Parenting 101 on the York Train.

He is a beautiful little boy with soft, brown corkscrew curls and big brown eyes, a tiny heartbreaker. He is maybe two years old, just out of babyhood and he is not sure what to make of the strange woman sitting in the fourth seat around the table in the train carriage. He is with his parents who are quietly focussed on him and what he wants. He knows that he needs to say what that is and accept the answer he gets. It will usually be yes and if it isn’t there will be a reason given, automatically, without fuss. I wonder if they realise just how good they are with him. They are obviously a prosperous little family who are able to provide him with everything he needs but I somehow don’t think that is where their happiness comes from. He is eating Pringles, taking them out of their tube by himself carefully in twos, unbroken. There is not a crumb anywhere in sight. Mum has the job of working out what he is thinking- quiet, gentle firefighting- and dad is ready as back up with a small holdall full of everything they might need. It is a full time job whenever they are out of the house. A small black gorilla, a large green Triceratops with a moving tail and a brightly coloured Stegosaurus are taken out of the bag, on the little boy’s instructions and he play fights with them, banging them into each other and shouting with satisfaction. The gorilla always wins. The dinosaurs die silently over and over again. Finally with a loud Hai Yah! the Stegosaurus is propelled across the carriage onto the floor. There is a moments silence, a nervous smile at me from mum and the dinosaur is placed carefully back onto the table. We shake our heads at each other. The little boy fights on. He is offered water. This is not acceptable.
“Want bot bot.”
Dad makes up a quarter bottle of formula milk with some skill. The little boy takes it and leans back into his mum as he drinks it slowly, contentment flowing through his whole body as he drinks. His mum watches him as his mouth moves in a regular rhythm and his breathing slows. Both of them are enjoying the fact that for a few short minutes he is her baby again.
He sits up. looks out of the train window and points at a flock of sheep.
“Yes, Sheep.”
For the next mile or two he keeps pointing out of the window and saying “sheep” whether there are sheep there or not. He just likes saying the word and he likes the fact that his mum agrees with him.
Dad joins in.
“When we get to York we are going to feed the ducks and then go and see Rosie and Jack.”
He doesn’t like this. It’s not the ducks he has a problem with, it’s being told what he is going to do.
“I don’t want to feed the ducks.”
Dad is ready for this.
“I’ll go and feed the ducks on my own then.
The little boy frowns. He wants to call the shots- something he has only just realised that he can do- but he doesn’t want to be left out and especially he doesn’t want his dad going anywhere without him.
“I’ll meet you there.”
His dad nods at him. The Pringle tube slides across the table and knocks my arm. His mum looks at me, alert to any hint of him being a nuisance. We smile at each other. The little boy leans back against his mum and blows a raspberry at me then glances at her. She makes a comical horrified face at him and he looks sideways at me waiting for a grin. The word adorable is overused when it comes to children but this one really is.
More Pringles are asked for and he is given four and told that he has eaten enough of them now. He is asked where he wants them to be put and he wants them placed on the table top. Mum does this and he moves them to exactly the right place. His choice.
When they leave the train at York he turns his big brown eyes on me as he scrambles across the seats.
His mum smiles. He has been a good boy. For once.

“Be like.” (On the Scarborough train.)

