Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Madness of The Mezzanine

Whenever I get onto a train I look for the seat farthest from other passengers as possible. If I’m going to read, I need silence, or near silence—I need at least five or six seats distance. Finding the right seat is an exact science. This night, coming home from a concert, I enter the car and there are people spread at an infuriating equidistance apart, almost positioned on purpose at four-seat gaps to upset my four-to-six gap rule. I walk past a few shaggy night-people, including a man lurking at the back who wants to rape me.

Once I’ve passed people walking up the aisle, I don’t want to turn around and go back if the seat situation is more favourable where I came from. I don’t want my behaviour to appear to these passengers, who watch you out of boredom, as odd, and I don’t want it to seem as though I’m dithering because I’m somehow repelled by their presence.*
It’s important to have this sensitivity on a night train, when all passengers are potential rapists and murderers, until proven otherwise.

So I find a seat on the left row in between two solo passengers, with a gap of about three seats in front and two seats behind, with another man two seats ahead on the right row. There’s a group of women conducting a conversation up ahead, their voices quiet at first but getting louder from time to time, competing with the rattle of the train as it speeds up. This will pose the greatest threat to my undisturbed reading of the Nicholson Baker.

The Mezzanine requires concentrated reading and is not ideal for trains. It’s ideal front room reading.*
The book’s protagonist discusses the exaggerated minutiae of certain trivial aspects of his life, from shoelaces to escalator etiquette, to the value of paper towels over hand driers, each topic getting more and more detailed until it becomes absurd comedy, Flann O’Brien style. I read for a few moments before a large giggle hits my ears from across the train. The women misled me. I had expected late-night sleepy train talk, instead I got a rowdier bunch, with one blonde shrieker the ringleader.

I push on, but it becomes impossible. My ears are picking up threads in the conversation, following the repeated half-drunk drivel about some bloke being a dick and someone needing to phone someone and tell him something about being a dick or something because he shouldn’t have said that, whoever he is, the dick. It becomes useless to keep reading knowing this will go on and on, this dick and this phoning of. There are frustrating lurches in the conversation when the woman shuts up, but almost invariably, she will start talking again when I get into a long sentence, forcing me to backtrack and read it again.

There are further dilemmas. I don’t have the greatest eyesight, and the lights on Scotrail trains are diffuse and dim. So reading the footnotes becomes a chore for me, trying to follow these complex sentences in the tiny font under appalling lights, and the darkness outside offers no additional help. I don’t want to bring the book right up close to my eyes, as that can effect my long-range vision, so I have to squint a little or focus really hard. If I’m focusing my eyes, I’ll stop focusing my brain, meaning I’m reading but not taking in the words, their meaning or what’s being said. So there’s no emotional response: no laughter, merely slavish word-counting. There is no point reading like this.

As the train picks up people from other stops, the pressure of concentrating my mind and my eyes becomes impossible, so I stop reading and wait until the women get off. When they do, I start reading again. At the next stop, the paranoia that a psychopath has boarded the train and wants to rape me in the bum becomes so great, I have to look up and make a quick assessment of the new passenger, check his psycho credentials. If he sits behind me, which he does, of course, I’ll have to keep one hand on my possessions, in case he should slide a hand through the half-inch seat gap and steal my valuables. (Or go for my penis).

When the inevitable happens, and I’m alone in the train with a man behind me, I get too paranoid and start thinking about rape and how terrible it might be to get raped tonight. I start thinking how awful it must be to be a woman and be paranoid about getting raped, but here I am, an ugly man, thinking about getting raped, so I’m there already. All I need are the breast implants. There’s no point reading now, not with rape and death on the cards. I start to get a little dour, thinking about other problems—financial, personal, familial—making each problem into something huge and insurmountable, until I can’t stand to even hold the book, so depressed and self-involved have I become in those four minutes.

Soon it’s time to get off. My only concern then is getting away from the rapists. All fourteen of them. Fast.


* This may be the case, depending on the smell of alcohol or cigarettes coming from each passenger. If there’s an especial stink, I will make allowances and escape to the next compartment, if available, or the farther end, if not.

* There are three categories of books: those to be read with extreme patience and concentration in my front room, with next to no sounds except outside traffic or my girlfriend clawing at her keyboard. (Ideally she wouldn’t be in the room, but I read a great deal, and we do live together, so it isn’t exactly plausible to get her to leave while I read. I could try, though.) The other two are bedtime reads: books that can be read while dozing off (to help dozing off). The other can be read on trains: potboilers, thrillers, etc.


  1. Ack - I feel your PAIN! Being head raped by chatty women and imaginary raped by men (or vice versa, I would assume). The only thing that would make it worse, were if all of these people were speaking a language you did not understand. While at first it might seem like a relief not to have to listen to the talk about some Dick or Harry, it eventually would increase your paranoia by the tenfold. (Are they talking about me? They MUST be talking about me. Perhaps they are talking abut raping me? OHMYGAWD I SWEAR I heard them say my name. How do they know my name? How do they know how to pronounce it? Does this mean they really will rape me???)

    And I agree. Darkness rarely offers help. In fact, I think darkness is a rather rude travel companion. It probably wouldn't even help if you actually were getting raped. (Do you "get" raped? Hm...)

  2. Indeed! Also, your natural curiosity for another tongue compared with your own would set your mind racing. Did they say cheesyflan? Do they have cheesy flans in Japan?

    I wasn't raped, you will be pleased to hear, though I was subtly fingered by a passenger last week, claiming the "jacket removal" defence. We've all done it.

  3. You and I have very similar train reading needs/fears. I know what you mean. I need space, light and no one directly behind me. Although the rape part has never occurred to me (and yes oh gee thanks for putting it in my head), I have the constant feeling that someone will sneeze on my neck. Working the crossword puzzle on the bus has now become almost impossible due to dim light and dimmer eyesight.