A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Exeter

Early one summer’s evening in Exeter, having just dropped off a friend for his train at St David’s Station, I am returning to my car when I am hailed by an old acquaintance, Jack. Jack greets me effusively:

Hi there. I’m glad I saw you. I  just got off the London train, and boy do I need a drink. You wouldn’t believe what happened to me today! I’ve got to tell someone – do you have time for a quick one?

I do. There is an hour left to run on my meter. So I lead the way across the car park to the Great Western Hotel, where we buy two pints of Otter bitter and retire to a corner booth. Jack takes a long draught, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and begins:

I went up to the city this morning to buy some books.

I notice the open-topped plastic bag, labelled Waterstones Books, that he has deposited on the seat beside him and nod.

I was booked to come home by the 4 o’clock train out of Paddington, but I got to the station a bit early, so I bought a newspaper and went into the station cafeteria for a coffee. I queued at the counter, collected my latte and – I was a bit peckish – I’d missed my lunch d’ye see – I, um, ah – on impulse bought one of those mini-packs of chocolate biscuits – y’ know – four biccies in a cellophane wrap. I then carried all my stuff and went to find a seat.  The place was packed, but I was lucky enough to grab an small two-seat table at the back of the room.

The foam line descends another inch in Jack’s glass.

Well, as I was saying, I sat down, took a sip of coffee, and started to read the paper… but I hadn’t hardly read the first headline when someone cleared their throat beside me. I looked up, and there – um, er – there was this young guy – probably a student – pointing to the empty seat opposite. “D’ye mind?” he says:  “no problems” I answers. The seat was probably the last unoccupied one in the place.  I shunted my chair back a tad to make room for him, turned slightly away and raised my paper.  Socially distancing, y’know, like what we used to do back in the days when we had that Covid thingy…

I wonder when Jack is going to get to the point, I had already heard enough commentary from him on a previous occasion about “that Covid thingy”. But Jack continues, unconsciously switching to the present tense as he relives his experience:

…then I hears this tearing noise – the sound of a cellophane wrap being ripped open. I glance down, and here’s this chap calmly helping himself to one of my biscuits! He’s not even looking at me as he bites into it. I’m flabbergasted, gobsmacked – I mean, you don’t expect that sort of  thing, not here in England at any rate. I mean, I’d have given him a biscuit if he’d asked… But I don’t say nothing, I don’t want to make a fuss d’ye see, you never know where that might lead – and he’s a much bigger chap than me anyway – probably plays rugby. But I feel I have to do something, establish ownership rights, so I reaches out and takes a biscuit myself . Well – er – we munch on like this  in silence eating our biscuits – um – it’s like – um – well y’know -  we’re both ignoring each other, avoiding eye contact, pretending everything is normal.  Then – you won’t believe this – he finishes his first biscuit, reaches out and takes another one! Calm as you like! I didn’t complain about his first so how can I complain about his second?  It’s a bit like a game of drafts – he makes a move, then I makes a move, then he makes a move. So there’s only one move left to make…I reaches out and takes the last biscuit. Well… you can imagine… there’s now a fair bit of tension in the air between us.  At any moment one of us is going to say something, or do something. He’s beginning to look a bit twitchy, and I’m rehearsing in my mind what I am going to say – y’know the sort of thing – moral high ground,  firm but dignified – it’s not the biscuits its the principle… blah-blah-blah. But just as I opens my mouth to speak, the loudspeaker announces the 4 o’clock train for Exeter is boarding.  So I gets up, folds my paper, puts it in my bag and hurry out.

Paddington Station 2


For something to say, I comment that all of this is really amazing and shocking.

But wait, wait, wait… you haven’t heard the best bit yet.  After I settled into the train and we’re rattling out through the suburbs I reached into my bag for the paper – and there – right there in the bottom of the bag beside my books – was an unopened packet of chocolate biscuits!

Jack pauses strategically as he drains the last of his beer, allowing time for me to figure out what must have happened. Then he continues:

You know, when you come to think  of it, the funny thing is, right at this moment, somewhere in England, there is a young guy telling his rugby mates exactly the same story as I’ve just told you.

“Ah!” I say, “Not exactly. The really funny thing is: he doesn’t know the punch line.”




I have told the story in my own words, but it is based on a story I read recently in a collection of writings by the late Douglas Adams. Adams does not claim originality.  I have a vague recollection, from many years ago, of reading a similar tale involving two strangers in a pub chain-smoking through a packet of cigarettes. Clearly an early version.

It has all the marks of an apocryphal yarn – the kind usually introduced by the formula – “This is a True Story. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine…”. But the power of the story is that it could be true, and probably did happen to some one, some where, at some time.


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