The three young women are clearly members of the same tribe. It is the tall one that I notice first. She is like a young amazon- built on a different scale to the others, broad backed and strong. A tribute to good food and good genes. She is wearing a short skirt, a green top with a French slogan across it and her long hair is dyed a shade of blonde that is almost white, not platinum blonde- almost grey. A tiny part of it sits in a bun on top of her head. She is a striking young woman. One of her friends has the same hair colour, scraped into a messy bun above a tiny tight dress and the other is very slim, waif-like in a tiny spaghetti string top and shorts clinging to the top of bruised legs. All of them are wearing heavy make up. You see young women like them everywhere. They have each made a portrait of themselves to show the world on their day out at the seaside. The cans of cider in front of them have already kicked off the celebrations but they are not going to make fools of themselves like some of the groups of young men you see drinking on trains. They have more self respect than that. Their flat sneakers might be leopardskin or butterfly print but they are also comfortable. Nobody is in danger of looking daft when their feet hurt. This is a performance and it has to be a good one, both for each other and for anyone else who crosses their path. It is not about ego, it is about being there together and having the confidence to strut your stuff. Their conversation is full of questions, statements, posturing. They are a tight little unit ready for anything. The interaction is relentless. None of them allow themselves a single second alone inside their own head. No wonder one of them flags momentarily.
“That does drain me.”
Proof of belonging is asked for over and over again.
“You know when you get off the train and swing into Boots?”
There are nods- they all do know- of course they do.
As they use their phones they remind me of a perfectly choreographed dance company, aware of each other and moving as a unit. They are constantly telling, recording, showing and there is never any need for anyone to ask or explain what is needed- they all look in the right direction and pose instantly on request. Every gem held out to be admired on a glowing screen is examined and celebrated.They are experts.
“Oh my god.”
“Did you snog him?”
“What did she say?”
Their phones are a part of them. They are using them as a second language and they would not dream of being together without them or putting them away. They are an entertainment, a connection, a distraction, a crutch, a prop.
“We’re high fiving.”
“My God that’s amazing- we’ll take a picture of that later.”
“I’m like what?”
Just before we reach the last stop the young amazon puts her hands up in front of her and shakes them slightly, pulling a face.
“And then literally………”
The waif-like one widens her eyes.
“ECT. Electro convulsive therapy. Yeah, that’s what it is.”
She savours the words, proud that she remembers them.
The one in the little dress gathers her things together as the train slows down.
“Sounds good!”


We’re not Familiar with Trains.

It takes some time for the older couple to get the huge suitcase up onto the luggage rack. She leaves him to finish shoving it into place and comes down the aisle looking for a seat. She is wearing a tartan hat and a scarf with zebras marching across it and she is smiling round at everybody.
“Is this someone’s seat?”
The young lad opposite looks up from his screen and points at the ticket sticking up above the seat.
“It’s reserved.”
She isn’t sure what to do. He reassures her.
It’s all right though- it’s only reserved from York.”
“We’re going to Liverpool.”
This is a big problem. She wants to sit near her husband and that means two seats. She turns to the young girl sitting on the seat across the aisle.
“Do you mind if I sit there?”
The young girl moves cheerfully and they settle in to their seats on either side of the aisle.
“Sit there Bill.”
“My bags are in that seat.”
“It’s all right. It’s only reserved from York.”
“Is that seat next to you reserved?”
“Yes. From York.”
“When are they getting on?”
She nods and looks at the ticket slip above my seat.
“Did you order your seat?”
I explain what happens when you book a train ticket on line. She listens carefully.
“Thanks for your help. We’re not familiar with trains.”
She looks around the carriage, taking stock.
“It’s empty now but I don’t want to sit there. I can’t travel backwards.”
She looks at the two quiet, well wrapped up ladies, sitting in the corner.
“Are you all right sitting there?”
They smile.
They nod. She looks as though she would like to tuck them up in bed.
She plonks a pile of rail leaflets down in front of her husband.
“Here, read these.”
“Look at your phone Margie.”
Margie gets out her iphone- big, spotless, silvery new one- and starts to tap, announcing what she is finding out. There is a whole world in there.
“Amazon are wrapping Christmas parcels.”
“How do you get rid of adverts on here. You can’t can you? It’s gone on subscribers now- do they take notice of that? I’m sick of it.”
“They’re telling us how much gas and electric we’re using. Compare your tariff.”
“They’ve reduced it by £100.”
Bill looks straight ahead with his eyelids half closed, his hat heading downwards over his face. She is settled. He can relax. But not for long. She sets off for the toilet- in the wrong direction.
He raises an eyebrow.
“You’ve to go that way.”
She turns back.
“No. That lady told me to go this way.”
Margie disappears into the first class carriage.
The young girl looks at Bill.
“You’re not going to leave her alone in Liverpool are you?”
He grins.
“I’d love to.”
We all laugh. He points at the case on the rack.
“See that case? There’s bedding in there, cutlery, the lot. We’re only going for two nights to see our granddaughter. I lost her in Chicago airport once. She wandered off and had to be brought back- by security.”
When Margie returns from the first class compartment she is excited.
“Oh it’s another experience down there. You’ve to lock yourself in. There’s one man sitting there helping you and another man helping him.”
She settles back into her seat and gets back on her phone- watching a video clip this time. Their son has sent it.
“Here Bill.”
He puts the phone to his ear.
“No, Bill- look at it! Look at it!”
She smiles round proudly.
“He sent it to us first and then a lot of other people.”
The train rattles on. Holidays are talked about. Ones taken and ones to come. Destinations, prices, savings.
“Is there a trolley?”
There is and it comes. Two teas and a kit-kat are ordered.
“Are they the original ones? They’ve brought out a few. I don’t want one of them orange ones.”
They can no longer see each other, separated by the grey metal bulk of the trolley. This makes Margie anxious as she can’t see what is happening while Bill pays up for two teas and a kit-kat.
“We are together. We’re just sitting apart.”
The trolley moves on. She is happy with what she has heard.
“That wasn’t bad.”
“It wasn’t bad, cos I paid for it.”
He looks at me wickedly.
“I give her £7 a week housekeeping but I don’t know what she does with it.”
The trolley moves on and there is no sugar on the table. Consternation. Some sugar appears.
“Did you get that out of your bag?”
The two well wrapped up, shy ladies nod quickly and are thanked. She turns back to Bill.
“I thought you had a kit-kat as well.”
“Oh, well that was expensive then. I thought it was cheap.”
They touch polystyrene tea cartons together across the aisle.

