I don’t get out much. I’m a writer. We live in draughty garrets, licking our quill pens, wracking our fevered brains for an original thought whilst trying to avoid adverbs, clichés and overdone metaphors. We are word-monkeys, marooned on a desert island, desperate to slake our thirst with a drink from the cup of brilliant narrative.
Like I say. I don’t get out much.
So, when the opportunity arises not only to leave the house but also go to a party and meet my editor for an insightful chat about my next book, I’ll be honest – I get a little giddy. It’s been so long since I went out to work (six years to be precise) that the prospect of travelling into London has actually started to seem exciting again.
My husband doesn’t get this because he travels into London every day and hates it. When I go into London now, I am like a small child. The world is so big, the buildings are so tall and if you look up, really quite splendid.
Commuters don’t look up. They don’t smile. They barely make eye contact. I don’t blame them. London is busy and navigating your way around it is stressful. Commuters have adopted a way of dealing with this as efficiently as possible. They remind me of a shoal of mackerel, fixed on their route, never deviating from that line. If I hit rush hour, I am always woefully out of step with the mackerel. I ended up circumnavigating the whole of Victoria station one day because I couldn’t keep up with them. It didn’t matter though because I was busy looking at the buildings.
Anyway, I digress. For one day only I had somewhere to be. I was to meet my editor at Waterstone’s, Piccadilly at 5 pm before heading off to the Romantic Novelist’s Association Summer Party at 6.30 pm. Sounds brilliant, doesn’t it?
I don’t have much to write on the calendar normally as I don’t usually need to remind myself to ‘do writing’. We have one of those calendars where each person has a column and you have to write the names at the top. Being a family where nicknames are compulsory, I decided to change the names every month according to my chosen theme. Do I need to remind you that I don’t get out much at this point or do you get the gist?
In this particular month, my chosen theme was ‘fish’ (to your obvious question of, ‘why’ I will reply, ‘because’). Each family member was given a fish name corresponding with the first letter of their own name. So my daughter, ‘Ling’ had a busy month of tennis, piano, parties and sleepovers, my son, ‘Arbroath Smokie’ (‘Arbroath’ for short) similarly had parties, football, swimming and tennis. Even my husband, ‘Roach’ had two nights out and a tennis match. Under my nom de mois of, ‘Alewife’, (it’s a real fish name I promise – a type of North American herring), I was down to pick up Arbroath and Ling from their social engagements, visit the osteopath and attend a PTA meeting. Imagine my excitement therefore at writing the words, ‘meet editor’ (I might have even used upper case) and ‘RNA party’. I was exultant.
As the parents among you will know, arranging to go out for an evening takes planning. For this particular event, I did my planning way in advance, my friends. Nothing was going to prevent me from brushing my hair and skipping off to talk books with the great and good of publishing. As I dropped Ling and Arbroath at school that day, I smiled to myself knowing that my maternal duty was done. The children would be collected by a friend. My husband would pick them up later. All I had to do was be on time for my editor.
Of course, what I should have done was plan my day so that I travelled into London at lunchtime, took my time, visited the National Gallery, basked in the new-book scent of my favourite bookshops, and gazed up at the buildings. Obviously, I didn’t do this at all. As is my customary way, I tried to cram too many things into a limited space of time and leave at the last minute.
I did however, manage to brush my hair and change into one of the few vaguely smart outfits I own plus my very favourite ‘going out’ shoes – flat, pointy, metallic silver, gorgeous.
As I entered the station, I was perturbed to learn that my train had been cancelled. How dare it?
I approached the bored-looking man in the ticket office.
‘Excuse me, when’s the next train?’ I asked, keeping my voice light and hopeful as if that might conjure up some transport.
‘Nah trains at the mo, love. Some clown’s ‘it the bridge at Eden Park.’
I was about to complain that I needed to get to London. I had a meeting with my editor. It was written on the calendar. The man didn’t look like he’d be particularly interested. ‘What’s the best thing to do?’ I asked.
‘Git a bus ter Elmers End.’
Brilliant. A bus. Buses are a perfect way to start any night out.
I gritted my teeth and hurried to the bus stop. Fifteen minutes later the bus came. I glanced at my watch. If we got to the station in the next half hour and there was a train right away, I might only be twenty minutes late. I am nothing if not a perpetual optimist.
I texted my editor. She was kind and understanding. I wished she were running the rail network. I’m pretty sure she would have got it sorted.
The bus sat in a traffic jam for fifteen minutes because of the ‘clown’ hitting the railway bridge. I actually hoped it was a real clown in one of those joke cars with a ‘hee-har’ horn and I hoped his car fell apart as a result. Traffic jams always give me dark thoughts.
As soon as the bus reached the station, I was out of the door like a greyhound wearing increasingly uncomfortable shoes. It was a warm day. My silver beauties had no backs but the pointy fronts were a bit sweaty. Too much information I know, but you get the picture.
I galloped down the station steps. There was a train on the opposite platform and a board suggesting another’s imminent arrival. There were however quite a few people standing around giving off an air of puzzled irritation. I approached yet another bored station official.
‘Are there any trains to London?’ I asked with fast-disappearing hope.
The man shook his head. ‘They’re goin’ from Clock ‘ouse.’
‘But I was told Elmers End!’ I pleaded as if this might make the man bring me a train.
He shook his head again. ‘Clock ‘ouse,’ he repeated. ‘You can git a bus. The 358 goes from over the road.’
I took a deep breath as a fleeting vision of Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles crossed my mind. Wearily and painfully, I climbed the steps ready to cross the road. I watched the 358 bus disappearing into the distance and tried not to cry.
Some small nugget of hope gave me a much needed kick up the bum. I resolved to walk. It wasn’t that far. It was a lovely day and I had my iPod. I glanced at my watch. I might only be forty five minutes late. I know. Even my optimism baffles me sometimes.
I pressed ‘shuffle songs’ and my hilariously funny iPod selected ‘The Long and Winding Road’. I decided to fast forward, marching along to a medley of Stevie Wonder and Ella Fitzgerald. Everything’s better with Stevie and Ella, I told myself as I tried to ignore the blisters forming on my feet.
I arrived at the station, hot, bothered and feeling sorry for myself but there was a train. A lovely train, pointing in the direction of London, about to leave and take me away from all this. As I hobbled down the steps, the train driver gave me an encouraging smile. I probably looked as if I needed it.
‘All right love?’ he asked.
‘Not really,’ I complained. ‘I’ve just walked from Elmers End because they said there were no trains.’
‘I’m really sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m going in five minutes though.’
‘Thank you,’ I replied and meant it. For the frustrated traveller a little sympathy goes a long way. I climbed aboard and flopped into a seat, not daring to look at my battle-scarred feet.
In the end, I was an hour late meeting my editor. She had a glass of prosecco waiting. ‘I thought you might appreciate one of these,’ she smiled. That’s the mark of a good editor – always knowing what your authors need.
The meeting was short and sweet and the party was wonderful. However, the journey home was another disaster involving no direct trains, missed connections and an expensive taxi-ride home.
As I bandaged my feet and nursed a hangover the next day, I realised that going out is a fun but painful experience. I wondered if I should have just stayed at home.
I hobbled over to the calendar, peering at another month of mostly blank spaces and realised that I needed to fill some of those gaps. I just required a week or two to recover and then I would be ready.
Staying at home is for wimps. Going out is for the die-hard adventurers.
Provided I set off the day before and pack some plasters, I’ll be just fine.