Robert Mitchum, eat your heart out (for and )

‘s film poll this week, by its inclusion of The Night of the Hunter (and Robert Mitchum’s tattooed knuckles therein), put me in mind of an encounter I had on a train almost a decade ago.

First, a little scene-setting. When I was at uni (all of them), I was heavily involved in student film societies, a pastime that later continued during those years when I was no longer a student. Every year, a group of student film societies organised a film conference in the spring – a grandiose name for a weekend of heavy drinking, bedding down on hard floors and then trying not to fall asleep while watching the packed film programme. In 1995, the conference was at Warwick University, from which I had graduated the year before. I lived in Cambridge at the time, and so was travelling by train to Coventry after work.

The train journey from Cambridge to Coventry is quite slow, taking the best part of three hours. The fastest route involves changing trains in the East Midlands, but if you fall asleep and miss this connection (which I had), you invariably end up changing trains at Birmingham New Street.

Much as I like Birmingham, I dislike New Street. it’s an ugly, cold, impersonal station at the best of times, and if I’m faced with an extended wait there, I’ll normally leave the station and do something – anything – else instead. On this particular journey, there was a Coventry train waiting at New Street which was going to leave in about twenty minutes, so I decided to board and wait in relative comfort.

After about ten minutes, I was roused from my reverie by a crop-haired man who stuck his head through the open window and asked “izzis train gaun tae Coventry?” (you’ll have to excuse my bad attempt at phonetic Scottish). Yes it was, I replied, at which he threw his duffel bag through the open window and asked me to “leuk after this, pal, ah’m gaun fur a slash”. He returned a couple of minutes later (“ah couldnae find a bog, so ah pished ontae the track”), lit up a cigarette (in a non-smoking carriage), and got out a four-pack of lager. This was my introduction to Mick from Dundee.

Ordinarily, Mick was the sort of chap who I would not have engaged in conversation. South Essex, where I grew up, was full of enough hair-trigger-temper Trevs and Barries that you learned not to talk to them, especially if you didn’t have as mangled an Estuary accent as they did (I don’t, for which I am thankful). Mick was an affable chap, however, and we were soon talking about our jobs, where we were from, our girlfriends, and why we were travelling (he’d been up to Dundee for his father’s funeral: “I’m normally a bit of a hard man, but I almost cried”).

At some point during this, I noticed his hands. He had a couple of tattoos on his hands, including a not-entirely-unexpected bluebird. Most noticeable amongst these were the tattooed letters on the knuckles of his right hand, which read (in order from little to index finger) L-T-F-C. This I found a little confusing. Who ever heard of a Dundonian supporter of Luton Town FC? My confusion deepened when I noticed that the knuckles of his left hand were also tattooed, reading E-S-U-K (from index to little finger). I just couldn’t work out what E-S-U-K stood for.

And then it hit me. I remembered a conversation I’d had with a friend in which she mentioned that her uncle had a phrase tattooed on his knuckles that only made sense if his fingers were interlocked, right hand on left, palms downwards, little fingers on the outside. I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to keep a straight face for the remainder of the journey.

L-O-V-E / H-A-T-E it wasn’t, that’s for certain.

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