On the York Train in Spring.

The young man was tall and good looking, with the tiniest of jet black ponytails, carefully dressed, just the right side of flamboyance, in a light leather jacket, black shirt and pale mesh jumper over black cycling shorts. He settled into his seat with quiet self possession, opened his bag and took out his make up. Ignoring everything around him, the movement of the train, the interested looks, the noise and disruption, he began to do his make up, comfortable in his own skin. He held out his mirror high in mid air with some style and surveyed his face with practiced skill. The young women already sitting in the seats around him whose cheerful chat had been made up of sentences punctuated by wide eyes, plenty of reassuring, affirmative nodding and the word like, were fascinated. Finally one of them spoke up.
“I don’t know how you can manage to do that on a train.”

He was too busy concentrating to answer straight away, lost in the world of his own face. They were right to be impressed. When he was finally happy with what he saw it looked as if he was wearing no make up at all, but had simply been blessed with excellent skin. He snapped shut his shiny black mirror, smiled and introduced himself, announcing his name, explaining where he lived- a very nice area- and asking them what they were up to and where they came from. His manners were impeccable. They were delighted by him and chatted about their plans for the day, the relative merits of supermarkets and his job in a gallery.

The elderly lady sitting opposite me, dressed in a carefully arranged pastel scarf and safe, comfy fleece and anorak, listened with a kind of bewildered amusement, darting shy glances at them. An exotic bower bird had constructed his bower in a table seat of carriage B of the TransPennine Express and performed a display right next to her. She would ring her friend up and tell her about it when she got home.


On the Sheffield Train.

“I’m a warrior, not some variety of flower!”

Arthur likes trains. He is nearly eight now and he has been on a train plenty of times. He rams his scooter in underneath the table, keeping it close, without looking back at his mother to see if the seat he has chosen is all right and gets his tablet computer out of his back pack. His special back pack. The one with the anime figure on it who looks just like a fierce version of himself. The same watchful brown eyes and guarded expression. The same attitude. He keeps his hood up and glares at the screen, his face lit by a pale blue light as he swipes and destroys.

