In the spirit of this whole new 'just do' attitude, I have decided to embrace spontaneity. After all life, even with seemingly infinite life expectancies we enjoy these days, let's say active, agile, ache-free life is just too short. One must grab the nettle, seize the day, carpe diem, etcetera etcetera.
So, with that, I decided to make a trip to Bath. Well, as lovely as Exeter is, Bath is just that little bit more chi-chi, more aesthetically-pleasing, more sandy-stoned and sophisticated, and better lined with a multitude of retail gems and art galleries of every variety to mooch about. A friend was showing in one of the aforementioned galleries and I thought, I know, I'll pop down the M5 to Bristol (an hour ish), drop the little ones off at granny's and get the train from her to Bath (a mere 30 mins) What could be easier? A child-free afternoon to peruse shops, sup frothy lattes, then call in on friend's exhibition opening, before heading back to scoop up the girls and drive home.
I fed the girls an early lunch, bunged them in the car and headed to Yatton (outskirts of Bristol). Granny and Gramps were there to welcome their grandchildren with open arms and me with a cup of tea before giving me a lift to the local station, where a couple of minutes later the Bath train pulled in. I hopped on, sat back and sighed a long sigh of unadulterated bliss as the train chugged away from Yatton's platform. 'Why on earth had I not thought of this before?' I thought to myself, as I reached for my book, 'Everywhere's so accessible these days. We must do more. This was what life was all about.'
We stopped a while at Bristol Temple Meads which on finishing my chapter gave me the opportunity to people-watch. People-watching is something that I've missed somewhat since we moved to the countryside. There are simply not enough in the country to get away with it. There were plenty here in Bristol though, all bustling and weaving between one another to get on, get out, no time to waste. Ah, that busy executive lifestyle, I remember, slaves to routine, slick as clockwork. I returned to my book. The train moved on.
It was some time before my chosen intercity began to slow on approach to the next station, and I checked my watch. This was after all, supposed to be 30 minute journey - we'd probably been stationary in Bristol Temple Meads for about 15 minutes of that. My shopping spree was being eaten into, but never mind, this was still a pleasure cruise away from the children, even if some shops would be curtailed.
We stopped at the station and I looked up lazily from my book to check where we were. I noticed, with a start, that the station's name was in Welsh. I squinted, and as the cogs in my brain began to click and whirr, considered whether there was any possibility that we needed to nudge across the Welsh border en route to Bath - my geography is appalling (refer to map). I shuffled in my seat a little but not much because a rather wide young man promptly planted himself next to me. As those who travel regularly on trains will know, carriage seats are not designed for adult-sized bottoms, but for one adult-sized buttock. The posterior next to mine was the equivalent of three adult-sized buttocks at least, meaning that I was effectively pinned against the window, trapped in my seat, nose to glass, staring out at station signs in Welsh. By now the carriage was full of early rush-hour homebound types which meant that any attempt at bailing, clambering over adjacent male and making for the door before it closed would be fruitless.
The train moved off and I became increasingly agitated. There was the usual rush hour hush across the crowded carriage but I mustered up the courage to speak. As quietly as I could without resorting to a whisper, I turned to ask the wide man next to me, 'Excuse me, does this train go to Bath Spa?' Those within earshot turned to look.
'Bath Spa?' he exclaimed incredulously, out loud. The entire carriage turned to look, 'Nooo, this train's going to CAR-diff!' He boomed. I began to overheat and perspire.
Clearly the train I'd caught at Yatton had not been direct to Bath Spa, as I'd assumed. The lingering at Bristol Temple Meads and the trooping off of passengers should have made it plain that I too needed to change. As we hurtled on in the wrong direction, it was also became painfully apparent that stations in Wales are few and far between. It took another 20 humiliating minutes to get to the next stop, Newport, where, according to the loud, cheery man sitting next to me, I needed to cross to platform 2 and wait for the next train back to Temple Meads, where I could get my connecting train to Bath Spa.
It was pouring with rain. I did, by some small fortune, have an umbrella. I did as the man said and arrived in Bath at 6.30pm, two and a half hours later than planned, and some time after all chi-chi shops and interesting independent cafes had closed. But there was a familiar green and white Starbucks beacon shining through the mist. I ordered the frothy latte and slab of carb and took stock. My act of sponneity hadn't worked out quite as I'd planned - it was pissing down, I'd seen nothing of Bath and had just an hour and a half before I was due to catch the train back to Yatton.
Charged with caffeine and cake I rediscovered the resolve that had set me off on this jaunt in the first place and decided to head to friend's gallery, catch her show, have comforting glass of wine and then head back to transport children back as planned. There would at least be one thing achieved from this ghastly experience and I'd be home by 10pm.
I set off with my soggy umbrella in search of the friend's gallery. It took a long time to find it, having only Google Maps on my smart phone to direct me, and torrential rain to negotiate, I headed back and forth through Bath's labyrinth of cobbled streets, unable to orientate myself. My feet sore, trousers by now drenched below the knee, I'd stand perplexed on street corners, trying to fathom phone as passers-by would pass me by, muttering to one another as they hurried huddled under their brollies to their known destinations, 'You wouldn't put a cat out in this would you? Ha Ha'. Hmm.
I eventually arrived at said gallery only to find it dark. And closed. I whimpered and grappled for my smart phone (frankly the only saving grace in this whole sorry story) and dug up the email invitation to the exhibition's opening. On reading it properly, I saw how it was not to be held at her representing gallery, but at a much larger venue round the corner.
