Strangers on a Train

by Harry on June 12, 2019

I didn’t really know Charlotte: she was one of several women who seemed to flock around my quite eccentric friend Chris – several of whom I think had unrequited romantic interest in him. We were all 19, toward the end of the first year of college. One bright Monday afternoon in June 1983, after returning from lectures, I bumped into Charlotte (not one with a romantic interest) sitting with another Chris acolyte, Samantha, who had always struck me as rather dull, and cheerily asked how they were doing.

Samantha, it turned out, was not at all dull: she was dropping out of college, and had committed to working her way round the world on a sailboat with some unknown family. Sounded terrifying to me. As for Charlotte – well, according to Samantha “She’s not doing well at all. She needs to talk to someone, and not me. Do you have a couple of hours to talk to her?”. As you can imagine, coming from two people I had talked with for a total of about 10 minutes hitherto, this was bemusing, so I turned to Charlotte who confirmed the need to talk, and implored me to go for a walk with her.

Bedford College was beautiful – a large Victorian building that could have been a not very posh private school, sheltered in the Inner Circle of Regents Park. You could walk out of the grounds, into the park, and talk for hours, barely hearing the traffic at all. So we did, and Charlotte told me her story.

She was very, very, upset. Bedford was the first choice for a few students drawn to London but with a taste for comfort. But for most, I think, it was second choice to one or another Oxbridge college. I suspect Charlotte was in the latter camp, and, like many of the women (though few of the men) had a boyfriend from school – they’d been together I think at the Grammar school, not the Cathedral school, in Stourbridge — who had got to their first choice. Hers was at one of the Oxford colleges that you’d heard of if you knew the system, but not if you didn’t. She routinely visited him for the weekend: the previous Friday was no exception. Maybe the most shocking part of the story for me – and I suspect this says a lot about both my naivete and my political outlook – was the first part: he wasn’t there, so she let herself into his room and started tidying it and making his bed. It really had never occurred to me that girlfriends might deliver such a service, and, frankly, I was assaulted by its unfeminist character. She was nonplussed by my disapproval, but was keen to get to the next part.

“Making his bed I discovered that he had been having sex with another girl”

“How did you know that?”. At this point, perhaps she was thinking she should have chosen a less dull-witted confessor (though, I have to say, I am 99% certain that the one person in the college more clueless than I was our eccentric mutual friend, Chris).

“Well, you know. I found incontrovertible proof. Among the bedclothes”. I was still puzzled, but didn’t let on.

It turned out that Steve, the boyfriend, had been having sex with an American student whom he knew through their political group at Oxford. Subsequently, I have to say, I met the woman to whom I’ve now been married for 27 years in a political group, but at the time I was sufficiently puritanical to disapprove of meeting romantic partners through politics. Though, if I had been more approving of that, I still would still have balked at the organization in question: they were members of the Oxford University Conservative Association. I was somewhat more outraged with his behavior to her than his being a member of OUCA: I’m even now quite pleased with myself that I didn’t even hint that how much I disapproved of someone having a Tory boyfriend, and focused entirely on his treatment of her. He, of course, shrugged off the sex as a one-night stand at first, but over the course of the weekend it became ever clearer that in fact they’d been having it off for weeks. (Yes, the weekend: she had stayed all weekend, and had only returned to London for lectures that very morning). But this was June, and, as the boyfriend pointed out, the American girl was only there for the year: she’d be leaving early in July, so there was really nothing to worry about. They could continue as usual.

I’d never really had this sort of conversation before. I did a lot of listening, expressed a lot of sympathy, and, where appropriate, outrage. We walked the whole time, side by side, so we didn’t look at each other a lot. Now I’m old, and am very comfortable hearing people’s distressed stories, and am good at making people feel at ease when they are sobbing; at the time I had no such skill. I’m sure that I helped, but suspect that pretty much anyone with a sympathetic ear would have been as much good for her.

And then… nothing. I don’t mean that badly, but no-one had phones, and our paths didn’t cross naturally, and she went home at the end of June: then, in October, her course had been moved to Royal Holloway College (with which most of Bedford College was merging), while I was left at Bedford.

