Posts Tagged ‘trains’

Oxford to Leamington – dusk

September 11, 2010

This rural landscape looks wonderful from the train.  Brown fields are calm in the dusk, and in one of them blue smoke rises gently from little bonfires.  The light is almost silver on those huge round bales as they lie fixed on the stubble.  In a green field, sheep in a slow line un-skein from their complex flock.

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promming: the end of the story

August 17, 2010

 Interval, and I found a glass of wine in time to drink it by being just a little assertive at the bar.  The time passed very pleasantly in unmemorable conversation with a white-haired chap, who seemed glad to go when the interval was over. 

I had asked the beekeepers whether you are allowed to move around (my dream of a promenading prom) – ‘Oh no.  Something would quickly be said if people tried to move forward,’ they assured me, with that gloriously depersonalising usage of the passive voice so beloved of a particular caste of the middle classes.  Most of the conventions they articulated proved to be a little less than rigid.  This time, as the audience was re-settling themselves, the eagle man picked his way back to his seat a few feet away on my right, leading by the hand a slender crop-haired woman in a bright red dress and a sleeveless denim jacket.  Perhaps the amorous eagle wasn’t after young men at all – throughout the second half he distractingly caressed the woman’s hips through her slippery silky dress.  She seemed entirely unmoved – neither welcoming nor rejecting. 

Nicola Benedetti played ‘The Lark Ascending’ with an icy abstraction which felt utterly beautiful.  The Guardian’s critic (writing in next day’s paper) disliked the effect, but I found it intensely moving, as if the lark had risen to some heavenly sphere, beyond all earthly concerns.  For the first time ever I heard Vaughan Williams showing us not just a lark, but Keats’s skylark speaking through this music ‘from heaven or near it’.  It is so unusual to hear a crowd-pleasing classic as if for the first time – and for that experience I would willingly walk miles, queue for hours and spend a small fortune on taxi fares.

After that, the Elgar sounded mechanical to me, like a formal exercise in composition, yet people around me looked intent and blissed out.  The amorous eagle was conducting with his head, anticipating the high points with rhythmic nods, and jerking his shoulders, while the beekeepers had their eyes closed.  The concert ended with raptures from all.

A man came up to me asking ‘How early do you have to be to get a chair?’  ‘I’ve left my wife’, he proceeded ‘and I’m bringing my first internet date here next week.’  I felt a little amazed – it’s not obviously a risk-free first choice for a more-or-less blind date.  Was he chatting me up, I wondered, as he escorted me to my bus. ‘I’m asking everybody this: which is more important, duty or living your own life?’ 
‘Some would say that you have a duty to live your own life.’
‘So you’re a philosopher too.’
‘As well as what?’  I was feeling quite confident and bolshy by then.

Catching the right complex of buses back to Marylebone in time for the 10.50 train was my project, and he seemed to detect that my heart wasn’t in the conversation.  The wonderful Season Ticket holders on the bus were endlessly helpful, and saw me on my way in the right direction, as if I was one of them, while chatting amongst themselves.  There’s something rather awe-inspiring about being helped to find my way home by a blind person, who hopped off with me at Marylebone, saying ‘Run for it now, I can catch any of these trains.’ 

And so, pelting and awkward in my flapping sandals I lurched into the station, checked the board, and found . . . . that there was no 10.50.  Madness. Insanity. Rage.  What is going on?  I railed against the online timetable, spoke to a friendly station official in a bright yellow vis jacket, and identified an 11.20 for Birmingham that would do.  And so, with time to spare, we chatted about – I forget what – but it turned into a conversation about being an expatriate (again).  ‘You play cricket?  Well, who do you support?’  ‘Pakistan against England, always Pakistan.’  ‘But what if it’s England against India or England against Australia?’  ‘Hmm.  Well I support the side that plays best.  If they are rubbish they don’t deserve my support.  If they play badly – noooo.’  I considered putting the case for supporting the underdog, but conversation had swept on.  He was telling me about the cricket team he plays for.  ‘Batsman?’ I asked, trying to work out what his slight physique might best qualify him for.  ‘No. Bowler. I used to be a fast bowler, but now I bowl spinners.’  I hmmed sympathetically – my husband tried to make the same paradigm-shift, but could never resist flinging one down really hard, and wrecking his shoulder all over again.  This guy was perhaps more canny.  We got on like a house on fire.  He showed me his card, and told me his best bowling figures.  And gradually the conversation ended, as all conversations must.  I looked at the board for my train and almost howled with rage: that 11.20 was on the Arrivals board.  There really was no train home.

Partial solutions rushed through my brain: phone my daughter and sleep at her place? (but she would be long asleep, and anyway I didn’t want to reveal myself as less than competent) catch the train up to Oxford and stay with my son? – (but no – those trains go from Paddington, and the same issues apply.)  So I angrily bought myself an unnecessary panini and a coffee, burnt my mouth and, full of doubt and anxiety, grimly took the 11.38, terminating in Banbury.  Did my home-based son have a friend who could drive down to Banbury and collect me? (No problem in that age group about driving about in the middle of the night, and no shame attached to being in an undignified situation.  But no – friend with car has gone on holiday.) I was going to arrive in Banbury after one in the morning, and would have to go to a B&B or else get a taxi home (if there were any taxis at that hour).  The train wore its way, creaking, through many, many small commuter stations, and I was filled with boredom and tiredness.  The number of passengers fell off by ones and twos, leaving the sour-smelling carriage as a Sartrean blankness rattling through its eternal night.

Banbury however rose brilliantly to the occasion.  There were rows of taxis, bright lights, and a welcoming driver who quoted me £40 to drive to Leamington.  Such relief – it was possible, even normal, to do a twenty-mile trip at that ridiculous hour of night.  And it was cheap, compared with my private estimate of fifty quid.  ‘Do you take cards?’ ‘No, but we can go round by a cash point.’  The man was all heart, and he knows Leamington well because his in-laws live there, so can easily find a cashpoint.  We negotiate the route and I explain that I have driven it to Oxford often, so I know the road.  (He’s not going by any silly long routes, I think.)  And we chat in the luxurious warmth of the car.  ‘My son is waiting up for me.  These students don’t mind sitting up late.’  ‘What is he studying?’  ‘Philosophy.  Not very practical,’ I apologise.  ‘Oh no.  In my family we don’t believe that study should be practical.’  I am amazed.  He tells me at some length about his father who has an MA in Econometrics, and his brother with the MA in something else.  So finally I find a way of asking how come he’s driving a cab (How did I ask that tactfully?  ‘Are you the failure of the family?’ surely not.)  He too has an MA, in computing: was a computer programmer until he got RSI in the shoulder.  ‘But surely steering must make that worse?’  ‘Oh no.  It is good to keep it moving.’  Another expatriate – and we talked about living so far from home.  ‘Did all your family come out here together?’  ‘No – I am the only one here.’  His father is still in Pakistan, his brother lives in Australia.  ‘Which city?’  The inevitable question, but a surprise response: ‘Canberra.’  I am struck with the delight of the unexpected: ‘I know Canberra well.  I was at University there.’  I feel warmly towards him, for having a brother in Canberra, for living calmly in England, for taking life easily.  ‘But don’t you miss your brother?’  ‘Oh no.  We all meet in Pakistan for big family get-togethers.’  And so at length we reached the cash machine, and then my home, where the outside light was on for me and my son was still up.  The meter said £43.50 – ‘Just forty will be fine,’ he said.  He told me his name – Abdul – and we shook hands.  It’s not every day that the taxi-driver gives you a tip.


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