From a novel

“What the devilish hellish futon is this?” you ask. It’s all of the first chapter of the National Novel Writing Month novel that I wrote last month. I also sort of began to write a second chapter. I did not manage to write a novel. There will be another November, however.

I was so close to almost doing a U-turn, to not publishing this here. But it would feel wasteful to have written all those words – almost 4,000 words is still quite a lot of words, I think – and then wasted them.

I don’t expect anyone to read any of it. That’s not the point. The point is something else, I think, probably. Maybe there isn’t one. I can cope with that.

I know it’s a bit poo. Actually, a lot poo. There’s quite a funny and clever thing about a vending machine, though. I’m proud of that.

Chapter 1 – The wrong train

The carriage was not particularly luxurious. There were no plug sockets to fill passengers who neglected to bring their rechargeable electrical appliances along for the journey with regret. The seats appeared to have spent several hard years being constantly sat on by people wearing trousers made of sandpaper-like fabric, and hungry passengers grabbing conveniently quick bites to eat had obviously not been using the coasters and placemats not provided.

It wasn’t empty, not even when you ignored Ken, but it was not full either. That happy medium, slap bang in between fullness and emptiness, had been struck. There’s nothing unusual about that.

But it was closer to being empty than it was to being full. And when you ignore all the people who looked like they were about to get off the train at Downham Market, Ken was on his own.

The train’s arrival in Downham Market was heralded by the arrival of some big shiny blue signs in the windows of the carriage. Some clever chump had, using a blue permanent marker filled with ink not quite the same shade of blue as the background of the sign, scribbled out the “ham” to leave a blatantly sarcastic message. One day, someone with a bottle of correction fluid was bound to come along and pop a hyphen in there, but the gap between “Down” and “Market” was somewhat too wide and it would almost certainly end up being typographically incorrect.

Very weary indeed after a long, hard day that he had spent working very hard indeed at his place of work, Ken decided that the “ham” had been redacted by some kind of vegetarian animal rights campaigner person.

The train was stationary for rather a long time, although the driver didn’t bother to make an incomprehensible speech using the loudspeakers. Everyone knew that the delay was due to my aspiration to spend forever going on and on about a wretched sign.

Sure enough, everyone in the carriage who wasn’t Ken got off at Downham Market. One person did board the train, but she entered one of the carriages that Ken wasn’t in. No other peculiar people wanted to go to King’s Lynn after having experienced the comparatively stunning Downham Market.

Once I couldn’t think of anything else to say, the doors finally closed after much fanfare, and the train leapt back into action and started to move in the direction of King’s Lynn.

Ken noticed that the laser display board said the next station was Watlington. Of course, the laser display board was right, the next station was Watlington. Then the train would arrive at King’s Lynn railway station.

How was it that he hadn’t remembered? He went on the train every single day. Not at weekends, or bank holidays, or holidays, or days when he was ill, of course, but apart from that he went on the train every single day.

Then it struck Ken. He didn’t live in King’s Lynn any more, and in fact he hadn’t lived in King’s Lynn since he’d moved to London not long after starting a job in London eight months ago and realising, as any person in that situation must, that commuting from King’s Lynn to London was a very silly thing to do indeed. The idiot! Not for not living in King’s Lynn any more, but for boarding the wrong train. I told you he was tired.

Ken was baffled by this. It was very absurd indeed – absurdly so, in fact. You couldn’t make it up. What was wrong with him? He was just tired, that’s what. The coffee machine had broken at work, and all night some rather bizarre hoodlums had been noisily throwing plates or bowls or bottles about in the street outside within earshot of his bed. A good night’s sleep was all that the doctor was ordering. That’s honestly all that was wrong with him. He’s not suffering from dementia; he’s not turning into an alien; it’s nothing like that. No. This isn’t that kind of story. He’s just tired, honest.

Obviously he was going to have to turn around and go all the way back to London. But there was not a great deal wrong with that, even though it was a tremendous pain in the neck. It was mildly fortunate that his lady partner was away, so she would not be able to worry about the whole business. Of all the times he could have chosen to be tired enough forget that he didn’t live in King’s Lynn any more, this was a pretty good choice, and he hadn’t actually had any say on the matter. It was clear that the gods had been huddling together in the sky, and had been feeling kind when they did that huddling.

