An Unseasonable Morning
A cold, sharp, snowy morning, early spring, a sky filled with snow; a glare of light perceivable through the white and black branches of the trees, silently standing in high relief. With every breath I took, the air seemed sharper still.
London Bridge station, mostly empty of people, and with an uneven, barricaded concourse, tricky to navigate by so many diversions and obstructions made getting to the platform, usually straight on, an unfathomable minefield.
Wrapping my scarf tighter round my neck, I pulled my woollen walking hat down over my nape and then hurrying along in well-worn, comfortable hiking boots, went this way, and that, looping back in spurious patterns leading to nowhere as directed by signposts, barriers and bollards, until finally I arrived at a very high escalator. To my horror there was a sign saying the escalators were suspended.
Two minutes till the train would depart! Two! I didn’t hesitate to take the stairs. What else was there? Flying? I strode up the stairs two at a time. Glancing behind me, I heard footsteps then saw a lady teetering on heels, clutching her grey felt beret, her herringbone coat, tailor-made, no doubt, buttoned on the diagonal mincing up the stairs as quickly as she could.
‘Hurry,’ I said, as I stood with one foot inside the train and one on the platform. I watched as she dashed across the platform, heels clattering and then finally, her teeth gritted against the cold and exertion, she collapsed in to the train with seconds to spare. Ironically slowly, the train pulled away.
‘Thank you,’ she said leaning back in her seat. ‘What have they done to this station?’
I shook my head drearily. ‘To have made it better, we must fly!’ I rallied. ‘What else is there for covering long distances? Golf buggies?’
She sat in the next set of seats along, gazing from me, shaking her head, as though the sight of me brought back the memory of the horrendous climb up the stairs, to the view of Battersea Power Station sailing by on her left. But then she moved to the seat opposite, tutting and said ‘I don’t usually do this, ‘but it’ll be all right, we are only going a few stops.’
I smiled. The paranoid Londoner. Rarely do we talk to strangers; it is out of our comfort zone. Passengers were getting off and on, shrouded in all kinds of warm garbs, tied and coiled and plonked on heads, faces and necks; hands stuffed into pockets without a single exchange.
“My husband’s gone to Brussels you see. I could have gone,’ she said, ‘but I’m interested in trees.’
‘I am too! In fact I’m going in a wood now. Walking,’ I added.
‘Isn’t everything an effort though?’ she continued. ‘Getting older’s no fun, is it? And doesn’t time fly? I mean I didn’t go to university when I was nineteen, so I can still remember it.’
‘Oh,’ I said, ‘very topical. My son’s going soon.’
‘But I must be much older than you.’ She flicked her lashes.
‘I’m fifty,’ I said.
She stretched her eyes wide and let out a little laugh. Tugging her burgundy leather gloves on a bit more, she continued, ‘At fifty, I was at university.’ She looked behind her and sniffed. ‘A good age to go. I was doing an MA.’ She leaned in a little closer. Not that I was sure why, there was no one nearby to hear except for a girl with long black hair in the next carriage staring at her mobile phone. ‘My daughter’s in Edinburgh.’
‘Oh at University?’ I inquired.
‘No she’s not gone to university.’ She looked at her feet, then said, ‘I was going to the dentist I’ve had such trouble with a tooth. This one’s not Jewish but an Irish Catholic though he flies out to Las Vegas on Mondays for four days or so.’ She dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand.
‘Oh really. I. . .’ I was about to ask if he was any good as I was in need of a dentist myself when she returned to the subject of trees.
‘Trees, I’m getting them from the Cotswold’s, a Japonica Pieris Blanca. I love them. Japonicas. Good in shaded areas. Grows tall, white flowers. The gardener, Eduardo’s, Italian, but he flies in from New York on a Monday. . . That sort of thing.’ She looked down at my gaitors, up at my walking trousers and back down to the muddied walking boots, and paused.
‘I told my daughter to just go for the money – life’s nothing without money. Nothing. You can’t do anything. A painter. . .’ She raised her eyes to the ceiling then smiled squarely at me, before I could ask what she meant by that remark, she said, ‘No money there!’ She smiled and pulled her coat roughly across herself, though the ten denier tights showed the white of her knees.
‘What does your husband do?’ I asked. And she replied, ‘I‘ve bought an obelisk,’ then, changing the subject mid-sentence again, ‘I do see my children, but my husband who’s in Brussels, I’ve said that already,’ she giggled, ‘is in dreadful debt. Silly aren’t they, men? They are never good with money, I’ve told him, but he doesn’t listen, I could have had all that straight, if he’d just let me. . .’
‘What is the debt for?’ I quickly asked: you had to get in quick – in fact as soon as she’d said what you thought was going to be the last word, before the subject was changed.
‘Our second house, in Cheltenham, £220,000 back then but we got a detached home for it.’
‘Where do you live? I asked, if that’s your second home? Oh Warwick Avenue? Then you perhaps know Tony Robinson? I know a family who live near him.’
‘Ooh Anthony! Yes! I just got him to sign up to the Labour party.’
‘Ah Labour,’ I said, ‘yes I’m a member. But perhaps I can help you? Why don’t you take in lodgers? I know where you can get hold of people wanting rooms. . .’
‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘my son told me all about Air B and B – and even if you’ve not got a room there are people grateful for just a sofa! And it might just save our bacon.’ I told her how I was embarking on a venture to buy a house when she quickly stood up and declared it was her stop.
‘Good bye,’ she said tugging once more on her gloves, then swiftly dusted down the seat of her coat. The doors closed behind her and she briskly sashayed down the platform. As the train pulled past her, I smiled and waved, but she didn’t look at me.
© J A Dexter