Monday, 13 April 2009

Does he take sugar?

Last Tuesday I went to Hertfordshire to stay with Shosh for a couple of days as she had a bit of time off from her veterinary studies – a kind of calm before the storm as in a month or so she will find herself in the throes of revision for her finals in June.

I caught the earliest bus from Woolsery that I could (7.45 am) which would get me to Barnstaple just a bit too late to catch the 8.45 train to Exeter St. Davids. However, as was ever the case when I used to go back to Lincolnshire, the wait would be spent browsing the bookshelves of W H Smith and Waterstones – a pastime that I can easily immerse myself in. In fact, I was immersed so much that I nearly missed the 9.45 train! I had forgotten – well not really forgotten, that is not the right word, erm not fully appreciated would be a better phrase – that it was the school holidays. The two-carriage train from Barnstaple was absolutely heaving with families, or parts of families, off on a trip to Exeter for the day. I suppose also mingled in with the fact the 9.45 train was the first reasonably timed one of the day it should not have been too much of a surprise that it would be so packed.

However, I managed a seat and sat, with everyone else, rocking side to side as the train trundled along the track through the glorious Devon countryside. The fact that one of the seats facing me on the opposite side of the train was occupied by a large lady gorging on a greasy hamburger , which she had clearly purchased from the snack van at the station, upset my stomach slightly at that time in the morning, but I averted my eyes as much as possible from the slightly off-putting sight of the grease dripping down her chin.

I do, on the whole, like trips on public transport. I am a great people watcher, currently on the lookout for characters who I can mould into shape for the sequel of my book. Snippets of conversations carried on the wind or heard through the hubbub of chattering on a crowded train can become twisted and moulded into something else, and can be amusing to say the least.

The train to Paddington was slightly late, but not enough to make me concerned about later connections out of London. My journey planner had given me 45 minutes to travel 5 or 6 stations on the underground so I knew I had good leeway there. The sardine-effect of the Barnstaple train had me slightly concerned that the train to Paddington may be similarly packed, but - although it was quite busy - it was not too bad and I easily managed a seat – in the Quiet Zone carriage at the end of the train.

Across the aisle, in the seats next to me, sat a tall distinguished-looking elderly man whose wife seemed to be occupying a seat further back behind me. I am not sure why this was as there was a seat next to him and plenty more in front - if she wanted two seats to herself. However, occasionally he would turn and have a snippet of conversation with her. I went down to the buffet car to grab myself a coffee and a breakfast sandwich – a trip that meant a wobbly walk through about 4 carriages to reach it. On my return trip to my seat, I passed this chap who was also on his way to obtain refreshment.

As I mentioned above, I was seated in the Quiet Zone. A slightly ambiguous term that. OK it means no mobile phone use and headphones that don’t block out any sound of whatever it is that you are listening too. However, what about people talking loudly? And the young of the species running up and down the aisle screeching as they are oft prone to do? And , most pertinent to me at this time, what about eating a packet of crisps? I had decided to buy myself some of those Burt’s crisps – if any of you have eaten them you will know how crunchy they are and just how impossible it is to eat them quietly. As I ate each one slowly, I felt as if the crunch was resounding up and down the carriage!

However, whilst I was in the midst of deciding whether it was possible to suck a crisp into submission before chewing the soggy remnants, the chap next to me returned with a cup of tea. No advertising there, the cup emblazoned with the PG Tips logo. Sitting down, he proceeded to empty his pockets. Before him, on the little tray that descends from the back of the seat in front, emerged a veritable mountain of sugar sachets of each possible variety. Brown sugar, white sugar and sweetener, accompanied by a smaller mountain of those small milk cartons. Now I had to smirk. To see this elderly chap stashing his booty into his hand-luggage on the seat beside him just amused me. I would never imagine my similarly aged mother doing such a thing – in fact I know she wouldn’t. People of a certain era just don’t do that kind of thing....well, until now that is. I suppose in general terms, he was a thief. But then I guess, at these drink outlets you are paying over the odds for tea and coffee so that the cost of the milk and sugar is included. Therefore, if you do not take your drink with either, or one, of these additions, then you are quite within your rights to take them anyway - however, I am not so sure that the amount he had half-inched could be included in that explanation.

