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Better to travel than arrive       

by Gerald Roberts

 

This was good. He’d see her again and they would pick up the, admittedly, pretty dusty pieces of their past friendship, while Gladys was away in Beaconsfield on the golf course with her chums, as she called them. Gladys was putting things away in the kitchen. She was always putting something away. Even him. He told her of his plan to make a day trip up to the city and do some sightseeing. “Now don’t overdo it,” she fussed him. “Remember what the doctor said about your blood pressure. You be careful: take a rest as much as possible. Not too much walking about in this heat.”

Sure, it was hot. When he’d tried to mow the front lawn yesterday he’d had to stop and sit in the shade for ten minutes, hiding behind the tree so that Gladys didn’t see him and rush out to see what was wrong. (After all, anyone could get the occasional fit of dizziness.)

“I’ll be all right,” he said. “You can always take a rest somewhere in London. All those parks and…squares and bars.” She removed his half empty coffee mug, despite his raised hand in protest. “And don’t go buying cups of this stuff up in London or they’ll bring you back in an ambulance.”

He wondered for a moment why she let him have any coffee at all, still more why she hadn’t tried to stop him on what the forecasters had promised would be the hottest of days.  Still he’d always put up with her peculiar ideas She must have been a fearsome primary school teacher for little children twenty years ago.

He retired to the bathroom for a few minutes and she clattered round the house putting her  equipment together. He could just see the three pairs of socks, sundry knickers (he recollected Margaret wore coloured short skirts), and two tops which got regularly washed after each outing. He used to be impressed at this meticulousness.

It was still half an hour before the time of his train  and only five minutes to walk up to the station, but Gladys was not curious about his hurry to be away, and called to him again: “Be careful now, and come back in good time for supper.”

The slam of a door interrupted his attempt to reply, and he took the narrow pavement that followed the main road to the station. It was past rush-hour and commuter travel- times, and he allowed himself to become aware of the slow sighing of the trees and the shots of flashing, gleaming sunshine that fell across the road in front of him. He would enjoy seeing Margaret again, the secretary at Phillipson’s, whom he had gone out with time after time, until the company collapsed and he had found himself a much better job, “up north”, as they say.

Which was where he met Gladys, making her way up the education ladder.

He entered the station forecourt and walked over to the ticket-office where a small group had already gathered and where the notice “Closed” looked blankly at them. Like cowed rebels they muttered amongst themselves. Under the station awning was the ticket machine whose screen read: “Machine out of use”.

He was irritated. No ticket. And no timetable. Petty obstacles. He contented himself with the thought of the conductor on the train who would wander up the coaches with the substantial ticket machine hanging down one shoulder. But he would have liked to have sat on his seat with the comfortable piece of cardboard in his hand to establish his place in the carriage.

However, he could wait, and maybe think of a few questions  he could put to the conductor about the Company’s problems in running a railway. The train, which was irritatingly on time,  was comfortably filled – he had managed to dominate one double seat to himself – and the scenery had a calming effect on him as they passed at a placid speed between  country  stations, where hardly a passenger joined the train or the small suburban towns where more intent business travellers were still poised with their phones and brief cases.

He almost, but not quite, forgot, he was travelling without a ticket, until an authoritative voice over the intercom delivered the message that it was the train conductor who was speaking and that  they would reach their destination in 15 minutes. Philip felt another jab of irritation and insecurity. Where had this official been hiding? He had not been flogging his heavy way up and down the aisles: chatting perhaps to other railwaymen on the train? Sitting, reading a morning newspaper?

Nothing could be done. He would just have to wait and queue at the unpaid fares office, when he wanted to get on his way, and at London Bridge he trailed along an almost empty platform to the politely named “Excess Fares Office”. A young Asian quickly dealt with his business, and when Philip asked for a timetable, the young man carefully described where he might find an Information Office.

Downstairs he went and entered a glamorous glass-walled  room.

“No timetables here,” said a stiff woman  abruptly. “Go over to the right behind the pillars. They have them all.”

