All vagrants have their haunts and their tasks, which they pursue like Tantalus. Most will wander around a particular district of the city, though some will haunt the sewers and crypts below. One or two men walk the earth, preaching their crazy philosophies, selling their crude drawings and foil sculptures, or maybe urging people to repent before tomorrow’s Armageddon.
Stephen wanders around train stations some of the time, but most of the time he will be found on a train. I first met him on the long haul down to Exeter one spring afternoon in 99, but since then I have seen him on a couple of suburban services out of Victoria, and once, I think, getting off a train at Derby. A good friend of mine claims, astonishingly, to have seen him in the restaurant car of the Glasgow sleeper.
Stephen does not sit down when he gets one the train. Or rather, he does sit down, but not immediately. He roams the carriages, back and forth, searching out the person he is destined to meet. Sometimes he will make several passes before he finds the seat he is looking for.
And then a mobile phone rings.
When the shrill tones chime throughout the compartment, Stephen will settle himself down next to the phone user, the callee, and begin singing the mobile phone he has just heard. I guess this must be rather boring for him most of the time, singing in a literal monotone, although in my case (oh yes, I was one of them) he got to sing the first eight bars of the Imperial March by John Williams.
I kept the encounter of this strange man to myself for a few years, until I overheard someone else on a train telling their neighbour about this man, whom they had also encountered. I could not resist changing seats and joining the conversation, and it was there that I learnt Stephen’s name. As soon as I got home I wrote a letter to the Times newspaper concerning him, and received several replies from those who have been disconcerted by his impromptu appearance and performance in reaction to their mobile ring-tone.
The sub-community of people who have met him has grown, and there are several theories as to why Stephen has embarked on this mission. Some people with little imagination suggest that the ring-tones are so annoying that he has been sent mad, and his odyssey is an active protest. This does not sway me. Such a person would engage with his victims, shout at them, or at least explain his motives. Stephen simply sits down, sings in pure tenor, and leaves as soon as the call has been completed, leaving the person in a state of bewilderment.
Others suggest, cynically, that Stephen is actually twenty or so people, secretly employed by the rail companies to prevent people using mobile phones on trains. This is ridiculous, because the companies would never have the imagination, nor would they spend that sort of money on a hair-brained scheme. Furthermore, I have corresponded with several people (some might call them fans or followers) who all describe Stephen in the same way, a description in keeping with my own encounter: Long hair, big nose, bow tie. He is only one person, of that I am sure.
My own theory is that he is a music lover, and sees the tones as a simple form of the art. Perhaps he sees the rings as the purest, tightest form there is, where the composers have to work with only eight notes (nine if you include the silence) and five lengths of time from the brieve to the semi-quaver, and his mission is to seek out masterpieces within the theme. Or perhaps, which is the more likely alternative in my opinion, he loathes Nokia’s rape of Beethoven’s Seventh.
And I am left with a dilemma. Do I turn off my telephone when I board a train? I still find it very hard to do so, despite my former embarrassment at the hands and vocal chords of this enigma. I think that if my telephone rings, then perhaps a man in a bow tie will come lumbering down the aisle, and I may see him again, and ask him what he is doing. I have a notion that to switch of my telephone is to deprive Stephen of his work, to deny him fulfilment.
I find myself taking the train more often nowadays, even if it is inconvenient and expensive to do so. I wear a bow tie when I travel, and always carry my telephone in my top pocket, ready to ring. One day it will do so, and Stephen will be there, singing beside me.