Sounds like Jessica #Ahlquist is on Radio4 in a few minutes. #atheism on @bbcr4sunday

You know you’re an atheist when you turn on the radio and only really realise it’s sunday because it’s not the Today programme…

Une petite memoire de Lille…

Alec: Claude! Ca va?

Claude: Ca va mon brave! Comment allez-tu?

Alec: Merde.

Claude: Ah. Courage!

Alec: Quoi?

Claude: Courage! [vigourous fist pumping]

Alec: Ah. C’est une idee Francaise.

Claude: Oooooui! [grin]

Alec: Les Anglais, er… nous avons une autre expression… “Tue les batards”.

[all collapse in laughter]

Excuse me for murdering the language…

If crypticide.com drops off the Net over the weekend … #roadworksahead

…please don’t fret; I have some caching issues I want to rework. Expect an extended outage.

Three builders’ tubs labelled BURN, TRASH, RECYCLE …

…plus 1 hour and I’ve collated the paperwork for my 2011 tax return. It’s a remarkably small heap, yet the bins are quite full. I think I need to work on my filing system.

Sports News (Update: AKA “The Crash Thread”)

Every car horn in Dijon is blaring, as France are through to the final.

Normal bloggging service will be resumed soon.

Extended Motorbike Vacation Equipment Checklist

I’ve read any number of these in the past six months; here’s mine. Some ancilliary notes:

  • canvas deck shoes: cheap (10 quid?), lightweight, pack flat and vaguely washable. perfect travel shoe for bikers, but try not to keep dry before packing.
  • hat with brim: essential for non-biking times in sunny areas.
  • waterproof luggage: assume it isn’t, and store valuable / water-sensitive stuff in splashproof bags. it’s easier that way.
  • paper atlases: always have a big-picture detail map to augment a gps.
  • cable ties and gaffer tape: you – or someone else – will be glad of them.
  • water bottle: drink up to 1 litre per hour on the bike; dehydration is a pain.
  • silk sleeping bag liner: packs small, washes/dries quick, is your clean sheet in a grotty hotel, adequate warmth on hot nights, stops you sticking to your sleeping bag and getting clammy.
  • riding kit with removable thermal quilting: superb.
  • lycra skiing base layer under riding gear: looks silly, but keeps you really cool, comfy, not stuck to clothing.

Extended Motorbike Vacation Equipment Checklist

clothes:

  1. 1x belt
  2. 1x casual light jacket, waterproof-ish
  3. 1x cotton trousers
  4. 1x deck shoes
  5. 1x hat, with brim
  6. 1x long-sleeve t-shirt (for layering with fleece)
  7. 1x nylon trousers / zip-off shorts
  8. 1x polo shirt
  9. 1x posh shirt
  10. 1x posh tshirt
  11. 1x shoes, canvas “deck” type
  12. 4x socks
  13. 1x swimtrunks
  14. 1x fleece, thin, close-packing
  15. 1x towel, big
  16. 2x towel, faceflannel sized, one in tankbag
  17. 4x underpants
  18. 2x wicking longjohns / skiing base-layer
  19. 2x wicking tshirts / skiing base-layer

tankbag stuff, kept in various waterproof grocery bags:

  1. ‘buff’ neck tube
  2. camera mounting for RAM mount
  3. drivers license
  4. earplugs (spare)
  5. film camera + film / digital camera + spare media + spare batteries
  6. gps / gps memory cards with maps of route
  7. ibuprofen
  8. leatherman
  9. lipsyl
  10. money, change kept in old film canister
  11. notebook, pencils / pens
  12. paper maps / atlases
  13. passport
  14. phone
  15. sanitary baby wipes
  16. small zip bag for receipts
  17. sunglasses
  18. towel hanky

on bike:

  1. airhawk comfort seat
  2. cargo nets and bungees
  3. disk lock / u-lock
  4. medical kit, european spec
  5. security cable
  6. spare headlight/bulb kit
  7. toolkit / augmentation (torx, spanners, ratchets + sockets)

equipment:

  1. book to read
  2. bungees (spare)
  3. cable ties (misc sizes)
  4. digital camera charger / cable
  5. drinking water bottle, filled
  6. earplugs (many)
  7. gaffer tape
  8. garbage bags
  9. head torch
  10. laptop / power cables
  11. memory card pcmcia adapter
  12. nylon cord
  13. phone charger
  14. small battery radio

documentation, in splashproof folder:

  1. bike insurance certificate
  2. drivers license (*** IN TANKBAG ***)
  3. european health cover (e111) certificate
  4. ferry confirmation numbers ; spare copy in pencil in tankbag.
  5. list of motorcycle dealers in target area
  6. passport (*** IN TANKBAG ***)
  7. printout of emergency call / breakdown procedure
  8. travel insurance document
  9. vehicle breakdown cover certificate
  10. vehicle registration (v5) document

other:

  1. antiseptic cream
  2. laundry detergent tablets
  3. mosquito deterrent
  4. riding kit quilted inner liners, in small compression sack
  5. sponge bag (shampoo, soap, deodourant, razors, 6x clothespegs, 5m clothesline…)
  6. spare spectacles
  7. sunscreen, solid stick for preference

camping:

  1. drinking mug
  2. cooking stove / fuel / pots / pans (trangia)
  3. knife / fork / spoon / teaspoon
  4. matches / incendiary
  5. plate
  6. bowl (tupperware with lid, doubles as teabag storage, etc)
  7. salt / pepper
  8. sleeping bag
  9. silk sleeping bag liner
  10. soup / dried food / sardines / rations
  11. tea / coffee
  12. tent / groundsheet / pegs
  13. thermarest sleeping mat
  14. toilet paper
  15. washing-up soap

24 hours from New Jersey

Fri 8th April – Newark Airport, 7pm Eastern

Apparently I “look skinnier” in my passport photograph. In the photograph in my American passport, to be precise. This is what the lady from the TSA told me as I entered International Departures Terminal B at Newark Airport, for my pleasantly upgraded Upper Class Virgin Atlantic flight to the UK.

But more of that, and the subsequent disaster, later.

I’d landed at Newark at 2305h – just after 11pm – on the previous Tuesday evening; the flight was tedious but not actually bad, the Airbus’ seats actually being spacious enough to fit my knees behind the chair in front. The trip was considerably improved by being in the aisle of an otherwise unoccupied row of four: pad out the seats hollows with their respective blankets and presto, the row becomes a narrow but effective bed. Entertainment was so-so, not the full Virgin service, but with DVDs on loop, including the recent Lemony Snicket film which I’d rank close to par with The Princess Bride in terms of style, narration, and “what childrens’ movies ought to be like”.

So, where was I? Errr…

Tue/Wed April 5th & 6th – Chaos, Money, Booze and Sex

I landed late Tuesday night – 2305h – at Newark airport and escaped 45 minutes later, after the usual rigmarole; the immigration queue was a hoot, stuck in a line heading towards a fearsome dragon of an INS lady, she who savaged the three passport-holders before me, threatening them with the horror of being sent into a 101-like room where she gloatingly related that they could be detained for hours, quizzing them deeply about their time away from the USA.

I took my documents timidly in hand, and walked past the red line:

  • Good evening, ma’am.
  • Oh! Ohh. Ohhhhh, Hi… How are you?

Startled by this flirty, even sultry-delivered question, I was nonplussed, and answered reflexively and honestly:

  • Tired. Very, very tired.
  • Awwwwww… you take care now. [STAMP]

…and I was on my way. I was gobsmacked, but not as much as I was about to get.

The taxi that the hotel had furnished (and which I booked in accordance with my double-checked corporate instruction) whisked me in dark comfort through New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, to the hotel-hamlet of Rye Brook, for the three days of training which I was attending along with 400-ish other colleagues and partners.

It was approaching 0040h when I entered the hotel and I expended another 20 minutes trying to get receipts for both myself, and the cab driver.

By 0110h I had established that my roommate was to be my pal Julian, a pleasant former-public-schoolboy based out of our Hong Kong offices, and whom I had met and found I rather liked a few months previously. This was superb!

So: I had my room key/card, I had my bags, I had my directions, I was booked-in, and now it was time for bed; I negotiated the rat-maze of corridors, found the door, tentatively inserted the key, and… nada. Nothing. No click. Blinky little yellow light. Nothing else. “Bugger.”

Tap-tap-tap on the door. Thud on door. Bang on the door. Hammer on the door. Loudly. Repeatedly. Still nothing.

