A Year of A Long Commute

This time last year I moved to Canterbury from London, and started commuting on the train into London every day. A couple of months after I started commuting I wrote a deeply smug blog post about how much I was enjoying it, that I was getting into using a Nintendo 3DS and that after a year I wanted to be able to see what I had achieved with this easily measurable slab of time. Well, inevitably, it has not been as straightforward as that. All I know for certain about the commute is that it’s given me a hell of a lot of time to read, and it’s shown me that I get bored almost as easily as a toddler. I take a backpack with me to work that makes me look like I’m about to go for a trek in a rainforest. It usually has at least two books, a kindle, and an iPod (yes, I am old school – I got tired of paying Spotify £10 a month when I listen to the same thirty songs day in, day out) as well as a small pharmacy, tea and water, and various snacks in case I get hungry. It’s a wonder I can fit onto the train.

Commuting is a strange business. You see the same people every day because people tend to always get on at the same door – perhaps just so they have one less decision to make at 7.15 in the morning. Most of the time nobody speaks but I have regular conversations now with two of my fellow travellers. One is an ecologist and the other is something to do with army recruitment. The latter has a very short phone call with someone every morning as the train is about to pull in, and I don’t know why. The ecologist has a son who’s studying music at university, and plays the clarinet – I was played a piece of his music which was a bit surreal but lovely. The army man has a son who is dyslexic, which he (the army man, not his son) and I had a conversation about after he saw I was reading Neurotribes, a book that’s about autism but has a tagline on the front – ‘how to think smarter about people who think differently.’ It was an interesting conversation although he was irritatingly patronising about how long he thought it would take me to finish the book – it took me about a week.

I have made “enemies” as well as “friends” during this commute. My nemesis is a woman who stands out at the side instead of congregating in the little huddle of people who are staking a bet on where they think the door will stop. We all stand dutifully back from the edge, behind the yellow line. As the train pulls in, this brazen female will walk right in front of everyone neatly queuing, and stand right in front of the doors when the train stops. The urge to push her under the train is strong. It is as bad as the people in London tube stations who decide that they ALONE will ignore the ‘keep left’ sign, and march down the right-hand side- often making progress if there’s no trainload of people coming the other way. They think they’re so smart, refusing to follow everyone else like sheep. I guess they don’t realise, or don’t care, that they are only gaining something because everyone else is playing by the rules. If everyone did it, if everyone marched alongside the edge of the track to stop in front of the doors, or ignored the keep left signs, it would be total chaos and people would regularly fall under the trains.

In many ways commuting is just an opportunity to catalogue selfish acts. Like the people who set themselves up in the outside seat and stick their suitcase in next to them, or plug themselves into a screen attached to the back of the seat in front so nobody will bother to ask them to move. This strikes me as so astoundingly selfish I want to shake these people and ask them how they can so wilfully inconsiderate.

People who sit at tables and put their bags on the table instead of the overhead racks. People listening to music so loud half the carriage could sing along (shout out to the guy who got on at Ashford one morning listening to Atomic Kitten loud enough to bust his eardrums). Men on the tube – and I’m afraid it is mostly men – who seem to have made it their goal that day to take up as much S P A C E as possible. Once two men having a conversation on the tube in the rush hour were taking up enough room for six. I had to physically duck under one of their arms to get into a space. It makes me wonder if we need more than one definition of the word consciousness, because these people are so completely unconscious of anybody or anything other than themselves.

Commuting also gives up many funny or scary or interesting day-to-day occurrences. A guy who ate four chocolate éclairs on his way home one evening – he also called a woman a tramp the week before and got a very public dressing down from another man on the train. A drunk man who followed a girl when she moved to get away from him, and was roundly shouted down by many members of the carriage, once people realised he was harassing her. He had no choice but to withdraw to his seat. The girl ran away but reported him, as later members of the British Transport Police got on to hear what he had to say for himself.

