I had smiled smugly as I booked my reserved seat on the 7.50am train from Derby straight through to Southampton. Not for me the nightmare of flooded roads and waterlogged engines. Not for me an endless night freezing in an abandoned car, hungry and shivering in damp blankets, painstakingly extracting furry sweets from that tiny gap between the driver’s seat and the handbrake, with a biro, desperate for any carbohydrate.
No, I would be gliding through the countryside on elevated rails, wistfully admiring the flooded fields on either side, merrily snapping pictures of church spires reflecting in pools of silver water before joyfully posting them on facebook via the on-board wifi. Let the train, take the strain.
My only interaction with H2O would be sipping warm tea and a quick hand wash 30 minutes later. I would arrive unruffled and dry at my destination three hours later, with just a hint of self-congratulation and schadenfreude for those foolish enough to attempt to drive.
The journey started badly and deteriorated. We were a little late leaving for the station. After breakfast, I had a deceptively urgent and time-consuming email to compose before leaving. Two minutes in the shower inevitably became five, and suddenly the time had crept up to 07.12 when it needed to be 07:05. We cleverly avoided the reportedly flooded road through Hathern, but forgot that everyone else would be diverting with us to the motorway. Delays at three sets of traffic lights, and I was thrashing my wife’s little Ford Focus along the A50 at an uncomfortable speed, whilst she grimaced disapprovingly in the passenger seat.
I abandoned the car and its owner outside the railway station, with a kiss. It was wet and miserable as I skipped to the platform in that strange half-walk, half-run action beloved of people who are late for a train, but are dicing with the dilemma between desperation and dignity.
The 7.50 to Southampton was five minutes late on the departure board. Perfect – just time to get a coffee and a newspaper. A train drew up 10 minutes late. It was announced as my train and looked like my train. I assumed it was my train. I hopped on board and immediately noticed that something was wrong: too many empty seats and the wrong colour décor. The latter being one of those things you never notice until it is wrong.
I stuck my head out of the window like a confused child, in the vain expectation of finding something or someone to reassure me. The platform was eerily deserted. Everyone else had got on board – so safety in numbers, surely? And, the last time I got off what I thought was the wrong train, it turned out to be the right train.
But this one had an unfamiliar electronic board inside on which a message rolled round ever so slowly. It welcomed me on board. It mentioned the refreshments and finally, it said it was going to Birmingham. So far so good.
Time stood still as it rolled agonisingly round to “and Yeovil”. Which was the wrong answer. I expected the train to move off at that very point, but fortunately (or so I thought at the time) it didn’t. I hastily disembarked. With the wonderful benefit of hindsight, I would have been better getting this train to Birmingham. Little did I know.
The proper 7.50 rolled up 30 minutes later. It was delayed due to flooding and signal failures north of Derby. ANy inconvenience was apologised for. I would have been happy enough to be delayed just by flooding. It seemed rather profligate to throw away a perfectly good “signalling failure” excuse at the same time.
On board, the insides were reassuringly familiar and occupied. I found an unoccupied double-seat at the back and relaxed. I would be here for 3 hours, so I may as well get comfortable. Coat on hanger, laptop and blackberry plugged in and my mobile office was up and running.
30 minutes later, we inched into Birmingham. Half the carriage were on their feet and queuing to get off, which would leave more space and less noise for the rest of us. I was late, but otherwise, everything was fine.
Then an announcement. “This train will be terminating here, we apologise for any inconvenience”.
No more than a minute’s warning, no explanation and no information about alternative through trains. I swore, not quite under my breath, hurriedly packed up my office and deposited myself unceremoniously into my least-loved station. Any inconvenience? Why would they imagine terminating a train cause any inconvenience? If for any bizarre reason I had wanted to terminate at Birmingham, I would have stayed on the wrong train I didn’t catch earlier!
If I am at Birmingham station, something has invariably gone wrong. It is the most miserable of stations – the platforms are underground, dark and dank like a condemned prison. Not old enough to be interesting, not modern enough to be comfortable. But depressingly symbolic of that bland, style-free dysfunctional architecture which characterised the 60s and 70. And always cold.
I had no idea which train was thinking of heading towards Southampton. I consulted my pocket timetable and picked out the 9.33 to Reading. But was it on time? I walked out to the main station hall to the departure boards. I stared up at the array of lights like a bedazzled astronomer and as I did so, I heard a feeble, pleading voice in my ear.
“Excuse me, mate, I’ve lost all my money, and I need to get to (I didn’t catch the destination), could you buy me a ticket?”. I ignored him, as my mind computed the usual dilemma when faced with such a request. “Please, mate, I’ve been here all night and I’m freezing”. I stared harder at the departure board, hoping he might go away.
”Please, I’m not a drunk, I just need to get to . . .”. I really didn’t have the time, I rationalised, to deal with this request. “I’m sorry, I have a train to catch”, almost adding “and I wouldn’t advise you attempting to do the same”.