To cut the next hour’s travail short: I trudged back to the front desk, explained, re-explained, and got a new key; I was getting hot and flustered and tired by now. Returned to the room. The new key likewise did not work. “Bollocks.” I phoned the front desk from courtesy phone. A security guard was dispatched to help. I tried phoning the room. Zilch. The Security guard – a callow but professional youth – arrived, opened the door with magical key, and – [BANG] it’s bolted by a door catch. Various shouts failed to raise the occupant. We phoned the front desk. They assigned a new room. The security guy promised to check into Julian in case he’d died, or something, took me to new room, opened the door, showed me in, and held out his hand.

I shook it, warmly, and thanked him, pointedly. I showered, gratefully.

Roommate #2 – Wally – arrived merely 30m later, having just landed from North Carolina, and we crashed in our respective beds, out cold. The next day after significantly more confusion with which I shall not bore you, I was permanently assigned to Wally’s room. Hooray, stability at last.

My dearly beloved b’stard Julian was telling everyone at breakfast that his bloody roommate hadn’t turned up; apparently he’d celebrated his 40th birthday before catching the flight to Hong Kong, and by the time he’d landed and checked in, being so tired and after the two sleeping tablets there was nothing on this earth that would have woken him.

At my own, later, hurried breakfast I sat next and introduced myself to Jacqui and Eric – Canadians, they work for a partner company. Jacqui was pretty, petite, pony-tailed and brunette, wearing a cream business suit and an ornate and slightly ostentatious pair of wedding bands. Eric was tall, pleasant, slightly geeky, and quite unaware that he had a dollop of shaving foam in his ear. I later found that it is not really possible to politely indicate to someone that he has shaving foam in his ear. We three chatted for a while, and then I bailed to get a coffee and find a seat for the opening sessions.

I am not going to write about the sessions – that is material for elsewhere – but they were interesting, and I learned a great deal, although perhaps I learned even more by meeting my new colleagues.

I learned first to get used to the question: “Which accounts do you work for?” – which I must have been asked a few dozen times over the three days. It seemed to be a ice-breaking, team-bonding, even caste-related question, akin to “Which is your favourite series?” for Trekkies, or “Who do you support?” for Footy fans.

If that sounds a bit tragic… well yes – but it’s true. It’s rather like dogs, sniffing each other to find out what they’ve been up to, and then you drop a bullfrog like me into the midst of the pack:

“Well I don’t really work on ‘accounts’ per-se. Not in the traditional sense. I just ‘know stuff’ and help out where I am needed, worldwide.”

…and no-one is quite sure what to do. You get this… look. This “where’s your tail, strange green doggy?” look. The next question was usually: “who’s your boss?” and that’s when things would get really amusing.

Rapidly I worked out that the best way into a conversation was to frame my role in terms of how I could help them – “…we’re troubleshooters. Technicians. Experts. We survive as soldiers of fortune in the Sun Microsystems underground. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find our cost-centre number, maybe you can hire…” and that worked.

The questions piled up:

  • “How do I sell Grid?”
  • “How do I sell Security?”
  • “Have you got a card?”
  • “Who do you work for, again?”

We had a big communal dinner – one of the better ones I’ve had at a conference – and I vacated whilst the other guys set up a poker game, over dessert. I relocated to the hotel bar – or “pub” as the hoteliers insisted upon calling it – and waved “hello” to Jacqui who had let her hair down and was cracking open beers with a couple of guys at a small table.

The bar was not exactly packed, but it was busy, not least due to the Heineken sales conference which was occupying the same hotel at the same time. I spied Darryl and Hal, two Distinguished Engineers with whom I work but had not really had a chance to previously talk, so I sat with them. We chatted pleasantly, including the stories of civil war and strive amongst Hal’s Wikipedia entries, plus the proper selection of local beer and wine, and the usual gossip about other colleagues.

After a while the DEs had their fill and excused themselves, so I pulled out my camera, took some photos of the neon lighting, and nipped to the other end of the bar, again passing Jacqui who waved and smiled at me, still chatting, now idly twining her ruffled hair into ringlets about her fingers.

Feeling doomed to nerdishness, I went to hang-out with the other Grid geeks, plus the corporate lawyer who wanted to talk about data destruction. She was very nice, and very cool, as were the rest of the team with whom I got to chat. We swapped war-stories, anecdotes, and once again I fell into my new role of Chief Analogist (as PJ calls it) – to explain Grid history, philosophy and security. It’s good to work with smart people.