By now my resolve was running on empty but I was virtually hysterical in my need to find this frigging exhibition, something, anything, that made the journey to Bath via Wales fractionally worthwhile. Google Maps placed the venue a couple of blocks away and I limped there. On entering, I composed myself and decided not to mention the chain of disasters that had befallen me in getting to see this exhibition, because frankly they made me look a twat. My attempt at 'spontaneity' had turned disastrous through no one's fault but my own. In my urge to 'just do it', I'd not bothered to just check small print, destinations, train changes, emails etc. and someone was now reeking retribution on my frivolous arse.
The exhibition was fine, good even, although I was not of the right mood or mind to take it in. Instead I was double-checking train timetables on beloved smart phone then calling up Grandpa to rearrange pick-up from Yatton.
I knocked back the wine, gushed approvingly at artist friend's work then headed back to the station, trying not to think about all the time I'd wasted on wrong trains, sodden platforms, padding streets in the wrong direction. I was now going home. It had all been damn inconvenient but no one had died.
It was still raining.
At Bath Spa I got on desired train having checked in triplicate the relevant times and connections. At Bristol Temple Meads I headed purposefully to what I knew to be the correct platform to catch the connecting train back to Yatton where my little ones waited, oblivious to all the pain and distress their mama had been through. I was battered, broken but maintained a smidgeon of pride. After all, these things are sent to try us, and I have survived, been strong and not succumbed to the overwhelming temptation to cry, crumple, throw myself in the gutter and give up. So, ha, take that. I shall not be defeated.
I stood at my allotted platform, platform 11. I know this because I checked all the signs and the announcements and knew that my train was heading to Exeter St Davids, via Yatton, while the adjacent platform's train, that of platform 10 was awaiting a fast train to Plymouth.
My train arrived. I got on it, sat down and breathed an audible sigh of relief that is unique to those finally homebound after a long and painful journey. Ten minutes into my journey home, the lovely avuncular train driver welcomed us all via his tannoy. 'Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard our first great western express service to Plymouth, your next stop will be Taunton.'
Plymouth? Taunton? What? My mouth went dry, my head began to throb, my aching limbs creaked. I was on the wrong train. AGAIN. Oh my God. WHY? HOW? WHY ME?
I accosted the train manager almost in tears. It transpired that the Plymouth train had come into the wrong platform. I was now heading to Taunton, another 40 minutes (one hour twenty, if you consider the return journey) out of my way.
'It's ok, there's a train back from Taunton at 21.40,' said train manager breezily.
'But you don't understand,' I almost screamed at him, my palms twitching for his short, chubby, red neck.
'Oh, hold on,' he checked again, 'We're running ten minutes late, so you'll miss the 21.40. The one after that's 22.45. Sorry love.'
I returned to my seat trembling and slightly faint with rage but utterly helpless and frankly exhausted to do anything but call granny and grandpa to catch the latter before he headed to Yatton to pick me. It was too late, he'd gone, granny told me, and didn't have a phone with him. 'Don't worry, he'll realise soon enough and head back,' she reassured me.
It transpired that he waited an hour for the train I was on and several after that before giving up the ghost. The sad and teeth-pullingly frustrating thing was, I saw him waiting. The express train that I was on chose to 'rest' at Yatton for a good five minutes during which the delectable train manager ignored my thumping at the door and tearful pleading, and refused to open it - 'No, sorry love, not scheduled to stop here. More than my job's worth.'
So, I was forced to slump back into my seat for forty minutes til the doors opened at Taunton and I tipped myself onto the platform more than a little exasperated with the seven or so other passengers who'd also come a cropper from the wrong platform fiasco. The station manager apologised profusely and handed us compensation slips.
As I sat waiting for what I hoped (beyond hope) would be my final train journey that day back to Yatton, I studied the form and tried to work out what compensation I could expect to receive after what must surely rank as one of the most disastrous travel experiences known to man. The maximum I could claim, it stated, would be the full cost of my journey. Yatton-Bath spa return, £8.60. Several years off the end of my life, £8.60. Fuck the form.
I got back to granny's at something close to midnight and found my three year olds fast asleep on the sofa. I slept with them on cushions on the floor, which meant for a restless night for all but we were safe and sound, I was no longer stuck in a terminal vortex of train nightmare, plus, joy of joy, it was my childminder's day the following morning. I left Yatton early to get back home in time to take full advantage of her, hand over the girls and take to my bed.
Prior to joining the motorway I stopped for petrol, during which I received a text from said childminder. She was 'ill and wouldn't be able to make it today. Very sorry.'
Fade out. Cut.
Some time later after this distressingly true story….
I am recovered, older and wiser. There are plenty of lessons to be learned, hence my relaying the tale via my blog to all those drawn towards a sudden act of spontaneity (as well as of course seeking some kind of catharsis, as widely recognised in respected psychoanalytic circles, by jotting it all down, ). Firstly, if things can go wrong, they will go wrong. Secondly, it is better to temper all whims with caution - check train timetables, read rather than scan emails, never make assumptions, always swallow your pride and ask loudly someone reliable where the train you are about to get on is going. And if all of this planning defeats the whole object of spontaneity in your view, by all means embrace it, but be prepared to have your happy impetuosity stamped on, swung from the lamp posts, chewed up and spat back at you.
Postscript: I remain an optimist. Stuff like I experienced is enough to put you off forever but such a trail of disasters can't happen more than once. surely. No, no, no, the chances are that your impetuosity will be rewarded with sheer serendipitous pleasure. And, if not, just sit back, breathe deeply and laugh it off - not too high-pitched, not too hysterically - before retiring to a darkened room.