For the last week or so, the weather in the south-east has been mostly glorious. Last Friday was no exception. When it’s early morning and you’re sitting in the friendly warmth of the sunlight, nothing ever seems better. When it’s combined with a sense of anticipation and trepidation, your whole persona goes on a high state of alert. The last trip was blighted by a broken wheelchair and an early end to the break. There is also the tantalising thought that a guard on the train might forget all about you, leaving you sitting by the door of the coach waiting for nothing, like Billy-no-mates.
No such disasters awaited me this time. From the moment a kind old lady gave me a pen at Tunbridge Wells station so I could do the Times crossword, things were set to run smoothly. She was one of these sprightly fearless types, dressed to travel and to converse with whom she chose about something exceedingly intellectual. I’m sure we could have had an excellent conversation about Bach Cantatas or Ovid’s Amores but she shuffled away into the waiting hordes. The sun continued to bathe the platform with its friendly smile.
At this point, it was impossible to believe the mayhem that this poor beleaguered station had witnessed days before with strike action and delays. But today it was calm. And like the sun, people were smiling.
I think Waterloo is my favourite London terminal. It’s a massive heaving brute of a place. I can look down from the gallery onto the concourse below whilst hundreds of travelling insects dart about, weaving into empty spaces and mini cul-de-sacs, waiting less than patiently for pre-occupied little huddles to look up from their compulsive but ever so important screens. I too had to shimmy my way through this mess of human kind to find the station’s only disabled toilet.
The train to Portsmouth Harbour was a scale model of the station. Packed with the usual assortment of the stressed, the hungry and the restless, it ambled its way down the sub-urban corridor to the south coast. It is hardly scenic. I was entertained by a young mum and her two small stroppy daughters. The mother was a paragon of patience, dealing with her obdurate young charges with a mixture of firmness and friendly interaction. She had to move the earth to allow me to sit in my designated spot. But she did it and smiled. At the end, as this diminutive figure heaved her two daughters, a pram and a massive suitcase off the train, I told the older girl that her mum was a hero. Another smile.
I love to look across a stretch of water to wherever I’m heading. Whether it’s across the Mersey, the Channel or the Solent, the sense of anticipation grows. The twenty minute whizz over the Solent was smooth and faultless. But it hit a real snag when I wanted to use the loo at the Ryde terminal. It’s damn near impossible. The so called accessible toilet is down a narrow corridor, followed by an awkward turn into the toilet. It means having to roll into the the men’s in order to simply open the door. Nice one for the ladies. And it was a lady I met on my way in. Wheelchairs at dawn. Who would give way? Our eyes met. A burst of spaghetti western music flashed between my ears.
She smiled and we joked about the ludicrous location of the actual toilet. We have enough confrontations with everyday life. We don’t fight amongst ourselves.
Then with all necessary functions completed, I burst forth into the glorious sunshine. There was my mate Peter. The weekend was beginning. I wasn’t expecting to see a whole scream of chrome laden scooters giving us a guard of honour at the barrier to the main island. But there they were, all those ex-mods, buzzing like wasps, screaming enthusiastically about their little bean can two-wheeled battleships. Each scooter had an array of mirrors. The stags of the road.
At intervals, these mini-beasts would appear in packs rattling two abreast along the island’s twisting roads. It wasn’t exactly an awesome sight but let’s allow people to enjoy themselves. Each to their own.
This was my second dose of old friend therapy in a week. Peter and his beautiful family made me very welcome. There was serious cooking to be done. Now of course, there was also a little bit of drinking to be done as well. Cold cider, cold white wine and voluptuous reds flowed in abundance. It wasn’t like the old days. There was no crazy Wood’s Rum run or nights out on the lash but it was enough to remind me of more carefree times when we thought we were invincible. Now I was the invincible chef.
But remember, I have limitations. In stepped the entire family. After a fruitful trip to Waitrose, home-made hobnobs and a luscious Moroccan lamb pie were built during the course of the afternoon. Ffion was a very able and loyal assistant both in the supermarket and the kitchen. Peter and Rebecca helped with other duties. Niamh watched sagely. It was a late meal. Happy family times.
The next day was a relaxing tour of the island. The Isle of Wight is like rural England in miniature. It has white cliffs, patchwork fields and thatched villages. It also has a strong nautical connection where estuaries and creeks invade the centres of towns.
The chairman of Ofsted claimed that the Isle of Wight is crime-filled, in-bred, poor white ghetto. Well yes, there were a few people who stared at me fighting to manoeuvre my wheelchair round tight corners. They stared blankly despite me making light of the inadequate disabled provision that is still rife in twenty-first century Britain; but I wouldn’t call them inbred.
It’s a bit ridiculous really It’s like saying the same thing about Birkenhead when it just applies to Rock Ferry. There are some nice parts of Birkenhead. I can’t really name one at the moment but I’m sure there must be. And don’t be fooled by the sub-urban idyll of Higher Bebington. For behind those bleached net curtains lies a secret world too evil to contemplate. Only brave souls roam its streets after dark. Oh and while I’m at it; Bidston……. I digress.
A mountainous roast greeted us on return. Then, and I must say how much this has delighted me, there was malt whisky. Ooh baby.
Now what do you do on an August bank holiday on a popular holiday island? Doing nothing sounded good to me. I made brioche buns. I also created carnage in the dining room. The table, my work surface, had been consumed by a carapace of caked bread dough. Once more, the man of the house came to the rescue.
Then Joe arrived. The last time I saw Joe was when he was three. Now he’s twenty and was sitting there announcing his exhaustion after a few days of hard partying. Oh it wasn’t so long ago when…………… (shut-up Stephen). Then it was out to dinner with the whole of Rebecca’s family. Now I don’t really know them but after an evening out I feel as though I do. This was a genuine welcome from a warm, fun loving family. I feel very privileged.
From Barney the gentle beast, Elmo the skittish, Tinkerbell the blatant deviant and the human occupants of Peter’s household, I was given a friendly reception. There was nothing remarkable about the journey back; other than being glad I was able to do it in my chair. Next week it’s Wallasey. Thank-you for reading.