Other tiny irritations. Endless people who are unable to breathe quietly who always seem to sit next to me. A man who was sniffing in such an irritating manner that I offered him a tissue – which he declined to take. People watching slightly disturbing or pornographic television shows on their tablets, which you can’t help seeing even if you’d rather not.

After the bombings at London Bridge my commute became something other than a long, mildly tedious but also peaceful few hours of the day. As I don’t live in London anymore I don’t have the daily immersion in city life, which immunises you to some extent to the fear of an attack. When you do it every day, you can’t keep up feeling anxious about it – unless you suffer from severe anxiety. It’s part of the day-to-day and you stop noticing it. But I was coming in and going out and wasvery aware of the change from calm rural setting to the frenetic stressful city. I was afraid of going through King’s Cross and of getting on the tube. I watched my fellow passengers suspiciously and felt exhausted by the effort. I tried to make excuses to stay at home and work there, because I felt imminently in danger.

It didn’t last too long, thankfully. About a week or two. Now my commute is back to deciding which book to read and staring down my nemesis at Canterbury West.

People ask me how the commute is going, as if it’s an entirely separate part of my life – I suppose it is in a way, but I try not to think about that. Especially since I realised I wasn’t going to have anything neat to tell anybody I’d achieved in all that time, other than reading an incredible number of Agatha Christie novels. Hopefully nobody can say that’s a waste of time. While I do get tired of it, particularly when I haven’t had a holiday in a long time, it could certainly be a lot worse. Maybe one day I’ll remember the long hours in air conditioned carriages, doing wordsearches and failing to work out who poisoned the local gossip, and wish I had such a pleasant commute again. One thing’s for sure, though – when it ends, I won’t miss spending more than a fifth of my salary on it.

Car park crisis

So I was working from home this week, on a day when it was raining heavily and we had no food left. I thought, let’s take the car to Sainsbury’s at lunch! Weekday lunchtime, going to be empty, right? Right?

WRONG!

It was absolutely rammed, or jam-packed, or – as Jeremy Corbyn would say – ram-packed. The roads were full, queues into and on and off roundabouts, and an ominously full Sainsbury’s car park. I haven’t had much practise at driving and parking gives me the fear. I normally try to go for a space where I can pull in and pull all the way through so I can just drive straight out the other side. So I spotted a space like that and tried to pull in. I asked my partner for help with getting past the car on his side as my spatial awareness is not the greatest (I still have a bruise on my thigh from walking into a table in a Chinese restaurant in April). I was going to hit the car so I reversed, then started to pull in again. This time I was convinced I was going to hit the car my side, so I reversed again. Repeat x4. Then I stopped to let by a car behind me, and then – horror of horrors – the next car flashed its lights to let me get the fuck out of the way. I panicked, couldn’t work out whether to go forward, backwards, try and fit in the space, give up… in the end I decided there was no way I was going to be able to work out how the hell to get in the space so I just reversed out. At this point my partner was treated to the joy of being in a car with someone on the very edge of a panic attack – obviously something to tick off the list in every relationship.

I pulled into another space (thank GOD there was one straight in front of me I could pull into without having to steer, although I should have done a bit so that my partner could get out of his side without turning into a 6 foot 2 contortionist) and burst into tears. After a second we got out and started walking into the store, but then I burst into tears again against my partner’s jumper (who nobly ignored the fact he was being dripped on by the roof of the walkway, as well as getting sogged by my crying). We got round the shop, with him making excellent silly jokes (duelling with bread batons, anyone?) and me trying not to cry or vomit, and both of us trying to avoid the ENDLESS bloody people who wandered into our paths, stopped in the middle of aisles, and walked into us even when we were stationary.

Of course, for better or worse we also had to drive home. In hindsight, this was probably for the best – getting back on the horse and all that. Thankfully Sainsbury’s is only thirty seconds from the flat so I made it back without any further crises. Got home, unpacked the bags and… burst into tears again. Although the “danger” had long since passed, panic attacks are odd in that the emotions will just keep rolling, rolling, rolling until you get to a quiet safe space where you can let it all out. Of course, tea is also essential and provided excellent comfort.

