The cartoon man drives his cartoon car into the cartoon town and runs over a real man. The real man is not badly hurt -- the cartoon car is virtually weightless after all, it's hardly any worse than getting a cut lip from licking an envelope -- but the real man feels that a wrong has nevertheless been done him, so he goes in search of a policeman. There are no real policemen around, so he takes his complaint to a cartoon policeman. The cartoon policeman salutes him briskly and, almost without turning around, darts off in the direction of the accident, but the real man is disconcerted by the way the policeman hurries along about four inches above the pavement, taking five or six airy steps for every one of his own and blowing his whistle ceaselessly. It's as though they were walking side by side down two different streets. The cartoon town, meanwhile, slides past silently, more or less on its own.
At the scene of the accident, they find the cartoon man with a real policeman. The cartoon car is resting on its roof, looking ill and abused. "Is this the one?" demands the real policeman, pointing with his nightstick. The cartoon man jumps up and down and makes high-pitched incriminating noises, the car snorting and whimpering pathetically in the background. When the cartoon policeman blows his whistle in protest, or perhaps just out of habit, a huge cartoon dog, larger than the cartoon car, bounds onto the scene and chases him off. "You'll have to come with me," announces the real policeman severely, collaring the real man, and he can hear the cartoon car snickering wickedly. "There are procedural matters involved here!"
As though in enactment of this pronouncement, the huge cartoon dog comes lumbering through again from the opposite direction, chased now by a real cat, the cat in turn chased by a cartoon woman. The woman pulls up short upon spying the real policeman, who has meanwhile shot the cat (this is both probable and confounding), and, winking at the real man, bares her breasts for the policeman. These breasts are nearly as large as the woman herself, and they have nipples on them that turn sequentially into pursed lips, dripping spigots, traffic lights, beckoning fingers, then lit-up pinball bumpers. The real policeman is not completely real, after all. He has cartoon eyes that stretch out of their sockets like paired erections, locking on the cartoon woman's breasts with their fanciful nipples. She takes her breasts off and gives them to the real policeman, and he creeps furtively away, clutching the gift closely like a fearful secret, his eyes retracting deep into his skull as though to empty it of its own realness, what's left of it.
"Thank you," says the real man. "You have probably saved my life." He can hear the cartoon car sniggering and wheezing at this, but the cartoon woman simply shrugs and remarks enigmatically: "Plenty more where those came from." She snuggles up to the huge cartoon dog, who has returned and is pawing curiously at the cadaver of the real cat. "I feel somehow," murmurs the dog, sniffing the cat's private parts, "a certain inexplicable anxiety." The cartoon car hoots and wheezes mockingly again, and the dog, annoyed, lifts its leg over it. There is a violent hissing and popping, and then the car is silent. The cartoon man is infuriated at this, squeaking and yipping and beating his fists on the cartoon dog and the cartoon woman. They ignore him, cuddling up once more, the dog panting heavily after exerting himself, both mentally and physically, the woman erotically touching the dog's huge floppy tongue with the tip of her own (she has a real mouth, the real man notices, and the touch of her tiny round tongue against the vast pink landscape of the dog's flat one for some reason makes him want to cry), so the cartoon man scurries over to beat on the real man. It is not so much painful as vaguely unnerving, as though he were being nagged to remember something he had managed to forget.
The cartoon woman drifts off with the cartoon dog ("When," the dog is musing, scratching philosophically behind his ear, "is a flea not a flea?"), and the cartoon man, his rage spent, walks over to pick up the dead cat. As the cartoon man walks away, he seems to grow, and when he returns, dragging the dead cat by its tail, he seems to shrink again. He gives the real man a huge cartoon knife, produced as if from nowhere, then dashes off, returning almost instantly with a cartoon table, tablecloth, napkins, plates and silverware, a candelabra, and two cartoon chairs: before these things can even be counted, they are already set in place. His voice makes shrill little speeded-up noises once more, which seem to suggest he wants the real man to cut the cat up for dinner. He zips away again, returning with cartoon salad, steak sauce, and cartoon wine, then streaks off to a cartoon bakery.
