I’m always being told to slow down; I rush around madly and people can never keep up, and even when I’m standing still, I seem to encourage people to suggest that I should calm down when I actually feel quite chilled, other than perhaps some frustration at the listener’s inability to keep my pace and his or her misinterpretation of my mood. I’ve noticed that people I’ve been talking to more often seem to pause too long when I’m done as they sift through the numerous thoughts and statements I had blurted out in what they had initially expected to be just one sentence. Or I hear ‘Hold on, one question at a time.’ And I do walk super-quickly; I can’t help myself, and I curse in my mind the surrounding slow people who delay me, with only occasional pangs of guilt about that. This is me, and I doubt I’ll change.
I have been given two strong signs recently that I should slow down, though. Nothing like a heart attack, though the second thing nearly proved fatal. The first was just stupid. Not foolish exactly, as I can see perfectly clearly how it happened. It just felt stupid.
The other morning, I was coming in a bit late to work as it was the first day for some time when I had no early meetings, but the off-peak train service was worse, and there were no direct trains to London Cannon Street. So it took a slow hour to get from my home in Kent to London Bridge Station, where I would change trains and arrive at Cannon Street a few minutes later. I could easily walk from there; it’s surely less than a mile away, but it’s quicker to get one of the regular Cannon Street trains leaving from platform 2 or 3 (they always change with seconds’ notice once you have walked the entire length of the wrong platform). As my train approached London Bridge Station, I could see a Cannon Street train already waiting there, so I manoeuvred myself to the door so that I could be the first one out, and rush to the nearby staircase to change platforms. I am sufficiently desperate and shameless not to mind running up the stairs amidst the crowd then practically hurling myself down the other stairs to the platform to get the Cannon Street train before it leaves. As I am tremendously quick, I almost always manage to make this transfer against all odds.
That day, I was just as proud as always to slide through the doors of the Cannon Street train just before they shut. I paused for a moment’s relief and to catch my breath, then began to move towards the front of the train, but the train was weird, nothing like the normal crowded aisles with crammed seats on either side. It had curved corridors and a first class compartment, unlike the commuter trains with which I was familiar. I felt instantly alarmed and tried to move back to the door but my way was blocked by some student tourists, and then I felt the train start off in the wrong direction. I glanced through the window at the monitors on the platform to see that I was not, in fact, on the train that would deliver me to Cannon Street in three minutes, but rather on the train headed for Hastings, East Sussex, on the south coast. About 70 miles away. I tried to remain calm, figuring that the train would reach its next stop soon and I could get off and change, perhaps at Lewisham or Greenwich. But the first stop was Sevenoaks.
For those of you unfamiliar with the areas, Sevenoaks is about 30 miles away, further out in Kent than the place from whence I had just spent an hour travelling. So that can’t be a good thing. And I had meetings later that morning that I could not miss. It got worse. I had no ticket to travel on this train. My annual ticket only covers my usual route from my station to central London and back. Now I was taking an unwanted detour that could tie me up for several hours when I needed to get to work, and on top of that, I would either have to fork out a fortune for a return ticket to somewhere I did not want to go, or I might be prosecuted for fare dodging, as the rail companies are not known for their sympathy. I was mortified.
It does sound amusing now. But at the time, I was gripped with fear and fury at my stupidity (a matter of turning left at the bottom of the stairs at London Bridge out of habit, rather than right where the Cannon Street waited on a lesser used platform).
I initially just stood by the door, as if refusing to take a seat and settle into this journey against my will might help my plight. I quickly faced up to being in for a long haul and took a seat, but kept my jacket on and didn’t take anything out of my case to read or do as I was still on some sort of silent wilful protest. Plus, I had to figure out a plan and notify work.
I could not bring myself to ring them. Everyone around me, all those who were not accidental passengers but apparently perfectly happy to head for Hastings, would have surely smirked and chuckled when overhearing my desperate phone call, adding acid to the wound. I suppose they would have a right to dismiss me as the idiot I was, but I chose the coward’s way of silently emailing two colleagues about my ‘SERIOUS PROBLEM!!!’ as I overstated at the time in my subject line. They must have opened the message with real trepidation about what horrific revelation awaited them—perhaps involving a lost limb or some sort of explosion--only to laugh for an age at what I had done. I’m sure that’s how I would have handled it were I on the carefree other side.
My colleagues came back with kind, sympathetic and reassuring messages, promising to stand in for me at my meetings if I did not return in time, not letting on about their fumblings for the necessary papers that they were quickly trying to learn. They kindly suppressed laughter in their written words and one claimed to have almost done the same thing several times before. The other encouraged me to sit back and relax, listen to music and read a book. Bless them; if only it seemed possible.