Lara has been helping her mum. She scrambles into the seat next to her big brother after making sure that her scooter has been put in the right place, in the luggage rack. There is always a right way to do things and usually she knows what it is. If she doesn’t she asks her mum or her teacher. Sometimes if they don’t know she even tells them what the right way to do something is. They are the judges at the final court of appeal. If her mum or her teacher says something is true it then it must be true. She has Hello Kittty ear muffs and pink spectacles. One of her eyes is covered over to correct a squint. This is OK. The doctor explained it all. She clutches her lip salve anxiously in case she needs it. Her three blue, heart shaped bows are safe in her hair and her three butterfly rings are lined up on her fingers. She is fine. She has no wifi on her tablet and Arthur won’t let her use his because he is busy destroying important things but she is fine.

Mother has finished organising the luggage and put the big pink bag with the things that they might need on the journey on the seat next to her. She will be glad when this is all over. She has long, straight brown hair and she is wearing an expensive camel coat and a headband with a flower in it. She flops down into the seat opposite her children and dabs anxiously at her iphone. She really needs to sort something out. At least the children are being good. Sometimes Arthur can be difficult and that isn’t good in front of other people.

Arthur’s legs are kicking out automatically as he plays. His mother leans over and puts her face next to his.
“Be careful. You kicked that lady.”
“Mummy! You made me lose one of my people!”
Arthur flashes a glance at the lady. She doesn’t look worried about it.
The two of them raise their eyebrows at each other. It is a conspiracy. They both know what mothers can be like.
“Mummy- I’m hungry!”
He doesn’t look up to see whether he has been heard. He doesn’t need to. His support system swings into action. A small packet of home made sandwiches, ham and cheese in brown bread, crusts on, cut into quarters, appears on the table in front of his sister.

Mother gets back to her phone. They will be leaving the train at the next stop and she needs to sort this out first.

Lara unwraps the sandwiches carefully. Arthur glances sideways and takes one for himself too quickly. This is rude. She is outraged. Quietly.
“We’re sharing!”
He stares her out. Lara pouts.
“Put it here!”
He makes big eyes at her and takes another sandwich. Very slowly he takes a tiny bite out of each of his sandwiches while looking straight at her. Lara glances at her mum and frowns, wondering if this is fair or not. She still has her share in front of her so it probably is, but it is still annoying and she moves her half of the sandwich away from him to make sure. Her mother passes two small apples across and she gives one to Arthur pointedly. Look. I am being fair.
Arthur shuts down his tablet and announces his next move.
“I’m going to make something.”
Nobody asks what and he isn’t bothered. He makes his own choices and he makes them for himself. He gets out a coin bag full of tiny pieces of bright green Lego and tips them out next to the sandwich crusts which are lined up in front of him. Steadily he builds and bites until the crusts are gone and the Lego is starting to form a rickety tower. His apple sits alongside it with just one tiny piece of peel grazed off. This can be used as evidence if Lara accuses him of not eating his fruit.

Mother glances up. They are almost at their stop- already! She gives a small sigh to brace herself.
“Nearly time to get off.”
She gathers her wits and heads towards the luggage rack followed by Lara who picks up the big bag and heaves it along the corridor.

Arthur shows no sign that he has heard but he puts his Lego back into his backpack and shrugs it over his shoulders. He pulls his scooter out and waits in the aisle, several people behind his mother and sister.
“Arthur! Are you there?”.
There is nothing he needs to say to that. Of course he is there. The anime figure glares out behind him from his pack, brandishing a sword, watching his back.


On the York train.

