Strangers on a train from Staplehurst. Up to Town!

22 Sep

Staplehurst is a large and sprawling Kentish village with an enormous commuter car-park. It’s fifty minutes or so from the heart of the Kentish Weald to Charing Cross. The throng on the platform at rush-hour gives way to the blue rinse ‘Let’s go to the V & A’ set after 9. I board the sparsely-populated luxury of the 9.51.

When I was a smog-aware lad in the 1950s we called London,  ‘Town’ or ‘The (Big) Smoke’. The latter has been expunged from Southern vocabularies but I found myself using the former unconsciously when making arrangements with my daughter. London to her the centre of the universe, Staplehurst is part of a strange and shadowy hinterland.

Going up to Town still excites, despite a few years of commuting as a youngster and, more recently, watching humourless faces trudging to and fro Staplehurst. The size of the car park indicates the number of human ants scurrying daily to the mammon mound of the capital city.

As for me, I’m scribbling away in my notebook as countryside gives way to cityscape. Whatever is outside the carriage, occasionally diverting as it is, remains reliably neutral. My attention is taken by activity within.

A woman gets on at Paddock Wood, talking loudly on her phone. She’s late for a meeting and is trying to reorganise via, I’m guessing, a PA or secretary. She is flustered. Her child was feigning illness and refused school. The saga went on; she missed the 9.21. She hadn’t got home until 8.30 the previous night. Could her PA reschedule for midday? Her diary was full for the afternoon and she had promised a 6pm pick-up at the childminder’s. That meant catching the 4.40 – latest. Today (a Thursday) she was supposed to work from home anyway. More information rattled across the airwaves and our carriage. More business chat, some social – all of it wearying for her. All of it heard by the rest of us clutching our travelcards and pretending to read the Times.

A man opposite me has fallen asleep. 10.30am. He can’t have been up that long. Like babies we get drowsy with motion it seems. Now the ticket inspector or, more pompously, the train manager appears. ‘Tickets please!’ Ha! Another call from the inner ear of my 1950s nostalgia. This chap is recklessly upbeat. It’s have a nice day gone mad. The 50s certainly weren’t like this. He cheers his way along making a running commentary on his every interaction. “Travelcard, eh! Have a nice day out, madam;  lovely weather, mind you don’t forget your umbrella; sorry we’re a couple of minutes late everyone, thanks …and thank you..and …”

A smart-suited man can’t find his ticket. Cheery inspector waits politely. Then: “Tell you what sir, I’ll go away and check a few more and come back. That usually does the trick. You’ll find it in a pocket you didn’t know you had. It usually works. See you in a minute.”

It didn’t work. But a receipt was found. Back comes Mr Cheerful. Man in suit shows the receipt along with:”You didn’t believe I had bought a ticket did you?” Mr Cheerful’s rejoinder was a stunner.

“I’m a pragmatist sir. I don’t philosophise  about what might or might not have happened to your ticket but you have clear evidence that you bought a ‘weekly’ on Tuesday. That satisfies me – but wheter that receipt will satisfy my colleagues at the Charing Cross ticket barrier is another matter. You need a ticket to escape the station’s clutches.”

An entertaining riposte. Man-in-suit mumbles something inaudible in response to the elegant setting-out of the train manager’s position.

As I am enjoying this command performance we rumble into London Bridge. It is heavy with crane and concrete as it undergoes a huge facelift. The Shard, just a few yards from my window, rises up to heaven and is surrounded by a burgeoning glass city. At ground level high-vis jackets, cement mixers and building detritus litter the area inside and beyond the station. It is a relief when Southwark Cathedral and then Borough Market hove into view.

A stubbled 30-something who boarded the train at London Bridge is talking into thin air. Wires hang from his ears and he is unabashed as he looks around at his carriage companions chatting to someone in the ether. It’s a ‘Fuck this and fuck that and he’s a wanker..’ type of conversation. Funny and just a little disturbing. He catches my glance. I swiftly replace my rural, senior railcard demeanour of disapproval with a slick ‘shit happens’ sneer. I wish I hadn’t shaved. I’m in Town.

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