Saturday, 19 February 2011

Ten days to go: the countdown really now begins in earnest

It's a very strange period in one's life. A very small part of it, to be sure, but one that I'll never forget. The last few days before the operation that will permanently change me.

Nearly everything that should be arranged, or bought, or seen to, has been. It's all under control. I've insisted on having time to myself for reflection, but I've also set up one or two last social events to provide anchor moments in the Final Countdown, as tension naturally increases. But I'm spending next weekend, the last weekend, in utter solitude. In deep quarantine in fact, although the retreat from public appearances (and the risk of public infection) has already commenced.

Tomorrow I'm thinking of going off somewhere like Cambridge, a pretty long day out. Cambridge on a Sunday, with bells ringing. It may be wet, but no matter, I will shoot the place in drab melancholy if need be. But I hope that at some point the sun will come out and magically illuminate the architecture of academia.

I haven't been to Cambridge since 21 June 1986, when my wife and I took the train there on a day out from Wimbledon. It was in the days of British Rail. Or rather the days of Network SouthEast, that autonomous part of BR that controlled - in an integrated fashion - all rail services in the south east corner of England, extending quite a way into East Anglia and the Midlands and the West Country. The entire London commuter catchment area in fact. To promote their identity, and the leisure possibilities of  weekend rail travel, Network SouthEast were holding a 'Network Day'. It was a Saturday of absolutely free rail travel - hop on a train, first come first served, and go where you liked, for as long as you liked, for as many times as you liked, any seats, any station. Needless to say averyone in London who could get away that Saturday flooded the mainline stations and departed for towns and wayside halts they'd never ever been to before. It was a fantastic, jolly adventure for all on the way out. No problems; all excitement; nobody disappointed. And the sun shone! It was a wonderful summer's day.

W--- and I had a gorgeous, self-indulgent, enthralling but ultimately footsore time in Cambridge. I remember having a pizza on the edge of some park on the way back to the station, which was a long way from the town centre. Just as well we did. Because the difficulties of getting home were about to begin!

At that time, and it may still be so, Cambridge station was a weird curiosity. Instead of having two or more platforms, it only had one very, very long one. Which meant that you might have two trains waiting there, in different sections of the same immensely long platform. This was odd and confusing. But then it was all compounded by poor announcements (the staff were, by the early evening, knocking off for the day, and in any case were probably worn out with dealing with enquiries, and pointing people in the right direction), a shortage of trains to get home on (the ordinary timetable had been abandoned), and the pressure of a mass of hot, thirsty and hungry people who'd had their fun, were now very tired, and wanted to get home and put their feet up. It had been an exhausting day for most. We milled around, not knowing what to do for the best. It wasn't clear where trains, when they turned up, might be going. Whether the train you were standing next to was the one to catch, or the one at the far end of this strange platform. The press of people meant that you couldn't just saunter up the platform and ask a guard. Any change of mind about which train to get on meant somehow pushing a way through au unyielding cordon of tightly-packed bodies, unwilling to give an inch.

We did eventually get home, and with seats, but it was on a slow, crawling train via Royston and Stevenage. How glad we were to reach the comparatively civilised London Underground system! A spirit of excitement still lingered. I recall having a lively conversation with people who'd stayed at home, but were still eager to know where we'd been. Apparently some had ventured deep into the far reaches of the Thames valley, or to the Wash at King's Lynn, or to the Dorset coast at Weymouth. Some had planned a complex journey to all points of the compass, taking in as many railway lines as possible within the twelve hours available. And there were no doubt some who got off at places like Pewsey in Wiltshire, or Ascott-under-Wychwood on the Cotswolds, or spent too long at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex, and never got home that day.

My goodness, what a long digression down Memory Lane! But then, digressions and distractions like this are needed to while away these final days.

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