on the head.
She read the reservation ticket.
‘Seat 32, Coach B, Edinburgh to Lancaster, 10:08 am.’
She did have a booking for seat thirty-two. But wait. She took a fresh look.
She had missed the 10:08 because she had accidentally taken the escalator up to the shops, instead of the lift down to platform eight. Once there she had bought a lovely blue handbag. It was in a pretty carrier bag up on the luggage rack with her hot faux fur coat.
This was the 11:13 am to Lancaster.
Shirley Muir trained as a molecular biologist and is fascinated by bacteria, viruses, genes and genetic engineering. Now she lives by the sea near Edinburgh, Scotland, photographs the sea, the fire-streaked sky at sunset and the scavenging birds; she reads tarot cards and performs in historical re-enactments at Scottish medieval castles wearing a pointy hat and fifteenth century costume.
She writes short fiction, poetry and memoir and is a member of the North Berwick writers’ group whose members keep her grounded by telling her what they really think of her writing. Shirley’s not-very-secret ambition is to write science fiction about dastardly biological threats and their terrible consequences. She recently had a story published in an ezine about the dire effects of an email infection, not a bad start. Learn more at FidraWritings.Wordpress.com
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Tags: misunderstandings, Shirley Muir