He wondered in growing irritation whether it was worth all this trouble and delay, but having gone that far (his watch told him he still had more than hour before meeting her), he doggedly pulled himself in the direction he had been told, and there, nestling between two pillars, was indeed a kiosk covered with the small hand-sized timetables he wanted.               

Inside nestled two men, neither talking nor doing business. Philip’s request for a timetable roused one of them enough to get up and mutter. “They are all outside.” They might have been, but among so many, he couldn’t find the one he had asked for. The man inside looked stupidly at him, and then made the effort to exit the kiosk to look for the one wanted. A few minutes passed.

“No, there isn’t one. You’ll have to go up to the ticket barrier and ask.”

“But I’ve just come from there.”

The man shook his head (after all, I was not important, no money would change hands, no business transaction  would take place). “We haven’t got any.”

A fit of obstinacy took him. He would go upstairs and complain of the trouble he’d gone to just to get a simple timetable. Complain to somebody.

But when he got back to the ticket-barrier he discovered an endless rush of travellers coming off the platforms and the inspector busy trying to look at all the tickets as all the hands flashed past. But seeing a gap he tried, just at the moment when an announcement, unintelligible but loud started blasting from a nearby loudspeaker:  “Aah, aah, aah,” and on it went deafening the communication he was trying to make.

“Clear the station,” bellowed the inspector into his ear, “Clear the station, an emergency.”

He joined in the run, panicking of course, with the other passengers into the forecourt of the Station. No signs here, of panic, or hysterical movement, just the usual groupings of passengers and others, including policemen standing around or moving gently.

“False alarm,” said one. “They’re always happening”.

Philip surrendered. And looked for the Underground instead. The train was busy – it always probably is, he thought – and at Charing Cross the stop seemed to last for ever. Some passengers got out and went their own way. More did, when an announcement came through: “Passenger incident in the first carriage: the police are attending”. Should he leave the train and walk to meet her: was there still time? No. Yes.

The doors closed. Two more stations. Would she wait? She would never phone him…she had never said she would. And all he knew was their home number. With a groan the train stopped and as best he could, never very fast these days, he scrambled out of the train and through the passengers waiting to get on.

At the top the escalator in his anxiety he crumpled his ticket and had to straighten it to work. Now he could see the sunlight of the street and hear the traffic. But why was it London seemed to have changed? The usual noise, and bustle, but was Leicester Square that way or that way? The streets seem to spin off at unusual angles. A foreigner came up to ask him: “Where is the British Museum?” and like a fool he could only shrug his shoulders, almost ashamed to say he didn’t know.

He watched the stubborn foreigner, with a petite lady in tow, approach another passer-by, and gesticulations accompanied the unheard words. Now they knew. The couple set off down a side-street, confidently perhaps.

Come now. He must make the effort to reach Margaret, and he tried not to think how different he must look…and she must look, of course. He turned and followed the busy street south, gradually refitting the shops and buildings into his memory. If he could have heard it, BIG Ben would be just about chiming: his watch said 12, a good time for an anniversary meeting, which meant he was already a fraction late.
There was the Square, but where was the street? Hot though he was, he had to move quickly around the Square, 2, 3, 4 minutes, at Last. It was a small bar, and now he’d reached it he hung back, suddenly afraid.

That was her, the woman even now looking at her watch, and probably thinking what a fool she’d been…but was it her? He shrunk back a bit further into a doorway, into the shade away from the hot sun ( even now he felt himself prickling from sweat). It was her, wasn’t it, was she that old, as old as him, even her clothes seemed old, faded even, like him perhaps, and he looked down at his best cream trousers, that just touched the top of his socks, because he hadn’t worn them since their Alexander died.

She took one more look around her and her eyes seemed to fall on him in the doorway, but no look of recognition came. And she turned and walked away.

No, wait, Margaret, wait, let’s talk, we have so much to talk about.