It was going to be a full train. The woman, anxious, thin, well to do, wanted to get her frail, elderly mother settled. The journey was a worry. Her mother was saying nothing, letting her daughter sort things out for her, clutching her glittery stick.
“Is anyone sitting here?”
The young man, who had been absorbed in the blue light of his ipad, glanced to one side.
“No you’re fine”.
The woman’s body sagged with relief. She turned back to her mother.
“You sit here then. I’m going to leave these bags with you. Is that all right?”
Her mother sank into the seat silently and allowed the luggage to be placed around her feet. She had the long angular bones of someone who had been beautiful in her youth, now transformed into the fragility of dry twigs by old age.
“I’ll come and find you at York.”
The daughter disappeared off down the carriage and her mother stared quietly at the back of the seat in front of her. Slowly the rush died down. A rather pompous middle aged lady appeared at the last minute, clutching her ticket.
“I think that’s my seat.”
She waved her ticket at the young man, sure that he was sitting in her seat.
He looked at her mildly.
“The way it works is this. I should be sitting in the other seat but I’ve let this lady sit there.”
The mother just watched, taking it all in, saying nothing. Her daughter appeared from nowhere.
“Is there a problem? You can sit in this seat over here instead. Is that all right?”
The pompous middle aged woman, mortified to have caused a fuss, quickly agreed that it was. Her self righteous wish to get what was due to her had vanished in a puff of embarrassment.
The elderly man sitting next to me had been watching. He was very smart, shirt, tie, jacket and neatly cut hair. He saw my book, wondered whether it was any good and wanted to talk. He was eighty six and he was a big reader. Dickens, Shakespeare, all sorts. He had lost his book in the cafe where he had had his breakfast but he wasn’t bothered because it was rubbish. He searched in his carrier bag and found his leather bookmark.
“I’ve still got this, see, I thought I’d lost that as well. That’s one good thing.”
We both agreed that this was, indeed, a good thing and talked about Dicken’s characterisation and how it made good television. He liked Solzhenityn too. I said that I hadn’t read much Russian literature but I probably should read Crime and Punishment before too long. He nodded.
“I read that. Miserable lot the Russians. Always worrying.”
After a few minutes silence while we both contemplated the poor, miserable people drinking their vodka in draughty shacks on the snowy Russian steppes he started to tell me about his travelling.
“My son says he never knows where I’m going to pop up next. I’ve been all over. I went on a cruise to Spain last year. Very nice. It’s not the same without my wife though. She’s in a nursing home. Had a bad stroke. It’s not the same on your own.”
It must be hard and I said so. Even so, his detailed knowledge of the Manchester transport system suggested that he didn’t let this stop him getting out and about. There was no need for pity.
The cheerful guard, who had announced at Malton that we were on the York train and if we wanted to go to Scarborough that was “tough” informed us that we were now approaching York. My companion listened to the long list of platforms and connections that followed with interest. The elderly lady began to unfold her legs from around the lugggage and picked up both bags with some difficulty and more determination. With a fixed look on her face she headed towards the door of the train. Soon afterwards her daughter appeared. She frowned at the empty seat.
“Has she gone?”
The young man grinned.
“Yes she has.”
The daughter sighed. It would be so much easier if her mother just did as she was told.
“Thanks for your help earlier on.”
“No problem.”

Waiting for a train.

The railway waiting room is cold and half closed. The metal barrier to the cafe area has been slammed down and most of the hard purple and silver metal chairs are empty. There will not be many more trains now. A large black and tan crossbreed lies out on the floor. He has pricked ears, kind eyes and a well rounded belly. His family are around him, a little girl dressed in pink, as they all are, a dad who is keeping her amused and a mum nursing a carton of coffee and watching them all proudly. The dad finds the sweet spot on the dog’s belly which will make his leg kick out when you scratch it and the little girl laughs.

A lady sits in the corner, talking to herself. She has large boots on and severely scraped back hair. She has taken off her coat and she can’t be warm enough. Her foot bangs repeatedly on the floor.

Two girls giggle, heads close together. They look like sisters. One is beautiful, the kind of beautiful that makes you want to keep looking at her. She is stick thin with long carefully waved black hair and heavy eye make up which is skilfully done. She wears a leather look fabric jacket, skin tight leggings and grey sneakers. She is not dressed up, she doesn’t need to be. The other is not beautiful. She is a little heavier, with a rounded face and slightly awkward make up. She doesn’t have the natural elegance of her sister who has arranged herself gracefully on her chair. It’s as if the pieces of the genetic jigsaw don’t quite fit.

