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The wrong side of the tracks

The column Howard Jacobson has a thing about trains, a hate thing. Thomas the Tank-engine. Pah! But the Pesach Train is different, not least because it can derail whole families
You know that game of inverted literary snobbery in which you own up to all the classy books you've never read other than Finnegan's Wake? Well here's my confession: Thomas the Tank-engine - never read a line of it. Never read The Railway Children either. Nor Murder on the Orient Express. From an early age I knew what interested me and what didn't. "If it's got a choo-choo in it," I would tell my mother before my bedtime story, "don't bother."

But never having read a tale about a choo-choo doesn't disqualify me from writing one. The following is the story of the Pesach Train - Pesach being Hebrew for Passover. I have wanted Passover safely out of the way before I tell it. For it is a true story, and indeed the train still runs. Two o'clock from London Euston, arriving Manchester Piccadilly three hours later, Virgin willing, just in time for those aboard to attend the family Seder, the ceremonial dinner held on the first night of Passover.

In fact, most of us have two Seder nights, partly because there is always a family fight on the question of whose house we go to for the first, and partly because we can never get too much of the triumphalist story which is recited every Seder, prior to dinner, of our escape from bondage in the land of Egypt. But the first night is traditionally the more important. By the second night the younger ones' attention starts to flag, they know already why on this night we all lean, why we eat bitter herbs, what excuse Pharaoh is going to come up with for not releasing us this time; and it gets harder to pronounce all the plagues visited on the Egyptians - boils, locusts, darkness, death of the first-born - with the same gusto. On the second Seder night we somehow agree, without discussing it, on certain excisions from the liturgy, and get more quickly to the food.

But there's another reason why the first Seder night is invariably better- attended than the second. By the second you're not talking. By the second night most of the people who caught the Pesach Train from London to Manchester have gone back on it.

So who are they who travel this route in the first place? Why do they come? Why have they been away? Why do they leave?

Forgive the questions. Passover is an interrogative festival. "Why is this night different from all other nights?" the last-born is enjoined to ask at every Seder. The answer explains the apprehension and rare beauty of those who catch the Pesach Train from Euston to Piccadilly. Why is this night different from all other nights? Because on this night there will be gentiles, Muhammadans, maybe even Nubians at the table. Why is this night different from all other nights? Because on this night I bring into the house of my Manchester Jewish parents the Catholic, the Hottentot, the Parsee, the Hindu, the Tongan, the geisha, the Navajo, the Tuareg, the Eskimo, the Maori, whom I broke their hearts by falling in love with in the middle of my studies and then, as though a passing carnal fancy wasn't enough, whom I broke their hearts a second time by marrying and making big with un- kosher child.

Passover, you see, is when you sue for peace, introduce your new 10ft head-shrinker spouse to your dumbfounded parents, teach them how to pronounce each other's names - "Lotte and Louis, this is Clytemnestra" - and endeavour to get them to find each other's ways engaging: ("Mother, Zenocrate has a doctorate in English usage, you don't have to pronounce words slowly for her. Oh, and darling, we use spoons in Manchester, we don't slurp up the kreplach directly from the soup bowl.")

But the Pesach Train isn't only an ice-breaker. Many who take it have already undergone trial by Manchester Jewish in-laws, and are now giving the fantasy of happy-families one last chance at Passover, in the hope that the Red Sea of suspicion will once and for all part for them. When I last caught the Pesach Train, for example, bearing my own bejewelled spoils from the conquered gentile kingdoms, we were old hands at the journey. What was new was the prospect of however many days of unleavened bread, two big dinners and a rattling good story of capture and escape, all of which my wife had a taste for anyway. As it turned out, she was the one still dipping her fingers in the goblet of red wine, tapping her bloody nails in the saucer and running through the plagues, while we children of Israel proper, long gone from Egypt, were tucking into the saltwater eggs. But it was earlier, on the Pesach Train itself, that her experience proved invaluable. I see her still, moving through the anxious carriages of first-timers like Florence Nightingale, explaining how to pretend your mouth is on fire when your in-laws offer you milk-and-water horseradish with dire admonitions as to its strength, how to look as though you have neither seen nor tasted matzo before, how to down sweet red wine without pulling a face, and otherwise consoling the anxious with assurances - not that it was going to be painless, but that it would be equally painful for everyone.

Painful, no less, for the oldsters waiting for the train to disgorge, exhausted by days of changing dishes and cleaning cupboards, free from Egyptian bondage but still unquestioning slaves to ritual, afraid of what barbarities were about to descend upon their tables.

Choo-choo, chug-chug, goes the Pesach Train. Freighted with human riches from the four corners of the earth. Macclesfield, Stockport, nearly there. Saris flutter in passageways. Watching his reflection in a window, Moomoo taps the bleached bone running through his nose. Ornithurous, daughter of Chief Black Elk, adjusts the carmine feathers in her headdress. While, fretting at their fridge in Whitefield, Lotte and Louis Finklebaum examine their shelves for breadcrumbs one last time