Everyone has a story of Christmas. The original story is universal. It’s there to be believed or not believed. It’s up to you and what you think. I have many Christmas stories. I could give you them all year by year but there would be a sense of deja vu. Almost every time the day would end with some kind of grovelling on all fours after a day of merry roistery. The subsequent night’s sleep could only be described as a power nap between sessions of alcoholic abuse.
But in those days I was invincible. I had a feverish appetite for sitting with friends and making holes in the drinks cabinet. This year’s holiday has been very different. I’m now the king of the train. The train is my friend and I rejoice in its power. The very build up to a long train journey sends a tingle up the spine. I now travel in a chair. Tied to the chair is my temporary world. Two bags and a man bag carry my world by means of Velcro straps. Nothing argues with these straps and their limpet-like grip.
It was a cold day. There was an icy wind under a blanket of grey. But the grey didn’t matter. It was a train journey.
My first train journey was memorable. We all went to Southport for the day. It was an electric train. In the sixties, I thought they were cooler than steam trains. The first stop from Exchange Street Station was called Sandhills. “Can we get off here?” I asked. “It’s got sand hills.” I’ve learnt since that Sandhills is predominantly light industry and docks. I still think it’s silly name.
It was a hot day and the train was crowded with like minded families. Children were bored and baying for attention. I stared at my parents sitting in stony faced silence whilst they secretly prayed for the journey to end. My two brothers and I remained silent. I’ve always been happy just to sit and watch. Southport beach was amazing.
I couldn’t see the sea. The tide went out for miles. I loved the feel of the grainy soft dry sand as it ran through my open fingers. I put as much as I could into my pockets. On the way back the gentle cadence of the rocking carriage weaved its soporific charm as I rolled into a deep sleep. The next thing I knew was the sound of the old 92 bus as it screamed down the fast bit of Longmoor Lane.
Last Thursday was a smooth journey. Apart from the taxi between Charing Cross and Euston. The cabby was an old boy of the old school. While I went up the short sharp ramp, he gripped the back of my chair to ensure a safe transition. But the chair was in turbo. His valiant efforts to stop me from falling backwards pressed my neck forward into a position only a contortionist would voluntarily assume. The poor fellow was mortified. I’d wrenched my neck but I wasn’t going to tell him that. It was an accident and accidents are opportunities for learning. Next time I’ll check my wheelchair setting. We might live in a claims and blames culture but I’m giving it a miss in this lifetime. In that respect I’m old school too.
Euston was a forest of bottoms and legs with the usual suitcase minefield.
Oh the temptation just to shout excuse me and charge through those multi-coloured plastic wheeled boxes. I could scatter them like nine-pins before shifting responsibility onto my faulty chair or my faulty brain. It was like the start of the Grand National. Everyone was waiting, eyes trained on the board, waiting for the platform number. I couldn’t actually look at the board due to a tender neck. I just waiting.
Then the shout came up: “Platform two,” they bellowed before setting off on the rampant charge to the elegant slimline pendelino, waiting in powerful majesty at the assigned spot.
I raced along the undulating platform to coach B. The man put the ramp out and my little chair scampered up its ribbed escarpment. No stopping-all in one beautiful smooth gesture. “Cheers mate,” went my passing response. And there was my space. All ready.
The rest of the train was nose to tail. I took out my paper and that was it. Liverpool came within the scheduled two hours and twelve minutes. A nice stewardess offered to bring me some tea. Virgin tea is good tea. She didn’t even charge me for it. The end brought me back into the cold winter wind of Liverpool. I’d left my little cosy cocoon to face the cold concrete of Lime Street.
When I was a child, Lime Street used to scare me. It was a short cut between T.J. Hughes. and Lewis’s. I didn’t like the dark and the noise. In my little eight year old eyes it was dangerous. Cars and vans were all over the place. And they were noisy. My mum, as ever was very matter of fact and assured me that no car or van was going to run me over. I was still uneasy.
Perhaps the biggest impact of the journey was a final return to the Wirral Loop Line. It reminded me of the many times I’d stood on its hard wind swept platform.
The draught was always freezing. One year, just a few days before Christmas, I was awaiting the clattering mess of steel and plastic we called a train. A whole family turned up on their way to Birkenhead market. Why a grandmother in her slippers, her two daughters (smoking like chimneys), the reluctant teenager who pouted for England and her two pre-school sisters would want to go to a smaller market than was on offer in Liverpool beats me. But there they were chatting away between drags, scowls and matriarchal pessimism. One of the little girls went trotting down the platform to look along the blackness of the tunnel while it spewed out its cruel icy breath. The mother noticed and paused from her intense chatter and smoking. I wondered what name was to be screamed along the station. I was not disappointed: “SABRINA” came the cry. I laughed. In fact I laughed uncontrollably. They all turned to me. I stopped.
But last Thursday, I explained to the helpful man on the platform that I was lacking a ticket: “Oh just tell them at the other end,” he said, unperturbed by my oversight. The train itself brought it all back. I sneaked a look through every portal, desperately trying to recall the days when I would bounce through the station on some important mission or other. There were days when I had stood there with my mates after a session at Yates’ Wine Lodge. We’d be gearing up to hit the heady heights of New Brighton. There would be somersaults and high jinx on the way. The evening would be set fair. Oblivion awaited.
The loop line was built in the seventies. Previously the underground stations were whopping great cavernous affairs.
The roof was a vaulted oppressive structure like a cathedral crypt. But the building of the line had made the stations more compact. It appealed to my tidy mind. Apart from James Street.
That was still open, dark and mysterious. When I worked in Burton’s the staff room was in the basement. The trains passed below us with an ominous rumble. I thought of all that space and darkness. It held me in awe. So did James Street.
I remembered the pub above. The Mona. I loved that pub. It was our chosen post-match boozer. It was lively and intriguing. We always found some shady characters. At Hamilton Square the man with the ramp showed me the way out. “Where can I pay?” I asked hopefully. “Oh your here now, it doesn’t matter,” came the response. I emerged into the dazzling low sun of a Birkenhead winter.
It felt cold and warm at the same time. The taxi driver was hilarious and for a few minutes I wondered why I’d chosen to live in the fat under belly of the South East. Well that’s how it goes. You follow your dreams but you remember your roots.
Thank-you for reading.