Foot-and-mouth, and that was just for starters

Was there anything else that could have happened to him? My eye caught a picture of Keith Vaz...
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The Independent Online

I always enjoy talking to people on trains. They usually have a good story to tell. But a man I met the other day exceeded all my expectations. In fact, I felt as soon as I sat down next to him that he had a story to tell. So, obligingly, I got through all the preliminaries ("Is this seat taken?"... "How far are you travelling?"... "How late is the train running, do you know?" etc) and then said: "So, what do you think of the news?"

I always enjoy talking to people on trains. They usually have a good story to tell. But a man I met the other day exceeded all my expectations. In fact, I felt as soon as I sat down next to him that he had a story to tell. So, obligingly, I got through all the preliminaries ("Is this seat taken?"... "How far are you travelling?"... "How late is the train running, do you know?" etc) and then said: "So, what do you think of the news?"

People usually have one of two reactions to that. Either they think that you have heard something that they haven't, or they go straight for the bit of the news that affects themselves. This man didn't do either. He just went a bit philosophical.

"I'll tell you what I think of the news," he said. "I think people forget about the news as soon as it happens. Do you remember a month or two back the headlines were full of the most terrible floods in Britain?"

"Yes, I do," I said.

"Well, the floods receded and the people's interest in the floods receded, but the effects of the floods didn't recede, and I am still living in temporary accommodation after I was forced out of my home by the local river."

"That's terrible," I said. "Whereabouts is that?"

"Sussex," he said. "You wouldn't know the place... I still go back there every day, because I am a farmer, and although the farmhouse is uninhabitable right now, of course the farm has to go on being farmed."

"Right," I said. "Arable or livestock?"

I've been told that farmers always like being asked that question. It shows they are talking to someone who is not totally ignorant.

"Livestock," he said. "Least it was till last week. Then they confirmed that I had foot-and-mouth, and came in to slaughter everything."

"Oh, my God," I commiserated. "How devastating."

"It certainly was," he said. "There were times when I thought of..."

He mimed firing a shotgun.

"Suicide?" I whispered.

"Well, shooting Nick Brown, actually," he said. "But a farmer shouldn't ever take the easy way out, as it just leaves the load on his wife. And my wife has her own worries at the moment. She is a bit of a photographer, and has a show of pictures opening in the local art gallery. Unfortunately, it has been raided by the police and some of the photos of our young family taken away."

Did I tell you that the man had a story to tell? It seemed to me that his story encompassed every woe there had been in the papers that week.

I felt that if there was more to come, I might as well dig it out sooner rather than later.

"Any other troubles?" I asked.

"No, not really," he said. "Well, there was my car crash, of course."

"Car crash?"

"Land Rover, actually. I was driving alongside a railway line when my tyre burst, my vehicle went crazy and left the road, then drove down on to the railway line and..."

"Don't!" I said. "Don't say any more! I don't want to know!"

"OK," he said. "OK. You did ask."

I opened my newspaper but was unable to concentrate. This man was a walking anthology of all known disaster stories. Was there anything else that could have happened to him? My eye caught a picture of Keith Vaz.

"Ever met Keith Vaz?" I asked.

The man snorted in derision.

"I haven't personally, but my brother, who is a leading member of the Leicester Labour Party..."

"That's enough," I said. "Say no more."

I went back to the paper. There was another piece about continued fighting in the Congo.

"At least you haven't been involved in a war," I said.

"Depends what you call a war," he said. "Near us we have got some refugees from the Balkans in a camp. Two camps, actually. One lot are Macedonians and the others are Albanians from Kosovo. Well, they had rival Comic Relief Rednoseday parties the other day, and I don't know where they got the guns from, but all hell broke loose, and when they started to shoot each other..."

At that point the train stopped at a station and several armed men burst in, took my friend hostage, and dragged him off to a waiting car.

Bangladeshis, from the look of them.

I can't say I was sorry. At least I could get back to the peace and quiet of the newspaper for the rest of the journey.

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