Who knows? thinks the real man, tucking in his napkin, all this may be in fulfillment of yet another local ordinance, so more out of respect than appetite, he prepares to cut up the dead cat. When he lays the cat out on the cartoon table, however, all the cartoon plates and silverware, condiments and candelabra leap off the table and run away shrieking, or else laughing, it's hard to tell, and though the table looks horizontal, the cat slides right off it. Oh well, the real man sighs to himself, dropping the knife disconsolately on the table as though paying the check, they can't say I didn't try. He goes over to the cartoon car and sets it on its wheels again and, after a puddle has formed beneath it, gets inside and starts up the motor. Or rather, the motor starts up by itself, choking and sputtering at first and making loud flatulent noises out its exhaust pipes, then clearing its throat and revving up, eventually humming along smoothly. The cartoon town meanwhile slides by as before.
When they reach the real town, or when the real town, the one where the real man lives, reaches them, the cartoon car doesn't seem to work anymore. The man finds he has to push his feet through the floor and walk it home, much to the apparent amusement of all the real or mostly real passersby. He is reminded of the time when, as a boy, he found himself looking up at his teacher, hovering over him with a humorless smile, wielding a wooden ruler (he thinks of her in retrospect as a cartoon teacher, but he could be mistaken about this -- certainly the ruler was real), and accusing him, somewhat mysteriously, of "failing his interpolations." "What?" he'd asked, much to his immediate regret, a regret he strangely feels again now, as if he were suffering some kind of spontaneous reenactment, and it suddenly occurs to him, as he walks his cartoon car miserably down the middle of the street through all the roaring real ones, that, yes, the teacher was almost certainly real -- but her accusation was a cartoon.
At home he shows his wife, lying listlessly on the sofa, the cartoon car, now no bigger than the palm of his hand, and tells her about his adventures. "It's like being the butt of a joke without a teller or something," he says, casting about for explanations, when, in reality, there probably are none. "I know," she replies with a certain weary bitterness. She lifts her skirts and shows him the cartoon man. "He's been there all day." The cartoon man smirks up at him over his shoulder, making exaggerated under-cranked thrusts with his tiny cartoon buttocks, powder white with red spots like a clown's cheeks. "Is he. . . he hurting you?" the real man gasps. "No, it just makes me jittery. It's sort of like cutting your lip on the edge of an envelope," she adds with a grimace, letting her skirt drop, "if you know what I mean."
"Ah. . ." He too feels a stinging somewhere, though perhaps only in his reflections. Distantly, he hears a policeman's whistle, momentarily persuasive, but he knows this is no solution, real or otherwise. It would be like scratching an itch with legislation or an analogy -- something that cartoon dog might have said and perhaps did, he wasn't listening all the time. No, one tries, but it's never enough. With a heavy heart (what a universe!), he goes into the bathroom to flush the cartoon car down the toilet and discovers, glancing in the mirror, that, above the cartoon napkin still tucked into his collar like a lolling tongue, he seems to have grown a pair of cartoon ears. They stick out from the sides of his head like butterfly wings. Well, well, he thinks, wagging his new ears animatedly, or perhaps being wagged by them, there's hope for me yet. . .
Milford Junction, 1939:
A Brief Encounter
It comes, in the damp night, as if out of nowhere, roaring up out of the raw empty silence with a sudden shriek, as though of pain, or rapture, or perhaps mere surprise, amazed at being here, here in the Milford Junction railway station (such an ordinary place, the most ordinary place in the world, really, and yet. . .), or, rather, amazed to be passing through it, for it doesn't stop, the boat train never stops, that's just the trouble with it, as the people down on Milford High Street will often remark, it can be quite dangerous, careening through here with its sudden violent scream, its thunderous rum! rum! rum! like the sounding of heavy chords, whipping up dust and newsprint and old ticket stubs, expelling vast clouds of steam and smoke, forcing passengers for other trains away from the edge of the platform, casting flickering lights from the windows on them as though slapping their wan faces with the intermittent tick of time itself, reminding them of their insignificance (the train is not stopping, not for them), and throwing out bits of grit and cinder from its billowing smoke that can lodge in a person's eye if he or she is not careful, a nasty business, a very nasty business.
