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As I’ve become older, I’ve become less able to accurately discern the age of other people, particularly teenagers. That was my first thought as the three teenage girls got on the train at Swindon and enquired if they could sit in the three empty seats around the table where I was working, all of which were clearly labelled as pre-booked, a fact they would have gleaned if they’d bothered to look. For the record, and because it may help to illustrate this story better, I’d say they were fourteen.
My second thought was ‘Please let them only be travelling to Chippenham’ as I had a few pieces of work I needed to get done during that morning’s journey. They stayed on past Bristol where I alighted from the train, and so I was thus stuck with them for about forty-five painful minutes.
I don’t expect to ever fully understand the minds and motivations of teenage girls, though all I will say is that in a decade’s time I truly hope neither of my two female daughters turn out like these three makeup-caked and sewer-mouthed girls. It takes a lot to shock me, but not much to disappoint me, and so it was that after a mere ten minutes of them being sat around me I was less than inured to their open discussion of sex, smoking and underage drinking. Don’t get me wrong, I know that some of this is standard rite-of-passage baggage that comes with being a teenager; it’s just that they seemed, well, so young to be talking about it. And certainly far too openly for 8.30 on a Wednesday morning. We’ll leave aside why it was that they were going on holiday together without a parent at that age, or indeed why they weren’t at school, but I’d imagine there may well be a whole sociological melting pot of questionable morality going on there.
One of the girls, in her best West Country accent, muttered the words ‘I’m well hungry,’ to which the other two nodded solemnly in acknowledgement that they too were, ahem, ‘well hungry’. From beneath the table, and with what looked like rehearsed synchronicity, each girl produced a Pot Noodle.
Mistakenly believing that Pot Noodles were truly only purchased and consumed by impoverished students in dingy digs with no money left over after the requisite excessive alcohol consumption (or was that just me?), I was surprised that three young girls – none of whom were what could be described as overweight or unhealthy-looking (yet simultaneously not exactly in close proximity to radiance) – would elect to eat such things, if for no other reason than making a Pot Noodle actually requires some effort; I mean, it’s practically like cooking compared to buying junk food from the hot plate. I briefly wondered how they were going to actually get some boiling water to make the things, but these three enterprising young things took themselves off to the buffet car whereupon they were given the single necessary ingredient to transform the snack from arid powder and dehydrated lumps to the worst imitation of ‘food’ imaginable.
They then briefly panicked that they didn’t have any spoons to eat the snacks with, until one girl pointed out that, duh, you couldn’t eat a Pot Noodle with a spoon, and produced a set of forks she’d appropriated from her home before leaving that morning.
As each of them set out the ministrations of stirring, breaking up the noodles and generally impatiently waiting the few requisite minutes it takes for a Pot Noodle to become ready to eat (if indeed it ever could be described thusly), and finally when they were ready they collectively bent lower over the table to minimise splashing – considerate I thought given that I didn’t really want either my laptop or freshly-pressed suit to get covered in gelatinous gloop – and settled quietly into a adolescent girlish version of the earnest, high brow dinner table conversations that Woody Allen is so fond of throwing into his films. A certain peace and decorum descended upon our area of the carriage, albeit only briefly.
‘What’s this?’ asked one of the girls, lifting something pale out of the pot.
‘That’s chicken,’ responded another, mid-mouthful.
‘No it’s not,’ replied the third girl. ‘There’s no chicken in these.’ An astute observation, I thought to myself, for indeed there is no chicken in a chicken Pot Noodle.
‘Then what is it?’ asked the first girl, slurping a noodle through her teeth.
‘It’s a noodle,’ came the response.
A noodle? A noodle? Are teenagers unable to discern a lumpy piece of textured vegetable protein from a flour-based noodle? I briefly considered wading in at this point and educating the girls on what they were actually eating, but I changed my mind. You never know with teenagers these days. One of them may have been carrying a Big Mac.
‘I’m thirsty,’ said one of the girls.
‘Didn’t you bring a drink?’
‘No, my mum didn’t give me any money for one.’
‘Do you want some of mine?’ replied her friend, charitably, producing a bottle of Coke from under the table. Coke and Pot Noodles at 8.50 AM? Really? Had they just finished the night shift?
‘I don’t like peas.’
‘Do you like the sweetcorn? I do,’ said another, prompting emphatic affirmative nods from the other two. As anyone who’s ever eaten a Pot Noodle will testify, the sweetcorn in these white plastic pots has the texture and taste of cardboard, except that a piece of cardboard wouldn’t taste like it had been entirely denuded of any nutritional significance.
‘Burp,’ burped one.
‘That’s disgusting,’ replied the other two in unison, shattering the seriousness and quiet with one single bodily emission. True enough, it was a foul thing to do, but surely eating a Pot Noodle at this ungodly hour was many, many more times deplorable? ‘That’s gross, babe,’ one of the girls added. ‘You’re not sharing any of my fags now.’
‘I don’t want your stupid fags, babe. I’ll get some off my auntie. I’m still hungry,’ said the burping girl, simultaneously producing a bag of crisps from the Mary Poppins bag of provisions beneath the table, snaffling the fried sliced potatoes in mere seconds, washing the whole load down with the rest of her Coke.
The train pulled into Bath and one of the girls asked me whether they would still be allowed to sit in their seats. I nodded, though really I would have much preferred it if the passengers who had actually did book those seats valiantly reclaimed them. In fact, at Bath an elderly lady paused by the seats, scanning the seat numbers and looking down at her ticket, saw the thousand-yard stares of the girls and moved down the carriage. She’d shouldn’t have had to do this as the girls should have been more respectful, but there’s teenagers for you.
Ten minutes later I got off the train at Bristol Temple Meads, still feeling slightly disorientated by the intrusion of these teenage girls into my working day with their attendant abysmal diet and conversations about promiscuity and getting ‘well hammered later, babes‘; I was also slightly concerned that I probably reeked of the noodle sauce, thus prompting curious glances from the clients I was due to meet later that morning.
We all go through phases of waywardness and rebellion as we grow up, and I was certainly no different; it was just something about the way these girls were talking implied that these things – smoking, sex, but mostly snacks at unusual times of the day – were not acts of rebellion, but the norm. I’m not saying that they are typical of all teenagers, as I know that can’t possibly be true, but in its own way it felt like a mini indictment of societal decay.