Following on from last week’s post about embarrassing moments, here is the promised “Three Nuns in the Railway Carriage.”
I was late – a fairly typical state for a 19 year-old student back in the 1970s. My alarm hadn’t gone off and I had a train to catch in thirty minutes. Panic. Then, as I thrust a leg into a pair of jeans, I found they were still wet from the previous night when I’d had to walk home – a two mile journey in the pouring rain – from the Friday night disco. I threw open my chest of drawers and started searching for another pair. Searching in the only way a 19 year-old boy knows how – by pulling everything out and throwing it on the floor.
I found an old pair of jeans at the bottom of a drawer, pulled them on, rushed to the bathroom, passed on breakfast, grabbed a case, threw some clothes in it and ran out the door.
As I walked briskly to the station, I remembered why I’d confined this particular old pair of jeans to the back of the bottom drawer. The zip had gone. You could do it up, but it wouldn’t stay up. It was an exhibitionist zip, with maybe a hint of claustrophobia. It loved open spaces.
And the jeans were maybe a size too big. And I hadn’t brought a belt with me.
People in danger of missing trains, however, have the ability to put trifling problems like ill-fitting jeans into their proper perspective. I was on my way home for the weekend. The train journey was a mere three hours and I’d have any number of belts and fully functioning trousers there to change into.
I caught the train and lugged my suitcase along the corridor until I found an empty compartment. It was one of those old carriages with a corridor on one side and a number of 8-seater compartments on the other. I slid open the compartment door, hoisted my suitcase up onto the overhead luggage rack and – pop – the pop stud fastening my jeans sprang apart – probably in sympathy with the zip – and my trousers fell down.
I could hear footsteps in the corridor, voices, passengers were still getting on the train. I was sure someone was approaching the compartment door. I grabbed my trousers, hoisted them up and attempted a simultaneous jump and twist so I could land in sitting position on the seat to my right.
It worked. The compartment door slid back and a girl my age walked in. I hadn’t had time to see to the popper or zip so I was having to use my hands to cover my embarrassment, so to speak. I tried to do this nonchalantly. I am a man resting his hands in his lap. I may look like a soccer player in a wall preparing to defend a free kick, but I’m not.
Neither am I pervert.
The girl sat on the seat opposite by the window. Normally I’d have used the opportunity to chat her up, but I’m an expressive talker and can’t help using my hands. Something a person with wide-open trousers cannot afford.
I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep while my mind raced. I had to get off at Westbury to change trains, but the moment I stood up my trousers would fall down. What were the chances of the compartment being empty then? Slim to none. Trains to London usually filled up the further you went.
At least I had an hour and a half until Westbury. The girl might get off at the next stop. Or fall asleep.
Then another fear hit me. This was 1973 and I was a boy brought up to give up my seat and help people struggling with heavy luggage. Thank God the girl opposite only had a small rucksack. But how long would my luck hold? This was the stopping train, stopping at every single small station known to man. God knows how many loaded down old ladies there were out there waiting for help.
The train stopped. More people got on. A mother and her small son. There were four people in our carriage now. Three stops later we were five. Another woman. Where were all the men? I needed a strong man, someone who could hoist people’s luggage onto the overhead racks and give up his seat!
Next stop came the three nuns.
I hadn’t had time to shuffle into my usual seat of choice by the window. At the time, when I’d been jumping and twisting, I’d been thankful I’d landed on the seat and not on the floor. Which meant there were empty places either side of me. And one directly opposite. All three were soon filled with nuns.
There were nuns to the right of me, nuns to the left of me, and nuns straight ahead. And I was a man with his hands full.
That’s when the ticket inspector arrived.
This was closest I’d ever come to a coronary. My ticket was in my jeans’ pocket. The front of my jeans were splayed open. Two hands were needed to cover my embarrassment.
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. Desperation beats it hands down. I bent myself double to scratch my left ankle, covering my embarrassment in the process. This allowed my right hand to extract the ticket. Still bent double – it was one hell of an itch – I handed my ticket to the inspector. Who took ages examining and, finally, punching the ticket and handing it back. So long did he take that I became aware that people were looking at me, the person bent double with the really itchy ankle, and I felt compelled to say something.
“I think it’s a bite,” I said, before swiftly springing back into soccer player pose.
My ordeal continued stop after stop. I began to suspect that the rest of the train was empty. All the passengers were crowded into my compartment waiting to see what I was going to do next.
Then people began to leave. Westbury was one stop away and it was just me and the nuns. I wasn’t sure if there was a patron saint of trouser-impaired travellers – St. Christopher the Zip-less, perhaps – but I prayed to him.
The train began to decelerate. I was holding my breath as well as my trousers. Come on, nuns, this is your station!
They began to stir. They were getting off! But they were taking their time. Come on, come on! I can’t move until you stand up!
Eventually they sorted themselves out and headed for the corridor. I sprang into action, popping and zipping, grabbed my suitcase and legged it from the train, one hand grasping the case, one keeping my trousers together.
It felt like the longest train journey I’d ever had.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!