But he didn’t say it. The thought of going over twenty years of a nothing life, yes, a nothing life, was unbearable. Why had she even bothered to come, what were her motives in wanting to bring up the past, his past, ridiculous, ridiculous.

He turned away from the bar and the Square and chose a narrow street shaded by high buildings, which, he guessed, ran somewhere towards the Station at which he had arrived. He felt he would like to sit down, to rest, to think, to wonder, and somewhere down the obscure street he came across a small café with the usual seats and chairs outside and a sprinkling of customers. Three men in suits and open-necked shirts were just rising from their table, a young woman was sitting in one corner tapping away at her laptop.

Nobody would be interested in him. After an interval a young fuzzy-haired waiter came to serve him.

Yes, a coffee, with milk. It was enough. He pulled his chair closer. What if he saw her now: would he draw attention to himself? Would she respond? Would they reminisce?

The waiter arrived back with the coffee and a quiet smile. Then he was left alone.

So he must get back to Gladys. Of course he must. She would expect him for supper. He would learn about her golf and interject at various key moments with some appropriate question or comment. And she would ask him how he got on: “O, visited a few bookshops, went to the Tate, and do you know who I saw…?” No, of course he could not say that. She might remember the name Margaret, it must have come up once or twice between them.

The last time he had seen Margaret they had both said they would keep in touch; he would write soon; he had her address; she would find a new job, there were plenty of opportunities…So why hadn’t he written? Such  a long time ago when he knew her; he remembered being invited to someone’s party and Margaret had been there, looking really smart. Such a long time ago.

The coffee was still creamy brown. He wondered if he’d been tasting it. Sure. He  tried hard and recognised the remains of a taste in his mouth. The waiter was hovering inside the window of the restaurant and he raised his hand to attract his attention, and the man inside smiled vaguely and continued to clean some glasses. Well, he was in no hurry now, Gladys would be tucking into a light golfer’s lunch of a brown bread sandwich and a small white wine, and maybe in an hour or so, he might try something at the Tate.

And he would forget Margaret. Perhaps less easy. He couldn’t quite understand why she had come into his head over the last few weeks or so when they had parted so long ago. He recollected he had loved her then, yes, he remembered that, that was true, but when they had let themselves be forced apart, by circumstances, he simply got on with his new job in Chester. And then he got mixed up with Gladys. Not that he blamed her for anything. But he fell in love, didn’t he?

The waiter appeared at his side and grinned again.

“So sorry, Sir. The delay. I was…”

“It doesn’t matter” (Well, it didn’t.) “How much..?

“No, Sir.” Now the man laughed. “We hope you enjoyed it. Come again. For a meal.” He started to collect his cup and to wipe the table, adding: “We have other branches. We are growing.”

He got up, “Well…”

 “A pleasure, Sir. Enjoy the rest of the day.” The waiter went off into the café, leaving him to walk down the street. He had never had a free coffee from a waiter before: did he look that old?

The heat from the day was burning off the walls. He was old. He felt old.  And tired. The Underground sign came up in the street and he decided to use it but regretted as soon as he entered the station which was hot too, and full of passengers. He let himself be carried down to the Northern Line where the platform was overflowing.

With a rush of wind a train appeared, its overload of passengers spilling out on to the platform in exchange for those who were waiting. He joined the rush into a full carriage and clutched a strap near the door: there were only a few stations to go, he could stand for that long, if he had to. But a quiet voice came up to him: “Would you like my seat?”

A young woman near the door had taken her  plugs from her ears and was speaking to him. Really to him. She asked again. He wanted to say: “You’ve made a mistake”. He had never thought himself as old and…decrepit. He turned his refusal into a joke. “It’s all right – my parts are still working properly.”

It was stupid, and as she had put her radio back into her ears, she showed no sign of hearing it. Nobody probably had in that packed, noisy carriage. Stupid. So now people were willing to stand up for him. He didn’t look at her anymore. Was he going home now? Was he…?

They slid into the next station. No, he would go to the exhibition. It would be better. Something to talk about to Gladys.  


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