The clock swung around to midnight – truly, I shouldn’t have had to see that twice in a row – and I needed to sleep. I left the pub, popped downstairs to doublecheck the morning opening times for the hotel swimming pool, and trudged up to the fourth floor – along the walkway, down the hall, swinging round a corner and smack into Jacqui, who – now somewhat unbuttoned – was sat forward on a low chair in the corridor alcove, surfacing, gasping for air from the long slow kiss delivered by the unrecognised man kneeling at her feet, cradling her head in one hand, cupping her breast with the other.

Mmmm. Flushed complexion? Check. Half-lidded eyes? Check. Faint rictus smile? Check. No hint of any problems, thus none of my business. What is it about Canadians nowadays? I’m sure none of this sort of thing used to happen in P.E.I when I was growing up – they just used to marry their cousins, instead; also, someone had explained the term Canadian Ballet to me earlier that day. There must have been some sort of tectonic social shift in the past 30 years.

I swung into a nonchalant amble for the last few yards, cracked open the room door, wished Wally “goodnight”, and fell onto the bed with a muffled thud. I hope I didn’t snore too loudly. I never saw Jacqui again, she and Eric must have left the next morning.

Thu April 7th – “In Which We Pimp Ourselves, Meet A Pool Nazi, And See Swimwear Models”

Conversation over lunch:

  • him: Yeurrr… this ‘pink lemonade’ is a very girly drink! Just look at it!
  • her: Well, he’s got one! (points)
  • him: Um… when you stand up, you’re going to be six-foot-four, aren’t you?
  • me: …and a quarter. Yes.

So I got up at 0530h in order to have the hotel pool to myself for a while; the jacuzzi/whirlpool was exquisitely positioned in the furthest corner of the atrium, so that when leaning back amongst the surrounding foam of bubbles you could take-in the glassed vista of the entire interior building. It was just what I needed to help shake the fuzz out of my head.

Splosh – into the pool for a few quick lengths, and then a few slow ones, then a game of “how neutrally buoyant are we today?

How neutrally buoyant are we today?

Rules: Expel the air from your lungs. Try and make sure to surface afterwards, otherwise things may get a bit unpleasant. Did you sink:

  1. Not at all?
  2. Like a dead fish?
  3. Like a brick?
  4. Like a large piece of concrete?

For me it’s generally (4) – when growing up, a gallon of milk per day will do that to your average density.

A few more lengths and this lady of pensionable age turns up, wraps herself in water-wings and a swimming-cap, and descends into the water. She starts a moderate crawl up and down the pool, and I do similar. After a couple of lengths, she gets within earshot of me and spouts in a Bugs-Bunny accent:

“Are you in the middle, or at the end?”

Not catching her drift, and being as we are both clearly at one end of the pool, I hazard: “Er, I’m at the end?“.

Wrong answer.

“You’re meant to be in the middle. You can’t be at the end. You’re not supposed to be over the line. You need to get to the middle. You can’t be on the end.” and she swum off, somehow contemptuously.

Pool Nazis. I hate Pool Nazis. I’d read about these people in the Observer some months ago, but didn’t expect to find them in America. I was in a side lane, and was actually displaced rather closer to the pool edge than my plaintiff. To swim in the middle of my lane would actually bring me closer to her. Ugh. There were three of us, in a competition-sized pool with four lanes and a big paddling area, and she had a problem?

I trod water to contemplate for a moment.

“Aw, nuts.” – and I went back to doing lengths. I didn’t have any more overt trouble, but I did get the occasional hard stare, seething at my potentially terroristic uncompliance.

Breakfast, presentations, meetings, introductions, etc – I snuck off into a corner with a couple of guys who were building out a customer briefing centre, provided some Grid schtick and showed them the “Security Home Videos”. They wanna put me on TV. On loop. Yay boys, happy to help, being on video saves me having to travel so much.

Heading back to the conference, I walked into a wall of men crowded around a banister rail:

“What’s up?”
“Models.”
“Huh?”
“Models.”
“Models what?”
“Swimsuit models!”
“Swimsuit models?”
“There!” (points)

…and lo and behold there really were three semi-clad women out in the courtyard by the exterior pool, plus a make-up artist and a photographer – a job whose title means, as any Pratchett fan will know, “someone who dances about, ordering everyone around the place as if he owned it.”. Very apt description, and the men – a mix of hotel staff and attendees of various conferences alike – seemed rather stupefied. I took photographs of all parties, found a rare corner of the building with GSM reception, and plunged into my voicemail followed by a 3hr meeting.

