‘You should’ve started this topic in Worcester.’
We all grinned. She was right but hindsight is 20:20.
It’d been almost the crack of dawn when I had set off from Hereford. Just before my alarm went off at 4.45 am I was creaking out of bed as quietly as I could so as not to wake my wife. I was a bit anxious about the journey as there were no trains from Hereford itself over the weekend due to work on the line between Newport and Crewe. I had to get the bus to Ledbury to link up with the London train. I couldn’t drive myself there and park because I knew I would be coming back via a bus from Newport.
As it turned out, it was a pleasant ride on the bus to Ledbury, and I was able to catch up on my morning meditation, just finishing as the viaduct near the station came into view.
When the couple had boarded the train at Worcester Shrub Hill I was sitting alone at the table in the seats they’d booked, my bag on one and my bum on the other, and my flask of coffee half-consumed. There were no tickets in the slots to warn me of my transgression. At least I had made sure it was not the quiet carriage though: I didn’t want to repeat my previous mistakes in that respect.
Anyway they happily sat opposite me across the table until they realised the train would be dragging them backwards, which neither of them liked. I offered to swap seats and they gratefully accepted.
We settled down for the long haul up to London, stopping at every station this side of Oxford. They both had their Kindles and when the train started moving the portly denim-clad figure of the husband headed for the buffet car. He returned with her tea and his coffee, which he grimaced about as he took the first sip.
We sympathised with each other over the quality of railway coffee, though he did admit he’d had worse. We agreed that instant was undrinkable and at least this was real coffee.
Their heads went down over their Kindles and I pored over my copy of The Prodigal, determined to finish it before Paddington.
Not difficult when gems such as these passed before my eyes:
I sat on a plank bench
by the wooden table and listened to the sound
of papers being shuffled by an enquiry
into the parasitism of poetry by the dry-lipped leaves.
They talked between themselves rather more often, and it wasn’t until after Reading that all reading stopped and he and I hit on the theme of dyslexia, triggered by the way the station had highlighted the pitfalls of written English.
The conversation took off. We both agreed that such conditions conferred gifts we boggled at.
‘My mate can set up electronic systems, some huge, some tiny, that work perfectly and I haven’t the faintest idea how he does it. But when he writes, he writes phonetically. Once you accept that it’s easy to understand what he’s written. It just looks odd because he’s spelt every word exactly as it sounds.’
I shared the story of the mother who took her daughter to be assessed by a psychologist for ADHD. The assessor left the young girl in a hall with music playing and took the mother off behind a one-way mirror. They watched her daughter together as she began to dance.
The assessor said. ‘She not got ADHD. She’s a dancer.’
‘The challenge,’ came the reply from across the table, ‘is that to work with people outside the middle in our education system is time-consuming and costly. Outliers get neglected. We don’t make the most of their special gifts, but maybe it’s not possible to do so. We’d do a lot better if we were freer to make our own decisions. We need to get out of Europe and get control.’
By this time we had left Slough, another pronunciation head banger for someone learning English. Even so, with little time left, I launched into my spiel about the issue. I am sharing a mercifully short summary.
‘The problem is we have a polarised debate on this when what we really need is to put our heads together on the far more important issues facing us like climate change, that we will never solve until we operate on the basic truth that we are one human race. Our culture is too divisive. Our economic system is based on competition. In this country, though not everywhere, our legal system is based on a courtroom battle rather than an investigation of the truth. And as for our politics, it’s the same. Different parties fight it out as though their slanted point of view was the absolute truth, rather than recognising that a more accurate version of reality would come with all viewpoints coming together to create a consensus . . . . .’
‘But at least we’ve got a democracy not a bureaucracy,’ he interrupted as the voice over the tannoy announced that we were coming into Paddington and needed to collect our belongings rather than debate our differences.
His wife was right. We should have started earlier. We shook hands on good terms as we picked up our stuff to leave. I think, though, that I was right to feel happy that we had at least begun to have the kind of deep conversation about something important that satisfies the introvert in me, rather than remaining at the level of superficially discussing coffee and the countryside in a way that reduced them to the froth on a cappuccino.
I set off for my hike across Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park with a level of humidity hanging in the air that turned me into a grease-spot under my backpack by the time I arrived at my meeting place in Knightsbridge.
The meeting went well and my return journey led me into quite different territory as we’ll explore next time. It was as though the universe was saying, ‘So you want deep conversations. Try these for size!’