After getting up at 4 o’clock last Sunday morning to catch the early TGV, my trip home to Chesterfield was nearly cut radically short by signal failure 20 km south of Lille. Luckily, someone pulled the right levers and we shunted into the station just in time for me to have my yearly battle with the immigration official. As I approached the border control box I removed my glasses and handed him the loose bundle of rags that is my passport.
GUARD: You should really get a new one.
ME: I know.
GUARD: I shouldn’t really let you through.
ME: I know. I’m sorry. It got caught up in a washing machine.
GUARD: You need to get a new one.
ME: I will.
I canter gaily onto the Eurostar having overcome my nemesis for the third year running and crumple the wreckage of my passport back into my pocket ready for next time. Once under the channel and into London St. Pancras it’s not long before I’m confronted by Nemesis No. 2.
EAST MIDLAND RAILWAY JOBSWORTH: You need to get your prepaid tickets from the automatic machine.
ME: I know. But it won’t accept my debit card. It’s a bit bent.
EMRJ: Then you’ll have to try another machine.
ME: I did. None of them accept my card. I need to get a new one I know.
EMRJ: Mmm. I shouldn’t. But just this once.
ME: Do what, just this once. Write a play. A book. Eat Oysters.
EMRJ: I can print your tickets off just this once. But next time you’ll need to use the automatic machines.
I want to say more than I have time for. A full blown rant about him. But I don’t have time. I have a train to catch to Chesterfield.
‘We’re flying now,’ I gesture to the ancient cardboard cut-out sitting next to me. A man so old and thin that I can’t believe a human can look so frail and still have the strength to pump blood. Yet alone force his way onto a busy Christmas train. I just hope I’m not the one who has to tell his relatives at Chesterfield that he died somewhere near Kettering. I shudder at the thought just as the train shudders to a halt near Long Eaton.
‘You don’t want to be stuck in Long Eaton,’ I joke hoping he’s still with us. He gurgles something back at me that sounds like a ‘yes’.
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Due to flooding we’ll be continuing our trip to Derby at 5mph.
I see people who know the area making quick mental calculations. Long Eaton to Derby is 8 miles. At 5 mph that’s roughly an hour and a half.
‘Bollocks!’ explodes round the train. A gurgle from my neighbour and the train grinds its way slowly north.
After a fantastic Christmas with my family, full of pork and apricot cobbler, stuffed turkey and a gorgeous rib of beef cooked to perfection by my dad, the train to Bristol is uneventful. Except for a guy next to me cracking endless cans of Carlsberg like they’re party poppers.
He offers me one grinning showing me a bag full of them. I say I’m OK. I’ve got a bottle of JD in my bag that my brother and sister bought me. He looks impressed and thinks I’m on the verge of offering him some, but I unscrew my flask of coffee and start reading.
‘She should be lashed until she collapses,’ is the only line I get through before I feel his eyes reading the same page. I give up and ask him if one of his lagers is still on offer.
‘Of course,’ he replies unzipping his holdall. ‘Is that A Confederacy of Dunces you’re reading?’
I show him the cover and take his beer. ‘Great book.’ He agrees and we spend the rest of the trip talking about books and football while drinking warm lager. I arrive in Bristol, say goodbye to my friend and head out into the pouring rain. Since I’ve been in England I haven’t seen the sun.