07 Aug 2011, Posted by Maxine Sheppard in Untravel, 2 Comments
I'm always looking for ways to pretend I'm still travelling when I'm not, which for much of the last two decades (aside from two sabbaticals) has been about 47 weeks of each year. Half the time it's just an elaborate daydream. The rest is just clutching at straws.
Take my morning commute for example. Despite doing it every day for work, I still love travelling by train, though there's not much to get excited about on the Brighton to London line. But there is one exceptional, fleeting stretch where it becomes quite possible to believe I'm somewhere else entirely. My train chugs over this viaduct at Balcombe on its way to and from London every morning and night. I never, ever tire of this view.
It's the only part of the journey where I feel completely calm and able to block out the inane blathering into mobile phones, the incessant sniffing, the daily armrest battles, and the torture of Jessie J shrieking out of poor quality headphones. It's part and parcel of the rail commuter's lot; shame the respite only lasts five seconds. But it's a scene that takes me away from myself for a moment, as all the best views do.
The landscape makes me appreciate living in a country with four definable seasons. At the beginning of each year these fields are frosty and hard, impenetrable to all but the most robust of tractors and determined of crows, but it's not too long before spring arrives and everything softens. Skinny branches suddenly come back to life as tiny buds erupt into a short-lived flurry of ecstatic blossoming.
In summer the fields at Balcombe are so green they look like they've been photoshopped. One in particular is long and sloping, with a farmhouse at its lower edge. I always think, one day I will go and lie in that field, but of course I never have and I probably never will.
In no time at all it's the beginning of autumn. Once the hay is stacked and the trees start to turn, I know there are just a few short weeks of hazy sunsets left before the evening journey provides no view at all other than my own dull reflection. And so it goes on: I have witnessed this cycle for many years but, as George Harrison once sang, all things must pass…
Pick Your Seat Wisely
So this is why it's important to always get a window seat on the train. Leaning my head against the glass, it's possible (briefly) to imagine there's no-one else around.
Not so easy when stuck in an aisle seat. Tonight I had the misfortune
to be seated next to a wheezing, bumbling oaf of a man (imagine Boris Johnson 25 years from now) whose encroaching forearm took up the entire armrest and more, forcing me to lean uncomfortably to one side for the whole journey. It quickly became apparent that this was a blessing in disguise however, as a casual glance to my left revealed a scene of such abject repulsiveness that being dipped into a vat of boiling tar would have been preferable to sitting any closer.
His lolloping head was tilting downwards and I realised he was asleep, despite being on the last-but-one page of Bleak House, which permanently threatened to fall out of the lax grip of his meaty hands. His mouth was wide open and his saggy jowels trembled at every bump in the tracks. I turned away. You should never look back! But I did. And this time a long, thin trail of glistening spittle was oozing over his bottom lip like a waterfall in slow motion, swaying in time to the rhythm of the train, eager to join up with the lapel of his jacket but more than happy to take its time in doing so. Like driving slowly past a car crash, I couldn't avert my gaze, watching in horror to see if and when it would get bored of just hanging around. Finally, displaying the admirable elasticity of mozzarella on a pizza, the drool made a permanent attachment between man and material and remained there, swinging from side to side like a rope-bridge, before finally parting company with his lip and seeping into the wool of his suit.
Nothing like being brought back down to earth with a gigantic bump. It was the sort of brief interlude that might seem oddly exotic on a rail trip through Eastern Europe or somewhere; a slightly exaggerated version stored up for a night of tale-telling in the pub. Hurtling through humdrum Hayward's Heath however, it had no such charm.
And now this is all at an end, and the commuting life for me is pretty much over. As I write this, I'm making my final preparations for going freelance and I'll no longer be able to call myself a full-time employee. It's scary and exciting. It sounds ridiculous but I keep wondering if there's anything I'll miss about commuting. I've been travelling up and down this line for well over a decade, give or take a year. But I suppose that's enough for anyone.
The above amazing aerial shot of Balcombe Viaduct was taken by Henry Law, a.k.a Seadipper on Flickr, who kindly let me use it for this post.