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Tram Diary: Nottingham Winter Wonderland

I was besieged on the tram this week by a loud sniffer who further endeared himself by spending the entirety of the journey droning on and on with the monotonous whine of an air raid siren. Sniffers are a particular challenge for me, especially when they are of adult age and really should know better. Toddlers can be forgiven, as can pretty much anyone up to “handkerchief” age, but for some reason it is a sound that cuts right through me leaving me unable to focus on anything else.

You would have that that years of classroom teaching should have inoculated me to such things, a setting in which kids cultivate runny noses from around mid-October right through to the spring one glossy sleeve at a time. The little ones, the year sevens, would often treat their noses like a kind of drip-feeder, whereas teenagers just sniff, constantly, which now I come to think of it probably explains my pathological aversion.

The one time I took the initiative with an early morning tram sniffer (it’s always worse in the morning) and reached across the aisle with the offer a crisp, clean tissue from my little cellophane pack, the look I received couldn’t have been any more offended had I just reached over with a generous handful of freshly steaming human excrement, so now I just try, and clearly fail, to tune them out.

The subject of the needlessly bellowed monologue that morning was some form of dispute between two workmates, one of whom, who'll we call Darren, was by all accounts a cretin. There was something about Darren needing to speak to the DVLA and a mysterious “incident” about which I learned nothing other than it was quite the scandal, each tidbit of information punctuated by the sound of a grown man aggressively manoeuvring industrial quantities of phlegm around the inside of his head.

I normally quite enjoy eavesdropping conversations like this on the tram, especially when they’re so loud that you can’t help but listen. I sometimes think they’re straining for a wider audience, perhaps desperate for the kind of fleeting, entirely imagined validation only a stranger sat seats behind can bestow. Taking a curious peek into other’s people’s lives represents far more than entertainment since these are real human lives, and as such I feel compelled to make side-by-side comparisons with my own, wondering how much we are alike. What’s reassuring is that while the dialects may differ, the core of the problems we face and the silly things that bring us together in a laugh are often remarkably similar and similarly unremarkable: frustrations at work, trying to organise a last-minute sitter, something lost, something needing to be fetched from home, ailing elderly parents, missed appointments, and so on. From time to time these familiar paths take a turn towards the deeper, larger questions, which is when I’m most attentive,once again curious to know to what extent our lives overlap.

Occasionally a salacious detail will spill my way, like someone phoning in a weekend drug deal or snippets from a private family saga. Somebody, somewhere, it seems, is always in the doghouse. In those moments I’ll surreptitiously turn down my music and tune in.

It’s a kind of thievery I know, although I try to treat it like an unintentional gift, especially when the absurdity is full frontal and I doubt I am alone in this. Onetime I overheard the sentence, “yeah, and that’s why me fucking chakras are fucking fucked!” It was such a wonderfully and memorably confused statement that I jotted it down in my pocket notebook, immediately picturing the woman – late forties, heavily weathered – defeatedly slumping down in the cushioned chair opposite her Reiki healer, the air thickly scented with incense and spiritual expectation, to announce with a sigh that yes, it’s her fucking chakras again…they’re fucking fucked! In such moments even the slenderest of details can blossom into something close to a metaphor for a stranger’s hidden life and honestly it brings a surprising amount of joy into my days, we are such ridiculous creatures after all.

As it happens I never did learn the sniffer’s name, who disembarked at the city centre stop close to where the pigeons gather on the large mausoleum-like water feature that is switched off during the wintertime. In the summer, parents wade their small children through the shallows, ignoring the signs warning them not to do so and hidden dangers that might ensnare a chubby little ankle: broken glass, hidden drains and, one assumes, the presence of prodigious amounts of submerged pigeon shit.

In the winter the taps are turned off and water drains away, allowing the pigeons to gather in vast numbers to be menaced by crows. They must roost somewhere alse at night but flock down and begin their day around the same time I start mine.

As the sniffer passed by my window I saw that he was wearing ahigh vis bib and a pair of those militaristic combat trousers designed for construction work, the type with tool loops and reinforced pockets stitched into the knees to accommodate knee pads. Despite the recession the city has no apparent shortage of construction work, so I reasoned he was off to one of the many building sites that have popped up in recent months, with the distinct possibility that he would have to deal with "Darren."

All of this had been perfectly mundane, forgettable even, save for the oppressive nature of his monotone of his voice and incessant sniffing, although as I watched him disappear into the early morning mist I recalled a former colleague of mine who had likewise been cursed with the one of the world’s most boring voices.

Affable, and for the most part an easy-going fellow, when trapped in his presence it was nevertheless impossible to sustain consciousness long enough to absorb whatever critical information he was trying to convey. Every earnest attempt to remain even mildly attentive was thwarted, his listeners helplessly drifting away even as they actively tried to tether their minds to the moment, painfully aware that important information was being missed. Had he insisted on sniffing throughout it might have been a different outcome, perish the thought.

