There's nothing worse than fellow passengers acting up

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The Independent Online

The other night I was caught on the last train back from London, sitting at a table with three strangers. As the train got later and later, we started swapping yarns about bad travelling experiences we had had. I was just about to tell them about the night I spent on top of a potato lorry coming down the Andes when one man said: "Of course, this being so close to Christmas, what we should be telling each other is ghost stories. In fact, I had a very strange experience the other day."

The other night I was caught on the last train back from London, sitting at a table with three strangers. As the train got later and later, we started swapping yarns about bad travelling experiences we had had. I was just about to tell them about the night I spent on top of a potato lorry coming down the Andes when one man said: "Of course, this being so close to Christmas, what we should be telling each other is ghost stories. In fact, I had a very strange experience the other day."

He stopped. Very cleverly, I thought. So of course we all begged him to tell us what it was, and of course he obliged.

"Have you noticed," he said, "that we always talk about haunted houses, but never about haunted shops or banks or places where people don't actually live? Take hotel bedrooms, for instance. When we stay in a hotel bedroom we never think of the people who have been there before us - personally, I pretend that I am the only person who has ever occupied it - but hundreds of people have been in the same room, and some of them must have had tragedies or heartbreak in that room. Well, I rather think I was in a haunted hotel bedroom the other day."

Outside, the lights of some big town slid past. We paid them no attention. We wanted to hear more.

"I was staying in a city in the Midlands, and had got late to bed after a big dinner, when I was gradually awoken in the night by the sound of voices.

"They were somewhere in the room, with me.

"As I lay there half-awake and absolutely motionless, I could work out that they were a man and a woman. They were having an argument, but it was a quiet, despairing sort of argument, as if it was one they had had often before. He was telling her that he was leaving her, she was begging him to stay, he was saying he couldn't go through any more of this nightmare, she got angry and said there was someone else, wasn't there, he said there wasn't, he just wanted to make a fresh start."

"Now, as I lay there in the dark, I desperately tried to think of a rational explanation for these voices I could hear."

"People in the room next door?" said the grey-haired lady by the window.

"I thought of that," said the man. "But there was no connecting door. There was no way the voices could be coming from an adjoining room. In any case, I'll swear that they were coming from somewhere in my room."

"You had left the radio on," said a man with a bow-tie, sitting opposite me. "You had gone to sleep with the radio on, and when you next woke up, there was a late night play on, about two people splitting up. You heard it in the dark, half-asleep, and thought it was real."

"I thought of that," said the man. "But there was no radio. The only possible explanation was a haunting. There had been a couple in that hotel room who had had a tragic parting. Perhaps they even killed each other."

We sat and thought about it in silence. As we did so, we all became aware that the pair at the table behind us, hidden by the seat backs, were having an argument. Their voices were slightly raised. He was saying what a nightmare it all was. She was begging him to change his mind. He said that when the train journey was over, he would never see her again. She started crying.

"My God!" said the story-teller. "It's them! It's them again! They're following me! Well, this time I shall confront them!"

He got up and went round to where the arguing pair were.

"Bob!" we heard the woman say.

"Hello, Bob!" said the man.

"Hello," said our friend. "How's the scene going?"

"Can't get it quite right," said the man. "Mark you, we shouldn't be rehearsing on a train. God knows what people are thinking if they hear us."

Yes, it turned out that the man called Bob had heard his two actor friends rehearsing next door and had deliberately spun the yarn about the haunted hotel room to mystify us. It was such an appallingly anti-climactic, flimsy and unlikely explanation that the three of us spontaneously leapt on him, beat him to a jelly and moved to another carriage, where I told them all about my night on a potato lorry in the Andes.

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