Our finals were two years later, in 1985. I was at a loose end from June till January, when I left England for graduate school in the States. Around the time of the notorious 1985 Bournemouth Labour Party conference – the one in which Kinnock delivered his speech excoriating the Militant councilors in Liverpool, and Eric Heffer walked off the stage – I visited a friend of mine in Manchester: there’s direct line from Bournemouth to Manchester that goes through Oxford. The train was one of those old fashioned ones with compartments. It’s hard to believe it now, but the coaches were divided into compartments which would take up to 8 people. If you were lucky you’d have one to yourself, and frequently you’d be sat in one with just one or two other people. There were just two of us, and the rather well-groomed chap opposite me started chatting to me for some reason. He was a rather self-absorbed PPE student, and I was very enthused about the possibility that he knew – and had maybe studied with – John McDowell –since he was at John McDowell’s college and, which, he had. But not for the previous year, as he had been working in the oil industry in Texas, preparing for life after graduation. Because I was already sitting down when he came in he assumed, from my general demeanor, that I had been on the train all the way from Bournemouth: in fact I’d got on just before him, but we discussed the conference, and I discovered that he took a rather dim view of Kinnock and not for the same reason that Eric Heffer did. At a certain point he twigged that I, too, had studied Philosophy (quite how he managed not to realise that from my enthusiasm about John McDowell god only knows), and as he asked me where I went to college the ticket collector checked our tickets. I saw where he was bound – Stourbridge – and, in that second, I went cold. The college. PPE. The US. Stourbridge.

“Oh, my girlfriend went to Bedford College”

“Yes, I know. Charlotte”.

Well, that’s what I thought. I wasn’t even tempted to say it. I managed to casually say “Oh, really, would I have known her?” and then, when he told me her name, I spluttered out “Oh, yes, she got a first” because it was the only thing that came into my head other than “Why the hell is she still your girlfriend, you shit?”. He disembarked at Stourbridge, but we didn’t swap phone numbers. Well, no-one had phones in those days anyway.

I saw Charlotte twice more. We had our graduation event in the Albert Hall some months later with the whole of the University of London, but, because our surnames were alphabetically very close, we bumped into each other on the stairs. “Steven told me that he met you on the train, and all I could think was ‘What did Harry tell him? Does he know that I told Harry everything’” [1] She assured me that she was not, at all, his girlfriend any more, but did not assure me that she hadn’t been since she told me everything. “He thought you were an unemployed trot or something — he said he was really shocked when you said you’d been to university. I thought that was hilarious, but I was too nervous to laugh about it”. Which, perhaps, reveals the level of self-absorption — the number of unemployed trots who didn’t go to university that show enthusiastic interest in John McDowell must be quite small, and its about as unlikely that you’d meet one in a train compartment as that you’d meet the one stranger in the world who knows every detail about your… ok, well, maybe its not so crazy.

And, in April 1988, I was walking up Whiteladies Road in Bristol, on a visit from the Los Angeles solely for the purpose of being best man at an evangelical Christian wedding [2] and noticed her through a window serving at the bar in a coffee shop. She was, like me, doing a PhD, but in a different discipline. She seemed well, and as happy to see me as I was to see her. We chatted for a few minutes and then I hurried off to the only stag night I have ever been to which, I should add, consisted of a single round of drinks at a pub (mine was an orange juice) with the groom, a copper, and 2 other blokes I didn’t know, before we drove off for the week-long preparation for the wedding in Wellington.

That’s all. I’ve changed the first names (but not Steve’s, he can sod off), and I can’t remember her surname because, though my memory is quite good, her actual first and last name are almost exactly the same as that of a character in the Archers whose name obliterates hers in my head. You all know that Stourbridge isn’t on the line from Bournemouth the Manchester: I changed that too. But she’ll know who she is if she reads the story, and, in that unlikely event, I’d love for her to get in touch.

[1] This was echoed very recently when I attended a graduation ceremony with an undergraduate. She was sandwiched between me and her family and, at a certain point, she turned to me and said “My parents asked me what I’ve told you about our family”. “What did you say?”. “I said that I’ve told you everything. They’ll just have to deal with it”.

[2] That’s another story.



Ray Vinmad 06.12.19 at 8:19 pm

This story delighted me in so many ways.

I love all your sideline spectulations–that you were game to be the listening ear, your attempts to suss out what kind of responses make sense to a novel situation, your admission you misjudged someone, reports about how people misjudged you. It’s such a perfect description of how attentive we are to people when we’re young & reminds me what we can lose as we get older when we our curiosity about other people & ourselves dims a bit (though we should clearly fight this dimming).