He could have stayed on the train all the way to King’s Lynn, but he decided to get off at Watlington. There were no benefits to doing this, really, but as I just said, it is what he did.

So eager was he to stop putting pressure on his buttocks and stretch out his legs that he stood up a bit sooner than was strictly necessary. He shuffled in the direction of the door, looking a bit silly as he tried his utmost to not topple over but never mind because he was on his own in the carriage and anyway he’d have looked a damn sight more sillier if he had actually toppled over and had thumped something, and noticed a largish satchel not particularly well concealed on one of he seats closest to the doors.

As both time and the train trundled closer and closer to a position when it might have been more fully suitable for him to start standing up, Ken thought about the satchel, and was as extremely tempted to investigate it as anyone must be upon noticing a largish satchel not particularly well concealed on one of he seats closest to the doors of the deserted train carriage in which they are travelling.

He picked it up. It wasn’t particularly heavy – if truth be told, it was considerably lighter than its bulginess, and largish nature, suggested. It was almost as if it had been filled with hydrogen. But obviously it hadn’t. What kind of person would think of filling a largish satchel with hydrogen? They would think of using helium instead –it’s less reactive.

The train slowed down and stopped. The doors opened. The train’s loudspeakers made a noise that sounded suspiciously like the rather muffled voice of someone eating the microphone into which they were speaking.

Did Ken rebelliously take the bag with him? No, he didn’t. It wasn’t tempting enough. Ken was quite an inquisitive person most of the time, and if the largish satchel had been just a little bit more tempting he might’ve snapped. But it wasn’t, so he didn’t, just as any averagely inquisitive person wouldn’t.

I can assure you that the largish satchel is not relevant to anything else. It was just a bit of jolly background information to set the scene – of the same nature as, say, the modifications made to signage at Downham Market railway station, and the state of the train carriage’s upholstery. You can go ahead and forget all about it, OK? Who wouldn’t just slip it in there for the love of it?

Ken was, strictly speaking, not the only person to have left the train at Watlington. The lady who had boarded at Downham Market was the other one – and no wonder, because I thought it was a bit odd that anyone would travel from Downham Market to King’s Lynn, because I’m being very horrible and perhaps unnecessarily critical of King’s Lynn compared to Downham Market like some kind of AA Gill, or any other ridiculous chump who is trying to be controversial just to get some attention. But the lady did not stick around to travel straight in the opposite direction like a boomerang – she hadn’t forgotten her place of residence too. Evidently Watlington was slightly less immediately repulsive in her eyes.

Ken bought a ticket (using the ticket machine, or maybe the person behind the counter; I sadly am not sure which options are available at Watlington railway station; you know, it may even have been the case that he was in the possession of some kind of special travel card – otherwise, a tight-fisted man like Ken would have been flapping his arms about in alarm at the thought of paying for so much ultra-unnecessary voyaging) and then wondered what to do next.

If anything, it would’ve been so much more sensible in so many eyes if Ken had stayed on the train. He wouldn’t have had to spend so much time freezing his bum off standing on the blustery weather. In fact, he could have stayed on the train all the time, especially if my suspicions about not needing to buy a ticket are correct. And he would have had the option of enjoying a deliciously nauseating snack purchased from a shop. All that Watlington had to offer on that front was a basic vending machine intended for the dispensation of drinks. Pathetic!

Hoping that it would provide some shelter from the rather spiteful wind, Ken snuggled up the vending machine, which was full of such enchanting bottled beverages as Ribena. The machine had been manufactured by a company called Selecta, founded in 1957 and the European market leader in vending services, serving food, snacks and beverages to over 5 million consumers a day, whether they are in the workplace or out and about. Ken was out and about on this occasion, and he had deduced the dispenser’s provenance by looking at the big letters, spelling out “Selecta”, which had been painted onto the front of the machine above the big window of glass because the establishment was so jolly well proud of what I’m sure was its most indisputably exquisite handiwork ever.

Although sadly he had no one with whom to share such hilarity, Ken observed to himself that if the pet dog of President Barack Obama were to be next to or – better still – inside the machine, it would be “Selecta Bo”, which is almost exactly like “Bo Selecta”, and becomes exactly the same when you put the fact that it is backwards out of your mind.