There is a sudden burst of sound as an announcement comes over the intercom. The dog leaps up and makes loud howling noises. Everybody laughs. He is alert now, sitting up and looking out fearfully with his nose down. He hadn’t realised something bad might happen. The lady talking to herself is muttering. “Dog frightened. Dog frightened.”

Grandparents and teenage granddaughter sit with a small pile of luggage, all decked out in Macmillan daffodils and smart anoraks. Gran is concerned about the tickets which she is clutching in her hand. She announces where their seats are going to be when the train comes in. Nobody listens. Granddad stands and stares into space and granddaughter is engrossed in her phone. She is bored and the journey hasn’t even started yet. There is a lot of food for the journey in a hessian shopping bag and three large sports drinks. Nothing has been left to chance.

A lady in a huge fur jacket and a black silk blouse with balloon sleeves, whose hair has been forced into places it was never meant to go, sits like a blinged buddha giving instructions from a distance to the person she has sent to find something out. She is an immovable object, watching everything which happens with serene contempt.

The mother notices me smiling at the dog and smiles back at me. She likes her family to be admired. The dog is starting to feel better. He is sitting between the man’s feet and the little girl is stroking him. He bats the very end of his tail on the floor and looks at the young man sitting opposite hoping that he will be noticed. Finally he feels safe and sinks back down to the floor.

The blinged buddha gets her news and processes slowly across the floor towards the sliding door. She was beautiful once and the awareness of that beauty has never left her.

Another train announcement crashes into the stale air of the waiting room and the dog leaps up, howling at the threat. Arms are flung around him and he barks on, protecting his protectors.
“The train now standing at platform 4 is being prepared for service. Please do not board this train.”
The lady who is talking to herself is puzzled by this. She chunters to herself, asking questions. Why can you not board that train? Trains are for getting on. What use are they if they won’t let you get on them? There is nobody to answer her. Steadily the people leave and make their way towards the train. Most of them know that the announcement is one that they can safely ignore. It is time to leave. She sits in her corner and watches them go. There are no goodbyes.

A first train journey.

She looked very vulnerable, all of twelve or thirteen years old in her tiny short skirt and little belted jacket standing alone on the dark platform clutching her bag. It was a very confident bag- bright pink with buckles and favours and a glittery silver diamante clasp made from two initials. If that bag could have talked it wouldn’t have just said hello, it would have given you a full Hollywood song and dance routine from the great days of MGM. All of her shallow teenage confidence had drained away into that bag and she was left to hide behind it.
She caught my eye.
“Are you waiting for the Bridlington train?”
I told her that I was and she took a step nearer.
“Can you help me get on it? I’ve never been on a train before.”
I smiled at her.
“Yes. You’ll be fine. There’s about half an hour to wait.”
“I’m going to Bridlington.”
“It’s OK. They’ll announce the stops so you’ll know when to get off.”
“But I’m going deaf in this ear so I might not hear it.”
She pointed helplessly at her ear.
“Well I think there are two stops after I get off at Filey. When the ticket collector comes along we can ask him.”
She nodded, still worried. After a while she edged onto the seat next to me and sat there quietly for the next half hour playing with her smart phone, snatching glances at the lighted board. The train came into the platform early, as it usually does, and when people started milling round, manufacturing a completely unnecessary rush, she looked at me anxiously.
“Is this our train?”
I nodded, flattered that she had said our train. It was good to be relied on. Usually I’m the one that people assume needs help. They are mostly wrong about that but it doesn’t stop them patronising me and every so often I do something daft to prove them right.
“Yes, this is our train.”
We got on together and she sat perfectly still in the seat next to me, stiff with anxiety, looking straight ahead and holding her bag in front of her on her knee,  a magical cross to ward off the vampires she probably liked to read about. The announcement bleated out the stations as the train left. I turned sideways to look at her.
“Hunmanby and Bempton. So that’s two stops after Filey.”
She nodded, her pretty, carefully made up eyes wide with fear and remained still as a little Japanese ivory statue until I said goodbye before I got out at Filey.
“Two stops at small stations then and after that it will be Bridlington. You’ll be fine.”
She nodded, half thankful and half afraid that she was about to be on her own again. I hope that she didn’t do what I did on my way back from Sheffield a few months ago and get out at Bempton in the dark before having to hurriedly get back on the train again. I still don’t know why I did that…………………

A Mental night.

