This is one of our trips together.
Every half term, every school holiday, and my Granda Bill takes me to London. It’s not far by train. He used to commute until last year, since he moved in with us. But the family never talk about where we came from, or that side of it at least. It’s funny because whilst he, quote, married well, and my Dad’s side look down on that part they married in to I’ll find out later that all roads that don’t lead down from Scotland lead to Lambeth, both sides. My Granda Bill doesn’t care. My Granda Bill doesn’t give a stuff for any of it. He went through seven years in the army and never had to be shot at once. He was a company clerk, the eternal corporal, and he and his likeminded mates transferred each other moments before being sent anywhere nasty. Can’t really blame him can you? It meant he was in uniform before most and got demobbed two years after the war, oddly he got posted to Germany only when the surrender was made. He didn’t see his daughter, my mum, until she was two. Fly fucker.
We go by train because we always go by train.
You might remember them. They have compartments, and they’re smoking. And you have to lean out the door to open it. On tele a running gag would always be about British Rail sandwiches, and they weren’t far wrong. If there was a buffet car it’d be musty, damp, and there’d be a glass dome with a scotch egg, and the noteworthy sandwich and a sausage roll under the smeared horrid display. And crisps if you were lucky, but we took our sandwiches with us, always cheese. He’d make them from his bread, because his bread was different to the family bread. You had to cut it yourself, and it wasn’t stale, and the cheese would be circus strong, and there would be pickle from a jar all sticky about the rim, layers of roll-top sticky without a crust.
We’re going to visit the sights in London. Really we’re just going to London because he can’t really adjust to not being there. He thinks it silly that no one keeps a pig and chickens in the yard, and he calls the garden a ‘yard’. Everyone used to, and that’s why bacon and eggs are such a breakfast fixture now. We’re going to some touristy place and he’ll know half the people working there. When we get off the station we’ll be picked up a taxi and it’ll be Uncle Roy or the other Uncle Roy, who aren’t related but know Bill and who secretly he’d write to first to meet us, and I spent years thinking there were only two cabbies in London. Or that all the cabbies were called Roy. And when we go home we’ll be carrying half a bloody great fish, or a parcel of giant liver, and we’ll be roundly told off.
We’ve been everywhere everyone else goes. We’ve been to funny museums no one else goes to. We’ll walk these funny little streets and sometimes these new, equally horrid streets and he’ll tell me about who was there, once, when there was another London there. We’ll stop every hour for a cup of tea because he’s fuelled by tea. Not in a cafe. He’ll knock on a door and we’ll go in and I’ll drink this milky tea, and listen to people I’ll never, not ever, meet again. Or we’ll go into the little shacks Uncle Roy or Uncle Roy use.
But it’s the toilets I’m scared off because the ones on the train are never working. And the ones in the station are fearfully things. Stained wood, never cleaned, shit everywhere. The one in Waterloo is the worse, or at least the one I always have to use, when I have to use it. It’s underground. On the way there’s a barbers where you can get a shave. And the toilets are an inch deep in what I hope is water (but which I know is not). And I have to sit there with my feet off the ground, and there’s no seat, and the paper if there is any is that stuff in school, paper, shiny on one side, that scratches your arse.
So years later when the toilets cost 20p and are clean, and metal, and don’t leak, and you don’t have to read ancient graffiti you don’t understand, and they don’t smell, at all, it's a little piece of wonder. But that's a few years yet and my ticket stub is that. A rectangle of cardboard that I'll clutch in the cubicle of strange sounds and stranger smells.
So we’re going to London.