'Wrecked my ankle at a party,' he says, admitting the injury's self-inflicted. 'Guess I'll be a bit more careful how much I drink in future.'
Inevitably, he asks if I've been travelling and the conversation turns to India.
'I'd love to go there,' he says, and sounds as if he means it.
I encourage him, suggesting he try to make it a long trip -- months rather than weeks. We chat all the way to the next stop, where he leaves the train. We wish each other good luck, and I'm sorry to see him go.
England -- so many names that could only be found here without sounding out of place. At Kingham station, for example, a sign says 'Change here for buses to Chipping Norton', and at Moreton-in-Marsh another sign lists Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton-on-the-Water, and, incongruously, Broadway.
The English countryside slides past, almost stereotypical in its elegance -- rolling hills with copses, hedgerows, neat fields -- and I wonder why I don't feel more elated at seeing these things I'm so familiar with from my boyhood, when many of the books I read and TV programmes I watched about wildlife and nature were focused on Britain; when most of the spectacular books and programmes about New Zealand wildlife and nature, or even the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world, had yet to be produced. Even while still a boy I could identify most of the British animals and birds, and their charm and that of the landscape they inhabit still delights me.
Perhaps I've simply become too used to the energy of India. The urge to compare, which so often interferes with appreciation of where you are, proves irresistible. Where are all the people?
A roe deer (or is a muntjac?) feeds in a field; further on I see another. A group of rabbits occupies a corner of a rough paddock. They look greyer and leaner than the rabbits of New Zealand. Those books about British wildlife weren't just abstract knowledge for me; many of the most common birds of the New Zealand countryside are descendants of those brought there by homesick British migrants. Around my own house in the Pohangina valley the most common birds include yellowhammers, chaffinches, house sparrows of course, blackbirds, and song thrushes, and from time to time I see many more, like goldfinches, redpolls, and greenfinches. Perhaps the familiarity of much of what I'm seeing from this smooth, fast train makes me feel as if my journey has already begun to end?
But the magpies and crows remind me of India, and even though they're not quite the same, they still look like old friends. What suddenly shocks me, though, is seeing a small herd of cattle and realising these are BEEF cattle. Am I really that accustomed to India? Maybe I now know some parts of India better than I know the England of my boyhood perceptions? I've certainly spent far longer there than here.
A hare sits, grey and upright and alone among crows in a stubble field. Hares have been part of my life forever; I can even remember as a very small boy asking my uncle how to tell a hare from a rabbit. Not many memories pre-date that one. The sight of a hare always thrills me; it does so now, too.
Finally, Great Malvern. My aunt sits, waiting at the station. Neither of us can believe I'm here.
Ten days at Great Malvern. I can't write about those days, other than to say two months of sometimes hard travelling caught up with me and I couldn't have been in a better place, nor better looked after. The timing was uncanny.
Shortly after five in the morning we sit on the hard bench at the end of the platform and don't talk about goodbyes. The inadequacy of partings: how do you say what can't be said? The train finally pulls into the station and I begin to leave England.
At Worcester Shrub Hill a young guy boards my carraige. He wears a suit, the jacket open, and the anxious look of someone going to a job interview. The inspector takes his job seriously: another young guy, casually dressed, gets a ticking-off for not having bought a ticket before boarding, and another passenger gets questioned about whether that's his bag in the overhead rack on the opposite side of the aisle.
When the dawn lightens enough so the tinted windows no longer reflect my disconcertingly tired and drawn face, I begin to scribble notes more frequently. Someone once said writing's easy, you just jot down ideas as they occur to you; he then added that it's the occurring that's the hard part. Maybe so, but movement and the sense of journeying help, and trains are one of the best forms of travel for facilitating that occurring of ideas. Besides, not all writing has to be about ideas; simple description has many virtues, and this morning I have plenty to scribble about in the little cahier.
The silhouette of a long-tailed bird sitting on a power line -- instantly I think 'drongo' even though I know it's ridiculous (it's a magpie). Perhaps even now, part of me still hasn't left India. I think it never will.
A fox sits on its haunches and watches the train pass; later, another trots through earthworks on the embankment with such an air of self-assurance that I admire (and probably envy) it just for that (as well, of course, for the sheer beauty of the animal and the elegance of its lope). Had it known of my admiration, the fox would have laughed, of course.
