Saturday, 8 October 2016

Of Clockwise Days

You know the kind of thing. You get up perfectly early enough to do what you have to do before you leave your home for a few days. You've made the journey a dozen or more times a year for a dozen years or more and there is minimal packing - just computer, tablet, phone, a coat, some papers for work, notebooks of half-started song lyrics, a manuscript book for emergency tune writing, new flute, so you can try and get a better sound following a first lesson, clean underwear and the stuff you have been commissioned to purchase by your Anglophile partner who is unable to buy decent tea in France, or Bittermints, or Cheese Cheddars. He still has jars of Marmite from a previous visit.  Then as you prepare to leave, you do that final check - windows are closed, power is switched off and no gas is flowing, lock the back door and the front door. You can't do the front door till you leave the boat, but the back door now has a different locking arrangement owing to modifications carried out at the time of August's great repaint. The modifications have, however, greatly compromised the very simple, but effect security you had in place. Until now unwanted forced entry to the boat would have entailed the use of an angle grinder and made a hell of a racket. Now, though, anyone with a stout stick could get in. You kick yourself for not having noticed these differences before, but that doesn't help, so you see what can be done to cobble together a solution that will last the few days of your absence. Nothing you can think of seems to work. The holes that once lined up perfectly to do the padlock thing are now miles apart. Consequently you waste half an hour ending with exactly no progress, except that now you are half-an-hour late leaving. The perfect plan is ever-so-slightly scuppered. Rational thinking is considerably more than ever-so-slightly impaired, but you really have to leave. As you stow suitcase and carry-on laptop bag in the van, you have already constructed the first half-a-dozen consequences of your boat being broken into in your absence.  

You have arranged to leave your van at the house of a friend who lives in a nearby town where there happens to be that almost extinct Fenland phenomenon, a railway station, and from where you hope you will catch the first of three trains to get you to the airport. Naturally enough, his place is on the far side of the town, about half an hour's walk from the station. This would have been no problem had you left at the planned time. A leisurely stroll would have been fine. Perhaps your friend will be at home and kindly offer you a lift to the station. Such a kindness is not unknown in your relationship. Decisions are required first though ... like how to get there by the quickest route? Geographically, it is much less distance through the town than round the bypass, but the town is always busy, so generally slower. However, being a Sunday, there won't be any other traffic in the town centre, so there is no chance that today could see the kind of weekday queuing that brings everything to a dead stop. The bypass will add distance, and therefore time, to the journey so you weigh up the number of traffic lights you will have to pass and go for the town centre route. You will cut a huge corner off the journey. 

As you enter the town you approach the level crossing by the station you hope to return to very shortly. Red lights flash as the crossing barriers lower. You stop and turn off the engine. You have been kept here in the past for up to ten minutes as sometimes three trains clatter by: one going east, another west and a third hauling forty goods wagons in its wake to who-knows-where. You should have taken the bypass. Winding further into town, the traffic coagulates. It is as inexplicable and marvellous as the thickening of cornflour and milk when heating custard. The townsfolk here must be among the most religious in the kingdom. C. Of E., R.C., J.W., Spiritualist, Methodist and two kinds of Baptist churches are full to overflowing and the worshippers spill into the roads, blocking entrances to car parks and roadside parking spaces. Young men in suits, girls of all ages in bridesmaid dresses and adults with briefcases bring me an eerie reminder of my own adolescence. The roads are as busy as on any weekday. Crocodiles of pedestrians are waiting at every crossing for the lights to change which, of course, they do the moment you approach. You sit and watch a pious procession of briefcase and bible carriers at every pedestrian light controlled crossing. You didn't realise how blessed is the town with facilities for walkers.