And then, as quickly as it has arrived -- a moment no longer than a greeting, really, a furtive kiss, the pouring of a cup of tea -- it is gone, rumbling away into the infinite darkness whence it came, leaving in its wake a strange hollow silence in which can be heard the soft fall of resettling litter, a gasp, or perhaps a sigh, steps hurrying through the underpasses. The pale swirling clouds of steam and smoke left behind obscure everything, as though insisting, at least for the moment, upon a complete erasure of all that has preceded the boat train's hurtling passage, but soon enough they dissolve and the old familiar structures reemerge, as of course (though not without their own aura of mystery) they must: the posts and girders, gates, electric lamps, hanging clock, the signs (REFRESHMENT ROOM, WAY OUT, CAPSTAN CIGARETTES, MILFORD JUNCTION), the directional signals and warning lights, anonymous sheds and towers, and here, facing each other across the gleaming rails between them like mirrored stages, the pairs of canopied platforms with their benches and railings, heavy wooden carts of stacked luggage, vending machines and hoardings, their pools of dull light and deep shadows, their incessant drama of arrival and departure.
There is more to this lively market town, to be sure, than its railway station. Indeed, the citizens of Milford do not really think of the station at Milford Junction as part of their town at all, but rather as a sort of outer gate through which flow all the people who come here from the villages around, drawn to the bustling High Street with its chemists, gift shops, cafés, cinemas, and tobacconists -- on sunny days, there's even the occasional barrel organist, playing such old favorites as "Let the Great Big World Keep Turning" -- to do their week's shopping, change their library books, have lunch together, perhaps go to the pictures. There are factories here and coal mines, a widely admired war memorial, even a famous hospital for the treatment of the specific form of pneumoconiosis known as anthracosis. It's all perfectly ordinary perhaps to those who live here, but quite thrilling, you know, if you're from some place like Churley or Ketchworth. Milford: it's like a magical storybook place, just waiting to be filled up, to be, for one wildly happy moment (though it can't last of course, nothing lasts, really) inhabited -- just the name alone makes you feel like laughing! It's like watching the pictures and being in them at the same time, as though one might be able somehow to eat the world with one's eyes, if that's not too idiotic. Milford! Well, it's easy to be a little foolish in a place like this. There are wonderful botanical gardens with lakes on which swans preen and small boys sail their boats, and picturesque pathways where nannies push their prams, and landing stages for rowboats and canals with funny low bridges and lovely old boathouses along the shore. With luck, after a brisk row, one can get a cup of tea from the boatman, warm up around his potbellied Ideal boiler, dry out wet clothing, if there is any, have a little chat. And just beyond Milford, there's the countryside with its stone bridges and pretty little streams and pubs and wintry hills -- pleasures that are at once innocent and yet quite terrifying, as though this gentle landscape might contain dreadful precipices, dangerously alluring abysses into which one might, in a moment of utter but delicious madness, throw oneself. Well, in a manner of speaking, of course.
But at night all this vanishes and there is only the Milford Junction railway station. It's almost as though the citizens of Milford might be mistaken: as though the market town of which they're so proud might be little more than a theatrical performance put on each day for the customers giving up their tickets on arrival at the Milford Junction Station barrier, then folding up each night as the customers return, a setting as ephemeral, as phantasmal as those of the afternoon pictures down at the Palladium or the Palace. One approaches the station by way of an overpass with a rather splendid view through the tall iron fence (if one is not too preoccupied to notice) of the lights of the town, seen through the steam billowing up from the railway tracks below like fog on the moors, casting huge cloudy symbols, as it were (one thinks, if one's a poetry addict, unavoidably of Keats), and other strange illusions into the air, along with those bits of grit which sometimes get in people's eyes. A long descent follows, as though to suggest a sinking of the heart, even though it's been a lovely day and one's just had such fun -- of course, that's part of the difficulty, isn't it, one so looks forward to these days in Milford, and then, hardly before they've begun, they're already over, it doesn't seem to be any time at all: yet another reminder (as if one needed reminding!) that nothing, not even life, lasts very long. It's enough to bring tears to one's eyes, and sometimes does, never mind the grit and the rest of it.