Deer in misty paddocks; lone trees in precisely the right place in empty fields -- the geometry of a thoughtful history of cultivation. The bone-white and grey moon, upside down and just beginning to wane; high, tiny vapour trails following the bright speck of planes I long to be on. I think of the two senses of 'flight' -- one literal, as in the flight of birds; the other figurative, as in flight from something or somewhere -- and wonder which best applies to me.
Wood pigeons -- surely they must be more intelligent than they look?
As the train fills, everyone I see seems to enter their own world -- newspapers; laptops and tablets; phones; kindles; i-pods, earbuds and headphones. Some, plugged in, have their eyes closed. No one writes anything by hand. A disconcertingly large number of people wear suits, and anything not a suit looks freshly purchased for a large sum. I probably look like a hobo. Perhaps this is partly why I feel more crowded here than crammed among the millions in Delhi, although even there on the Metro many people manage to stay tidier than me. Whatever the reason, I think perhaps I am the odd one out -- no, I AM the odd one out. Yet, in Delhi I stand out almost everywhere except among the tourist spots, to which I seldom go. I don't understand why I feel this way; I just feel I don't belong here, despite its attractions, and I wonder whether I'd ever grow accustomed to this environment. When I've thought of how I might achieve that state of feeling at home wherever I am, I've never thought it might be this hard here in the land from which my ancestors left (although admittedly this is neither Scotland nor Ireland).
The sound of one keyboard tapping. No koan here, but perhaps enlightenment might arise from contemplating the sound. What is he writing? A report? A presentation to a corporate meeting? The horror! The horror! I have left that world and cannot return, even if I wished to, which I do not. Whatever lies in store for me will be elsewhere.
At Paddington a helpful ticket-checker gives me clear, precise instructions about where to catch the Underground to Liverpool Street, and thanks to his help I'm on way in just a couple of minutes, standing with the strap-hangers, most of whom look tired or dour or both. Liverpool Street arrives; I make my way to the train and find I'm in time to catch an earlier one. Another journey; more gazing out the window, watching England slip away. On a bank of a slow river, a man sits with his fishing road set up and his basket and a little table beside him, and I'm struck by the apparent wonderful pointlessness of his inactivity. Fishing's been described as many things -- 'the art of prolonged anticipation'; 'a jerk on one end of a line, waiting for a jerk on the other', and so on -- but one way of thinking about certain types of fishing is that they share much in common with meditation. This man certainly appears meditative, but even if his thoughts have wandered all over the place, I have no doubt he'll return home refreshed, even if fishless.
The train arrives at the dreadful, giant warehouse that's Stansted airport, where my last impressions of England are about as far removed from the gentle, beautiful countryside around Great Malvern as Delhi is. In the previous post I pointed out how people and places are inextricable, but I know now that if I return to England, the only draw will be a few close friends. Perhaps in the attempt to feel at home wherever I am, I have learned only that I have not yet succeeded, and the affinity I once felt for this place has begun to fade. Aspects like my friends, the birds and other animals, and the distinctive beauty of the English countryside still delight me, but maybe the result of my striving has been to drift further away from a home I once thought I might have had.
1. '...the more interesting and difficult-to-film subjects from other parts of the world...' Not including seals. I never want to see another documentary about the breeding habits of any kind of seal. Ever.
2. 'The bone-white and grey moon, upside down...' Look closely if you visit the hemisphere opposite the one in which you usually live.
3. 'The horror! The horror!' Kurtz's last words in Heart of Darkness.
4. '...hanging on in quiet desperation..' ...is the English way, according to Pink Floyd.
5. '...a jerk on one end...' The main title of the late Robert Hughes' wonderful book. Recommended reading.
1. Quintessential English garden at Great Malvern. Home to many birds and other animals, including badgers.
2. Dragonfly in the same garden. At Slimbridge the day after I arrived, I watched a hobby hunting dragonflies.
3. Wood pigeon at Slimbridge.
4. English robin at Great Malvern. Not a great photograph, but they weren't cooperative. Still, I trust this captures something of the character of these little birds.