 Arriving at the house of the friend who has consented to you parking in their driveway no one is home. Of course. Clearly there will be no offer this time of a lift back across town to the station so you set off on foot, hoping you can make the train in less than half-an-hour.  You might just make it into the town centre in fifteen minutes where, with luck, there should be taxis waiting to take you the rest of the way. Of course, with today's luck, there aren't any. You arrive at the station exhausted, breathless and sodden with the sweat of your brow (not to mention that of every other part of your body), and head for the booking office to pick up your pre-booked ticket. The door is locked, the office is closed and you have to go the long way round to find the ticket machine on the platform. Four minutes to get your ticket and make it over the footbridge to the other platform. There is a queue. There is also a message on the ticket machine screen. "Cannot make a connection. Please use the ticket office", which as you have already seen, is shut and the doors are locked. Two minutes before the train arrives you make a quick decision and lug the heavy suitcase up the stairs and over the line to the other platform, thanking your lucky stars that the footbridge is open again after recent repairs and you don't have to use the road to get to the other side of the track and miss your train because the level crossing barriers will be down by the time you get there ...  As your foot touches the platform the train pulls in. There are even plenty of spare seats.  This is not normal for the Birmingham to Stansted train, which usually only has two carriages. Perhaps you've seen the worst of the day now. Once aboard the ticket inspector magically appears by your side so you explain the situation. Fortunately you can show him the details of your online booking and he suggests picking up the ticket for the whole journey to the airport from Cambridge, where you are due to change trains. You will have eight minutes to perform this task.       

 At Cambridge you haul your contraband-laden suitcase to the exit barrier where you are required to engage the ticket collector in a lengthy conversation as to why you have no ticket and need access to ticket machine. You join the line which snakes among the webbing guide ropes in a queue to collect the tickets you bought yesterday. With two minutes to go you retrieve your tickets and, returning to the barrier, further engage the ticket collector in discussion as to why your ticket says one departure point and you are leaving from another. Your poor hearing in a crowded environment and his thick accent add to your frustrations. Finally you are allowed through the gate and with more scurrying along the platform to the waiting train you assemble with a crowd until the doors open enabling you to board the train and stow your suitcase.  The seats are filling quickly and each double seat has filled with its statutory single occupant.  You head for an aisle seat nearest the luggage rack at the rear of the carriage whereupon a young man places his laptop bag on the seat and leans over to rummage through it.   He disengages from the physical world and clearly has no intention of allowing anyone else to share his space.   You consider engaging him in earnest and meaningful discussion and decide that (specially today of all days) such engagement could only have bad consequences so you choose another seat and settle to type up the day's events so far to make this blog essay. Once in full creative flow the ticket collector arrives and with pride you wave the ticket you finally managed to buy in front of him.  As you flap your prize ostentatiously you glance at your senior railcard and stare in disbelief as you try to process the dawning realisation that the expiry date was six weeks ago. You have already paid £41 for the whole journey of three trains to the airport, but the ticket collector feels the urge to charge you a further £46 for this middle section of the journey. He is, he says, doing me a great favour and saving me money by not charging me for the whole journey at a non-senior-railcard fare, which he would be quite entitled to do considering how much out of date my card is.  With your tongue bleeding from the effort of avoiding the overwhelming temptation to discuss the irony of the difference with him and the details of your day so far you submit to his mercy and attempt a little quiet rejoicing. You had planned to buy your replacement railcard online when you would have had the option of buying a three-year card at a bulk-purchase discount, but now you contemplate buying a replacement annual railcard at full price when you get to London.  Next year then.

