Saturday, 16 October 2010

The story of the over-polite 20p piece

So there I was on a train to Edinburgh, found my seat and whipped out my book. I’ve explained to the Japanese couple that yes, their tickets are fine for this train, and it seems that the people who booked the other three seats in the set of four with a table that I’m currently enjoying haven’t shown up, so please do sit with me.

It all starts with the eating. They’ve bought food. (its a three o'clock train – I picked it so I would have time for lunch, and get to Scotland by the time I’m ready for dinner). He starts with noodles from Tupperware, which although very easy to eat messily, he’s an expert, and I need pay little attention. She’s playing with her phone and singing a little ditty.

This is when he pulls open a bag of rotisserie chicken. Just the same as the noodles, he’s an expert at eating chicken, but being a chicken eating expert is quite different from being a noodle eating expert. Eating chicken without the use of cutlery is a tricky business – ask anyone in my office when I’ve been to Waitrose for lunch (30p bread roll, £1.35 chicken quarter (gives me the opportunity to say “breast please” to the nice lady at the counter) and a squirt of the barbeque sauce I keep in my locker – that’s a good value lunch) and they don’t have any plastic knives. The expert chicken eater knows that the best way of extracting as much meat from a chicken is to really get your lips and teeth round it – right in, lots of sucking, and right out again. Having to sit opposite a man with a fiver’s worth of chicken (it was Iceland I think – that’s a lot of chicken) and a wife who wasn’t hungry (she had a few noodles) on a four and a half hour train ride isn’t fun.

I decided to join them (not by stealing some chicken) and have a little something to eat, so I whipped out my wallet and as the trolley man came over, I fumbled with the (ludicrous amount of) coins, and a 20p piece slipped out of my hand, and fell behind the lady sitting next to me. Neither of them seemed to notice at the time, and I was not reliant on this particular 20p to enable me to purchase the bottle of diet coke and packet of crisps I felt would be sufficient to satisfy my need for sustenance, so I didn’t think too much of it.

When the lady got up to go to the toilet (or just to stretch her legs – I didn’t follow her or anything) I reached down and found the 20p, but I noticed that the man saw me reach down and find it, so I didn’t feel able to just pocket it – what if he thought it had fallen out of her pocket? With their limited English, I could hardly explain to them what had happened in any detail, and anyone who’s been to a party with me that ends in any form of parlour game will know that my skills at charades leave a lot to be desired. All I could do is place it on the table, and shrug, as if I didn’t know whose it might be.

He obviously was in no position to confirm or deny ownership of the coin, by the time it was on the table she wasn’t either. There it stayed, mocking me for the final hour and a half of the journey. All of us were far too polite to do or say anything about it. After he packed away ready for our landing north of the border, she spun the coin on its end, oblivious to the awkwardness that it had caused (if only in my own head).

She took it with her I believe, and it was a small sacrifice to pay for ensuring that my, and maybe every Englishman’s reputation of politeness, a lack of greed, and a friendly smile, would remain intact.