Today the 13.22 Sprinter from London Paddington to Reading is a metaphor for Britain… it’s late. Just as well, as the clerical staff is losing her battle with technology. She struggles, muttering invocations in a frantic ritual; stabbing buttons, seemingly random combinations in the hope that chance will intercede with entropy, to make a miracle. She is a desperate woman. I am a pan of milk on the boil as time breaks wind and laughs in my face and the struggle continues to not produce a ticket for the rain coated stoic in front of me. How can he be so calm!? Does that slender grey conceal the soul of an obelisk? Enraged, I conjure stun grenades from November air and plug one each into his lobeless ears. I pull the pins. “Meditate on that, you bastard!”
Expecting the train at any moment, I attempt calm, but fidget, knowing that this will not help. My agitation, displayed, will only aggravate her flusterings. Still, I really really want her to notice. So, I shrug off my rucksack, drop it to the floor and, I overacting shamefully, fold my arms with a pronounced pissed off. Two tickets spew l from the devil’s device. They are the wrong tickets. She throws them into the waste-bin. I am embarrassed with admiration for the otherwise unimposing man’s self-control till she confirms his order …”two returns to Liverpool, Lime Street”, for the following day. He can afford dignity. Though the involuntary muscle of my emotional bladder contracts valiantly, I am flesh, and I project urgency; sighing, drumming my fingers on my thigh and moving my weight from left to right foot and back and forth ’till, with an effort worthy of an incredibly worthy, patient person, I regain my “British” composure and . . .wait.
To pass the time, I consider the pros and cons of shape shifting to either, a Buddhist monk (benign, fatalistic, accepting) or, to a sinuously bad tempered, lethally venomous snake. My soul slithers. Loaves and fishes! Allah be praised! At last, with a, whispering whirr and the hint of a click, the tickets are delivered to her gratitude. She passes them to the grey ghost, and with a Boris Karloff “thank you”, the now headless and bloody spectre strolls out of my life. This, like any other in a subjective `universe’, is my moment. Mouth dry I manage, “Has the 13.22 been cancelled?” I communicate through a complex glass baffle (bullet proof if the railway mandarins have any concern for the well—being of their staff). “I’ll check, information will know”, she says, with a touching bravado and proceeds to joust with another intransigent, Cyclops. Nothing. Eyes blazing she turns, raises the telephone receiver! and dials… the Samaritans? the Seventh Cavalry?
Her shoulders go back, her chin lifts, her breasts advance. Her body says, “We’ll settle this once and for all!”. She fails to get through; perhaps receiving a recorded message about being in a queue, a polite request to be patient (regardless of the cost of a long distance call) followed by a calming rendition of “Greensleeves” or some other tuneful tranquilliser, filtered free from bass frequencies. I fume silently about lack of investment, inadequate staff training, the abandonment of a nation’s infrastructure and the decline of civilisation as we blow it, while the service-supplier to end-user interface flaps, ragged, in a gale of confusion and plummeting self esteem.
But now, after all, there appears evidence to suggest that perhaps God is not the warped, egocentric, snuff movie freak of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, because the computer at last delivers. The accused in the glass cage sounds surprised relaying the information. “It’s running thirteen minutes late”, she says, and offers inadequate compensation; “It’s usually on time”.
We hear the sound of distant metal wheels on endless rails. The man behind me urges, “Here it comes” and in desperation the perpetrator, and at the same time, the victim of her own and her companies crimes of incompetence, returns to the no ticket producing fiend. She attacks buttons wildly gives up in despair. Now it’s her turn to sigh, “Hhuuuhh. . .you’d better get it on the train love”.
I do, from the all in one ticket inspector and seller, advancing his biscuit box, credit card accepting, digital machine. And I, am seven years old, threepenny piece poised in my hand as the bus conductor takes a pink pastel ticket from his little wooden toy-town rack and clips a bloodless wound in my dream.
Last night in my bedroom, I wrote a letter to Hopalong Cassidy, asking him to take me away from the battle field I call my family. Sometimes I dream myself being held by R William Boyd, the square faced actor with the ready smile and silver hair who plays the black clad cowboy. The letter of longing for love is hidden beneath the neatly pressed and folded shirts on the top shelf of my wardrobe. “Hoppy” will never receive it. Instinct warns me that my secret must be kept. The letter, read and reread over several days, will be posted in the fire.
And here I am, centuries older on the 13.22 (now the 13.35) riding my way to Reading Library to give a reading of poems from my ‘scrap book of the soul’. Who would have thought it? The present day conductor looks tough, and is no nonsense efficient but courteous… and cuddly: Close cropped hair, fairly solid, thirty four-ish, with a blob of a nose on a big and a lived in face. A thin scar snakes from the corner of his mouth to the semicircle chin. Broad shoulders challenge the uniform jacket. A deep chest and a comfortable tummy promise warming on a winter’s night; and as he turns away I am relieved to see that there is no loose space in his trousers. The man has dutious gluteus maximi. His legs however, are disappointingly thin, and he, like the train, moves on.
