I know lots of people do it every day but, for me, travelling on public transport is a bit of a rarity. Working from home requires no commuting and living in a rural area means that when I do occasionally go out I use the car.
I had a trip to
yesterday though, so I went by train. I like train journeys. I love to absorb the gradually changing landscape as the flat London fields we travel past become replaced by suburban back gardens and then industrial estates, and just before we are swallowed up by Liverpool Street Station’s gaping mouth we witness the rapidly developing Olympics 2012 site. I used to like looking out at the old wasteland that preceded it, an unintentional wildlife haven on the edge of the urban chaos, but that’s another story. Suffolk
I love observing my fellow travellers too. I find myself wondering what their stories are, and creating some for them myself.
Yesterday a woman got on at my station and she was very, very drunk. It was 2 in the afternoon. She had an air of tragedy about her. With a slur and an apologetic smile she paid for her ticket with pocketfuls of small change all spread out on the counter; it was as if she’d just raided a parking meter.
She had one of those faces that was probably once very attractive but was now worn-looking beyond her years. The deep tan (with a reddish tinge) that looked out of place in an English winter had given her skin a leathery finish. She got on the train and poured a drink from an ordinary vacuum flask, but I could smell spirit rather than coffee. Then she produced an aerosol fragrance and sprayed herself all over, for what seemed like several minutes. Her jacket, jeans and trainers all got liberal soakings in something rather floral. If I’d been sitting any closer I would have too. When we got to our destination I wasn’t surprised when she got up and left her large bag behind her, realising a few moments later and having to squeeze past everyone else going in the opposite direction, wafting gin and lilies with a hint of stale tobacco over us, her eyes a little glazed and her gait unsteady.
Her story? I decided she was a prostitute down on her luck, maybe she’d got all that loose change from begging, or maybe she’d done a few very cheap, ahem, 'jobs' for some quick cash… But I hope I haven’t done her a disservice and I do hope she was ok.
Halfway through the journey we go through some typical
Essex towns. I can’t quite figure out how Essex’s much-parodied stereotypes became real and why they are so prevalent. Is it just that fashions and tastes catch on quickly in some communities and then nobody wants to be seen as the odd one out? Or is it that, if you like those particular stereotypical things you naturally gravitate there and that vision of Estuary Englishness is perpetuated? Anyway, if I had needed proof that the only way in Essex is the Essex way, I simply had to notice the passengers that got on at Romford. Every female seemed to be bottle-blonde. (This is not meant to be a put-down, just one of those observations that jumps out at you.) One in her twenties sat near me and was talking on her mobile phone. “No way! I can’t believe it!” she exclaimed to her friend on the other end. “Kelly’s had botox? OMG! I can’t believe Kel’s had botox… “ I felt slightly reassured by her reaction to the botox revelation. But then came the unexpected punchline: “But she’s a dying woman…” There was clearly a story there too, but I didn’t really want to make it up.
I was cheered up soon after by the sight of five young Elvises. Well, I mean five lads dressed in full Elvis attire with big black wigs and mirror Aviator shades. Just one would have been eye-catching - five was surreal. I started to wonder what the collective noun for a group of Elvises might be. When I put this to the friend I met with later, explaining that they’d all gone for the white-jumpsuit-and-rhinestone-belt look, the perfect answer came back: why, a Vegas of Elvises. Of course! I trust they enjoyed the Elvis themed party they must have been going to; it didn’t take much imagination to work out that story.