The platforms are reached by way of the large booking hall and the ticket barrier, manned as always by Mr. Godby, and then, if one's destination so requires, by a further descent through subterranean underpasses, noted for their harsh triangulated lighting, the litter blowing through them whenever the trains rumble overhead, the couples kissing furtively in shadowy niches even as they hurry through, as though the faintly shameful atmosphere of these bowel-like passages had, however briefly, to be tasted. On the platforms themselves, silhouetted figures can be seen, dressed in ordinary macs or belted trenchcoats, leaning on posts, reading newspapers, perhaps sitting on benches, smoking pipes and cigarettes. Others walk in and out of the puddles of light cast by the dull bulbs above, umbrellas and overnight cases in their hands or purses under their arms, checking their watches, showing signs of impatience and fatigue, appearing and disappearing like actors moving on and off stage, an inexpressibly vulgar observation perhaps, yet somehow as irresistible in this peculiarly detached place as those stolen kisses in the subways below. When trains come and go, there is a sudden surge of activity as people clatter hastily through the underpasses, jump on and off trains, exchange frantic hugs and kisses and farewell glances, and then there are whistles and loud hissings, the slamming of carriage doors, shouts, the rolling of steel wheels, the extraction of last-minute promises ("Next Thursday!" "Yes, next Thursday!"), and the trains rumble out of the station, their taillights vanishing into the dark. In the ensuing silence, the remaining passengers lean once more against posts, or pace back and forth through the pools of light, while porters push carts of luggage past, and stationmasters check their watches, then cross the tracks on foot, hop up on platform number 2 and 3, and, following the pointing hand silhouetted on the sign above, enter the refreshment room for a cup of tea.
Eventually, of course, one will arrive home in Ketchworth or Churley, or wherever, to husbands and wives, a sick child perhaps, children certainly, well or ill, problems with maids, the unwrapping of packages and stories about Milford ("I meant to do it, Fred, I really meant to do it!" "Good for you!"), a bit of provincial social life or else a quiet supper at home, then the latest book from Boots perhaps, some music on the wireless, crossword puzzles or house calls (if one's a general practitioner, for example), the obligatory sewing basket from which wild horses can't seem to drag one, and finally off to bed -- but, first, before boarding the homebound train, there's almost always time for a cup of tea in the refreshment room at Milford Junction Station. Indeed, a day in Milford is not quite complete without it -- an overly long film at the Palladium or an encounter with gossiping acquaintances who talk and talk and talk till one wants to strangle them, then a flying last-minute dash to the station just as the train is pulling in and no time for tea, why, it simply spoils everything.
Not that there's anything special about the refreshment room; it's quite common, really, with pale walls, dark woodwork, arched doors and windows, the glazing opaqued with REFRESHMENT ROOM stamped out in reverse, plain wooden tables and bentwood chairs scattered about, an old iron coal stove in the middle of the room, and a small bar and tea counter to one side, the sort of room where the tea is served with too much milk in it, the sandwiches and buns, in spite of all the claims to the contrary, are usually stale, where there's a constant draft, no place even to powder your nose, and the staff is addicted to Three Star brandy. Yet it is possible to be quite ordinarily contented in here, to be at peace, which is no small thing and perhaps all one can really hope for if one wants to be able to go home again and all for the price of a mere cup of tea. Of course, one can well imagine a room such as this, perched out here on a railway platform, a kind of island upon an island, as a likely place for chance encounters, new friendships, even high romance, together with all the desperate happiness and misery that might be expected to follow upon recklessness of that sort, but for the most part the people who come and go here are sensible persons, even rather withdrawn and shy and difficult (the climate is said to have something to do with this), and they have little interest in meeting strangers or even in running into old acquaintances. They are too tired. They are here to rest, to refresh themselves before the long trip home, that's why it's called a refreshment room. They purchase their cup of tea and perhaps a Bath bun or some chocolate, and toddle wearily to an empty table, there to hover privately over their steaming cup and smoke a cigarette, perhaps read a book or a newspaper, poke through their purse, do their face a bit, glancing up only to observe, idly, as though daydreaming, the exits and entrances of others, or to watch the woman at the counter going on as usual, the one with the refined voice. Now and then, mind you, there are irresponsible people who don't behave themselves, people who suddenly start showing high spirits and acting quite dotty, coming back into the refreshment room, having missed their trains, pretending they've forgotten something, behaving rather too vehemently like romantic