At Derby, Phil, Carla and I sit on the municipal-looking steel bench and we wait for something to happen, though I know it won’t. We have half an hour to kill, in a town where any time you spent would be a waste. The train station looks more like an airport, all bland concrete and metal rather than the Victorian iron and glass that I love. It is the kind of place where everything you can see is a different shade of no colour at all, except the bright neon yellow handles of Carla’s overnight bag and the blue pattern of my shirt.
The view behind the platform is an uneasy mixture of handsome old factories, long since turned to another use, and hideous new technical colleges. I suppose it’s what ignorant people like to describe as regeneration. We take in the vista, a slowly unfolding nothing. No cars go by on the roads beyond, no people walk past us. It’s as if nobody lives here on this hot weekday afternoon and we share a bench in silence, hands hugging our coffee cups, as we wait in a not-quite-silence which is not quite companionable. Phil and I, up since five in the morning for what has turned out to be a pointless meeting, are both too exhausted to attempt anything but the kind of conversation you have when you’re going through the motions.
“Derby’s minging, isn’t it?” he says.
It seems so true, so close to a rhetorical question, that it takes me a full minute to decide whether it requires a response at all.
“Yes. It’s not the most beautiful place in the world.”
We were both a lot more lively when the day began, chuckling with the absurdity of being up so early, a little high on sleep deprivation. We laughed at the weirdos at the next table, swapped iPods and played each other music, discussed the merits of the bands in his copy of Metal Hammer. “This is the shittest road trip ever” he said to me, somewhere near Burton-upon-Trent, but I knew he didn’t really mean it.
“Jesus, that must be the dullest branch of Argos ever.” he'd said, as the train slipped past a huge windowless structure topped with a solitary logo.
“Phil, that’s a warehouse.”
Sitting on the platform, some way through another long and awkward pause, I think that we could be in a western, if only there was a tumbleweed to liven matters up.
“I like this coffee.” says Phil. “I wouldn’t normally bother with Costa.”
“No, Costa’s not bad.”
If he carries on in this vein, I decide that I’ll just stop responding. It’s nothing personal, I’m just too worn out to pretend. At this point though Carla, who eschewed the delights of the early morning train in favour of spending the night before the meeting in a nearby hotel, starts to talk; about work, about her night in the pub, about her hangover, about work again. Phil and I make eye contact and both of us know that now that the seal is broken she is unlikely to stop until we part company at the other end of the line. Carla sits next to Phil back in the office, and she talks to him most of the time. Usually it’s about work-related matters; stuff she doesn’t like and can’t change, as if he can do anything about them, as if he cares. Neither of those things is true. When she isn’t talking about work, she’s talking about her dogs. We have all tuned Carla out far too often to know how many dogs she has, or their names, but we know she likes dogs.
“Her fucking dogs.” Phil says to me sometimes. “It’s worse than hearing someone talk about their kids.”
I look at Carla, waving her hands around, in full flow, and I know she has no idea that neither of us is really listening. Then I wonder who I might be a Carla to. It’s a subject far too close to home, and so I try to focus on something else. That something else turns out to be the horizon, and it’s still ugly.
I find myself thinking of a story which sums up so much about Phil. We went out for a team social several years ago, and we wound up in an unremarkable Italian restaurant, all dark wood furniture and cheerful (if inauthentic) Polish waitresses. We were getting to decision time, poring over our menus, when Phil – a few drinks to the good by this stage – decided to hold forth.
“Look at this. Italian burger with mozzarella and pesto. Jesus. What’s Italian about a burger? Nothing, that’s what. What kind of knob goes to an Italian restaurant and orders the burger? That’s just fucking ridiculous.”
As I recall we all agreed with Phil, because he was rather loud and very animated, although in truth none of us had strong opinions on the subject, mainly because we hadn’t given it any thought up to that point. Shortly afterwards, the prettiest of the inauthentic Polish waitresses came to take our order.
“I’ll have the Italian burger.” said Phil, to everyone’s disbelief.
“Why did you order that?”
“I just fancied a burger, okay? Get off my case, for Christ’s sake.”
When it turned up I thought it looked pleasant enough, and Phil didn’t waste any time tucking into it. Afterwards, we all shared that awkward moment when your empty plate has been in front of you a little too long without anybody coming to take it away, a moment I have always hated.
“How was your burger, Phil?”
“It was awful. I should have known. Jesus, what kind of tool orders the fucking burger? I never learn.”
I think that tells you a lot of what you need to know about Phil. He’s a man who expects to hate things and does them anyway because, in some ways at least, being right is more important than being happy. You might not remember that fleeting feeling of happiness, but you will always know you were right. And as I think that, sitting on the platform, Carla’s repetitive drone relegated to the background, I have the unpleasant realisation that he and I aren’t too different in that respect, which is my cue to stare at the horizon again.
That afternoon, as most afternoons, the world is divided up into things I know and things that I don’t. I know that Derby is a horrible place, and that if we had to wait here any longer I would go mad. But I don’t know yet, for instance, that I will wind up squashed next to an indomitable black woman in oversized designer glasses who is on a mission to batter my elbow with her five-day old copy of the Metro. I don’t know that she will talk to herself loudly (I’ve got a text. Who’s it from? Let’s read the text) like she’s trying to drown out other voices that I can’t hear, or in the forlorn hope that somebody will join in.
I know that no train could come for us quick enough, but I don’t know that when it does the carriage will be unbearably hot and I will press myself up against the cool window like a dog in a hot car, watching the tracks and the warehouses, the out of town supermarkets and car parks and graffiti-covered bridges rattle by me, stippled by the sunlight, in a constant loop like the inside of a zoetrope.
I will say this, though. As the train snakes into view on the horizon and we pick up our bags and walk forward to the edge of our platform on the edge of nowhere, I know one thing as surely as I know anything at all. When we get on board, Phil will take the seat next to Carla and they will talk about work, all the way home.