Ken did not choose to become one of the over 5 million customers per day to whom Europe’s largest vending services company serves food, beverages and snacks. That’s because, with the predictable exception of the various bits and pieces that were there to hold the bottles and cans in place, the machine was empty. Pathetic!

By the train had arrived, Ken had convinced himself that, when not empty, the machine would contain a dog – it was obviously something to do with “Selecta Bo”, as well as the “ham” in “Downham Market”, both aforementioned. He was rather disgusted by the idea. I must admit that when I said he was tired, I didn’t mean that tired, tired to the point of dreaming like some kind of considerably less impressive version of Salvador Dalí, but evidently I misunderestimated the situation a bit.

The doors opened. Ken walked onto the train, remembering to mind the gap, and sat down. He was in an otherwise-empty carriage again. The doors closed and the train moved off.

It took him a while, because – as I keep saying, perhaps to make you feel tired yourself (although of course, to be precise, in a different sense of the word) – he was tired, but eventually Ken realised that something was in between the chair and himself. It was, he imagined, an experience not dissimilar to sitting in a booster seat, although of course he was much too old to have been an infant in the days of stern car safety regulations so I must emphasise the “he imagined” part.

It was that largish satchel again. He was sitting in the carriage that he had been sitting in going the other way. Curiously, the pattern of the upholstery had changed from purple and swirly to orange and stripy if that was the case, but Ken didn’t notice. Most people are unable to be even slightly bothered about the design of train carriage upholstery at the best of times, and apart from the thing about being a slightly more inquisitive person than is the norm, Ken was “most people” through and through. What’s more, there was one other reason for him to not give a toss. Can you think what it might be? Of course you can. You’re clever. That’s why you’re reading this book.

So, the satchel. Ken half stood up, pulled it out from where it was lodged underneath his buttocks, and placed it on the floor so that it was hidden underneath the seat. That way, he wouldn’t be quite so tempted to look inside it.

But even with it stashed underneath the seat, the idea of being a bit risqué was more tempting than ever before. Ken wondered whether to have a quick look inside. That couldn’t do any harm, surely? Just a quick, harmless look inside. No need for anyone to know. It was, he decided, what anyone would do. It was his duty to examine the contents, just in case it contained a bomb, or the severed head of a treasured celebrity’s horse, or something.

He pulled the satchel back out from under the seat, and rested it on his lap. Being sat on had made it had become a little bit less bulgy, and although it was still largish there was now much more emphasis on the “ish” than there had been before. The shape of his increasingly sprawling buttocks was clear, and their owner made a mental note to dust off the old gym membership.

Although there was a veneer of respectable shininess, enough to fool any layperson into believing it to be well posh, such a knowledgeable connoisseur as Ken was able to recognise it with ease as a cheap, mass-produced, shoddy piece of engineering. It had probably been bought from a supermarket. There were scuff marks all over and the handle was beginning to fall off. The owner was obviously someone who didn’t place satchel quality high on their list of priorities.

Ken disapproved. His own satchel was not even a satchel but a briefcase – everyone knows that briefcases are much better than satchels – and it was an heirloom too. It had belonged to his father, and his grandfather, and his great grandfather, who’d been given it by his father (Ken’s great, great grandfather) as a Christmas present one Christmas.

There was a slight mysterious greasy stain on the bottom of his briefcase, but Ken didn’t like to talk about that. Whenever anyone brought the subject up – and it was brought up more frequently you might think – Ken quickly changed the topic of conversation to something else.

He was so disgusted by the thought that anybody might actually pay good money for a product made in such an unacceptably slapdash manner that he was not initially able to bring himself to open it, and had to spend a few quiet moments breathing deeply to calm himself down – it was a technique that he’d taught himself with the help of all that book by Paul McKenna. It really was an absolute sacrilege. It was metaphorically urinating in the faces of the scores of hard-working men, living in the annals of history, who worked very hard indeed to take the world of satchel production where it is today.

Once the fury had died down, Ken was ready to look inside. All he needed to do was open the case. It was a bit of a challenge, but after much fiddling the clips were unclipped and the opening open.