Everyone I spoke to described the same experience; the same lolling cadence, the same amnesiac silence that followed closely behind the end of a lengthy story. Worse was that these long monologues centred on the most humdrum of subjects, his great passion being classic cars, just not the sort of slick speedsters you might normally associate with the word. His preference was for the functional family saloons of the 1970s and 80s, your Austin Allegros and Vauxhall Cavaliers. In every story he told he would find a way to weave make and model of the car driven by the principal characters and then trundle off into a comforting cul-de-sac of automotive nostalgia. “Julie, who you may recall drove a Ford Angular, a nice one, a nice little runner with all its original detailing, which I believe her father had purchased with money from his final settlement, a showroom model no less, the Hinkley dealership, by the A452 roundabout, you know the one – well, she died yesterday.” Glassy eyed and unresponsive, listeners would understandably miss the essential details buried in his meandering reveries, only to later stumble helplessly into what should have been an easily avoidable faux pas.

Everyone knows someone like this. My waking fear is that I might be one. In the past I have had two dear colleagues who, given the appropriate cue, can launch into similarly unriveting odysseys in obscura, blithely, perhaps even beautifully unaware that during the course of their soliloquy you have packed away your things, logged off the computer, put on your coat and walked seventy or eighty metres through a light drizzle to the bus stop while they trot breathlessly along beside you, transfixed by their own unbroken stream of consciousness. It’s quite a wonderful trait I suppose, a kind of overly generous storied incontinence, just not one that ever seems to present itself at quite the right moment, when you’d happily walk through the flames for a prolonged distraction.

On the homeward leg of my journey that evening my carriage played host to series of young teenage couples, who based on their public displays of affection were all very much in love. In preparation for the Christmas period the city has erected a Winter Wonderland in the square, with homely looking mock log cabins hawking giant pretzels, hot chocolate in miniature beer steins and a universe of overpriced stocking fillers. Last year there was an expert candle dribbler who would carve a candle for you in exchange for the price of a house deposit. I haven’t taken a closer look so far this year, but based on past experience I would wager I'll find a shop selling glass figurines and another specialising in those hideous dream catchers with a picture of a wolf printed on the imitation leather centrepiece because what could be more Christmassy than that?

In the daytime it all looks rather drab, it’s simulated authenticity reliant on the cover of darkness, but as evening falls the Winter Wonderland awakens in all its festive glory. This, of course, is terribly good news for the pigeons, who cour the sticky leavings of wonderland patrons in the early hours before the sweepers make their pass. I imagine they get quite the haul. As much as I want to find Wonderland tacky I can’t deny that it has its appeal, and I surmised that the young couples riding the Clifton line with me that evening had spent an enjoyable hour going around on the big wheel and flirting over a foot-long wiener schnitzel.

Most impressive of all in the Wonderland get-up is an elevated skating rink, although a more accurate description would be a skating track, that loops its way around the plywood village at a height of around ten metres in the ai like a vast Scalextric set. One reason why I thought the couples were riding high on wonderland bliss was that one of them was carrying cheaply made soft toy of the kind handed out as prizes at fairs. However, rather than gifting the adorable saucer-eyed seal pup to his lady, the young man in question was instead lightly bouncing it off her head, which struck me as a risky seduction technique. Clearly I wasn’t alone in this assumption, since moments later, and one imagines tired of this unorthodox courtship methodology, she snatched it out of his hand and threw it down the carriage. This in turn triggered something of a flight or fight response in our wounded troubadour, who jumped to his feet and, quite unsure how to proceed, retrieved his seal pup and then commenced to awkwardly preen himself, carefully smoothing out his jeans and picking at microscopic motes of dust on his glossy puffer jacket. He knew he’d made a critical error but couldn’t decide if he was genuinely remorseful or wounded, and instead just carried on preening, his companion angrily staring down at her phone waiting on the unlikeliest of apologies.

A short distance away from them sat another couple of an altogether different calibre although similar age. Outwardly they put me in mind of a stylishly besotted pair lifted from the closing scenes of an independent French film, the train lethargically pulling out of Gare du Nord to convey our embattled heroes towards an unknown destination in a haze of nonchalant intensity. His leather jacket had precisely the right about of custom devil-may-care-wear-and-tear, and her oversized hornrims and giant knot of carefully coiffed raven hair completed the look. Meanwhile, the preening young man from the front of the carriage had also spotted this second, superior couple, and I imagined him feeling stung to see them so casually at ease with each other. Without his seal pup accessory he was naked in the dark, the moment when a simple apology might have fixed it having passed. I felt for him, I really did, sensing something of my younger, even more hapless self in his pitiful awkwardness, overwhelmed by a powerful desire to come off as “interesting” and at the same time fearful that the kind of comfortable silence enjoyed by the Parisian lovers would be his undoing. It could just as well have been me stood there in romantic time-out trying to stuff a seal pup plushie into my inside coat pocket. “Stop trying so hard,” I wanted to tell him, “go over and apologise for godsake!”

When the seasl pup couple disembarked at the Clifton Centre stop he suddenly chased after her brandishing the seal pup like Jason Voorhees, easily catching hold of her. This resulted in many hysteric squeals of delight and a lanky adolescence embrace caught in the illuminated square of pavement light spilling from Saveloy’s Chip Shop.



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