Train to Newcastle


“Is this seat taken?” I asked.

The old lady next to the window reached over and unenthusiastically moved the bag to the floor by her feet. I sat down, made myself comfortable, and settled in for the three-hour trip to Newcastle. I was already starting to get anxious. It was like returning home again.

The clickity-clack of the wheels kept me company as I relaxed in the otherwise quiet compartment and watched the green hills of Scotland pass by. I wished that the old lady at my right would change seats with me so that I could see out better. She kept nodding off and then jerking awake, so I was sure that she wasn’t enjoying the view. But then she hadn’t been too pleased about having to move her shopping bag, and I was sure she would be less happy about moving herself.

I looked around at the other passengers. As usual in Europe, the car was divided into compartments seating six people each. I was in the middle seat, facing forward; to my right was the old lady. The man on my left was in his 30s. He was reading a magazine. Judging from the few words that had passed between them at the start of the trip, I assumed that the woman across from him was his wife. She was also reading.

“A typical middle-class English couple heading home after a holiday in Scotland,” I thought to myself.

The elderly gentleman directly opposite me was the picture of a Victorian adventurer. He was tall and thin with a mustache, the kind of man who might wear formal dinner attire in the middle of the jungle. Very British! Next to him, by the window, was a thin, middle-aged woman in a blue dress.

“The governess type,” I decided.

Now, every country has its own travel etiquette and in Britain the rule seems to be, “Never fraternize with fellow travelers.” It’s not that the British are unfriendly. In fact, they are very warm. It’s just that on such a crowded island, everyone has learned to guard his own independence and to respect the privacy of others. As a foreigner, I could have initiated a discussion. The British accept “Yanks” as being outgoing. But I was tired after touring Edinburgh all morning and didn’t really feel like striking up a conversation just to talk.

No one spoke for nearly an hour. Then the woman in blue looked straight at me and said, in a distinct Scottish accent, “You’re an American, aren’t you?”

I was somewhat startled by this breach of the usual rule. That I was an American was obvious, so I took this to be a conversation opener rather than a question. Anyway, I was getting bored, so why not talk for a while?

“Yes, I am,” I answered. “I’m over here on vacation.”

The woman seemed very friendly. We chatted about the countryside, the marvelous weather we were having, and the crowded condition of the train. I told her about my travels during the summer, and she, in turn, told me of her planned visit to London and the relatives who would meet her there.

After a while the old gentleman interjected a few remarks, and my suspicions about his past were confirmed when he started telling us about monsoons in India and how bad the flies are in Kenya in the summer. It was all very friendly and very polite.

Then, out of nowhere, the woman in blue said, “You know, we have a lot of Americans over here as Mormon missionaries. And right bonnie lads they are too.”

The couple on my left looked at her, then at each other, and then went back to their reading. The old lady at my right, awakened by all the talk, let out with a verbal “Humph!” which I took as an indication of disapproval.

The woman in blue was not deterred. She went on to say that two missionaries lived with a friend of hers, a widow, and she told how they always assisted around the house whenever they could. “They’re wonderful lads; I don’t care what anyone says!”

The old gentleman broke in: “I met two of them on the ferry between Kowloon and Victoria on my last trip. I was quite impressed with them, especially when I learned that they spoke fluent Cantonese. Why, I know British administrators who have lived in Hong Kong for years and can’t speak the language as well as those boys.”

The two of them went on for a number of minutes about what “fine people Mormons are,” while I sat there with a smile on my face. After all, unsolicited praise is not very common in Britain. Finally I announced, “I’m glad to hear all that because I’m a Mormon.”

Instantly five pairs of eyes were staring at me.

“I know I should have spoken up sooner,” I confessed, “but I wanted to know what you would say. I’m glad to hear that you have such a high regard for us because a lot of people over here don’t really give us a chance and we have a lot to offer.”

I then told them about my mission in Northern England two years earlier and that the main purpose of this trip to Newcastle was to visit Church members there, especially those whom I had baptized. As I talked, I thought back to my mission. When we had gone tracting, it often seemed as though no one wanted to listen to what we had to say. How different this was. The old gentleman and the woman in blue were full of questions and eager to learn. They asked me about all kinds of Church-related things, and with every response they seemed more impressed with the Church and especially with its growth in England. They were becoming as enthused as I was, and we barely noticed as we passed the English border town of Berwick and sped southward along the North Sea coast.

I have always enjoyed a good religious discussion, and this one was getting better all the time. But I wished, somehow, that everyone might join in. After all, three people hadn’t said anything, though they were obviously listening. How could I include them? Suddenly a breakthrough.

The man on my left put his magazine down, waited for an opening in the conversation, and asked, “Is it true that Mormons don’t drink tea? How can anyone in England join a church that forbids tea?”

Another “Humph!” from the old lady.

I explained the Word of Wisdom and related a number of anecdotes about English people I had known and their successful efforts to give up tea. In fact, the matter of health received a complete going over, with the four of them finally agreeing that Mormons were among the most healthy people in Britain.

Then something very unusual began to happen. The couple by the door unpacked their lunch, and the wife started to make sandwiches for everyone. The woman in blue passed around a bag full of apples, and the old gentleman donated a package of biscuits. Soon we were having one big picnic and everyone was having a great time. I would not have believed it could happen. The British generally do not converse, much less share, with total strangers, yet somehow the spirit of the gospel had brought us together. Only the old lady by the window did not join in.

As a missionary I had learned a lot about tradition and prejudice and I had a fair idea what was bothering the old lady. The stories of how young English girls were captured and sent off to Salt Lake sound absurd, but I knew that a lot of old people still believed them. So I decided to tackle the problem head on.

“A lot of people don’t seem to understand us very well. Some people even think that we still practice polygamy,” I said, “which we don’t.”

Yet another “Humph!” from the corner.

Then I went on for close to an hour giving an outline of Church history and doctrine, with emphasis on modern revelation as the only means of knowing religious truth. I don’t think that I dumped the apple cart, but I did present the better part of the first and second missionary discussions. Everyone listened attentively. Past Alnwich and Morpeth I continued my discourse, hoping to plant enough seeds so that each one might someday seek more knowledge about the Church. I talked as fast as I could, hoping to say something that would spark some interest in each person.

As the train slowed at Longbenton, I started pointing out streets I had tracted and members’ homes that were near the tracks. My companions seemed as happy about my return to this lovely old city as was, and although I was glad finally to reach my destination I was also sorry that the trip was ending.

I thought to myself, “At least I’ve made four friends for the Church even if I lost one. If only I had another hour, perhaps I could win her over too.”

The train gave a little rock backward as we came to a stop in Newcastle station. I put my suitcase out in the passageway and then returned to shake hands, first with the couple, then the old gentleman, and finally the woman in blue. I thanked them for listening to me for so long and extracted a promise from all four that when missionaries knocked on their doors, they would listen.

Lastly, I held out my hand to the old lady. She looked at it and then up at me, then reached out and took my hand.

“I was brought up to hate Mormons,” she said, “and I’ve never had nought good to say ’bout them. But in two hours I’ve realized that everything I thought I knew was wrong. I shan’t forget this trip.”

There were tears in my eyes as I walked down the platform. What would be the final result? Would any of them ever join the Church? I would never know, but I would never forget that trip either.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh