Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pale Shadows

It's always profoundly unsettling running into fellow commuters out of context. A few years ago when I lived in Welwyn Garden City I remember coming face to face with two fellow denizens of the front carriage (this was before I made the momentous decision to switch to the rear) with whom I regularly failed to swap pleasantries on the 7:50 (or whatever) into Kings Cross. They were both middle aged, smartly turned out, Daily Mail readers (so of course we could never be friends), and I used to suspect that they were in in adulterous relationship. Imagine my disappointment, therefore, at encountering them in civvies (jeans, I believe) in WH Smith at the weekend, quite clearly a couple as legitimate as it is possible to be. I flashed a winning smile, as I always do in these situations, and received the cold shoulder in return, which I suppose serves me right for being a hypocrite.

Last weekend it happened again. This time I was in Woolworths in Hitchin, joining the flock of vultures who have descended upon the decaying carcass of the store in the hope of finding some juicy piece of merchandise before it is forever consigned to history, along with the likes of C&A and Allders. I was just walking through the door when a guy who often gets the same train as me, a thirty-something (at a guess) who always managed to look uncomfortable and even somewhat scruffy in a suit and wears a permanent half-smile, passed me going in the opposite direction with his kids! I was momentarily dumbstruck - I never had him down as a having-kids sort of person. Just goes to show, books and covers and all that. Anyway, having recovered my composure in a split second, I raised my eyebrows to him in a non-committal gesture of acknowledgement, fully expecting to be shunned once more. A brief look of blind panic crossed his face as he looked almost, but not quite, straight at me, and then he averted his gaze and was gone. Nice to know it's not just me that finds these encounters discomfiting. But the real highlight was yet to come.

There's a guy who sits in the rear carriage most days, who possesses a remarkable knack of getting to the front of the queue/scrum/mob as the train pulls in, even if he has arrived after everybody else. He's a wee bit older than the besuited guy, and not a suit-wearer (suggested he works in "meeja"), but the intensity that comes into his eyes every morning when the train arrives marks him out as a force to be reckoned with. I had him down as a bit of a loner, someone for whom other people represent a kind of hell. Once again, how wrong I was. He was in the sweetie aisle with positiveily angelic little girl, showing all the signs (which I am by now trained to recognise) of being a doting father. Remarkable.

I've come over quite emotional actually. Maybe I'll try to organise some drinks, next time I see them both. Then we could all be friends. Love-er-ly.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Little Commuter and Rush Hour

This week saw one of the Little Commuter's rare trips to London, for an appointment with a very nice Consultant who gave him a lovely clean bill of health. The same trip also brought his first experience of Rush Hour (the inaccurately-monikered three-hour period when London's commuters head for home, not the film with Jackie Chan, which he has yet to experience). He handled it very well.

In spite of the many innovations to have graced our local station in recent times - ticket barriers, a newsagent, ticket machines that actually work, and even monitors that don't flicker every three minutes - one thing they have yet to tackle is access. The Wife and I had timed our arrival to perfection, and would have been in plenty of time to catch the fast train if we hadn't had to negotiate the two sets of stairs that connect the London-bound platform 1 with the rest of the station. So we ended up getting the next train which turned out to be stopper, and our nice, leisurely lunch in the city turned into a madcap dash across the West End to get to our chosen eaterie in time to wolf down a paratha. Still, we made our appointment in plenty of time and the Little Commuter was full of smiles as the nurses poked and prodded him, only getting slightly annoyed when told he had to produce a urine sample (you can't just do these things to order, you know).

The news was good, and all was well as we made our merry way back to Kings Cross. One concern nagged at the back of our minds, however. The Little Commuter had not had his nap. When he should have been asleep, he was being poked and prodded by nurses. What this meant was that we faced the very real prospect of a tired baby on an over-crowded train. Oh well - at least it should drown out the Ipods.

He actually fell asleep in his pram on the way to the station, and great care was taken to give him a smooth ride so as not to wake him (not as easy as it sounds - our pram has a mind of its own). I stood with him and between us we took up most of the vestibule, so that when we got to Finsbury Park people had to squeeze around us like they were playing that Hole In the Wall game from off the telly. Glancing lovingly down at him for the umpteenth time, I was taken aback to see a pair of deep blue eyes gazing back at me. He was awake and not very happy about it.

It started with a whimper or two, but he was rapidly into his stride, giving his lungs a good workout as around us the commuters studiously ignored him. Then he spotted something out the window and chuckled fondly - it was his reflection, or it may have been mine. Either way, it seemed to please him. But he soon remembered how tired he was, and resumed his protestations. I picked him up, and attempted to calm him by holding him to my chest. Alas, the train was moving at a fair pace, and as I danced from foot to foot in an effort to keep my balance it must have been more like being on a rollercoaster for him.

At Stevenage as people shuffled past us in single file, I tried to put him back into his buggy so we were ready to disembark rapidly at Hitchin, and that was the clincher for him. Perhaps he couldn't see his reflection from his chair. Whatever the reason he decided to give full voice to his feelings, and for the next few minutes the passengers on the twenty past four from Kings Cross were treated to a most unusual soundtrack as they sped thorugh the Hertfordshire countryside. Everyone was very nice about it, and that brought home to me once more the essential paradox of the behaviour of the commuting herd. When everything is going fine they grumble and snipe. As soon as something goes awry, however, everyone starts being nice. It's probably something to do with the Blitz.