schoolgirls or excited schoolboys, grasping at each other, crying out, utterly dazed and bewildered, complaining of grit in their eyes, or whatever, becoming a trifle ill actually, even occasionally doing violence to themselves, to their hearts and minds and the rest as well, throwing themselves under the speeding boat train, or more likely right under the tables, engaging in rather undignified scuffling, as one might call it, too overwhelmed by their feelings even to remove their macs and fur-lined topcoats, their wet socks and shoes and dreadfully humiliating garter belts ("There's still time!" one of them may be gasping, as though in pain, or rapture, or perhaps mere surprise, the other replying: "We're only middle-aged once, there's no time at all!"), their hats falling over their eyes as the tables and teacups tumble down around their ears ("Beryl," the woman at the counter is accustomed to call out over these annoying disturbances, her handkerchief to her nose, just as the stovepipe perhaps comes crashing down, as it is all too inclined to do, coal dust billowing about everywhere, spoiling the buns and tea, and capable, as is well known, of getting in one's lungs and causing anthracosis, "ask Mr. Godby to come here for a moment, would you?"), all in all a most appalling exhibition of mad violent energy and blind frustration and a deep-rooted, unsentimental, but very naughty desire to reveal hidden depths, and as soon as possible -- "Oh, look out! We can't get through!" "Pull on your left!" "Oh dear, I never could tell left from --!" "Darling!" "No! Please, not quite yet!" "I must!" And then, almost immediately, time and tide waiting for no man, as the counter lady would say with characteristic disdain, looking down her nose at the both of them, their otherwise quite insignificant lives suddenly experience the most agonizing inflation together with frightful crosseyed spasms that send the coal scuttle flying and creating an awful uproar, and then, as quickly as it has begun, it is over (it's hardly credible that it should be so short a time!), they are falling apart and into a kind of trance, as one might describe it (is the room tilting?), having a sort of idiotic fainting spell, and unable to think of anything at all to say in the strange hollow silence afterwards, except maybe, "It's been so very nice, I've enjoyed my afternoon enormously," or "How kind it was of you to take so much trouble." "Nothing at all. There's my train, I must go -- goodbye."
Well, by the time Mr. Godby has come in, of course, with his cheery "Hullo, hullo, hullo! What's goin' on in here?", his lips pursed and his thumbs thrust solemnly in his vest pockets, the 5:40 to Churley is already pulling out of the number 4 platform across the way and the Ketchworth train, due to depart at 5:43, is arriving on platform number 3 -- the great world keeps turning, after all, and no harm done ("Come along now, what are you standin' there gapin' at? And Beryl, put some more coals on the stove while you're at it!"), even the boat train, careening through, has claimed no new victims, it's been just another ordinary evening in the Milford Junction railway station. Out on the platform, carriage doors are slamming, windows are being lowered for last-minute farewells ("Next Thursday, the same time?"), whistles are blowing and the loudspeakers are announcing imminent departures and arrivals. Passengers inside the train compartments are lifting their packages and luggage onto overhead racks or planting them on empty seats, hoping the train is not going to be too packed, getting out books and newspapers for the dreary ride home (yes, one does have one's roots), exchanging greetings with acquaintances, if there are any, or perhaps with perfect strangers, more as a matter of politeness, really, than for any other reason, then settling back for a last glance out at the Milford Junction Station (Mr. Godby can be seen in the refreshment room, where there seems to have been a bit of a dustup, though now he's merely sipping tea, perhaps conversing with the woman behind the counter or slapping her bum, as he's inclined to do whenever he's in high spirits or else miserably in love, overwhelmed by the flames of passion and other dangerous feelings, which in the end, if you're not used to them, are rather too much like being sick on a channel steamer, frankly, even if they do make something of a change), the platforms already beginning to slide away into the night like the last of the rolling titles in a picture show at the Palladium, the shadowy figures on the platforms now little more than some nameless creatures who have no reality at all and who soon vanish altogether, the accelerating landscape, framed by the train window, gradually receding into a kind of distant panoramic backdrop for one's own dreams and memories, projected onto the strange blurry space in between, which is more or less where the window is, but is not the window itself, a rather peculiar space perhaps, somehow there and not there at the same time, but no less real, my dear, for all that and, at the very least, a fascinating place in which to lose oneself for just a little while, just a little while, on the way home to Churley or Ketchworth, until someone, meaning to be kind, gives you a shake and says, quite soberly and cruelly, "Wake up! We're here!" and (it's almost happening already) all those silly dreams disappear. . .