Three books in one hand, a bottle of water wedged in my armpit, I’m pulling my small wheelie case behind me. Having nearly boarded the 15.10 bound for Bangor I was trying to concentrate and get on the right one this time. I chose a carriage that looked a little emptier, and hirpled down towards a seat with a table. The train had started to move as I was settling myself with an elaborate performance: place books on table; peel off handbag worn across body like binoculars; put water on table; watch it immediately fall on floor as train erratically gains speed; crawl under the feet of man behind to retrieve; place bottle flat on seat where it can’t escape; assess temperature; remove coat; fold inside out and put on rack above; wonder how much of a crumpled mess it will be in an hour; accidentally open front flap of my bag from bottom so that nail varnish, string of beads, and phone charger all fall out; sigh theatrically; gather up said inanimate objects that seem to become alive on trains inexplicably moving around like little animals; stuff back in bag; pull zip to top so I can retrieve computer; place laptop on table; zip up bag; struggle to lift bag up onto rack beside coat; make involuntary old person noises that somehow give me additional strength to lift bag; and I’m done! My wordless but wholehearted introduction to the entire carriage is complete.
A half eaten flapjack, left over from the coffee I had with T. in Costa just before she dropped me off, calls my name. I take it from my bag, sit down on a slightly damp seat (the top of the water bottle hadn’t been screwed on properly), and relax into a little reading, a little writing, a little daydreaming. I love travelling by train. The announcement tells us to get our tickets ready. The conductor is on his way. Cripes! In settling myself (what a lovely euphemism for my chaotic entrance) I don’t remember seeing my ticket. Mmmmm? I had it on the platform. I remember I had balanced my bottle on my bag, had two books on my lap, and was holding the ticket at an open page. I check my purse, my bag, and by my feet. I check the three books – hold them by the spine and flick my thumb across the pages like a cardsharp. Nothing drops out. Then I turn into my own worst nightmare. I reach up for my coat, going through the pockets twice. I repeat the groaning noises to get my bag down and unzip the front flap to see if it’s there. In my haste, I unzip too far and repeat the performance from ten minutes ago with nail varnish, beads and charger. No sign of it. “Check the floor of the carriage from where you got on.” The woman in front of me spoke for the first time. “Yes, I will.” Her suggestion was a good one. I walk up and down the carriage scanning the floor like a sniffer dog. Still no sign. Up comes the conductor. I tell him I’ve lost my ticket and I know I have to buy another. “Tell you what, I’ll give you a child’s rate. Have another quick check before I put it through.” I assure him I have checked and re-checked and that the little piece of paper is flying high with the starlings over the Albert Bridge by Central Station. “That’s some sight, isn’t it?” He says. “Worth looking up for the show th’on birds put on.” I feel a bit better thinking of the starlings in flight formation as I pay him for a second (cheaper) ticket. Finally I’m calm and quiet. I turn the page of the poetry anthology I had been reading on the platform and there neatly tucked into the spine, at a poem called ‘Adlestrop’, is my full-fare ticket.
There is no better means of transport than by train. And as long as you don’t have the misfortune of sharing a carriage with me, it is usually a gentle and peaceful way to travel, as Edwards Thomas famously described to us in poetry. I’m sorry for disturbing my fellow travellers’ peace. I’ll do better next time.
Adlestrop by, Edward Thomas
“Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.”