I am British and I wait. Today the 13.22 Sprinter from London Paddington is a metaphor for Britain. It’s late. Which is 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. 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 the air and plug one each into his lobe-less ears. I pull the pins. “Meditate on that, you bastard!”
I attempt calm, but fidget, knowing that this will not help. Expecting the train at any moment, my agitation, displayed, will only aggravate her flusterings. Still, I 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 composure and wait.
To pass the time, I consider the pros and cons of shape shifting to either, a Buddhist monk or, to a sinuously bad tempered, lethally venomous snake. My soul slithers. 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.
I manage, mouth dry “Has the 13.22 been cancelled?”, communicating 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… What for?!? 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 fucking “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”.
An announcement comes over the station tannoy “We apologise sincerely for any inconvenience caused by the delays from Paddington this afternoon… this is due to a body on the track”. My soul it cringes.
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!
I feel foolish, caught up in this silly game… conned, again. I 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, “Huuuhh. . .you’d better get it on the train love”.
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 sigh.
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 for someone I suppose; as he turns to me.
I duly welcome the all-in-one ticket inspector and seller, advancing with his biscuit box, credit card accepting, digital machine and, like a seven years old, with a threepenny piece poised in my hand, the conductor takes my pink pastel ticket to his little wooden toy-town rack and clips it. He hands it back to without a word and moves on.
Feeling cramped with rear facing seats to myself. I bivouac, pull down both foldaway trays, arrange a living space, 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 smile through the bloodless wound of my dream.
It’s not long before we are packed in like birds in a cage, folding down our wings, we don’t want to ruffle feathers. I watch and wait for signs of life. Blue Tits are titivating their beautiful chests and Herons are dreaming of wide open spaces. To the right of the carriage an old man is smiling; his face seems familiar, whilst I was thinking of Tolstoy and his patriarchal beard that belongs in a museum.
Over the tannoy come a passenger announcement “Ladies and Gentlemen, we will soon be entering a tunnel; hold on to your hats and please refrain from kissing the person in front of you”.
The woman facing me, is unable to conceal a bruised and battered face. Her occasional eye to eye contact reveals an unseen hurt; a life hidden from public. Her mind consumed in daily dread, in the knowing his cowardly fists will be waiting for her at the end of the line. I ask her battered spirit “Does your outrage ever grow, enough to ever leave him?”
I look out the window and see an omen, a dog in a field eyeing up a ragged ewe and what stares back is history, slavering in the cold air; it haunts old men’s beards and the stitching of their cloth, its tongue glistens like blood-flecks in the eye’s albumen and no-one speaks or notices the passing-places along the line that have many feelings attached to them.
My thoughts continue to drift to another world outside. Memories muster: the lilt of rails rallying an oddball music representing, quite literally, nothing, though it does have the virtue of a smell: the peppered snows of the wastelands; a wistful viola; trees weeping unseen from mansard roofs as we travel through the countryside. The farm houses overlook magnificent crops of barley straightened ripe in the fields.
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 cavernous hood concealing the creature’s undoubtedly hideous head. 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:
some fluffy rabbits.
I note in this rural depiction of agricultural eccentricities that there are no Blackbirds in sight. Maybe 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!”
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.
The mind drifts off but the woman opposite notices that I’ve been staring at her for some time and says, “Do you mind?” She whispers as if from the bottom of a well, her voice came rising up.
“I don’t” I say, I shift my line of sight uneasily anyway and look out of the window again.
I see “Still Life” by British Rail: Three giant locomotives, sleeping the sleep of the rust. They have rousing names, Holbrooke and Thor, but as these diesel monsters are uniformly dull (bring back steam). Lacking remote controls, we’re stuck with one channel. Happily, it informs me that the train approaches the 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.
The tannoy interrupts again: “The guard and his staff would like to thank you all for traveling this far. And remember, the world is a strange and often beautiful place”. For a passing moment I ponder whether life is just full of randomness. The theory of randomness being the unofficial British Rail policy on most journeys (after all one punctual arrival doth not make an integrated transport policy). But another part of me wants to believe that life is one of endless punctualities in a universe of infinite destinations. Heaven help me then.
We shuffle out one by one and a few of us gather like asylum; seekers, anxious in front of the departures / arrivals monitor. Awaiting the next connecting train…
I am British and I wait.