So, lesson learned. NEVER go to Sainsbury’s on a Friday lunchtime when it’s pissing it down with rain.

Little-known facts about me

I had a fun moment this week when someone I know a little but not a lot told me they’d been reading my blog (always the highpoint of the day), but he found it a little strange bringing it up with me as we don’t know each other much. I realised that at the moment ‘I’ve been reading your blog’ is shorthand for ‘All I know about you is that you’ve been feeling depressed, which is one very personal thing which I don’t feel entirely comfortable talking to you about.’ This made me think I should do a post that’s full of little factoids about me which aren’t in any way awkward to mention in the middle of a social situation. Plus, after seeing a facebook post which did the rounds of ‘ten little-known facts about me,’ it’s a fun post to think up and fun to read too (hopefully).

I currently refuse to own a black coat. This is because of four years commuting on the Northern Line and being faced by a sea of black fabric every morning. I don’t know when people stopped wearing colour, but I get tired whenever I take the tube and the brightest colour is dark denim. This does, however, make it awkward when I have to go to a funeral and my coat colour choices are bright blue, red, or nearly fluorescent pink.

My Dad looks like a cross between Hugh Laurie and Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins. He’s extremely clever, completes Times cryptic crosswords with ease and is much better with numbers than I am. From him I have inherited my sense of humour, my introverted side, and a crooked front tooth.

My Mum is remarkably clever, completes Times cryptic crosswords with ease and remembers more from her degree some forty years ago than I do from the one I did six years ago. From her I have inherited a nervous stomach when travelling, a good sense of colour (I picked out a thread to match fabric I hadn’t seen for six months and it was spot on), and a passionate love of reading.

My eldest brother is an excellent cook, an adorable-to-watch father and dreadful at buying people presents on time. He punched me in the face when we were playing ‘fake rugby’ as children (with my Mum shouting ’YOU DON’T PLAY BALL IN HERE’ which is the soundtrack to my childhood) but I was only grateful because he knocked out a tooth that had been almost falling out but not quite for some weeks.

My elder but not eldest brother reminds me (personality-wise, not looks-wise) of a combination of Rowan Atkinson as Blackadder and Thom Yorke, Radiohead frontman. We are both given to the same unnecessary outbursts of rage which frighten those around us but aren’t as serious as they sound. These outbursts are particularly common when driving or walking behind people going very slowly for no obvious reason.

My last baby tooth fell out when I was 18. I am probably one of very few people who was waiting for a visit from the tooth fairy while living in a halls of residence.

My top three Desert Island Discs would be: 1) Street Spirit (Fade Out) by Radiohead. I think it’s a perfect song. 2) When I Get Low, I Get High by Gordon Webster. Since I started blues dancing I think I’ve listened to it an average of at least once a day. 3) St James’ Infirmary by Man Overboard Quintet. I’ve heard a lot of versions of this song but this is my favourite. 2) and 3) are favourites partly because of their beautiful clarinet playing.

My favourite chocolate as a child was Smarties. I’m still sad that they changed the tubes to those ridiculous hexagonal affairs. One of the great joys in life was popping the plastic lids out of Smarties tubes.

I can move both my eyebrows up and down independently of each other, and both ears backwards and forwards. I remember discovering the ear thing in a physics class in high school.

I have slight pyromaniac tendencies. I once set fire to a plastic pen in a bar.

So there you are: ten entirely useless and impersonal pieces of information you can use if you ever see me and want to talk about the blog, but don’t want to say: ‘Hi, how’s the depression?’ Although if you want to talk about that, I probably won’t mind. As long as you don’t open with: ‘I think depression is an invention of pharmaceutical companies and doesn’t really exist.’ Then I might not be too happy. But feel free to come up and say: ‘I didn’t understand the ear and eyebrow thing – kindly demonstrate’ or ‘Now you come to mention it, you’re the absolute spitting image of Dick van Dyke’ (although I might not be too happy with that last one). By the way, I don’t know why there are so many references to teeth in this list. It’s just a coincidence.