I continued to smirk into the pages of my book, and a few minutes later he asked his wife – who was still seated someway behind me – if she was ready for a cup of tea yet. I thought, well that is nice, he will make his way back down the wobbly carriages to get his other half a cup of tea. Erm... no...he got up and , picking up his own PG Tips paper cup, disappeared down the aisle, returning a minute or two later to his seat. You may be thinking here, that he had given her his cup of tea. Nope, she must have had a few sips of his, for he returned with his cup and proceeded to drink it as the journey progressed. Upon our arrival at Bristol I heard her call out ‘Peter’ to which he turned round and then acknowledged something, got up and left his seat, baggage and all. The seat was obviously booked from Bristol, but what a very strange relationship those two had. I have no idea whether they ended up sitting next to each other, because I became immersed in my book and decided to let the intriguing matter drop.

Just as the train was approaching Paddington, a message came over the tannoy that I thought only existed in movies. The message of ‘If there is a doctor or nurse on this train, could they please make their way to carriage E’, brought with it not only the passive concern that you hope the passenger is OK and that it is not something serious, but also the thoughts of ‘ah well, we will be delayed from the leaving the train until the emergency services have done their bit’. However, in the end, everything must have been OK as we all alighted at Paddington without any delays at all.

The rest of the journey proceeded according to plan – there were no problems with the underground and I reached Potter’s Bar at the scheduled time of 2.51pm. I descended upon London at a time of day that the underground was not heaving with workers or shoppers going home, so I did not encounter the claustrophobic ‘standing under someone else’s armpit' situation. As it turned out that joyful experience was to be reserved for the next day.

Shosh and I decided a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum would be a nice way to spend Wednesday so, parking the car at Cockfosters, we travelled into London from there. I had not been to the V&A for years so had forgotten quite what was on display there. We visited the special Exhibition of Hats, which boasted an eclectic collection of headgear from an Egyptian mummy mask in the shape of Anubis, to Tudor knitted hats, and from Darth Vader’s mask to beautiful velvet bonnets worn by Queen Victoria, by way of one of the tricorn hats worn by the delicious Johnny Depp in his role as Capn Jack Sparrow and a wonderful fur and lace hat worn by Keira Knightley in The Duchess.

We had lunch in one of the restaurants, but it was really busy by the time we got there so Shosh was dispatched to locate a table while I queued for the drinks and till. The only flaw in this plan was that when it came to locate her it was a tricky business avoiding the crowds with a tray laden with a pot of tea, scones plus plates and cups and saucers. It was a big place with several areas that she could be. I eventually found her in the older part of the restaurant tucked in the corner. She had, apparently been waving frantically through the window as she saw me pass by, but couldn’t leave the table as several people had been searching for a space and feared it would be nabbed.

So, in true fine English style, whilst a pianist played classical music on a grand piano in the corner, we ate our scones and drank our tea and coffee. But not without amusing incident I must add. Shosh was pouring her tea into her cup when the lid of the pot fell off. It didn’t go clank on to the table but with a soft splash fell into her cup, facilitating a rescue with the aid of a teaspoon. In days gone by, such an incident would have probably caused a unified hush throughout the tearoom, with glances of disapproval from other patrons. However, this is the 21st Century and such atrocities are no longer deemed a sign of being ill-bred – the pianist continued to play and no-one took a blind bit of notice.

As an aside, I will add that a roast dinner there costs £10.95 for a weighed amount of meat (yes, weighed – they did it in front of you), a few roasted potato wedges and a small amount of veg. And not one Yorkshire pud in sight!

The train back to Cockfosters was packed to the hilt. At nearly every station more people got on than alighted and at several stops the doors couldn’t close properly due to the sheer volume of bodies. I marvel at the fortitude of people who travel like that five days a week. I am not sure whether there was a problem with one of the other ‘lines’, but Shosh did say that it was not usually as bad as it was that day. It was the complete opposite from the relaxed journey in that morning.

My journey back to Barnstaple on Thursday passed without hiccup, apart from the fact that it being the Thursday before the Easter break, the train from Paddington was full to the gills. As I walked down the platform, I could see through the windows of the carriages that all the seats had the white tickets in informing passengers that those seats were booked. I was beginning to despair, and resolved myself to the fact that I would be standing for the next two and a half hours. But, as luck would have it, the one carriage allotted for non-booked seats had a few spare in it by the time I had pushed and shoved with the best of them to reach it, so I managed to travel in relative comfort.

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