Friday 21 December 2012

Steel City Blues

My palms were itchy, anxious, moist.  I bunched and unbunched my toes in my boots.  Nervous.  Tense.

The train was late.  Very late.  I checked the National Rail app, and it said we might have made up the time by Sheffield, but it wasn't certain.  As the train inched out of Lime Street and into the tunnels, I thought about the ten minute connection at my destination, and the chap who was waiting to meet me there.  It was going to be very close.

I'd already been wound up on the platform by two German women.  They dumped enormous cases at their feet and broke out cigarettes.  They were incredibly pretty, confident in that way only the beautiful can be, knowing the world was theirs, and they took long drags on their ciggies.  Puffs of nicotine washed over me.

I felt my stomach wrap into a knot.  Should I tell them it was against the law?  Ok, Lime Street's a bit breezy, but there's a bloody great roof over the top.  It's very definitely indoors.  I was sure there were signs around, too, but I couldn't see any.  I'd be doing them a favour, after all.  A copper could turn up any time.

It went over and over and over in my head, back and forth, the debate between telling them for their own good and also letting them suffer.  Because a part of me suspected that they knew full well it was illegal, and just didn't care.  They had an arrogance about them, tossing their blonde hair back over their shoulders as they sucked on the fags.  Combined with the train's continued no-show, I was a bag of nerves before I even got on board.

At least there was plenty of room to sit down.  I spread out my notepad, my iPod (the soundtrack to The Man With The Golden Gun), my book (Goldfinger).  The train was pretty quiet, all told, so if I did decide to have a small nervous breakdown, not many people would notice.

The guard bustled through, snapping at my ticket, making sure that his body language didn't invite any questions.  Seventeen minutes late so far.  We crawled out of South Parkway, so slow that the Merseyrail train from Hunts Cross showed us up.  We've missed our slots now - we're going to have to try and slip between all the other trains on this madly packed line.  Through Widnes, still slow, still not at our full capability.

At Manchester they gave up the ghost and we stopped on a viaduct, not moving at all.  Below us was vacant land, a no-man's land of scrub and concrete.  The arches were piled with rubble and mud, empty of human presence.  We were in the centre of one of the country's major cities but this land is unused.  Surely it could be turned over to small businesses, art studios?  Something small and easy.  Water ran down the brickwork from perished drainpipes.  Then the diesel train cleared its throat and we continued to crawl towards Oxford Road.

I'd started Goldfinger, but I felt my eyes drooping; Bond hadn't even met "The Man With Agoraphobia" and I was nodding off.  I decided to order a coffee to perk me up, only to be horrified when it turned out to be Starbucks coffee.  I'd been boycotting the chain over their tax evasion - and if you knew of my devotion to gingerbread lattes, you'd know what a sacrifice that was - and now it was being served up to me without my knowledge.  It added to my resentment at using East Midlands Trains in the first place, the rail company owned by well known homophobe Brian Souter; I disliked putting my money into his Keep the Clause supporting pockets.

Trouble is, I didn't have much choice.  Surely the point of privatisation was to give us options?  Competition on routes so I got the best deal, or support one company over another?  I'd have had to change a couple of times to slow stopping services on Northern Rail to avoid East Midlands Trains, and then I'd probably have been even later.

The train filled up quickly at Oxford Road.  There'd been some shenanigans with a First TransPennine Express train across the platform, and the passengers who boarded were fractious and stressed.  A Scottish woman behind me complains about the service, about wanting to get to the airport, about it being six days before Christmas.  In the meantime the train waits, waits, waits on the platform, hoping for a gap to cross that tiny viaduct between Oxford Road and Piccadilly.  I lost myself in the fantasy of a good, efficient tunnel under Manchester, carrying cross-city trains quickly through the city centre and leaving slow stopping trains up top.  A real fantasy - no-one will ever spend that kind of money on transport again, just patches and stopgaps.

A change of passengers at Piccadilly, one load flowing out, a new load flooding in.  A gang of posh boys take up the table seat and immediately start planning their drinking for the rest of the day - it's not yet eleven.  As we pull out of the station, past the trainspotters with their enormous camera equipment at the end of the platform, the guard comes over the tannoy; he starts with "we apologise" but his tone of voice doesn't sound it.

The "on board retail staff" trolley came round again, dishing out drinks and snacks.  A jolly woman at the back of the carriage pays £5.40 for two coffees and a packet of Quavers - "Keep the change.  It's Christmas!".  The seat behind me seemed to have been occupied by a giraffe.  My chair is jolted forward as knees clatter into its back, then I feel a thud on my heels as the occupier stretches out to full length.  I assumed they would immediately withdraw, aware they had intruded on my space, but instead they push more insistently, and I have to move my feet forward to stop them being kicked.

At Stockport - half an hour late - there's a banner hanging over the waiting room from Virgin Trains:  Thanks for all your support!  I felt ridiculously irritated at the way Virgin had turned its attempt to keep a rail franchise into some kind of battle for the little guy, the little guy in this case being a multi-billion pound conglomerate.  Hanging signs up like you're a football team that's just won the FA Cup isn't endearing, it's patronising.

The giraffe answers his phone.  His lack of social graces is explained: he's French.  He babbles into his mobile, loudly, insistently, kissing his teeth between sentences, until we thankfully enter a tunnel under the Pennines and he loses his signal.  "Alloo?  Alloo?"

I sipped some water to try and overcome the tense cramps in my diaphragm.  I'd texted my travelling companion, and warned him I wasn't going to make it to Sheffield on time; he was fine, he was exploring the city, no problem.  I still felt stupidly guilty.  And this lateness threw out my schedule for the day - buses would be missed, exploration time would be cut into, extra stresses I didn't need.

Grey-green fields passed by, filtered through a brown lens.  It was fast approaching midday but the skies remained dark.  It wouldn't be bright the whole day, just a series of dark cloudy skies swirling  overhead.    Sheep trudge through muddy fields, picking at the grass, a splash of neon paint on their backs making them look like Vivienne Westwood livestock.

Then it was a city again, industry and shops and houses, terraces and villas, bricks and concrete; the countryside faded into Sheffield's outskirts.  Parkland is replaced by warehouses, and tall glass skyscrapers rose up above us.  I've never been to Sheffield, not properly, but I'm saving it; I have a strong suspicion that I'll like it.  I want to enjoy it properly.  As it is, I was just pleased to see it because it meant I'd arrived.  As I climb to my feet, the guard warns the train that they're no longer going to make it all the way to Norwich; Grantham is all they're getting.  Thank goodness I don't come this way too often.


JimmyMac said...

Of course, Richard Branson's company only owns 51% of "underdog" Virgin Trains. The other 49% is owned by... Brian Souter's company!

Gavin Kincade said...

A Merseytart and Diamond Geezer linkup! Perhaps the next blogpost will reveal the secret of the Mystery Count.