Instead, I frantically tried to find via the Internet on my phone the train timetable for this foreign line, but had trouble getting a connection for some reason, perhaps because the train was moving so fast, which at least seemed a good sign. I cowered low in the seat like the criminal I felt I was, guiltily waiting with dread for the guard to come into the carriage to check tickets, which I normally barely notice as I never break the rules, but now seemed to spell my doom. I had no ticket; I was a stowaway.
When the guard finally came, shouting ‘tickets please’ and slowly making his way towards me after checking that all of the goody-two-shoe passengers had proof that they had paid for their journeys, his footsteps seemed to pound towards me, every step amplified as he approached my row. When he was standing beside me, tall and foreboding, I lowered my voice and explained that I guess I had to buy a ticket (in hopes that was at least an option) because, actually, I was just trying to get the Cannon Street train and didn’t mean to be on this train at all. It sounded hilarious as I heard it out loud, but I would have accepted him mocking me; that would have been preferable to issuing me with some massive fine and criminal record (do they really do that? The posters threaten that and I’ve never really cared because it would never apply to me). He studied my face in silence for a moment.
I must have passed the test. I clearly looked obviously very, very stupid or, and I can guarantee this one: very, very stressed. And I was wearing a stuffy suit, had my briefcase and was emailing on my phone so I perhaps looked more like someone headed for the City of London at this time of day than seeking a day out at the seaside. His face sort of flinched with what I read to be tired disgust, and he consulted some little machine he was carrying as I braced myself for the news that I owed a shocking amount that I was unlikely to have with me. He screwed up his face further like a disappointed science teacher, practically made tutting noises but seemed to just about manage some restraint, and said he guessed I wanted to know the time for the next train from Sevenoaks to London so I could get to Cannon Street. I didn’t dare let relief set in and still waited for bad news, but he just reeled off a few route options and stunned me with the news that this was such a fast train that we were due to pull into Sevenoaks in the next five minutes. Sadly, he told me, the next London train would leave one minute after that, so I’d have to wait half an hour for another train, and all of my options involved another change at London Bridge for Cannon Street. For the first time, that thought struck fear into my heart. I'd demonstrated that I was incapable of such a trick.
As he continued to explore his magic machine, I looked out the window across the aisle for the first time, and I saw countryside. Real green stuff, big chunks of it. Fields with sheep and horses and haystacks. Wow. If only I hadn’t been so absorbed with my plight, I might have sat back and enjoyed the journey. To this day, despite having lived here about 20 years now, I love looking out train windows to see the gorgeous scenery of England. It’s just that my normal journey shows a lot of dirty dull buildings, warehouses and crumbling blocks of flats.
The guard eventually left me after saying I needed to tell that story to the guard on the London train, and he spoke in a bit of a snooty tone to me, but never asked for money. He was either very kind or I easily passed for a pitiful fool. Either way, I was thrilled. The train drew into Sevenoaks and I was determined to make that train that left for London in one minute. I flew out of the carriage as soon as the door opened and rushed up the stairs, racing across to what I thought the signs that appeared as a blur suggested would be the London platform, ran down the stairs and leapt through the doors of the train waiting there, ecstatic to have made it. Wait a minute, I thought, have I learned nothing?! I stuck my head out of the train and looked down the platform towards the screen that confirmed that it was, indeed, the London train. Hurrah.
This train was more crowded so I was forced to take a seat across from a gaggle of teenagers. I thought what a field day they would have when I was flogged for fare dodging on this train. The other train’s guard gave me hope that this guard might also accept my entirely true but pathetic story, but I still ducked down and felt a sense of fear and stilted panic as I waited for the moment when the guard came into our carriage to find me, the fugitive. When you think about it, they would have more reason to prosecute me for being on this train without a ticket, because I did technically knowingly board the train at Sevenoaks without a ticket. I was probably expected to miss this train, report to the ticket office and hand over my credit card before getting the later train. But I hadn’t.
Fortunately, the guard was an even kinder one on this train, a woman who didn’t loudly repeat or react to what I as saying so that she might delight the teenage audience across the aisle. I could easily have been lying this time, just someone heading to London, late for work, but maybe I had an honest face, or maybe she figured it unlikely that someone would have the gall to suggest such a stupid story, casting themselves as the dunce in order to escape paying for the journey. She stopped just short of patting me on the shoulder in sympathy as she just nodded and moved on. Bless her. Maybe I looked even more stressed than I felt, if that were possible.
