Enigma of Choice

After an enjoyable visit to Devon, I boarded the Great Western’s ‘The Cornishman’ for the first leg home. Manoeuvring my suitcase into a fitting gap, I flopped gratefully into the comfortable seat reserved for me in coach D, and spent the entire journey working on a children’s novel.

It had been a pleasurable few days: a fruitful shop in a large well-known store; Fish and Chips in Brixham – in an old and beautiful converted boathouse adjacent to the replica of The Golden Hind – and a bus ride to Torquay with lunch in the Italian restaurant on the harbour front. In the evenings, having already eaten our main meals of the day, we consumed delicious self-indulgent laptop-tray suppers curled up in front of the TV.

During the train journey from Devon, I was very much looking forward to meeting Peter, my husband, who would be waiting for me in Paddington at a pre-arranged place. He had accompanied me to London a couple of days previously and, after seeing me safely onto the train, he had spent the afternoon visiting the museums he had so wanted to appraise.

The 12.29 from Totnes, originally from Penzance, to Paddington was a comfortable and modern train. My airline-type seat had a drop-down tray upon which my computer sat quite happily nestled within its arms. Great Western had even provided me with a socket to plug it in to. Not only that but I found I could watch, on a computerised screen on the back of the seat in front, a short film of my choice picked from many other entertaining programs, or follow the progress of the Cornishman as she sped through the countryside at an alarming rate of knots.

However, the 12.29 Penzance to London via Totnes fell out of grace when, at 15.21, its estimated time of arrival in Paddington, it stopped… and waited… outside the station – for what seemed like an age, but in fact was probably just over ten minutes. Being oblivious to the time I was not unduly worried until, handbag and computer bag adorning both shoulders, I fought my way through the crowds down the longest platform in the world, pulling my suitcase behind me, and approached the barrier. I remember feeling quite relieved when a man waved me through an open gate, since I had not relished the thought of wrestling with my bags to find my ticket. Then, as I burrowed through the crowds I couldn’t help thinking how problematical it would be to find anyone amongst this tempestuous sea of faces and was glad we had a venue. I walked quickly to the site where Pete had told me he would be waiting – he had promised to come up to London to meet me on my return trip. I scanned the people in the seats. Pete was not there.

My heart sank. Had I jinxed myself in thinking it would be hard to find someone – a proverbial needle in a haystack? He must be here… He said he would be…

I looked again – and again. Looking around the station concourse I spotted another set of seats that could possibly be the ones at which we were supposed to meet and duly trundled over with my baggage to investigate. A guitarist was standing beside the back row of the seats, ready to break into some tune or other. But there was nobody answering the description of my husband to be found there either. I wandered over to W.H.Smith’s. My husband was bound to be there, in his very favourite type of shop, browsing the books. He wasn’t.

I had begun to get a little concerned. This was not like him at all. I looked at my watch. Twenty to four? How had that happened? Then I remembered the train which had parked itself for no apparent reason outside the station for ten minutes. Or maybe more? I couldn’t say.

Oh no! What if he’d thought I’d missed the train!

Pete owns a mobile phone – well, two actually – but does not carry it around with him. He really ought to do so – especially on occasions which have the potential to defy the plan, like meeting people at a certain time or place.

What would he do in this sort of circumstance? I knew him so well, I surely must be able to predict his actions. He would wait to see if I was on the next train. That’s what he’d do, wouldn’t he? I’d just have to find out when the next train from Totnes would arrive. Easier said than done. Dragging my entourage around with me I promenaded the concourse to look for an arrivals board, dodging wheelie suitcases and jay-walker travellers along the way.

By default, I circled the other seated area where the guitarist had now launched himself, not particularly well, into his warbly ballad whilst the unhearing people waited intently and glassy-eyed for their platform to appear on the board of departing trains. I skimmed the people in search of my husband’s face. No luck there. The arrivals board, it seemed, was as elusive as he was and I decided to return to base and wait for an hour until the next train came in.

But thoughts bombarded my mind. What if he’d thought he’d missed me and had gone on to the next station of the journey, St Pancras, to intercept me there? It was about twenty minutes later that I made my wrong decision and convinced myself that that was exactly what he would have done. I made my way to the taxi rank via the public conveniences, where I fought with my bags to extricate 30p from the purse balanced on my arm. Then came the tricky manipulation of pulling my suitcase under the turnstile. Trying to get myself and my luggage into the cubicle and shutting the door was another trial, only to be surpassed be the difficulty in getting the door open again.

