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December 9, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

Riding the rails

Train Travelling by train is one of the pleasures of being in England. On the one hand, everything works. The timetables are frequently updated, the instructions for using the ticket-vending machines are intelligible, the turnstiles at underground stations don't jam or malfunction. On the other hand, England is one of the few places in the world where I can listen in to all the conversations going on around me. Travelling becomes a type of continuous entertainment, with open-ended novels, short stories and art films occupying the seats on every side of me.

On my recent trip, I travelled to three different locations outside of London and didn't have any trouble at all, despite being the sort of nervous traveller who likes to get to the station two hours ahead of time and still almost misses the train. I am so used to assuming that nothing will go right during a journey that, even on this trip, I tried quite hard to get lost on my way to the train, to misunderstand the difference between the destination and the route the train would take and to sit down in a first class seat while holding a second class ticket in my hand, but was set back on the right path each time.

En route to Oxford, there was a party of senior students from what seemed like a well-heeled girls school travelling, quizzing one another on problems in mathematics. En route to Southampton, there was a friendly horsey young woman who was concerned about the changes in train schedules which might require backtracking for a short distance of her way.

En route to Plymouth, there was beside me a nervy little woman holding a bright orange basket on her lap in the manner of someone who wants to talk about the contents of their bright orange basket. Sure enough, she was carrying her Cornish Rex with her, a female, which she was taking to be mated with the only suitable partner in all of south England. And she allowed me a glimpse of the cat within the basket, slender and russet black with the curiously curly fur, like feline corduroy, which is the distinguishing feature of the breed.

When she got off, a bad-tempered young mother with two toddlers occupied the seats directly in front of mine. The daughter was perhaps under two years old, the son was almost four. The mother snarled at her two children non-stop for the remaining one-and-a-half hours of the journey, causing the surrounding passengers to all look in her direction with expressions of mute dismay.

She had a north country accent (or what I believed was one, anyway) and wore cheap aviator-frame glasses with bright blue lenses. The children had the startled and apologetic expressions of those whose only experience of life has been grim. I found myself imagining various soap operas around this unhappy tableau: An abusive marriage. Living on the dole and a problem with drink, perhaps?

Meanwhile, across the aisle from me, was a study in contrast: A single mother travelling with her precocious 11-year-old son, playing avid games of cards and Othello, laughing and talking animatedly. She was clearly a high-powered journalist, arranging interviews for the week ahead when she returned from her holiday, over her cell-phone. For all the matey interaction with her son, however, there was an edge of tension, as if the two of them did not often go on outings together, for which reason she was the one teaching him how to play, being clearly an old hand herself. Recently separated perhaps, I thought and coping very well? Her young son torn between two intelligent and charming parents? Were they going to be with her parents or the boy's father? It was almost disappointing to have to get off the train with so many stories left unfinished!

The London underground, meanwhile, qualifies in my mind as one of the seven wonders of the modern world. The sheer volume of travellers at peak hour leaves the unwary tourist gasping. Yet the signs and route-displays showing the combinations of stations along the maze of options made it all seem like some sort of extraordinary game. Heightening this impression were the other passengers. What a carnival of human types and costumes! The overwhelming chic, so far as I could see, was to be un-chic. Black was by far and away the most popular colour except when it came to hair, which ranged from many shades of blonde and kinky to pink, purple and spiky.

I was surprised to find Halloween being observed in the American style, which meant that large numbers of young persons took to the streets on October 31, dressed as ghouls and fairies, collecting 'trick or treat's. One young woman entered the underground compartment I was in, dressed in a pink tutu with a tinsel halo floating on wires attached to her hairband. As the automatic doors of the train closed, the guard on board called out his routine warning over the PA system, "The doors are closing, watch the doors -- and the passenger with the halo… you're looking nice!"

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Manjula Padmanabhan