Jonny McCambridge: How my serene train journey was wrecked by OPK

I am, for the first time in several years, on a train.

Wednesday, 9th June 2021, 11:20 am
The Enterprise train

The carriage is sparsely populated and as I sink back into my chair, I find that I am looking forward to the trip down to Dublin.

The prospect of the train journey has given me the elusive gift of time. I am alone and have two hours to fill. My laptop is with me so I can catch up on some work if I feel like it. A couple of novels have also been stuffed into my bag, so I have a choice of reading.

But I know the more likely option is that I will do nothing on the voyage. Nothing other than notice what is around me. Freed temporarily from the responsibilities of work, parenting or driving, I have that rarest of pleasures, a set amount of time which doesn’t have to be filled.

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I have visions of watching the fields whizz past, noticing the various shades of green and yellow in the grass. I will see an array of birds, pecking hungrily at the ground, scattering as the train rushes through. I will pass by villages and towns, studying the historic stations and bridges, watching the expressions of people as they wait on the platforms. I know that when my mind is free of burden, I see the world in a different way, notice things that otherwise would remain outside my vision.

I sink further into my seat; I am perhaps smiling to myself and wondering why it has been so long since I’ve been on a train. I close my eyes.

Moments later I am stirred by a noise. I see that two children and their mother are taking the seat opposite me. They are two boys of similar age to my son, one perhaps a little older, one a little younger. I see their cherubic features, the gap-toothed smiles, the freckles on faces and arms exposed by the sun. Their mother is a step or two behind them. I give her a welcoming smile from behind my face mask, but she seems harried and doesn’t notice.

I return to looking out the window.

I hear one of the boys ask: ‘Are we there yet mum?’

I smile to myself. We are still motionless at the station.

Soon, there are grunts and rumbles as the train begins to move like a great beast awakening reluctantly from slumber. Before we have passed Botanic Station the children have asked ‘Are we there yet?’ another half dozen times.

We have left Belfast behind when I notice that the younger of the two boys has moved to the seat in front of mine. He is standing on the surface, peering down at me.

When I meet his gaze, he retreats behind the seat, smiling mischievously. I indulge the game, pretending to look away while he emerges from behind the seat and then quickly turn my head towards him, sending him scurrying down behind his cover with excited giggles.

The game is fun ... for the first couple of minutes. After 10 minutes it is fair to say that the novelty has faded. I return to looking out the window, but the boy persists.

‘Hey mister … hey mister.’

Mercifully his mum intervenes, ordering the boy back to his seat. It is hard to be sure because she is also wearing a face mask, but she seems to be directing an angry glare in my direction.

We have passed Portadown when I notice the two boys giggling, whispering conspiratorially and pointing at me. It takes some moments to work out that they are laughing at my jacket.

My summer jacket may, to some tastes, be considered loud. It is a blue and white striped blazer. I consider that I am quite the dandy when I wear it.

I hear one boy whisper to his brother: ‘Stupid stripes.’

I look away. I am not offended or in the least disconcerted. Children cannot be expected to possess an advanced sense of style or elan.

Some more minutes pass. The sun is breaking through the early morning clouds and I am affected by the warmth. I decide it is best to take off my jacket.

By the time we reach Dundalk the children are playing a chasing game, running up and down the aisle and yelling insults at each other. The volume seems to soar every time they pass my seat. I glance at their mother who is engrossed on her phone and seems impervious to the din.

I decide it is not a bad distraction and take my own phone from my pocket. I am trying to work out how to use the wi-fi when I see that the older of the two boys has now taken the position on the seat in front of me.

‘Hey mister,’ he begins. ‘Can I see your phone?’

‘Er …’

‘Please mister, I want to look up something on Google.’

I look around for help. There is none.

‘Um, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.’

The boy considers my answer.

‘Hey mister,’ he continues. ‘Can I try on your face mask?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

The mother calls him back to his seat. I am sure that she is peering suspiciously at me. I look out the window again but my mind is now too troubled to enjoy the landscape.

The annoyance I am feeling is a syndrome I have encountered before. I call it OPK (other people’s kids). As a doting father, blind to any faults within my own child, I ponder could it be possible that people occasionally suffer from OPK frustration around my boy.

Whatever the truth, the train seems to take an age to arrive at Connolly Station. For the final few miles the two boys have removed their shoes and are using them as weapons against each other in some sort of duel.

One begins to wail after receiving a hefty blow, leading the mother to warn: ‘Not on the face! Not on the face!’

Eventually I disembark the train and gleefully tear off my face mask. I watch the mother and her two boys disappear into the city. I go in a different direction.

I find myself wondering what train they are getting back to Belfast.

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Alistair Bushe