Let the train take the strain

There’s the usual scrum for the Exeter train at Waterloo. It’s always announced very late, and you can spot the people waiting for it. They stare hungrily at the departure board, poised to leap into action every time the board is updated. The collective adrenaline is enough to kick start a whole carful of sleepy elephants into action. There’s a tangible slump every time the board changes and the platform still hasn’t been announced. Some (all right – me) try to be clever and second-guess where we’ll be leaving from. A train’s just come in to platform 14. Bet that’s the one. I’ll just position myself *here* in readiness. Come the announcement, I’ll be the first against the gates. Yeah! Oh. Bugger. It’s going from number 11. So much for my predictive skills. Mind you, I already knew they were up the spout, having missed the train I was meant to be on earlier by a matter of about 30 seconds. Advance booking is a wonderful thing, and saves you bucketloads – until you fail to make your allotted train and have to buy a second ticket. At full price. Which is nigh-on 40 quid. No chance of transferring the 15 already spent, either. That extra 5 minutes in bed this morning just cost me quite a lot, in fact. Seems like time really is money – at least when it comes to train travel.

Aboard the train, I gaze out of the window. As we draw into Clapham Junction, an anxious herd hovers on the platform, ready to spring forward as soon as the doors pop open. Their expectant looks turn to abject terror as the doors fail to respond to their fingers jabbing at the button. It’s going to leave without us! You can almost hear their brains screaming as their nerve begins to fail. Some have already taken flight in search of a new carriage, but just as they scatter to other, more hopeful, entrances, the door opens. The more bovine among the crowd, who were too slow or too lazy to move off in search of greener pastures, smile beatifically and amble forward, their patience rewarded. The nervous, darting gazelles, however, are now rushing from door to door, panicking that they will be unable to make their way through the crush. Bleating with fear, they puff inelegantly into the carriage, eyes swivelling as they search in vain for seats. Slow and steady, in this case, really has won the race.

A mother and her 2 teenage children clatter into the carriage. There’s a noisy discussion of where they should sit, as there aren’t any blocks of 3 seats together. Mum tries to shepherd the children down the carriage, but her son appears to have been woken up far too early for a Saturday morning. He thuds down into the nearest seat, dismissing his mother and sister’s attempts to chivy him along. Sister, having been given the green light for insubordination, follows suit and sidles into a nearby empty seat. ‘I’m only going to work anyway.’ Mum is left companionless. She’s unable to sit quietly, though, and pulls a phone from her bag. As she does so she sends her coffee flying. ‘Oh, shit! Sorry, sorry, sorry! Your handbag! Oh no!’ She’s abject with apology, but also thoroughly enjoying the conversational opening. ‘The irony is that we’re going by train because I didn’t want to drive. Can’t do this in a car, can you? Ha ha ha!’ She rifles in her bag for napkins, too busy chattering to be effective. It’s her children, eyes rolling, who produce them.

Coffee mopped and disaster averted, conversation dies and Mum turns her attention to the Sudoku. Scribbling fiercely, writing and rewriting figures, she mutters numbers under her breath as she works her way through it. In contrast to her scatty appearance, her brain is sharp, and she completes the killer version in 10 minutes. Leaning back with a satisfied sigh, she tries for her phone again. This time she manages to retrieve it without disaster. ‘OK, we’ll get to Basingstoke at 11.32. No. No, Dad. No, not twenty-two. THIRTY-two. No, Dad, we’ll just get the bus. No, Dad. No, DON’T come and get us. Well, I HOPE we’ll make the change, but it’s only five minutes. No, honestly, it’s MUCH easier this way. Seriously.’ She is saved from parental argument by the ticket inspector. ‘I have to go, Dad. See you later.’ She fishes in the depths of her bag for her tickets. ‘They’re for me and for these two as well. Yes, changing in Basingstoke. Do you happen to know what platform the train leaves from? We’ll get in on time, you say? Oh, THANK you!’ She beams at the conductor with delight. It’s impossible to resist her cheeriness and he cracks a cautious smile back before scuttling on to the safety and quiet of the next carriage.

The man opposite has a reading tic. He runs his hand up the right hand page, takes hold of the top corner and slips his finger behind it, readying to turn. Except he doesn’t turn. He slides his hand down to the bottom of the page and out, then repeats the action, over and over again. Up. Behind. Down. Up. Behind. Down. Up. Behind. Down. The rhythmic sound of dry skin rubbing over paper is repeated every couple of seconds. Smooth. Crinkle. Swish. Does he like the feel of the paper or the sound of it? Who knows? He is interrupted momentarily by a paper cut on his knuckle. His hand flies to his mouth, and he nuzzles it with surprise on his face. His eyes never move from the page, however.

Paper cut pain relieved, he returns to his routine. Up. Behind. Down. Smooth. Crinkle. Swish.

Image by moriza on Flickr

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
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7 Responses to Let the train take the strain

  1. LindyLouMac says:

    You should be writing for a living Kate, this is as good as many novels :) Are you back in Italy yet?
    LindyLouMac´s last post ..Sunday Song–Settembre–September

  2. Katja says:

    Wow, Linda. Thank you so much! That’s really kind of you to say. I’m not back in Italy quite yet – I’m catching the train from London on Tuesday and should (barring disaster) arrive on Wednesday afternoon. Can’t wait …
    Katja´s last post ..Let the train take the strain

  3. Jackie says:

    What is both wonderful and depressing about this is that this is pretty much almost exactly what my journey is like every time I take the train from Waterloo. But having said that I’d much rather take the overland train than the underground!

    You’re a wonderful writer – very glad to have found your blog =) Thank you for your lovely comments over at my corner of the web (well… sliver, maybe)!

    Jax x
    Jackie´s last post ..Releasing My Inner Foodie Communist- Food For The People By The People 10

  4. Frankie says:

    I love this description of your journey, especially the conductor caught off-guard by a passenger smiling at him! I adore travelling by train, it’s nearly always entertaining even when it’s as frustrating/ uncomfortable /overpriced as it often is.
    Frankie´s last post ..Autumn Calling

  5. Katja says:

    Jax: It’s always variations on a theme – I love travelling to my parents’ place from Waterloo. I much prefer the overground from the point of view that I’m a teensy bit claustrophobic, but the underground generally has some good people-watching opportunities as well. Gotta love the tube nutters … ;)

    Thank you so much for dropping by!

  6. Katja says:

    Thanks Frankie. I’ve just done the mammoth journey from London to Calabria by train which, despite delays and missed connections (more on that later …), was still far more enjoyable than travelling by plane. I’m pretty much a rail convert nowadays – and, actually, doing the true long-distance stuff across Europe isn’t half as expensive as you might think. For instance, Paris to Calabria was a little under €200, and that was travelling first class. It makes UK rail travel look dreadful!

  7. Pingback: Five gold rings - Driving Like a Maniac – Driving Like a Maniac

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