diamond geezer

 Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I'm sure we all keep old rail tickets stashed in a shoebox, as a kind of physical manifestation of our travelling lives. Here are three of mine, and the stories behind them.

Thursday 16th July 1987: Windsor & Eton Central → London  [£1.60]

It's always nice to get a job. This is the day I got my first, at the age of 22, and the ticket for the journey home. I'd had a few interviews by this time, and either not been successful or not wanted to be. This one felt different, and it wasn't too far from home, in the rather lovely town of Windsor. I'd been sent a letter telling me where to go and when, and managed to find the building - it's not there now - without getting too lost. On arrival I was greeted by a secretary and led into an empty room to wait. It was at this point I discovered there were no other candidates, only me, but I was still going to have to go through an interview to get the role. I didn't answer the questions very well, I think I realised I could get away with being honest, but they offered me the job all the same. Cheers, future sorted.

I stayed for the rest of the day, looking around and gradually discovering what I was letting myself in for. At lunch time I went down the pub with the rest of the team - I had tuna sandwiches - and discovered that most of them were refreshingly normal. I agreed to pop back the following week, to firm up the details, and then set off for home in stifling 27° heat. Once out of sight of the main entrance, my suit jacket and tie were swiftly removed. There were no mobiles in those days, so I had to find a phone box (near the castle) to ring my parents and tell them the good news. I think they were both delighted and relieved. Then I walked to the station and crammed into the cattle-truck shuttle to Slough, which was packed with tourists because it was summer and I'd got a job in a world famous town. British Rail still did 2nd Class in those days, and nothing was yet Standard.

My diary reports that the journey to Paddington was improved by what I then thought was a vision sat in the seat opposite. Given how sweaty I was by this time, I doubt they were so impressed. My onward tube connection from Paddington was held up due to a burst water main in the Euston area, which was serious enough to be reported that evening on the local news. And then it was a whizz up the Metropolitan line to Croxley, which was absolutely heaving with commuters, of whom I was now one. Once home I endured a thorough post-mortem, when what I really wanted to do was take off my itchy trousers, and then we celebrated my success with fish and chips. I spent the evening watching Top of the Pops and a repeat of Blackadder II, the fabulous episode with the Bishop of Bath and Wells and entirely incompetent alchemy. Not a bad way for childhood irresponsibility to end, all told.

Tuesday 20th February 1990: Edinburgh → North Queensferry  [£1.60]

This is the very last rail ticket I bought as a Young Person. The upper age for buying a Railcard was 23 in those days, and I'd bought mine just before my 24th, which meant it was due to expire just before my 25th. I thought I'd better get some final mileage out of it, so took the opportunity to grab a trip up to Scotland to see an old friend in Edinburgh. She was training to be a doctor, and preparing for exams, while her fiancé was something in engineering. I got the spare bedroom for four nights, and they opened my eyes to dim sum (which I hated), rollmops (which I loved) and the miraculous things you could do with mince.

By the fourth day they had lives to attend to and I was left to my own devices, so decided to get on the train and explore. First I went to Glasgow, which was a European City of Culture that year, but spent most of my time walking round the shops because it wasn't easy to work out where all the interesting bits were before the internet. Returning to Edinburgh early I realised I had time for a bonus journey, so bought a ticket for a ride across the Forth Railway Bridge so I could say I'd been. The ironwork was misty and it rained. I got out on the other side at North Queensferry and then struggled to find my way over to the Forth Road Bridge, which proved harder to reach than it looked. 20 minutes of wet, windswept walking followed, at height, feeling the vibrations as the traffic roared past, and grinning broadly.

After my bridge hike I boarded a train from Dalmeny, rather than walk back through the maelstrom, and finally returned to base a dripping rat. A jacket potato and a bath warmed me up, and then we unexpectedly spent the evening at the theatre. I wouldn't normally have gone to see a Jeffrey Archer dramatisation, but this was Beyond Reasonable Doubt, and Frank Finlay and Wendy Craig were both excellent. The following day was genuinely the last day my Young Person's Railcard was valid, as the inspector noted when he checked my return ticket on the way back to London. I enjoyed my discounted view, and a Stephen King novel, and survived all the way to King's Cross on just an apple. By Friday I was paying full price for a ticket to Bromley South, because I was suddenly 'old', although that's not quite how I view it now 28 years later.

Saturday 17th January 1998: Bedford → Wickford  [£13.95]

In 1998 going on a blind date wasn't easy. If you wanted to meet somebody interesting you couldn't just swipe right, your paths had to cross... at work, in the street, down the pub, or whilst doing that hobby you enjoyed. But this was the day a digital rendezvous sent me on a blind date, and one that actually worked, or so I believed at the time. We might never have met, because there was this annual event I had to go to for my job, and normally that meant attending on a Saturday. But this particular year my boss had allowed me to attend on the Friday, during work time, which meant I had the weekend unexpectedly free. I'd also recently signed up to this new thing called the internet, and had been discovering new (and somewhat primitive) ways to connect. So on the Friday evening I logged in, and up popped someone who sounded highly intriguing, and they expressed a mutual interest. Go on, I thought, what have I got to lose?

On the Saturday morning we stretched to a phone call, and on the Saturday afternoon I pointed out that trains existed and I could be in Essex within two hours. There was no time to stop and think, and within half an hour I was down at Bedford station buying the ticket you see above. I must have been optimistic because I bought a Network Away Break, rather than a day return. On the journey down to St Pancras I stuck some Depeche Mode on my Walkman and read a Dr Who book - both things which I suspect would have terminated what was about to happen had they ever been revealed. My Underground connection then let me down, so I missed my planned Southend train, and I had to find a phone box to apologise rather than gauchely turning up half an hour late. I can remember sitting at the front of the next train, butterflies rumbling, wondering if I was totally wasting my time.

I finally reached Wickford station at seven o'clock, scanned down the road outside for a navy Audi, and climbed in. How trusting we all were in those days, although my eyes were already screaming "oh hell yes" as we pulled away. Home wasn't far away, and I got a quick tour, from the fishtank in the living room to the riding boots by the back door. And then we headed off for a meal, at The Bell in Horndon on the Hill, where the nouveau cuisine steak with horseradish dumplings was a bit of a disappointment. But the conversation flowed freely, and the body language bode well, which was confirmed when we took off for a promenade on Southend seafront. Oh the glamour.

A blind date never went so well, before or since. That's why my used ticket pile is full of returns to Wickford from that weekend on, right up until the point they stopped because I wasn't living in Bedford any more. Looking back I don't think we once went on a train together, because Audi drivers don't tend to do that kind of thing. Perhaps this should have been a hint that we weren't quite as well matched as I thought, although there were far more glaring clues I should have picked up sooner. During the next two years the excellent bits were excellent and the awful bits were awful, and to say it didn't end well would be an understatement. But I absolutely wouldn't be here in London today if I hadn't bought that rail ticket 20 years ago today, and you wouldn't be reading this. On some small cardboard rectangles, entire lives turn.

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