Of trains and taxis
On Monday, I got up at 5:30, left the house at quarter to seven, caught the 07:23 train to Stowmarket, then the 08:15 from Stowmarket to Peterborough, and from there on to York, where I arrived at half past eleven. All in a day’s work.
I met two men who are bound to be characters in a future novel, the first sentences of which are gradually taking shape in my head.
They met here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday; the older, thinner one opposite his younger, more rotund friend, who wedged himself between the table and the bar and ordered his usual goat’s cheese pie before he’d even sunk into the softness of the chair.
“Well,” the round one said. “What do we talk about today?”
“Anything but work,’ the thin one said.
Anyway, that’s a tangent. I’m lucky to meet so many inspiring people, not just because they morph into characters, but because they teach me things about life, about my life, about the rush inside me that could do with being slowed down a touch, because they’re real, like all characters in prose and poetry should be, because they move me.
I was very lucky, on Monday, to find time to get to York Minster, to see parts of it not many people get to see, to get to walk around the stonemasons’ yard, to meet some of the stone carvers (who say they are more artistic than the masons), and to wander across the floor at the Glaziers’ Trust, and to touch some of the centuries-old stained glass that has adorned the Minster since time immemorial.
This is what I take with me on my work travels: papers relevant to my meetings, which I try to read, annotate and memorise in the first half an hour of my trip; my Kindle (reading Anna Karenina at the moment, and have been doing so for the last year); printed-out draft of my work in progress (A Fear of Heights at the moment – needs to be finished editing asap; Moleskine notebooks (the red one for work, the black one for poetry and prose notes); at least one full pack of smokes; lots of Dead Men postcards (who knows when I might get the chance to do some guerrilla marketing); two mobile phones (the basic one for work, the smart phone so I can pick up emails and tweet); and a bottle of water; oh, and my wallet, of course, so I can pay for stuff like parking and train fares (these minor things that try us).
I was in meetings for four or so hours on Monday, and then wandered back to York railway station, aiming to catch the half past five train, which I did, having turned down an invitation to attend Evensong at the Minster because I wanted to get home to my family by half past nine. Ha!
The train from York to Peterborough left on time, but was two hours late because of a slow-moving freight train (has anyone ever heard of joined-up services? Re-nationalise the railways, please). Not just that, but the air conditioning on the train had failed, so free water was being handed out to the poor, sweating passengers. Oh, my word. By the time we got to Peterborough, I thought it couldn’t get any worse, and rejoiced in the sun on my face while I waited for the Ely train – which arrived on time, but which was an hour late into Ely.
By this time, resigned to my fate of not arriving home in time to see the family, I sent one final text asking for the front door not to be bolted, and set about one more part of Anna Karenina, playing with plot changes to A Fear of Heights while reading, and smiling at all the girls who looked smaller in the distance than they did close up, and hoped for Norwich to get closer quicker than the timetable told me. The very attentive guard on the train then told me they’d pre-booked a cab to get me from Norwich to Diss because otherwise I’d have to wait for the next train for too long.
Norwich – Greater Anglia staff claim not to know anything about the cab bookings (I wasn’t the only one with such a booking), and treat us with disdain until the guard from the Ely train turns up, bless her, and reads them the riot act. I get the impression that there are a bunch of people here who are doing the minimum necessary, who don’t care about customer service or even about people, who just count the minutes until their shift is over, and see numbers not people. Ok, I don’t know how much they’re getting paid, nor how good or bad their employer is (re-nationalise the railways!!!!!), but I don’t know how much the knackered guard from the Ely train is getting paid either, and she has really gone beyond the call of duty.
I’m about to tell the spaced-out Greater Anglian staff not to bother, when a very large gentleman arrives at the glass house they call the Customer Service Centre. He tells me he’s my driver. I ask him if I’ve got a time for smoke. Sure, he says, he’ll just take a leak. I finish my smoke, and he comes back and tells me you can only take a leak at Norwich station if you’re a passenger, because the loo is beyond the barriers. RE-NATIONALISE THE RAILWAYS!!!
We get in the car. It’s his first day of cabbing, he says, and he’s not sure it’s been a good day, because he has nothing to compare it to. He used to be in restaurant management but got made redundant, and he doesn’t want to sit on his hands on benefits. His wife is doing a Masters in Psychology at UEA on a £8k grant. He has two sons, 18 and 16. He’s a refugee from Kuwait, came to England, when Saddam invaded Kuwait. His nickname is CJ, which everyone calls him, including his wife, because his boxing trainer called him it once, and it stuck. His real name is Quorosh, and he kisses it as much as he misses his home.
It’s a half hour drive back to my car. We talk about our children, about our education, our wives, our aspirations, our dreams, our determination to succeed and not just to be like everyone else. His face shimmers in the reflection of the speedometer light, and the scattered beams from the cars heading in the opposite direction. He asks me what’s better – to sit around waiting or to go out and do. He knows my answer anyway. It’s like I’ve met a brother a long way from home.
We pull up to my car. On impulse, I ask him for his address, because, I say, I want him to have a copy of my book, and I know he can’t afford to buy it. He gives me his address, grabs my tiny hand in his huge mitt and tells me I’m a good man. I squeeze his hand back as hard as I can and reciprocate the compliment, because I mean it.
The next day, I send him a copy of my book, along with a letter and my email address. I hope I hear from him. Not because of the book, but because I’m rooting for him, a man who has to work harder than me at being a part of this tired island.