I didn’t even try staying-up past 9pm.

Fri April 8th – “America is Broken – Please Go Away, Come Back Later”

Last day of the conference: woke, packed, showered, unpacked, re-packed, waved Wally goodbye, tweaked packing, dropped bags in reception, and headed for the closing sessions. Filled a couple of pages of my notebook with names of people I’d met, and wrote lists of things to do when I got home.

Organised a rideshare with Claudius. Settled bills. Exited.

I felt quite ill during the Limo trip back to the airport – soft suspension combined with isolation from the environment, rather odd as I don’t generally get carsick – arrived at Newark, checked-in for the flight to London, got an upgrade to Virgin Upper Class and then settled-down to write some documentation and kill time.

The airport’s Starbucks offered a special hot chocolate drink named Chantico about which I had heard from my friend Rob, whose wife’s employer had been involved in the chemistry of the drink. Apparently “Chantico” contains a special, “all-natural” ingredient – and remember, kids, that both hemlock and arsenic are “natural”, so always be careful to doublecheck what people imply by that term – but anyway this ingredient is meant to prevent the tongue becoming “tired” of the chocolate taste, so that the drink remains strongly chocolatey all the way down the cup.

Intriguing. So I walk up and ask:

me: Could I have a Chantico, and a cheese danish, please?
them: A what?
me: Could I have a Chantico, and a cheese danish, please?
them: Excuse me, sir?
me: Chantico? One of… those… (points)
them: Ah! A Shan-Tee-Co. Sure!

…so evidently you have to be one of the in-crowd, indoctrinated by advertising with precise and correct pronunciation just in order to get one of these things.

It was vaguely disappointing.

The “Chantico” is a small cup – perhaps a double espresso volume – of hot, thick, very chocolatey, faintly gritty liquid, the general taste and texture of which reminds me of the “skin” that floats to the top of the (real) cocoa drinks that I make at home. It does do what is claimed, but it’s not special. It’s OK as a one-off experience, but I still believe that if you ever want/need a real chocolate jag, you should carry a bar of Lindt 85% instead.

Then they called boarding for my flight. Hurrah!

The next five hours proceeded as follows:

  • go through security, get to the gate
  • sit around for awhile, write some bloggy stuff
  • board aircraft, take my reclining-bed seat, change into my pyjamas, have an apple juice
  • wait
  • feel the aircraft move, being towed away from the gate
  • wait
  • wait lots more
  • captain’s announcement: Sorry Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re having problems starting #4 engine. We’re having it looked at.
  • more waiting; water served by cabin crew
  • captain: Good evening L&G; does anyone on board speak Lebanese? Please alert cabin staff if you do.
  • yet more waiting; for the third time flick through the in-flight magazines
  • notice kerfuffle outside window, person trying not to be sucked into engine whilst investigating it.
  • captain: Sorry L&G; the front half of engine #4 is working fine; alas the back half isn’t. We’ll wait for a tow back to the gate.
  • wait a while
  • feel the aircraft move, being towed back towards the gate
  • hear/feel a thunderous BANG! shake the entire aircraft
  • wait a curious while longer
  • captain: Sorry L&G; the trailer’s towbar mounting bolts have just sheared. We’ll need to get another tow.
  • wait, tow, disembark
  • in the spirit of social engineering, follow the other “Upper Class” passengers into the Upper Class lounge
  • wait

After a mere 90 minutes of tea and cookies whilst watching other people having hysterical hissyfits, I was given two vouchers – one for a taxi, the other for a hotel – and told to be back at 7:15am.

It was now 01:30am.

The taxi driver had a Carribean accent and more attitude than John Shaft; queue-jumping, grabbing my voucher, he charged up to the dispatcher, demanding that she stamp it so that he could get moving. She put him in his place – hilariously, and fair enough, too – but it all meant that I was just waiting longer and longer whilst he uselessly vented.

My bags were loaded into his black SUV, I sat down, and he floored it; we tore through the streets around Newark airport, him explaining the taxi rank system and that he’d been waiting 5 hours for a fare, and the fifteen bucks he’d get from Virgin would hardly be worth it. The vehicle rolled around bends, shot through gaps, all so that he could get back to the rank as quickly as possible.

