“Would you like me to carry your case for you?”
An extremely handsome American man is smiling at me in a very charming way.
“Thanks, er, I’ll be okay, but thanks, um…”
“Sure? No! Look, I’m just going to carry your case to the train for you. I’ve got 2 myself…”
This isn’t a daydream of mine, it actually happened, and the 2 he refers to aren’t bags but children, by which I am definitely accompanied twofold.
A moment before this interchange I was failing to make my way from the concourse to the platform at London Euston Station. I was wheeling a full to bursting suitcase, had two further bags, my son was insisting he wanted to hold my hand and my three year old daughter? She was blocking my path, beating her fists against my stomach and emitting a high pitched wail of woe: she can’t walk, she wants to be carried.
My clothes are smeared with children’s snack residue, and my hair is falling down from the haphazard band it’s tied back with. I’m feverish from a virus my children have given me, and the accompanying eye infection means I look either like a bride of Dracula, or like someone who’s been crying non-stop for days.
You’ll see why it is that the only male attention I receive is pity driven.
I don’t have a car and my family are widely scattered around the United Kingdom, so I travel by public transport a lot. Trains, buses, taxis – planes not so much. Most of the time, this is great. Transporting children from one place to another is never much fun, afterall, and if I had a car I would be able to take more with us, but also: traffic jams, motor ways, finding somewhere to park…these are things I don’t have to contend with.
Our most recent journey together has been from Kent to North Wales. That’s bus, train, tube, train, train, parent’s car. I especially enjoyed the 8 minute connection time at Crewe, where while ensuring I still had all my bags and children I had to figure out the location of our platform and wait for two lifts, whilst my son maintained a non-stop exposition of Wellington’s strategy at Waterloo, and my daughter became hysterical at the sight of a very small dog in the lift.
Nose bleeds, emergency toilet locating and sibling feuds over who gets to sit next to me (but why would you want to?) and who gets to who the tickets to the inspector are all standard.
I always buy them children’s magazines which cost £4 each and entertain them for about 10 minutes.
Outside the station, we wait in line at a coffee stall. The lady ahead of us doesn’t notice that her suitcase is rolling away from her. It won’t roll far, I think. It rolls, and rolls and gains momentum in an attempt to park itself in the bus station. I go after it and roll it back to its owner using one of my spare limbs.
“Excuse me, your bag was rolling away,” I say.
She gives me a look of disgust at my interference in her life.
“Urgh, she’s LOUD!” The lady complains.
Scream away, I for once think to my daughter. SCREAM away!
Actually, most of our encounters on public transport, and leaving as a separate category the horror of the tube, are life enhancing and helpful.
There was the sixth-form student who chose to sit at our table on the train from our home town and chat to and entertain my children the whole journey, even throwing in some pretty witty asides for my benefit. By the time we arrived in London he’d taught my daughter to count to 5. Just as I was about to offer him a full time job as my children’s au pair, he mentioned how he worked at YouTube, so I figured he probably didn’t want to come and live in my garden shed, constantly babysit, and be paid in tea and biscuits.
There are infinite numbers of lovely ladies, a generation ahead of me, who turn to me after episodes of particularly awful, annoying and loud children’s behaviour in confined public spaces (train carriages, buses, cinemas, High Anglican Church services), and say words to the effect of, “Haven’t they behaved well? Aren’t they good?”. Clearly they are lying, but their intention is to lift my morale, and it’s a lie I fully intend to pay forward to the next generation of harassed parents in due course.
Travelling the lengths and diagonals of the United Kingdom by public transport can feel like an epic trial of endurance; but I feel like my children and I gain a lot from it. The children are experiencing the world more directly than they would in a car; while in our encounters with strangers, and the many small acts of kindness we receive, my faith in humanity is reaffirmed.