Thursday 10 June 2010

Am I dead, like in the film?

15st 6lb, 2.0 units. A logistically complex day, to say the least of it. We had to leave our home in Cheshire no later than 10 o’clock in the morning to ensure that we reached our home in Northumberland in time for Mrs H to drive me to Alnmouth station so that I could catch a train back to Newcastle in order to meet some chaps I had not seen for 39 years for a beer. If you can instantly spot a more logical way of making our travel arrangements, please do not trouble to share it with me. Trust me, this was the only way it was ever going to work, given the demands of The Boy’s feeding schedule, Mrs H’s directional dyslexia and a number of other factors frankly too tedious to mention.

Needless to say, we did not leave by 10 o’clock, or anything like it. This did not put me in the best of moods. But somehow we managed to claw back a bit of time en route and finally drew into the packed and busy car park of Alnmouth station shortly before the 17.09 train to Newcastle was due. I was surprised to find the station manned and the waiting room full; in my days of commuting to London, the booking clerk knocked off at lunchtime and there was rarely anyone to be inconvenienced by his absence during the afternoon. Though it was a bit of a bugger when one turned up for the 1800ish service to King’s Cross, after a hard day at one’s Northumberland desk and looking forward to a decent dinner in the restaurant car (R.I.P.) only to find that the train did not turn up. In those days there was no reasonable way of obtaining an explanation, either. True, there was a dedicated phone marked “Enquiries” but it always smelt as though someone had recently pissed in the mouthpiece, and no-one ever answered it at the other end. The only hope was to climb to the middle of the footbridge over the tracks in the hope of getting enough of a mobile phone signal to get through to National Rail Enquiries, who would eventually connect me to a monoglot (though sadly not in English) person in India who did not have a f***ing clue what I was talking about. Yes, you might just about expect to have to spell out “Alnmouth” for the benefit of someone not massively familiar with the entire British rail network, but “King’s Cross”? Small wonder that most of these conversations ended with me saying “Oh for f***’s sake” and pressing the red button on my phone. Wishing that it was the red button on a Trident nuclear submarine, firing a missile in the general direction of Railtrack headquarters or Bangalore.

The worst single evening was the time the 18.00 was over an hour late, it was pissing down outside and there was an exceptionally large turnout of four of us sitting forlornly in the waiting room. Seizing his moment, one of our number handed out some little pamphlets full of prayers and suggested that it might be a good time for us all to put our trust in Jesus and say a few words together. It reminded me of an old black and white film I saw on the TV as an impressionable teenager, starring a host of British character actors huddled in a train compartment, in which the punch line of their nightmare journey was the production of a newspaper front page showing that the train had crashed and they were all dead. Actually, come to think of it, it might have been a colour film. Everything on our TV was on black and white when I was an impressionable teenager, except once when Raymond Baxter performed some sort of optical illusion on Tomorrow’s World.

I rose to my feet and made a show of pinching myself “just to check whether this is real or a f***ing nightmare” then strode out into the rain and drove home. The bleached bones of the other would-be travellers were found on the upper slopes of Hedgehope several months later, with marks that forensic specialists swore could only have been made by wolves. Spooky. Or it would be if I hadn’t just made it up, though the rest of the story is completely true.

Tonight I took my usual precaution of asking “Is the train on time?” before purchasing a ticket. On receiving confirmation that it was indeed bang on schedule, I asked for a day return to Newcastle, only to receive the disconcerting reply “What sort of day return?”

How many types of walk-on ticket have they invented on the bloody railways now, for God’s sake?

“Well, a standard class one that allows me to catch this train that’s coming any minute, and come back later today?”

“On ANY train?”

“Well, any train that’s stopping at Alnmouth, yes.”

“So you want an OPEN day return?”

Sweet Jesus. How hard does it have to be?

After I had forked out my £10.50 I could not help wondering whether it would have been any cheaper if I had specified a particular train back, or opted to make the journey via Berwick-upon-Tweed, or change onto a replacement bus at Pegswood, or maybe volunteer to have myself hung out of the guard’s van door and be picked up by one of those nets they used to hang up for mailbags in the days of Night Mail. And luckily I had plenty of time to reflect on this because the bastard “bang on time” train was, in fact, a full ten minutes’ late. PR note to Northern Rail, Alnmouth: don’t tell lies to the customers just because you can’t be arsed to get out of your chair and check the screen which would have told you this when asked.

Still, no harm done. I made it to the Bacchus in High Bridge only a few minutes behind schedule, recognized my old school comrades Gordon and Geoff despite the fact that I had not seen them since 1971 (though, to be fair, Gordon had sent me a recent photograph of himself and they were strategically positioned just inside the door, on the lookout for a fat, grey-haired bloke bearing a faint resemblance to the guy pictured at the head of the page 11 column in The Journal every Tuesday). I got stuck into the first of several pints of the Jarrow Brewery’s Rivet Catcher and we enjoyed a reasonably comprehensive catch-up of the last 39 years. Gordon, who has the misfortune to share his surname with the recently departed Prime Minister, entertained us with some splendid anecdotes featuring people so stupid that they managed to send e-mails intended for Downing Street to a solicitor’s office in Chester-le-Street. If I had the energy, I would open an e-mail account under the name of Barack Obama in Washington, County Durham (as it will always be for me, and not the hated “Tyne and Wear” foisted upon us by Heath and Walker in 1973 – how could they do such a thing when “Washington CD” worked so brilliantly?) and see what turned up.

Gordon observed that I seemed taller (though I doubt that) and much less reserved than when we last met. The latter is certainly true. On the other hand, it is not necessarily a good thing. The starting point for this meeting was the arrival, more than a year ago, of an e-mail from Geoff saying that he had read about my impending marriage and forthcoming baby in my column, and thought he would let me know that he too had waited until he was 50 to get married and now had two small children. It now emerged that his wife was Russian. “But not from,” I immediately joshed, only for him to reply “Well, she was, actually.” Apparently internet dating with Geordie girls does not do the business if you have set your heart against multiple tattoos and body piercings.

Oh well. It could have been worse. And promptly became so as soon as Gordon and Geoff went home and another former denizen of my old school unexpectedly turned up. I made an excuse and left, successfully blagging a lift home from Alnmouth via the slowest fast food takeaway in the known world. I waited for my fish and chips to come wrapped in a newspaper front page telling me that I was dead, and not in heaven.

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