What was inside? A sleeping bag, that’s what. What else? Nothing else, that’s what. Really, nothing else? Yes, really, nothing else. Well, I suppose there was some air, but that only counts if you’re really pedantic. And if you are pedantic, fair enough, I don’t have a problem with that. I do wonder, though, whether painting a hyphen between “Down” and “Market” is the best way to use your time or your Tipp-Ex – you could be out there daubing some odious words onto the back of Piers Morgan’s jumper, and yet you choose to work your magic on sodding Norfolk railway station signage.

It made perfect sense. It explained the sponginess, bulginess and lightness. Ken figuratively kicked himself, wondering why the heck he hadn’t thought of it. Then, after a while (he was tired, after all), he remembered that he was tired.

The sleeping bag, which had started to unfurl, was stuffed back inside. The satchel was strapped up, and flung onto the empty seat in front. If Ken remembered, he might hand it in to a lost property office. Better still, someone else might. The temptation to nick had well and truly evaporated, because Ken had a sleeping bag of his own thank you very much. There wasn’t any money or anything inside (not that he had checked thoroughly enough to be sure, the fool). It’s not like it was even a particularly nice sleeping bag.

What happened next was something involving a dog running down a staircase, and it was just getting interesting – even more interesting than a dog running down a staircase – when Ken was jerked out of his dream by a broad-shouldered man dressed in a smart suit made entirely of fabric in different shades of grey. His shirt was very dark grey, his tie a very light grey, and his jacket and trousers were both almost exactly in between. Ken did not look at the man’s shoes, because nobody would do that, but he rather hoped that they were grey too. He knew, of course, that it was extremely unlikely – they were almost certainly shiny and black and made of leather, unless he had mislaid those shoes and was being forced to temporarily make do with sandals or brogues or trainers, but even then he wouldn’t be wearing grey shoes, because I’m sure they don’t even make grey shoes – but it was nonetheless fun to fantasise.

“Excuse me,” said the man, in a gruff voice perfumed with a good squirt of cockney accent, exactly the voice you would expect a man who looked like that to have. “Is this your bag?”

He was holding up the largish satchel. He wanted to sit slap bang in front of Ken, even though every other chair was unoccupied, and even though – as far as he could tell – seats could not be reserved. Well, why not?

“No. I’m not sure whose it is, actually,” replied Ken.

“OK,” said the man. Then, just as Ken had dumped the satchel on the seat in front of him, the man did the same. Ken wondered whether this process would continue, until the satchel, at which point maybe it would sort of bounce and start travelling around in the other direction along the seats on the other side of the carriage.

Then it became clear why he wanted to sit in front of Ken. It was because this broad-shouldered man was some kind of absurdly horrid shit who got a buzz from being an irksome nuisance. He proceeded to spends several moments rummaging in his knapsack, which appeared to be bursting with a blend of crisp packets and polystyrene carefully chosen for maximum raucousness. Once he had found what he was looking for and what he was looking for had been extracted from his bag,

Because of this racket, Ken wasn’t able to fall back asleep. He just couldn’t. He was forced to stay awake, staring out of the window, being mightily bored. He couldn’t sleep. It was too impossible. If only the coffee machine had chosen to stop working at a slightly earlier time.

Still, it did mean that Ken was able to see whether or not his fantasy about the satchel travelling around the carriage came true. And it actually did. Yes, really.

A lady, who was wearing sunglasses and headphones and thus apparently unable to be annoyed by the broad-shouldered man, sat down where he had placed the largish satchel. Because of her sunglasses she hadn’t noticed the satchel and sat down on it, fearlessly, just as Ken had done. Just as Ken had been, she was surprised to find it underneath her bum and jumped up in concern that it was one of those fart cushions sold in joke shops – because of her headphones she wouldn’t have been able to hear its hoot as she sat down it, so this mistakenness was understandable.

The seats in front of her were arranged around a table and she placed the satchel on the table. It had completed yet another leg of its incredible journey.

But there it remained, even when people sat down around the table, because on the table it was an elephant in the room, not at all an obstacle to sitting down. His dream hadn’t really come true, but still Ken’s spirits were raised – like a dose of Alka-Seltzer, it had sort of neutralised the acidic frustration caused by the broad-shouldered man’s antics.

Then the broad-shouldered man got off. Ken would have applauded or something, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was far too busy falling asleep to bother with such an exhibition of his delight.