I remain. I have two, cramped, rear facing seats to myself. I bivouac, pull down both foldaway trays, arrange a living space, a book of poems, my laptop, a newspaper and now the refreshments trolley arrives. I stock the larder with a cheese and tomato sandwich, a cup of plastic coffee, a chocolate wafer bar and a can of beer. Secure in my new home it’s time to log on; as this part of the world becomes that part of the world becoming this part, and on and on. I boot the window, sit back and view the scene whilst pondering, for a moment, a happier place that once existed in-between innocence and experience. I decide to attempt a new love poem.
In the centre of a ploughed and frozen field, a scarecrow, tall, apocalyptic, stands, an image of time and dickensian death; a sleek monk’s habit flowing alive to the ground; a cavemous hood concealing the creature’s undoubtedly hideous head. There are no birds in sight. Death is an efficient deterrent. Or perhaps the birds are biding their time, hiding in the trees bordering the naked field. “Brothers and sisters, the time of liberation approaches when we, the feathered brethren, will rise on wings of fire and smite the tyrant death with our talons of unforgiveness!”
I note this rural depiction of death displays agricultural eccentricities. His / her / its robe is made of dirty white plastic fertiliser bags, sown, perhaps stapled, together. Arms outstretched, all embracing; It is The Master. I surprise myself by shivering, and repel this emotional ambush by morphing more comfort into the scene: Oak, Ash, Willow… some fluffy rabbits. Mile after mile the rurality of man with nature is beautiful. In comparison, the towns we pass deliver a contemptuous slap: Weather stained, unflatteringly distressed, concrete boxes, cynically dropped beside greybeard churches, Georgian certainties and thatched comforts. The words of Joe Hill swim to the surface, “Don’t mourn …Organise”.
Encouraged by fermented stimuli, gravity, filtration and autonomics, it’s toilet time. I tightrope my way towards the smallest room on rails and on the way I am accosted by an over-muscled sign in full combat gear: Caution, Attention, Achtung, followed by the same, I assume, in Japanese. Beneath this, the command, “Do not attempt to leave the train when the doors are closing” (this, the most important part, displayed in English only). I Pity French, German or Japanese travellers, already weakened… by food expertly drained of flavour, cavalier timekeeping and trains that could never be coupled with the word bullet.
What are they to make of this abrupt, trilingual abandonment? Were the sign designers stupid enough not to have realised the bankruptcy of their work? Is this just another example of us Brits taking revenge for nature’s inclusion of foreigners in its design? “Hey fellas! This’ll make ’em paranoid. . .” as they worry over this unexplained caution. After all, if the doors crush you, or some other door closing accident befalls, it’s apparently all right. .. so long as you’re not British. On the other hand, perhaps those responsible believe that only we British, with our no longer primeval but still ludicrous licensing laws, food with hair on it (pork scratchings) and subservience to an unelected second chamber, could be stupid enough not to realise the danger.
Recently I read that in order to fulfil the punctuality pledge in their performance charter, the powers that will always be have hit upon the clever scheme of doctoring the time tables by adding ten minutes or more to declared journey times. This jolly jape makes it easier for them to claim improved efficiency (“your journey may take more time than is necessary. Nevertheless, you arrive within our designated parameters. . .gotcha!”). It is perhaps as a consequence of this, that, starting thirteen minutes late, we arrive outside Slough station with three minutes to spare. Inevitably, we sloth for the last half mile and stop three times in sight of the promised land, so as to arrive exactly on time. This nonsense is made the more annoying by the passengers gullibility (my own included), getting our coats on, marshalling our luggage and standing in the aisles expectantly. I feel foolish, caught up in this silly game… conned, again.
During one of these stops, I look out and see “Still Life” by British Rail: Three giant locomotives, sleeping the sleep of the rust. They have rousing names, Holbrooke, County of Kent and Thor, but as these diesel monsters are uniformly dull (bring back steam) I am aroused only to imitation at this simultaneous raising and dashing of hope. Our train snails into the station. We shuffle out and a few of us gather like asylum; seekers, anxious in front of the departures / arrivals monitor (one punctual arrival doth not make an integrated transport policy).
Lacking remote controls, we’re stuck with one channel. Happily, it informs me that the train previous to my expected connection, the London to Exeter, is so late that it stands, a giant caterpillar undulating on platform eleven. I run, and board the almost empty carriage with a minute to spare. Feeling the breath in my lungs telling me that I’m alive and should give up smoking, I drop to a vacant table for four, lean back in my seat, and smile…