He was talking loudly into his smart phone on the train to Scarborough, a taut, stocky young bundle of energy in a Kasabian T shirt. One arm was proudly tattooed with an elaborate design based on a black cross and next to it there was a woman’s face. His right leg was moving in a swift repetitive pattern as he talked. He was restless and energised with nothing to use up his energy on. The little middle aged woman sitting a few feet away was of no consequence.

“It was crazy last night mate, mental. £140 on a night out. I put in all the effort mate, bought her a meal and everything and it was you who got sex. She said, I like you, but you’re mental, I said I know I am but I really want to sleep with you.”

He listened to the response, unimpressed.

“She sent him up to say she wanted me out of her bed. I went down to talk to her and she said, You think I’d sleep with you now?”

He listened again.

“I really, really want to shag her, man. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much on a night out.”

He listened for a while, then his face brightened.

“There’s this girl who says she’s almost guaranteed to be sleeping with me if I stay over next Thursday. Shall we get pissed? Shall we get really, really pissed?”

The call ended and he spent the rest of the journey staring edgily at his phone screen before leaving the train and strutting off down the platform, telling a female rail worker who must have asked whether he had had a good night how drunk he had been as he walked past.

Just a few clues to a tiny slice of life which were broadcast to the world on Northern Rail. It’s perhaps just a bit worrying if you try to fill in the details for yourself, but who am I to judge?

On the Scarborough train.

The woman sitting opposite me on the other side of the railway carriage had a mobile phone clamped to her ear and her fingers drummed restlessly on the table in front of her. She and her friend both had the pale pinched look that you see a lot in the north of England. It’s a look that takes a long while to develop. The quickest way to achieve it is by a few years of late nights out in the cold in a skimpy top existing on a diet of crisps, kebabs, alcopops and tequila slammers, followed by several more years of sleepless nights sharing a bedroom with your small child in a tiny flat. How these particular women had managed to perfect it I have no idea. They both wore the same tribal uniform of partly bleached hair, thin low cut tops under cut off jackets, leggings and thick furry boots, and their heavily made up dark eyes were both arrogant and guarded. The one who had just picked up the call on her mobile was worried, and whoever was on the other end clearly had a lot to say. Her companion was listening in, nodding blankly and chewing. Finally the phone was flipped shut with a “Speak to you later darl” and thrown down on the hard surface of the table in disgust. The friend watched silently, offering no reaction. She wasn’t wanting to give anything away. She knew who had been on the other end of the phone and she knew that she was about to be told all about it. Perhaps she didn’t care, or maybe she cared too much and didn’t want to put her foot in it by saying the wrong thing. Whatever was keeping her silent she was absolutely right. Nothing was going to prevent her friend from passing on the whole tale that she had just heard on the phone. She spoke loudly, jabbing her finger at her mobile and glaring at it while she spoke, as if the daughter that she had just been speaking to was still there, listening.
“She had her dinner at school today. It was a choice of chicken with stuffing in the middle of it or shepherds pie. Well she doesn’t like stuffing so she had the shepherd’s pie. What they didn’t tell her was that it was veggie shepherds pie. No meat in it at all. She thought it were shepherds pie as in shepherd’s pie. So then they had a go at her for swearing at them. I’m fed up of hearing it coming out of her mouth- it’s all the time.”
Her voice rose and her eyes widened as she became more and more agitated.
“I told her she can’t do that if she wants to be a teacher.”
It was almost good enough to be the punchline of a joke, but nobody was laughing.