There was recently a massive shake up at my office, with everyone moving desks, crossing corridors, and generally coming to grips with spending the day in a different location than usual. I have a coveted new spot by the window, overlooking the touch of green space that is the courtyard. It’s both a blessing and a curse: it’s great to be able to look up from my computer monitor every so often and see out, but at the same time it’s a reminder that I cannot fully enjoy a beautiful summer’s day.
It reminded me of a story I wrote a few years ago when I was commuting to Bristol, which I’ll admit was a bit of fictional wish fulfillment. I found the litany of stops between home and Penzance a hypnotising siren’s song, and so imagined the logical conclusion. That is the only resemblance between this story and reality though. My boss was never unreasonable, I’ve never been to Penzance so have no ideas whether ticket barriers are in operation, and I can almost guarantee a train inspector won’t let you travel that far without a valid ticket!
Follow the link to read on …
It’s way too early to be awake, she thought, let alone to be going to work. She glanced at her phone. 7:07. At the station in twenty-three minutes. Another ten minutes to get to her office, a few more to make a cup of tea and get settled. And then? Another day at her desk, much the same as the day before, which was pretty much the same as all the days of the previous week.
That was when her boss, usually a level-headed man, decided that it would be more useful if she were at her desk at 8:00am, rather than the more civilised 9:00am. Useful to whom, she wasn’t sure since he himself didn’t get in until 9:30am most days, but she had dutifully shown up by the newly appointed time the last seven working days. However, the train schedule meant she had to get the slower 7:00am service, which took an extra ten minutes to get into the city and got her there with twenty minutes to spare.
She thought longingly of her “normal” service, the 8:21am express that she had been riding the past two years. It had gotten to the point where she and some of the other regular commuters would smile at each other in greeting; in just a few more months she thought they might be willing to say good morning to one another. Now, she was on a train with businessmen in suits and other bleary-eyed office workers like herself, all lost in their own little world.
She got to leave at 4:00pm of course; her boss fully recognised that she should be able to leave an hour earlier. But there was the blasted train schedule again. Rather than walking directly from her office to the waiting 5:15 like she previously did, she had to wait until the 4:35. There was a train at 4:05, which would have been perfect, but when she asked her boss if she could leave just a few minutes earlier (“After all,” she had said, smiling her most winning smile, “I actually start working at 7:50am”), he had looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head. “No, I’m afraid that will set a bad example to everyone else. I don’t want them all to get into the habit of knocking off a few minutes early each day.” He looked at her earnestly. “I have to be fair to everyone, you know.” So, short of running to the station at full pelt at the stroke of 4:00pm, it had to be the 4:35pm. And once everything was added up, she got home a grand total of fifteen minutes earlier each day. A lousy fifteen minutes. She involuntarily sighed as she recollected the failed conversation with her boss. The businessman across the table from her open his eyes briefly at the sound, then closed them again, seemingly dead to the world. She turned to look out the window at the passing countryside. It was, she had to admit, a beautiful day. The summer sunshine made everything glow: the green fields, the trees in full leaf, even the buildings in the sleepy Cotswolds villages shone a beautiful yellow in the morning light. Having to spend time in the office on a day like this felt like another injustice.
7:18am. The train pulled into one of the smaller stations on the line where it would pick up a smattering of commuters. The train manager spoke up, “This is the 7:18 service to Penzance. Our next station is Bristol in twelve minutes time. That’s one-two. The train will then be stopping at Taunton, Exeter St. David’s, Newton Abbot, Totnes …”
She had started to tune out the announcement, a habit born of many train journeys, but this time she let the names wash over her. “… St. Austell, Truro, Redruth, St. Erth, Penzance.” It all sounded so exotic, so full of potential. She had been to Penzance once on a school trip, and remembered how blue the water was and the feel of the sand between her toes as she and her friends raced along the sweep of the beach. They had finished the day with an ice cream, savouring its sweet coldness before getting back on the bus for the long journey home.
“Bristol, now approaching Bristol. Please be careful stepping from the train onto the platform edge, and make sure you have all of your belongings. This is Bristol.” She stood up and grabbed her bag. Nearly everyone else in the carriage was following suit. The businessman across from her had woken up and shuffled into the aisle, and the queue of commuters began its orderly disembarkation from the train.
She hesitated just a moment, then sat back down. She watched the mass exodus as the train emptied, depositing people onto the platform from where they disappeared down stairways into the depth of the station. It was a route she knew well, one she followed every day on auto pilot. But not today.
A few people clambered on board the train, and it was soon pulling away from the station. The train manager’s disembodied voice returned: “This is the 7:30am train to Penzance. Our next station is Taunton, followed by Exeter St. David’s, Newton Abbot, Totnes, Plymouth …”
She leaned forward on the table, watching the world go by and enjoying the novelty of new scenery and different stations. The train carriage slowly filled up again, this time with daytrippers and families out to take advantage of the beautiful weather. At one point she thought she heard a muffled ring from her phone, but she ignored it.
“All tickets and passes, please, all tickets and passes.” The ticket collector was making his way through the carriage, quickly glancing at tickets, stamping them, and returning them to their owner. He reached her seat and reached out automatically for her ticket, not looking up but rather at the space he expected the ticket to appear.
“Would it be possible to upgrade my ticket?” she asked.
“To where?” he had yet to look up, and instead reached for his ticketing machine.
He raised the machine to enter in the new details, but upon seeing her Bristol pass he frowned in puzzlement. He finally looked up at her, taking in her office attire and raised an eyebrow.
“Playing hooky, are we?”
“Well, yes, actually I am,” she said, relishing the excitement she felt at actually saying it out loud.
“It’s too beautiful a day to pass up.” She gestured out the window to where the countryside continued to roll by under a cloudless sky. A hint of the
sea could be seen glittering in the distance.
He chuckled. “Fair enough.” He lowered the ticket machine and winked at her. “There aren’t any barriers in Penzance.” He moved on. “All tickets and passes, please, all tickets and passes.”
It was just after 12:00pm when she arrived at Penzance. She blinked as her eyes adjusted from the darkness of the station to the brightness of the Cornish town. After a quick check of the Tourist Information map at the front of the station, she navigated her way to the shore. The beach was busy with children on their summer break and holidaymakers but just as beautiful as she had remembered. The blue of the sky merged with the water,
and the white boats bobbing out at sea completed the picture.
She bought an ice cream cone from a vendor and, picking her away across the crowded beach, found her own patch of sand. She spread her coat on it and sat down, being careful not to spill a drop of ice cream. Using one hand, she undid her shoes and buried her feet in the sand, wiggling her toes in its delightful warmth.
She had almost finished the cone when her phone rang. It was her boss. “I am so sorry, you didn’t get any of my messages? …. Yeah, there were some problems with the train and I’m afraid I can’t make it in today … Of course, I’ll make up the time … Yes, I’ll see you tomorrow.” She hung up, turned the phone off, and popped the last bit of ice cream cone in her mouth.