Free from obstacles at last, I continued on my way. But, within moments, an escalator rose steeply up before me. Disdainfully I registered that the thing was, in fact, non-operational. But I needed to get up to the taxis somehow, so began the steep ascent of the stairs carrying my heavy burden, which very soon began to take its toll. Thankfully, a kind young man asked if he could help and I gladly accepted, allowing him to carry my suitcase up for me. A fleeting worry passed through my head that he might make off with it once he got to the top, but he didn’t and I felt ashamed of my uncharitable suspicion. Upon reaching the top of the steps I stood, gasping asthmatically for breath and wondering when my heart would stop hammering in my chest. I considered how I would have felt carrying the suitcase up as well, however, and felt extremely grateful to him for his kind deed.

The taxi dropped me near to the tall glass structure end of St Pancras Station, which housed the trains bound for the south-east coast. Using the escalator, thankfully a working one this time – good old St Pancras – I ascended to the mezzanine level to check the departure time of the trains to Folkestone, all the while scanning the area for my husband’s familiar figure. The 16.12 was long-gone. The next would leave an hour later.

A sudden thought occurred to me at that moment that Pete might be in one of our favourite coffee bars in the fabulously restructured St Pancras concourse, so I descended and wandered over to that cafe. He wasn’t there.

My last drink had been at ten o’clock that morning so, feeling a little in need of some hot liquid, I purchased a take-away tea in a carton cup, yet another item to juggle, along with a packet of ready-salted crisps and a bar of chocolate before returning to my platform.

The train I needed had already come in and its occupants were now spewing out through the barriers. It had arrived early which meant that I would be soon able to board the empty train and have my pick of the seats. When the time came I duly approached the automatic gate and posted my ticket through the slot. It was rejected and the gate remained firmly shut. Of course it did, knowing my luck. Undeterred, but feeling rather annoyed nevertheless, I approached a porter standing by the wheelchair entry. He informed me rather dismissively that it had been my Totnes train seat reservation that I had produced and not the correct ticket at all. Abashed, I placed my cup of tea on the barrier whilst I dug in my handbag for the proper ticket. The man waved me through with a knowing nod.

At last I jumped onto the train and settled deeply into my seat pulling my suitcase under the table, so as not to block the aisle. It was hot in the carriage so I placed my coat, scarf and fleece on the adjoining seat and got out my book. Then I reached for my longed-for cardboard cup of tea. Oh no! It was still sitting there on the barrier.

I just couldn’t believe how things were going today. Now bereft of liquid, I hungrily – and inadvisably – ate my crisps instead. As I did so, I watched the passengers passing by the coach window in the hope that one of them might be Pete. I was in the process of scanning the platform when the announcer let me know that I was actually on the wrong coach! I cursed. Hastily gathering together my belongings, I hoped nothing else would go wrong.

Fortunately for me, my new coach was just as empty as the first one and I began the settling-in ceremony all over again. This time I pulled out a snack bar. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it is dark chocolate. This bar, naturally, was dark chocolate. I replaced it in my handbag in disgust. Thank goodness I had a full bottle of water in my bag after all that salt. Evidently half a bottle, absolutely not enough to quench my ever-increasing thirst.

Before long I could feel the train begin to roll along the smooth rails and some tiny part of me began to panic. What if Pete was still on Paddington station waiting for a later train from Totnes? No, he would be at home by now surely? I rang home – No answer. I left a message to ask him to pick me up from the station. No reply. Oh God…

Five minutes from my destination I rang my daughter Anna.

“Can you pick me up in five minutes at Folkestone West please, Love?”

“Yes, of course I can. But where’s…?”

I put the phone down and cut the conversation off. I didn’t want to go into details over the phone. I’d be there in a few minutes and could explain in person.

The train pulled in. Anna and her fiancé, David, were there waiting.

“Hi Mum. Where’s Dad?” Anna asked, jumping out of the car.

“I don’t know,” I replied, “he wasn’t there.”

“Wasn’t where?”

I explained the whole assignation plan at Paddington to her as we drove home.

“Did you ring his phone?”