This train travelled much more slowly but because the Hastings train had raced along like an airport express, there was a chance that I would make my meeting. When I finally reached London Bridge again, where over an hour before, I had arrived thinking I had only a few minutes left of my journey, I thought it best to walk to Cannon Street; it would take longer but seemed safest. But then I saw that a Cannon Street train was due to leave from another platform in just two minutes, so again I raced up and down the stairs towards that platform, this time repeating in my head with each step: “Turn left, turn left, turn left, turn LEFT!’, and I duly did, and this time, uh, left was right. I still double checked the screens on the platform to ensure I was on the right train—and have done that repeatedly before boarding any train ever since-- and off I went, having taken an unexpected trip to the countryside and over an hour to reach this mere moment’s departure from London Bridge on the Cannon Street train.
When I arrived at work, I slunk towards my desk through the back way, approaching my colleagues with an expression of shame mixed with an accepting smile, fully prepared for everyone in the vicinity to begin applauding or laughing or beginning to never let me forget it. But it looked as though my potential saviours had kept it quiet and were just relieved that I made it in time to spare them having to step in for me. Naturally, rather than sensibly keep it quiet, I ended up telling half the people individually of my adventure. It usually meets with a smile. Just yesterday, someone told me they spent the weekend in Sevenoaks with family. ‘I’ve been to Sevenoaks!’ I piped in enthusiastically, ‘…for about 30 seconds.’
The other incident a few days before was a much quicker tale, but nearly more devastating. I was rushing, as always, racing from home towards the local train station on what should be a 20-minute brisk walk, but which I always have to do in 13. I had just cut through the cemetery to reach a busy but narrow road that is difficult to cross, and I usually walk up it for a bit in hopes that I will find a break in the school traffic before the fork that leads me off in the wrong direction. Today, I saw that there seemed to be a teeny break right away, so without pausing, I just darted through the cemetery gates and onto the road, keeping a worried eye on the car approaching from the right as I tried to move out of that first lane into what I thought was now a clear lane. I began to step forward into the opposite lane, but my right shoe started to slip off slightly (I usually wear trainers—see my tale of my foot saga—so my feet are usually tightly secured in the shoe, but today I was wearing loose flats as I was due to meet people after work). For a split second, I paused, and a big red van suddenly passed two inches from my face. In other words, I had somehow completely missed seeing that a van was racing towards me on the lane I was about to step into. When I initially launched into the road, I checked for traffic coming that way, but think I did so through the windows of cars passing in the near lane, and there must have been a blind spot; I hadn’t realised. Somehow I did not see this van at all and thought the road was briefly clear. If I had stepped forward as intended without the brief shudder of a pause, it would have instantly wiped me out. No time for braking, screaming, or moving—I was stepping directly into its immediate path and would have been whisked away or crushed immediately, perhaps before the driver even understood what that huge thud was. It took my breath away; I don’t know what it did for the driver, although he might have imagined I had no intention of doing anything but waiting for him to pass, though I was standing tantalisingly close. However, when I reached the other side of the road, barely breathing, a pedestrian walking in my direction had huge eyes, wide with a terror as though he had just seen a ghost. He looked at me as though I should not be there, and then slowly passed by me in a dreamy, stunned state, still with those huge eyes.
I found, when I finally sat on the train, that I was shaking just a bit.
After work, I met friends for a drink and then dinner but then had to return to the office at 10pm to finish up some things and get some work to take home with me. Later I looked back and realised that I could have worn trainers after all as I had returned to the office after going out, so I could have changed shoes then (I keep normal flats in my desk drawer). Then it hit me that, had I done so, I would probably be dead.
When I returned home late to hungry cats, I realised that I very easily might not have done. It might have been some authorities coming in instead, eventually, to sort out my affairs. I’m not normally so sentimental, and I’ve had close misses before, though never that seriously close, so this really had me looking around my flat with different eyes. (Can I just say now, having examined my flat with those eyes, that the reason it’s in such a disgusting cluttered state is that I’m always, always working and when I do get home, I am doing more work or I fall asleep exhausted right away, and I was planning to clean it soon! Don’t let the world report that I had a secret identity as some crazy hoarding bag lady. It’s unfair that people can comb through your home and judge you on how you left it last when you were certain that you’d have a chance to tidy it and sort things out when you got back. I wonder now if I should leave a note saying ‘I was planning to vacuum this weekend, honest! I’ve just been really busy….’)
A few weeks after these incidents, I do find that, as I charge across the London streets with my usual cocky arrogance and certain invincibility that I’ve always had, which made my friends turn pale, I suddenly realise that I’m just as fragile as anyone and I try to take more care. Not as much care as I should, but I do have a new respect for traffic. Unfortunately, I’m sure it will wear off. The moral of the story, of both stories, is slow down and be calm--like everyone is always telling me. But I just can’t see it. I’ve got to be me.