And there it was, on the board, the 9.33 to Reading. On time and everything. He continued petitioning and I walked away. I actually had 15 minutes to spare, so my excuse was thinner than my credit card. I used the time instead to treat myself to a warm coffee. But this man’s request was filling my head along with my guilt.
I am not averse to helping out needy/suspicious characters. As a teenager I gave £30 to a man I met in Manchester to get to Birmingham (ironically) who then insisted on buying me lunch with my own money. I have dropped coins into hats and bowls around the world. I gave a guy, who had lost his money, £20 for petrol at Toddington Service station just a few months ago, and threw in a free-petrol to boot.
I like to walk the narrow line between meanness and gullibility, in order to be accused of neither. In reality, I just play hopscotch either side and could be accused of both. It depends on how well my cynicism can arm wrestle my conscience.
I paid for my coffee with a £20 note. On receiving my change, including a £5 note in my possession, my conscience struck a decisive blow. I walked back out to the main hall ready to give the guy a fiver. I do have a conscience. It just has a price-limit.
I was too late. There he was, passing through the ticket barriers with a ticket victoriously in his grasp. Someone else had sorted him out. Well that’s good, I thought. He’s fine. No harm done. Just the minor issue of what to do with my guilt.
By 9.32 the 9.33 to Reading was still announced as on time. I walked down to platform 13. There is no place on earth as cold as a railway platform. Icy air blows down the rails and through you – as if you were a naked and full of holes. I shivered in my tissue-thin suit.
The train would be here any second now. Or not. After 10 minutes, no train had arrived, along with no communication. The electronic platform sign went blank. There was an air of unspoken confusion on the platform. Had the train sunk in the floods? Should we have a minute’s silence? ? There was no evidence of it anywhere. Had it ever really existed? Or was it a ghost train. I dragged my suitcase back up to the concourse, no evidence there either. I walked down back to the platform.
Suddenly, here it was, gliding into the station. Emerging like some subterranean monster from the dark flood waters. Here it was, ready to save the humans from being frozen forever into ice statues.
The next part of the journey was fine. I had a comfortable seat and a nice man came and sold me hot water, a tea-bag and 2 milk cartons for the bargain price of £2.10. He tempted me with a pastry, and for once in my life, I relented. I deserved it – I was over an hour late.
I pondered how a few drops of innocent rain could cause national railway mayhem. How a modern train on elevated rails, could be affected by flooding? I soon had my answer. As we reached Oxford, the train slowed down, and on either side we saw water. The tracks on my side were just visible, glimmering above the surface of the newly formed lake. The train crept cautiously forward like a small child paddling in low-sided wellies. We all took pictures.
My pocket timetable believed there was a connecting train in Reading with a 10 minute wait. I was (literally) on track to my rebaselined expectations. Inevitably, the connection at Reading was late and there was no announcement. But I was in my stride. After a while, we adjust our expectations and become more accepting of poor service.
Soon I was speeding on my train number 3 to Southampton. I phoned ahead for a taxi. I was relaxed, nothing else could go wrong. And I had some scraps of a story for my blog. I opened my laptop and started to type, exaggerating the pathos and irony of my selected form of transport, beefing up the humour, colouring in metaphors, injecting some sidewards observations whilst attempting to maintain the pace. I was in my element – laptop plugged in and on the table in front of me; phone, glasses and notebook on the adjacent table. Jacket on that little hook by the window. Suitcase above me on the shelf.
I noticed that the train was stationary. I looked out of the window to find out why. There was a sign outside. It said “Southampton”.
I swore again, not quite under my breath, grabbed my jacket, shovelled my phone and notebook into my briefcase, yanked the laptop lead out of its socket and gathered everything up with octopus arms. I dropped my glasses and retrieved them – precious seconds lost. With another mysterious extra arm I pulled my suitcase down and ran to the doors. For the second time today I had to get off a train before it departed.
I spilled onto the platform, my briefcase open, my laptop open under my arm with its power lead following on behind. I think I had everything, except for my wits.
I had arrived – in style – a couple of hours late. My finale was to entertain the remaining passengers with a Frank Spencer comedy moment. The train stayed still, the doors remained open. I could have taken my time. I imagined the passengers chuckling whilst I repacked my bits and pieces, along with my embarrassment, into my briefcase and tried to find my dignity.
The morals of the story? Life rarely goes to plan and usually runs late. The expected is usually superseded by the unexpected. Stuff happens beyond our control. And nobody tells us in advance or what to do about it. Probably because they don’t know themselves.This is all a test our resourcefulness, resilience and concentration, like some great bush-tucker trial. And life would be rather dull otherwise.
When we get the opportunity to show some kindness, don’t hesitate. Better to be generous and gullible than self-righteous and stingy.
And when it is time to get off, do so with good grace and humour. And do try to make a dignified exit.
If you enjoy my story, please feel uninhibited to like it or score it, or to respond with your own thoughts. Thanks.