We arrived at the Sheraton and I gave him a couple of bucks, wished him “goodnight”, walked into the reception to be greeted by a British school-science-teacher-type – the sort who naturally looks like “Q” out of the Bond films – whom I’d met in the taxi rank and who opened with “It’s the wrong hotel”… at which point I knew that fate was not finished with me yet.

What the hell – it still beats being in a plane crash. It transpired that there were two Sheratons on diametrically opposite sides of the airport, and several others had met the same fate in the past few hours. We cadged a lift from the guy driving the airport shuttle bus – a much more sedate ride, chatting interestedly about the kickback systems that New York doormen and concierges have in place – before finally arriving at the correct hotel.

Hurrah! It cannot get worse! I collected my bags, thanked the man, and walked up to my fourth reception desk of the day.

I got my room: 1229, on the card-access-only (?) executive 12th floor.

I got into the lift, tried pressing the button for the 12th floor, but nothing happened. Inserted my card into the slot and still nothing happened. Tried doing both, and still nothing. Wiggled cards, hammered buttons. Various permutations. I got to the 11th floor without hassle, then started a descent and punched the 9th floor to stop myself going further down. A security guard on the 9th helped me for a while, but eventually I caved and returned to the front desk for advice; they sent me with Dwayne, a older security person, who showed me that they proper route to the 12th floor involved inserting the card, wiggling it vigorously, and banging on the fascia a few times before hitting the button for the 12th floor.

Obvious, really.

We arrived on the 12th – Dwayne hung around to check that my card worked in the door of 1229, it did click and [BANG] onto the catch, the room already had someone in it.

It was at that point where I believe I broke through exhaustion into a stable pool of fatalism. To quote Bruce Willis: “How does the same shit happen to the same guy, twice?”. Dwayne called out through the door jamb, got no reply, and speculated that the occupant may be dead (sound familiar yet?) and phoned down to reception to get me another room. Oh yes, very familiar.

They put me in 1212. The clock read 0300h. The flight checkin was to be at 0700h. A total of 3.5 hours to justify the $120 that Virgin were playing for this club-level room, no breakfast provided.

Insane. Time to hit the shower and use all the towels.

Sat April 9th – “Departures and Arrivals”

She said: “You must be jinxed!”, and when leaving the bus caught her flappy coat in the door mechanism, confirming her theory; it was 0645ish, and this gorgeous flight attendant and I were catching the shuttle bus from the Sheraton to Newark, swapping notes on what brought us here. I offered to put my pretzel through the TSA x-ray machine, but they actually agreed that that would not be necessary. I didn’t get an upgrade, I got stung six bucks for a danish and a pot of what turned out to be longlife synthetic pseudoyoghourt glop rather than the real squirted-out-of-a-cow stuff for which I was hoping.

I flew back to London sat next door to a Spanish fashion model – nice girl, long slender hands, who wrote-up her diary entries in bright green ink and a looping hand, we compared the effectiveness of each other’s noise-canceling headphones – and the in-flight meal was a soft tortilla wrap stuffed with a wad of cheap smoked turkey breast slices, the whole wrapped in clingfilm/saranwrap, thoroughly soggy and cold from being soused in the melted icewater from a defrosting freezer compartment.

The whole was about as appetising as a used condom. I opened the toilet door and trashed the lot. I couldn’t bear the smell.

The UK immigration guy welcomed me home, and told me not to worry, because you can happily travel on a passport that is up to four years past its expiry date – apparently.

fbzr anzrf unir orra punatrq sbe boivbhf ernfbaf. nyy gur erfg vf gehr.

Pictures: [www.crypticide.com]

A short note, regarding the pictures: It was a financial services training conference. They gave out jellybeans with the coffee. I suppose that it was inevitable that at least one person was going to sort them. I just happened to find him…

Start of an Affair

It transpired that they were both South African expats, living in the same Surrey town, not far from each other; she was tall, athletic, ash-blonde – but with dark roots – and a PA/Exec in the City with a beauty spot above one lip. He was similarly tall, a brown and slightly wavy-haired David McCallum-esque figure, in a black trench-coat, turn-ups, and cheap wingtip shoes.

They both wore conspicuous wedding-bands which they flashed at each other, or otherwise toyed-with, all the while.

