Maintaining My Mojo – on a (late, hot, overcrowded) train


I could have driven home. But I am a staunch supporter of an accessible, effective, integrated public transport system. And, despite the fact we clearly don’t have one in this country, I prefer to pretend that we have. As if – like a child – by pretending enough, I will make it happen.

My mission: to get from my flat in Hamble, to a country hotel in Shirrall Heath for an away-day, then onto Winchester, to catch a train to Derby, and then home to Loughborough. Easy-peasy.

I arranged my three lifts for stages 1, 2 and 4 and left my lovely, reliable, air-conditioned Audi behind for a weekend on its own. It could flirt with the other cars in the cosy private car park and the weather forecast was sunny. I was almost envious.

Everything went to plan until stage 3. H dropped me off at the station in Winchester at 5.20. I was ahead of schedule. If was quick buying my ticket, I could get an earlier train than intended. I was surprised to see so many young people milling around the station forecourt and vaguely wondered why. But I was intent on steering through them to the ticket machine. I opened my heavy shoulder bag to get my wallet.

This bag has 5 zipped compartments. I am incapable of utilising these in any systematic way, however much I try. In theory, laptops and papers go in one; clothes, toiletries and personal items in another; an entanglement of wires, cables and sockets easily fill a third; food and drinks should be deposited in no. 4 and the last one is for “journey essentials” such as pens, phones, iPod, wallet, chewing gum, tooth pick and assorted small change for the tea trolley.

That’s the theory. In practice it is mayhem. I opened zips and rummaged through compartments looking for my wallet. I rifled through more quickly, more slowly, by touch, by sight, randomly, systematically. Nothing. I remembered putting my wallet and phone on the dashboard of H’s car. I immediately denied to myself that I had left them there. I was conscious of the crowds around and walked away to a quiet corner of the station forecourt. Here, I emptied my bag item by item, already resigned to the outcome. I stuffed everything back in angrily and walked round to the front of the station, more in hope than in expectation. She might just have seen them. Phoning her when she had my phone was hardly an option.

But there she was, in the midst of the crowds, like a shining angel looking for me.

Embarrassment is an emotion best handled lightly. I smiled, shrugged, made a joke of it, took my wallet and phone and thanked her. “This is me” I said, as if that explained everything.  “This is me” – disorganised, forgetful, stressed, pathetic. “I do have another phone” I half-protested, waiving it, as if that redeemed me – suddenly making me organised, planned, controlled and resourceful.

I had missed the earlier train by now, so I took my time, got my ticket, bought some food and cup of tea and walked under the subway to Platform 2.

Something was clearly going on. Platform 2 normally contains a dozen people at this time on a Thursday. There were nearer to a hundred today, mostly looking confused, like ants disturbed by a careless spade. We all strained to hear inaudible announcements over the tannoy. “Customer-advisors” (formerly known as “guards” and “porters”) shouted things out and orange words rolled frantically around the electronic signs. None of these messages were particularly coherent, consistent or helpful. But it was clear that all trains were either cancelled and delayed. It felt like an ash-cloud moment. How was I going to get home?

Then we heard that “a person had been struck by a train” up the line at Basingstoke. I do struggle with this euphemism. Railway trains do not hit people, being my definition, confined to their rails. Cars can hit people, trains cannot.

In reality a train had been deliberately “struck” by a person. As it was reported in the next day’s Basingstoke Times; “a 38 year old man was struck by a freight train. His death is not being treated as suspicious”. In other words, a desperate man threw himself under a train. Which was what we all worked out, even if the announcements were sanitised.

My train was announced as cancelled. Then late. Then it was “waiting just outside Eastleigh” – poised like a retriever on a leash. It rolled in 40 minutes behind schedule and they apologised for any inconvenience. They had (logically) merged two trains into one; so this one was already packed. I climbed on board without any real hope or expectation.

In the absence of a seat, the next target is a clean bit of floor with some personal space. I sat myself down near the door at the end of the quiet coach – glad to be in plain clothes rather than the suit. A very large woman with two very small children was standing in the corridor. The older girl – maybe 7 – sat opposite me content with her headphones and her iPad. I almost heard myself say “how times have changed” but caught myself just in time before I became middle-aged.

