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By Train From Glasgow to Manchester

Author: Bob McIntyre

It was a February morning and it was dreich; sometime in the early 1980s. I was en-route from Glasgow to Manchester by train. That required me to change at Preston Station where the bleak platforms were largely open to the elements. The two-carriage connecting train for Manchester was a grubby, tired looking vehicle. Its heating was meagre. The passengers whether on board or boarding were happed up against a pervasive damp chill.

I got seated and hunkered down for the hour or so that lay ahead of me in the quiet carriage. The few passengers in the carriage seemed content to keep their thoughts to themselves. The only sound we had around us was the rattling of the ancient train.

Diagonally across the aisle from me sat a guy with his dog which was on the seat beside him. For the most part the pair just looked out of the window. He was a skinny, under-nourished looking character - what my mother would have described as shilpit. I guess he was maybe in his 40s. Dressed in tired clothing that would have been fashionable a decade or so before. A crumpled and faded dark purple jacket with rounded lapels, light coloured flared trousers and platform soled shoes. All of it past its best. In as much as it was visible the collar of his shirt was a washed out floral pattern of the same vintage as his outerwear. He was not clad to get protection from the miserable damp day around him. I thought of Rip Van Winkle. He'd been at a bash somewhere and he was now making his way home unaware that it was a decade or so later.

His travelling companion was a whippet which was equally skinny. The dog sat as close to the man as it possibly could. It moulded itself into his right side. The only adjustment arose if the movement of the train broke the closeness between the pair. The man's right arm and hand embraced the dog and held it near to him. For mutual warmth perhaps or reassurance or protection - who knows? - maybe all of these things. The pair seemed to be able to shiver in unison. The man was silent. There were no words of comfort or humour from him to his canine companion. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that there was communication, albeit unheard. Not unlike the companionship that can be found between people where there is such a shared bond of mutual affection that words become unnecessary. They simply understand each other without the tiresome chore of having to explain out loud.

The man and his dog became my diversion. Where were they going? Was there any prospect that the days ahead might be better in some way? What has happened in his past that had brought him to this cold carriage with his dog? Was he happy? I could not of course have asked any questions of him: that would have been intrusive.

The two prevailing memories I have of that train journey are the chill in the carriage and the man and his dog. The man did not look as if life was going well for him. In an odd way it seemed just right that his canine companion was a subdued skinny whippet. They fitted exactly the image that they had created in my mind No other dog would have complemented that lonely outdated soul so appropriately.

When we reached Manchester I held back a little to let him alight ahead of me. Why I was curious to see him walk away ... I can't explain. Perhaps the little storyboard in my mind needed a physical ending point ? As he walked ahead of me down the platform I realised that he had a slight limp. Keeping up a good pace the dog stayed close to the man's legs and then I saw that the dog was held on a lead made from shaggy thick string. Again, entirely in keeping. In no time at all I lost sight of them in the busy station. They were out of my life. Gone.

All of this happened around 40 years ago. An hour or so of my life which has stayed with me. Why?....I have no idea...but it has. Having organised my thoughts to record that distant encounter I now wonder how reliable my own memory might prove to be. A question that cannot be tested since I was travelling on my own and no-one can gainsay me. Experience, however, has taught us that memory is often fickle. The significance and sequence of recalled events will almost certainly differ in the retelling. For the listeners, the heart and the residue of a tale being told will vary in as many ways as there are people listening. The listener, should he/she be familiar with the original story teller, will bring their own judgement as to the reliability of the source. The tale might be embellished and gain traction or perhaps be greeted with a monumental yawn as being of no interest to any sane, right-minded person.