It further transpired that he’d seen her out walking her dogs at weekends, they knew the same shops, and might know some people who knew some people who also each knew them. He was also something in banking. Her husband worked “all the hours” in IT, and she touched a cupped hand to her cheek and said how happy they were. They swapped conversational roles for a while, him talking about why he’d come to the UK, while she tweaked errant hair strands with increasing frequency.

Although it was particularly fine beer, I began to wonder whether the pint of Battersea Power-Station Porter before the late sushi dinner with PJ, mightn’t be having a synergistic effect on top of the several, diuretic, customer-meeting-driven strong coffees.

I was in the drop-down seats of the Sprinter carriage – the wall-mounted ones near First Class which fold-up to allow wheelchair parking – watching this brief encounter play-out. A couple of matrons bustled in the seats to my right, and the rest of the train was occupied, with dire warnings for passengers who might slip into the First Class section without a proper ticket.

I was also right next door to the loo. Very convenient.

I soon emerged to find that someone was sitting in my seat. Someone had stolen my seat. On a train where no-one was standing. Bizzare. I looked at the miscreant quizzically, and then around the carriage, and a cute, Cosmo-wielding brunette saw my predicament and shuffled her bags aside to give me a space.

I thanked her, and sat.

“Excuse me,” says the miscreant, “did I steal your seat?”

“Er, yes. Yes you did…”

“Oh! I’m sorry, would you like it back? I was looking for my friend, he said he’d be on this train…”

“No, it’s all right, I’m fine, thanks…”

At which point one of the matrons, now to his right, cackles into life:

“Oh! I thought you’d changed your trousers!”

“Pardon?”

“I thought you’d gone to the loo to change your trousers! When this gentleman sat down, I didn’t see his face but the trousers were a different colour! “

Reassured that I was not a closet trouser-changer, Very British hilarity – shared, mild amusement – ensued. The newly-acquainted couple were swapping addresses and phone numbers as we pulled-up into Brookwood, and exited the carriage with a confident step.

Good luck to them. I cranked-up the iPod with Voice of the Beehive. “I say nothing, I talk to no-one…”

We shed more passengers at Woking, and yet more at Farnborough, only to pull out of the station and come to a complete stop. This stoppishness persisted. An announcement was made that a train had broken down in Fleet, we wouldn’t be able to stop there, and that we’d reverse into Farnborough and swap to the Express line.

We got back to Farnborough to find that swapping to the express line meant we would not be stopping at any of Fleet, Winchfield (my stop) or Hook. Nor would any other train be stopping at those places, because the engineers were “going to turn the juice off, for maintenance”.

Oops. Bugger. Hang on, trains run on juice nowadays?

Cutting the next two hours short: an East European woman of insecure demeanour screams to the world that they are all playing with us and suffers major dramatic collapse because her husband is waiting for her at Winchfield – 9 miles away – and cannot be reached via cellphone so he will probably come back here, which is truly ironic because they surely only live two minutes away from Farnborough station.

A slick suit orders up a car, and a taxi to take the woman to Winchfield if she likes – well intentioned, no doubt, but she cannot make any decision for several minutes, instead bent upon asking everyone else what they are doing, and repeatedly insisting that “They are all playing with us!”

What am I doing?

“Well, I’m disinclined to throw good money after bad, I’m going to hang around a bit and see what happens, get home, and then perhaps write a snotty letter to Southern in the morning, for all the good that will do.”

I hook up with Maartin – yet another South African, and a business analyst with Price Waterhouse IBM, and we spend the next 90 minutes jumping on/off trains, blockading them by standing in the doorways until we can establish where they’re going, until overshoot our destination, get to Basingstoke, swap platforms, and wait for the 2054 up-train to Winchfield.

Maartin observes:

“I’m a South Efrikan; we hijack transport that goes faster than this. Shall we get the next train?”. He grinned. “That said, it’s not been too bad recently. It’s much better than it was a few years ago.”

The 2054 is late. Its arrival is blocked by the one that is parked on the platform, which transpires to be the one that died outside Fleet and caused the whole mess. I consider kicking a carriage for dramatic humour, but decide against it in favour of hexing it roundly and dramatically whilst the staff scuttle to get it off the platform.

The 2054 arrives around 2110. Maartin and I thaw-out on the 15 minute ride to Winchfield.

I wave him goodbye, get home, and change the cat-litter.