You finally get to your destination railway station and decide to take the lift, but the lift isn't working. You know you take your life in your hands using the escalator because highly visible warnings that there have been twelve luggage-related accidents during the last year have been posted at the head and the foot of each flight. Fortunately you survive to escalate another day. Outside the station the queue for the shuttle bus is longer than you have ever seen it in the thirteen years during which you have made this monthly journey. Something is definitely "up".  A uniformed railway employee appears and announces something to the front of the crowd, which is completely inaudible to you. People start walking away from the station and when you get close enough your requested clarification elicits that road traffic is heavy, following an earlier "incident", and the shuttle bus will take an hour to complete the six-minute journey to the airport. You try your luck and suggest a refund for that part of the journey (remembering the old days when the shuttle bus was, in fact, free). However, the road conditions are Not The Company's Fault and no refund will be forthcoming. You are welcome to take the (very slow and greatly delayed) bus or you could walk up the hill to the airport in half an hour. You decide to walk up the (now) massive hill to the terminal and ten minutes into your sweating, staggering, vertical promenade the shuttle bus sails past somewhat imperiously on the inside lane and comes to rest in the queue at the roundabout you can see in the distance. Despite promises, tantalising hopes and predictions you never actually catch it up and by the time you limp into the bus station at the airport end the bus has been at the stop for fifteen minutes smugly swallowing passengers for its return shuttle down the hill to the station.

Making your way to the bag drop at the departures desk you are informed, after an unusually short queue, that the flight is running half-an-hour late.  It has now been officially confirmed that you should have waited for the bus. Security, disarmingly, is a breeze. Maybe now your fortunes have turned.  

You have a mission. The birthday camera that you bought your partner comes wth a range of optional, expensive and ostentatiously over-packaged accessories. You know that the airport shop has a three-for-two offer on the very same. Unfortunately, and obviously, it has run out of the items your partner requested.  At this point you almost become distracted as you begin to imagine what else could happen today. You hope that your air ticket still shows up on your phone when you need it.  You hope your boat is still at your mooring and that, when you finally get back home in a few days' time, it still has its engine and all your expensive batteries intact and connected. You spend stupid pounds on alternative over-packaged camera accessories in bloody-minded determination to save money on something.

With no time to indulge in your customary sandwich, your departure gate number lights up on the display screen, so you head off to join the queue. After some forty minutes, with only a single apology for the expected thirty-minute delay to your journey which, it is hoped, will not cause any inconvenience, you are sent back to the departure lounge, because the plane is now expected to be two-and-a-half hours late. You suddenly feel the promptings of hunger. You want your sandwich. Naturally enough everywhere seems to have sold out of sandwiches suitable for the vegetarian. You eventually locate one from a vendor who looks like she just wheeled her barrow off the street and into the departure lounge and eventually manage to tear her away from arranging social engagements on her phone for long enough to be able to purchase a rather apologetic cheese sandwich. Having bought it you discover there is nowhere to sit anyway in this hell of a place that will soon be full to bursting so you find the only available patch of partition wall with a bit of floor space where you can sit. As you finish the final unappetising mouthful you just happen to glance up at a nearby screen to see a "final boarding" instruction for your flight (not supposed to be due for another two hours remember), which will now be departing from different gate! There was no audible announcement over the system, which such a sudden and unexpected change might have warranted. The new gate is much further away and you arrive to join the queue much further back than you were originally. The board over the gate informs us we are queuing for a flight to Berlin. While waiting a woman with a buggy and two children push through the crowd and ahead of several people in the line. You suspect that she is returning from a nappy-changing trip and feels entitled to push back into place to join an abandoned, but accommodating, travelling companion. However, you are wrong. She simply feels entitled. Your phone battery has held out and you can show your boarding pass and passport at the gate and you pass through to be sent to queue somewhat perilously down a stairwell. You are told over the tannoy to double up. The irony is probably not appreciated by the announcer.

Finally on the plane you find the extra-legroom seats for which you pay a handsome annual premium. Bliss, you can finally unwind from this trying journey as you will be the only passenger in the row of three. You will not have to put up with anyone else and whatever annoying habits, sharp and persistent elbows and knees or fatal disease they might have.  You hear a tall man ask a flight attendant if he can move into the seat next to you. The flight attendant is quite happy for this exchange to go ahead. You have no idea whether he paid the extra fee. You know you won't be getting a refund to match his fare if he didn't. The captain welcomes you on board and announces he had been expecting to fly to Berlin and has just been instructed to go to Geneva instead. You hope he knows the way. 

You know ... that sort of thing.

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