Our tale this week begins at 0450 this morning, my designated waking time for Tuesdays, as the day starts in a warm and comfortable bed in Norwich, and gets me to a desk in Newcastle a few hours later, full of the sort of vim and vigour that you might expect of a fellow with a heavily interrupted sleep pattern.
And our journey takes us, initially, from Norwich to Peterborough, courtesy of the comedy train line that calls itself Greater Anglia. It is a little known fact (by which I mean that it’s a complete fabrication), that Abraham Mazlo first had his bright ideas on hierarchy of needs while travelling on the 0550 from Norwich to Newcastle. Idly sketching to pass the time, he drew a triangle, and put at the base of it all the things that were missing from his journey – lighting, heating, tea, power sockets, wifi, 3G, working toilets, something to look out of the window at, and so on, and before he knew it he had the bottom of his picture filled in.
Sort these things out, figured Abe, and we’ll be able to talk about things like the human condition and purposefulness of thought, without too much worry at all.
Anyway, accompanying me on this journey this morning was my eldest son’s bicycle, which he’d kindly asked me to take up to him in Newcastle that morning. So I’d pedalled it furiously down to the station at 0530, cutting quite a dash in a bizarre combination of cycling and work clothing, and popped it onto the train and locked it into position before you could say ‘first come first served’. Which is, verbatim, the Greater Anglia process for carrying bicycles on trains.
All was good, and I settled down for the light combination of early morning emails and occasional naps that the journey allows, and awoke a few minutes before we pulled into the station at Peterborough. And that’s when the problems started. Did I mention that I’d locked the bike to the train? Yes, but I hadn’t mentioned that I’d done it with a lock I’d liberated from the garage late the night before. Funny, I thought, as I put it in my bag, that one of the kids would just put a perfectly good (albeit cheap) lock in a drawer and not use it. Unfortunately, now was the time I found out that it was not a perfectly good lock. Although I knew the combination, it jammed. It was still jammed when the train doors opened. It was still jammed when one of my fellow travellers kept the door open to stop the train leaving, and it was still jammed when a member of the Peterborough station staff, almost apoplectic with rage, told all parties that the train must, must, must, leave on time. And the door was shut. Ten seconds later the bike was unlocked, and I found myself en route to Liverpool Lime street.
And it is at this point, dear reader*, that when I expected my day to be heading for something of a decline, that things started getting better.
This is what happened:
I asked the conductor of the train for some help. She helped me. She told me to get off at the next stop (Grantham) and get a train to Newark. She printed from her ticket machine a revised journey from Grantham to Newark to Newcastle. I asked her if I’d be charged, and she said probably not, but wrote on the back of the ticket a message for future conductors. I have the ticket in front of me now, and I’m afraid I can’t actually read any of the words, which is a drawback. I have this problem generally with people with bad writing – my wife’s writing is appalling and I do have to second guess any cards she sends me – I tend to read them as ‘you’re the only thing that matters to me and I would like you to shower kisses on my upturned and eager face’ but for all I know, they may actually say ‘please see below for details of my solicitor, I’m having the house and you can keep that ridiculous car’. Similarly, this ticket may well say ‘this man is clearly deranged and doesn’t deserve to be in charge of a bicycle lock, never mind a bicycle’, but I like to think that it’s more like ‘please give safe and unpunished passage to this bloke who’s had a bit of bad luck and the world will be a better place’.
Then I get off in Grantham. (Never thought I’d write those words down…) at which point the train waits for a good 5 minutes as it has got in early, thanks to its speedy departure from Peterborough. A man in a uniform calls across the tracks, and asks me if I’ve got a reservation for my bike. What I say is ‘no, I’ve missed my connection’. What I think is ‘gawp help us, what I really need now is a bloody jobsworth getting in my face’. He asks me to bring my bike across the footbridge, and I lug it over, expecting the worst. The worst doesn’t happen, he just explains that I need to pop into the ticket office and get bike reservations. This is very easy to do, I come out and he tells me that he’ll phone all my stations and make sure that the guard’s van is opened. That’s why they need reservations, on this train line, as otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get your bike on and off the train.
And a man turns up next to me for the Newark train, and he unlocks the guard’s van, lets me get my bike on, and I hop into my carriage, which, this not being a Greater Anglia train is heated, lit, with a power supply, and before I get my coat off there’s a nice bloke asking me if I’d like a cup of tea. Which I do.
And the conductor comes by and I steel myself for another difficult discussion about penalty fares, I start explaining myself, and she says ‘oh, that’s alright sir, you’re the one with the bike. Don’t worry, we’ll look after you’. I’m not expecting to hear that level of reassurance and comfort again until I finally make it into a care home. Actually, I need to rethink that – given that my children are likely to have a pretty key part in the choice of where I spend my soup dribbling years, and given that I’ve tried to impress on them that every part of their leisure time should be spent in spartan pursuit of healthy improvement or quality of reading (advice that they’ve largely ignored), it’s pretty likely that they’ll get their own back by choosing something less comfortable as a fitting retaliation. So perhaps I’ll never hear that soft assurance again, which would be a shame.
I bowl into Newcastle only 45 minutes after my original target, which was pretty good going. #1 was there to meet me.
“Have you got a lock?”, I ask him
“Yes, I bought a cheap one yesterday”, he said, showing me a TK Maxx bag.
His turn next then.
*evening dear. Don’t forget to put the bins out.