Footnote [1] made me laugh out loud, both as a parent, and as a professor.

You have given your name. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking if I ran into you at a conference, I’d have an irresistible urge to launch into an impromptu confession. In part, because I never get the chance to confess as an older person. Partly, I’d love to see how you do! (It is unlikely. I keep wholly to myself at academic conferences. I love hotels, I love bars but hotel bars with academics in them are not places I ever feel a need to visit.)

Still, I’m putting UW Madison on the roster of schools my teenager should apply to. Please, please don’t retire just yet! He’s got four years until he is ready for college. He’ll talk your ear off.


J-D 06.13.19 at 12:44 am

You all know that Stourbridge isn’t on the line from Bournemouth the Manchester

Indeed: the layout of the British rail network is the fourth most common topic of conversation among residents of Erskineville. (You are all intimately familiar with the location of Erskineville, of course.)


John Quiggin 06.13.19 at 4:09 pm

I once wrote a song about the location of Erskineville, in relation to transport networks, so introspection suggests that this must be common knowledge.


J-D 06.14.19 at 12:44 am

“Making his bed I discovered that he had been having sex with another girl”

“How did you know that?”. At this point, perhaps she was thinking she should have chosen a less dull-witted confessor (though, I have to say, I am 99% certain that the one person in the college more clueless than I was our eccentric mutual friend, Chris).

“Well, you know. I found incontrovertible proof. Among the bedclothes”. I was still puzzled, but didn’t let on.

I couldn’t help myself: I read this over and started wondering whether the evidence was really incontrovertible. (I know that the girlfriend’s conclusion was subsequently confirmed by Steve, but that comes later in the story.)

The Sherlock Holmes maxim is that once we have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. But what has been excluded (consciously or, more likely, unconsciously) as impossible, and was it really impossible or merely improbable?

Is it impossible, or merely improbable, that the evidence was produced by some other man having sex and not by Steve?

Is it impossible, or merely improbable, that the evidence was produced by Steve when having sex with another man, rather than a woman? (Obviously there is no reason for the girlfriend to view Steve any less unfavourably in this scenario: but since I’m pursuing this purely as an intellectual exercise, the point seems worth making.)

Is it impossible, or merely improbable, that the evidence was produced without having sex at all?

It seems to me that all three of these things are merely improbable rather than impossible, and that therefore the girlfriend’s conclusion was not, in fact, incontrovertible, although I would assess the probability of controversion as slight.

None of this, of course, affects the validity of the assessment of your own cluelessness on the basis of not recognising what kind of evidence was being referred to.


JakeB 06.14.19 at 3:58 am

@ John —
see, this is the kind of comment which makes me glad I’m not in linguistics anymore, just so I don’t feel that I’m being targeted by it.


bad Jim 06.14.19 at 6:57 am

” incontrovertible proof among the bedclothes” is most likely underwear. There was a scene in the movie “Nashville” in which the character played, I think, by Lily Tomlin, making an exit while her erstwhile plaything is on the phone, searches the sheets for something missing.


William Timberman 06.14.19 at 12:32 pm

Reading this at 5:40 a.m, laughing out loud as the sun comes up. What a great way to begin the day! And the comments…priceless. They can say all they want about the evils of the Internet, I’m sticking with it. Thanks, Harry.


Chris Bertram 06.14.19 at 3:37 pm

Reading this, at least until I got to “Steve”, I had a strong suspicion that the punchline was going to be “Boris Johnson”.


J-D 06.14.19 at 10:59 pm

bad Jim

” incontrovertible proof among the bedclothes” is most likely underwear.

You reckon? That’s not why I was thinking. In any case, my assessment (for partly similar but partly different reasons) would be the same: not incontrovertible, although the probability of controversion would be slight.


Matt 06.14.19 at 11:54 pm

” incontrovertible proof among the bedclothes” is most likely underwear.

That’s pretty plausible, but I might have guessed a used condom or condom wrapper, too.

I’d like Chris’s ending, but really only if the story involved a kick in the balls for the “boyfriend” at some point.


bad Jim 06.16.19 at 6:44 am

I’ll concede that an argument from cinema is weak, but consider: she didn’t necessarily change the sheets when she made the bed, so an errant sheath from a previous visit might have been missed, and an unexpected wet spot could be reasoned away, but she could certainly know which underclothes weren’t hers.

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