Really, public transport and me don’t mix. I’m constitutionally unequipped for being confined at close quarters with a mélange of members of the human race.
So, after my disastrous schedule of house viewings on the other side of the county with an estate agent called Gavin, I was forced to make my own way home. We had finished earlier, due to every one of the slightly-possible houses being already sold/withdrawn from the market before we even got to them, leaving only a depressing rump of properties no one in the entire world would want buy. This meant that my file full of printed-out Trainline train times was useless. I was going to have to wing it. Except that I didn’t have wings.
Ebbsfleet International, I thought. Sounds scary. Do I really want to make my way home via somewhere I have never heard of before, probably somewhere near London where it is well known there are suicide bombers, and explosives in every waste-bin? Platform 6. Do I want to be scurrying about (Headless Chicken again) a railway station big enough to have six platforms? And I’d have to go on that special fast train. I’ve never been on the special fast train before. And indeed, six might only be the middle of the sequence, or a third of the way through. There could be eighteen platforms. Ooooh no, I can’t be doing with eighteen platforms.
So I caught a train to Canterbury. Then I had to get across Canterbury because Canterbury, infuriatingly, has two separate railway stations. It’s teeming city at the best of times, but this was school chuck-out hour. I headless-chickened out and grabbed a taxi. Then I had to wait for another train, out of the other Canterbury. I was crammed behind a party in black suits, arty scarves and Terry Pratchett hats, loudly chortling about maths conundrums on their mobile phones and showing one another pictures of their latest “ventures into Iceland”. Delegates, I thought – returning home from some conference at the University of Kent. Intellectuals. Pah! None of them noticed the lumpy old biddy in the too-large, too long brown coat clutching an overstuffed rucksack that they had hemmed in beside the chocolate machine.
On the train (at last!) while the Iceland-visiting brigade were high-volume exclaiming that it had been many years since they had alighted upon one of these (trains) my too-long coat got caught up uncomfortably under my left leg but I didn’t dare stand up in case people might notice me, and my left leg began to get pins and needles, prior to complete numbness, so I sat like that, clutching my overstuffed rucksack and tried not to look at the people opposite me. So far so bad, but outside Faversham we stopped, and there we stayed, deafened by a series of British Rail announcements. Firstly, we were waiting for a platform to become available in Faversham station. Then, apparently there had been “people found running about on the line at Herne Bay” and this was causing some delays. Then it appeared that the drivers we needed to take us on past Faversham, were having to come from Herne Bay, and of course… people running about, etc. “So that’s why,” announced the announcer “we’re in a bit of a pickle at the moment”.
“Hah – in a bit of a pickle,” someone mimicked. “In a bit of a pickle.. makes a change from Cows on the Line or the Wrong Sort of Leaves!”
An estate agent phoned me on my mobile phone. I’m afraid of my mobile phone, but it was ringing in the pocket of my brown coat. I tried to ignore it for a while but people began to give my pocket meaningful looks. “Could you hang on a minute?” I said, “Only I’m on a stuck on train outside Faversham and there are all these announcements..”
“Yes, I can hear them,” he said. “Every word.”
“It seems,” said the announcer, “that someone has actually been hit by a train in Herne Bay…” Hit? Oh no, that’s far worse than Running About. “But on the plus side,” said our announcer, who seemed to have upped the volume by another notch, “your driver has just arrived. He just needs to put his own train in the sidings, and then he will be with us. Might be another ten minutes.”
To cap it all the student nurse in the seat opposite started talking to me. I knew she was a student nurse because that was all I had been able to understand of her endless telephone conversations. She had a weird, young-person way of talking – entire sentences elided into a single word. “So you’ve been house hunting too?” she said.
Maybe it’s a project, I thought. Maybe I’m the Old Person she needs to Engage in so many hours Conversation with in order to qualify for her NVQ or whatever student nurses study for. Why else would she talk to me? Nobody under seventy talks to me, ever. Though I’m a big hit with the over seventies, hence the old lady singing at me and demanding chocolate fingers in the mental hospital. Did I tell you, by the way, that there was an old man on his back in the Recreation Room, when I was visiting my mother on Sunday? Yes, like a beetle, upended. He was wearing pyjamas and had his legs and slipper-clad feet in the air, and was busy dismantling the chairs from underneath. By the end of my visit he had dismantled almost a whole row and there was a neat pile of square plastic seats on the floor beside him. Fascinating!
She was really pretty, this student, except that she had funny eyes – sort of downward- sloping and goggly. It was difficult to look away from her once transfixed. “I just found a place to rent,” she said. “It’s a student house, but it looks like a cottage on the outside. Really nice!”
“Oh,” I said, never having been to university and trying to recall how student accommodation worked. “So you spent the first year on campus and now you are moving out to…?”
“No,” she said, I decided to go straight into rented. I just got this lovely scarf in Canterbury, do you see?” She pulled out a white chiffon scarf and draped it round her neck for me to admire. “And I got some flats.” (Flats?) “Because I haven’t got any flats at all you see, and these were so nice, with little black bows on the front.”
“Well,” I said, cautiously, “you can never have too many shoes?”
“Or scarves,” she said. “I love shopping, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, “you can never have too much shopping,” wondering how many years ago it was when I had the money to buy myself a scarf or a pair of shoes; wondering how long before that driver finished shunting his previous train into the siding and started driving this train onwards, through and beyond Faversham. Oh blessed relief. Beyond Faversham.
“Yes,” said the student nurse. “I’m just dying to get home for my Spag Bol.” Spag Bol, I was thinking, rifling through the rusty biscuit tin of my vocabulary – food. A species of food containing meat combined with … must be… spaghetti.
“Do you like shopping?” she asked. “I’m going to phone my Dad to collect me. I have to be careful because he’s on shift work and sometimes he comes home early and sometimes he comes home late so he’s not always there to collect me…”
Dear God In Heaven, I thought. From ghosties and ghoulies, long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night; from people running about on the track at Herne Bay and student nurses with verbal diarrhoea, Good Lord deliver us…