The younger girl – maybe 5 – was unhappy. She wanted to sit in a seat. Her mum patiently explained that she had two choices – to stand up or sit on the floor. “I want to sit in a seat” she protested. “That isn’t one of your choices” – I admired mum’s patience. “I want a cup of tea” I was tempted to contribute. That wasn’t one of my choices. One of the first casualties of train overcrowding is the tea-trolley. In any case, is the “at seat service of snacks and light refreshments” available to passengers without a seat? (although I’d have liked to see them try that line with the 5 year old)

News came through that a man in the quiet coach was occupying a seat with his bag. Disgraceful behaviour. You would never find me doing that.

Quite a few people detrained – for reasons best known to themselves – at Basingstoke. Seats would be free. The younger girl was poised to assert her third choice, but hesitated. I cleverly cut in front of her and spotted some spaces around the tables. One table was now only occupied by a not unattractive young lady in a pretty dress. But I had a nobler thought. “There are three seats here” I said to the large woman with her two small children. As I squeezed into a single seat by the window on the opposite table, I was pleased with my own self-sacrifice.

To my right was a young lad eating a particularly aromatic salad. I was hungry and irritated at his lack of consideration, and made a note to suggest an addition to the quiet coach rule book regarding smells. Meanwhile I was impotent to object. Opposite a man had two seats to himself and was lounging semi-diagonally like some latter day Oscar Wilde, wearing a smoking jacket and smoking a pipe. He irritated me as well. No lounging in the Quiet Coach.

I had placed my bag on the table in front of me, thereby denying myself any table space. I eased it forwards, occupying by force a few inches beyond half-way and into smug man’s territory. He already had too much space, I was well within my rights.

I fumbled through the 5 zipped containers to extricate with minimum fuss my laptop (in 1), laptop lead (in 3) phone (now safely in 4) and wallet (erroneously in 2). I had no space to put my laptop down.

So, the question was, could I squeeze my bag through the space between the edge of the table and my stomach, between my legs and onto the floor? I wasn’t sure – but I knew I would look pretty stupid if I tried and failed. I could easily end up jammed into my seat by my own bag. Putting aside the obvious discomfort of such an outcome, it would hardly impress the not unattractive woman on the table opposite nor assert my superiority over smug man opposite.

Not that I was trying to do either of course, but I did want to retain some dignity.

So I left the bag on the table, folded my laptop into a vertical V, and positioned it between myself and the bag such that I was typing on my stomach and pretty much unable to see the screen. It probably looked like I was weirdly massaging my own midriff – but it seemed the lesser of two stupidities.

So I was relieved at Reading when a young woman politely informed her that I was sitting in her seat and I had to move. I relocated into an aisle seat behind and put my bag between my legs and my laptop on the tray. I finally had room to breathe.

The nearest toilets were out of order and the air conditioning had clearly failed. I took a couple of walks to the facilities in the next carriage, bouncing and down the corridor, avoiding stray bags and legs. It is the nearest experience I get to skiing.

As we crawled through the evening, we finally reached Birmingham. By now, the train was almost empty and my bag had its own seat. It sat quietly like some well-trained pet. I had sorted it out, so that everything was in its right compartment. It was happy. I was happy. I was working on my laptop – with power and WiFi – and messaging my wife. The tea-trolley had finally made it through – against fearful odds – with food-parcels and light refreshments. Normal service had been resumed.

We hit Derby about 50 minutes late. Not bad, considering. My wife was waiting patiently. By the time we got home, it was 7 hours since I had left the country hotel. I could have driven it in 3, without speeding and with a stop for tea. But I had contributed money and energy into the flaky but determined public transport network. And life is about stories and people and maintaining your mojo when things going wrong.

Yes, I could have driven home on my own – but where would be the story in that?

If you made it to the end of the journey with me, do let me know by leaving a comment or voting !

More trains of thought . . .
Floods on Trains
Strangers on Trains
Drunks on Trains
Dogs on Trains
Teenagers on Trains
A minor act of random kindness (on a train)
Confrontation (and the Consequences) on Trains

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