I shook my head. “He hasn’t got it on him.”

“Oh dear.”

“I know.”

“Mum, don’t worry,” she assured, putting the kettle on for a hot cup of reviving tea, “he’ll be on the next train. David will go up for him in an hour.”

He wasn’t.

I could feel panic rising in my throat.

By now David, sitting on the sofa deep in concentration, was google-searching further times of trains fom St Pancras to Folkestone.

“Yes,” I nodded. “But what if he isn’t?”

“Ring Paddington and get them to put out a call for him on the tannoy,” offered David.

“What good would that do though? Pete won’t be there by now.” I said. “I’d have thought we’d probably be better contacting St Pancras.”

After a few minutes more searching David found the times for the next train – they were arriving every half an hour by now – and left for Folkestone West, while Anna rang St Pancras to ask them to put out a message for Pete to ring home.

We waited patiently, watching out of the window for David’s return. Headlights swung into the drive ten minutes later, but the passenger seat was empty.

“Oh God, Oh God, Oh God,” I gasped, clasping my hands to my mouth. I rarely blaspheme. “What do we do now?”

I imagined my darling husband mugged and lying in an alley. I watch far too many mystery dramas and know the score. I began to look up London hospitals – but it was impossible – there were far too many. Where on earth could we start?

“Stuart at St Pancras gave me the number of the British Transport Police,” Anna told me. I imagined them putting out a missing persons bulletin for my Pete. My blood ran cold. Oh God. If only he could be on the next train. My mind went through what the Police would ask at interview. “How long is it since the last-known whereabouts of this person?”

David had gone up to the station again. I listed all the half hour trains until ten o’clock at night. That seemed late, but it was already ten past eight now. Oh God! Five hours since I should have met him at Paddington! Was it five hours since Pete’s last-known whereabouts? More? Less? When? Who saw him last? Of course they would think he’d left home – left me. Maybe having an affair? I know how they worked. I knew Pete would never do that… never leave his family.

“David’s been gone too long! That means he wasn’t on that one either,” I said gloomily to Anna, as we stood once again watching for the car. “He’s gone to check both stations, like he did last time.” I felt drained.

“He’ll be all right Mum.” Anna told me. I wished I had her serenity.

“It’s so out of character for your dad though.” I said, wondering if Pete had fallen asleep on the train and ended up in Dover. That would be a more feasible solution.

My heart was beating fast as David drove into the drive – with more conviction this time? I dared to hope…

“He’s got him!”

In seconds the door was wrenched open and we were flying through it.

“Where’ve you been then?” asked Pete getting out of the car, his voice sounding thicker than usual, and I broke down and sobbed with relief. I hardly ever cry.

“I’ve been so worried!”

Her composure in tatters now that the tension was released, Anna shouted through her tears “I’m so cross with you Dad! Next time carry your phone!”

Once the excitement had died down Pete explained how, instead of taking a cab, he had decided to travel to Paddington that day by bus, which had dropped him at the opposite entrance to the station from the one the taxi had brought us to a few days ago. He was a little disorientated by the unfamiliarity of this entrance, however. When he looked for our departures board area he saw one with seats which matched the description of our designated meeting point so sat down to wait.

When the arrival of my train was announced he had gone to the barrier to wait – not what we had agreed upon and the wrong barrier to boot – so had narrowly missed seeing me pass through. Then when I went to our appointed base Pete was, needless to say, not there.

When I told him I had been over to check that other departures board area, he said that had been exactly where he’d been sitting – right in front of the guitarist. But at the very moment when I had looked for him there, he hadn’t yet returned to his seat. We missed each other.

This would make a great premise for story I thought…

Even if we had both waited another hour for the next train to arrive from Totnes, we still would have been waiting in two different areas.

In the event, Pete had waited for, not one, but two more trains to arrive and had stayed put, waiting for me in the same seat for a whole two hours after I had actually arrived before giving up and heading home via St Pancras. Bless him!

The worst of it all was that my considerate beloved husband had booked us a table at a popular London restaurant so we could eat before we made our way home. What an awful shame. They would be keeping our table free for us right now…

It had been an evening of frustration and anxiety, an evening of circumstance and misfortune.

This unfortunate adventure had all boiled down to whether my husband chose to take the bus or the taxi! A veritable enigma of choice.

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