One Day Without Us

headerToday saw a day of action to celebrate the contribution of migrants in the UK. Central Belt Shuffler, away from home turf, joined colleagues in solidarity at another university outside the students’ union.

The day before, I’d been travelling to my temporary home in the Midlands. The Sunday afternoon train was packed with people returning from half-term holidays, shopping in the big city, and heading onwards to the airport at the end of the route. Large suitcases and bags stuffed with new purchases were blocking the aisles, and several people were standing. Families and friends were separated, picking single seats where they could.

When the overcrowding on the train eased a little, a quiet, turbaned train guard checked our tickets. Then, from the other end of the carriage, the food and drinks trolley started to make its way, pushed by a dreadlocked man. He made it through to the vestibule area, which was still blocked by scattered suitcases, mine included. In a cheerful manner, he started to rearrange people’s bags to make more room, lifting smaller bags to the overhead racks, and fitting the larger ones into the spaces at the end of the carriage.

He talked good-naturedly while he did so, his intonation inflected by his Caribbean accent. He came to talk to our few seats, making all the passengers laugh with his explanation of how stacking luggage wasn’t his job, but he needed to make the passageways clear so he could sell from the trolley. He explained his father had always told him to do a decent day’s work. His dad had been a farmer, and he would also work as a farmer, and a builder, before he came over to the UK from Montserrat. He’d watch his goats, and plant during January to April: dasheen, sweet potato, blue peas, cucumber. His father would grow enough for him and his family, to give some to neighbours, to sell some. He couldn’t farm in the UK, and had tried building work for a while, but his hands couldn’t take the cold. So he was working on the trains. He was heading home to Montserrat for a couple of weeks’ holiday soon. He was looking forward to it.

As we approached the next stop, a larger city where lots of people got up to leave, he asked everyone to sit back down again to make way for the train guard as he came through to open the doors. The guard smiled wryly as he went past. Our trolley man sang us a bit of Bob Marley.

As we left the train, each passenger got a hand down with their bags, including my very heavy suitcase.

I smiled at him as I left the train, and thanked just one more of the individuals who come to make their homes here, and thereby enrich our lives, help us out, share their stories, and spread the love.

Volumes of Memory

img_2751-2Two nights running a reader has sat in the same spot across the aisle from Central Belt Shuffler. He is immersed in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and is halfway through.

Last night the train stopped for a while outside of Croy, with no explanation forthcoming. This is the sort of situation that such a book is born for, although I occupied myself with marking.

His immersion made me remember when I read the same book. I was an undergraduate, in that odd period just after coursework and final exams are finished, but before the results are out. I recall sitting on a concrete step overlooking the university lake (60s buildings and lakes, with wildfowl attached, obviously hold some kind of attraction), while I worked my way through the tome, anxious about my results, thinking about the future, but pleasantly distracted by the novel.

In twenty years’ time will the reader, coming back to the book, remember the 2016 Stirling-Glasgow commute? Will the fabric of the already-aged Scotrail seats come flooding back into his memory? Proust wrote in À La Recherche du Temps Perdu how the madeleine brought back volumes’ worth of memory. But sometimes the volume itself can do that too…

 

A Fellow Traveller

The train home. Dr A and I sit in companionable silence, he furiously marking (he suspects he’ll have read about 125 essays by the end of the week), Central Belt Shuffler catching up on emails and social media.

A older cyclist gets on the train. It’s the first properly cold evening of the year, but he’s in knee-length shorts. He has the same fluorescent cycling jacket (slightly larger size) as me, though, and keeps his helmet on through the journey.

Not far out from Queen Street, he tosses words across the aisle at Dr A, ‘You’re a teacher?’

Dr A nods, wearily.

‘What dae ye teach?’ interrogates our fellow traveller.

I explain we work at the uni, and what my subject area is.

Dr A admits to teaching English.

‘Brutal,’ our interlocutor replies. It’s hard to know whether this is condemnation or approbation.

‘Ah’m a teacher too. Chemistry. When ye’re marking it’s easy to see. Is it 9 and a quarter? But English. That’s brutal.’

We realise he is speaking in sympathy at Dr A’s lot, and laugh.

‘Little and often is what my dad always advised about marking,’ I said. ‘He was a school teacher.’

He goes on to tell us about his own love of teaching, his school days in the East End of Glasgow. Tough, working class, Celtic and Rangers and a’ that.

‘Lamb, Spenser, the Faerie Queen, Milton… teaching that tae boys from the East End. But The Big McGonigall!’ He smiles, remembers, some long gone inspirational teacher in his mind’s eye.

‘James Joyce. Ah like the Irish writers. Joyce, Seamus Heaney. Ah shoulda done English,’ he said. ‘But working class boys, it wisnae fer us. The white heat of maths and chemistry, that wis the thing. It can still be like that ah think.’

We agree, and Dr A talks about his experience at university open days, trying to convince parents that English is worth studying.

‘Ah’m reading McIlvanney at the moment,’ he said. ‘The Kiln. It’s very autobiographical. It reminds me of my life.’

The train pulls into the station. We take our bikes off the train and head our separate ways homewards, wishing each other well.

It feels like coming home…

FullSizeRender (6)It’s early, a sunny morning. Central Belt Shuffler is slowly getting back into the return to work. The early alarm for the commuter train, hopping on the bike, the initial speed down hill, and then the push through to the station. It’s an even earlier train than normal today, to arrive in good time for an event.

I arrive at the station well in time, and head into the ticket office. There’s a hipster brass band playing on the concourse, and Scotrail branded cupcakes, celebrating the reopening of the Queen St tunnel. As travellers pass through the barriers on their way to work they are offered cake. Initially, some are wary, thinking it’s a charity collection, but then – as the sun streams through the roof – they realise it’s a small gift, the icing on its top literally buttering up customers after months of extended journey times.

The commuters’ early-morning head-down intent turns to smiles. The girls handing out the cakes dance in time to the band. The boys grin at everyone.

I board my train, and the short journey opens up into the large vistas of the Forth Valley, the dramatic sight of Stirling castle and the Wallace monument heaving into view.

I catch the train home with 10 seconds to spare, hoisting my bike up onto the rack. A familiar movement, but one I haven’t made for a while.

I have my ticket on the table, ready for inspection. The train guard comes by, and I hold it out.

He nods, and smiles, without really scrutinising it. ‘Thank you pal, good on ye.’

The sun shines on the Campsie Fells. A deer runs lazily across a field.

It feels like coming home. It is.

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One Girl and her Dog

 

There’s been a little run of dog sightings on Central Belt Shuffler recently. Here’s another:

Girl and dog are on the platform – she, aged 6 or so, in denim dungarees, the dog, black and white, with floppy ears.

The dog won’t step into the train, so her dad tells her to pick the dog up. She bundles the dog under her arm, then sits in a seat with it in her lap.

She smiles. The dog looks happy.

Because of the shape of the dog’s ears, girl and dog seem to have the same triangular hairstyle.

The dog licks the train ticket.

She puts him on the seat, and tucks into a sandwich.

The dog looks out of the window. We pass over the Clyde.

Speaks for itself

IMG_0857Central Belt Shuffler is away from home again, awaiting Dr F on Kendal station platform. Trains shuttle back and forth between Windermere and Oxenholme, and occasionally onto Lancaster.

Around the station, the fells are icing-sugar laced with snow. The air is crisp, the sun is out: an early spring day. There’s the promise of an afternoon’s walk ahead.

A handful of other people are also waiting for the Windermere train. A mother with her child in a buggy. A smartly dressed woman. A man, holding a ventriloquist’s dummy, its shock of orange blazing surreally bright in the sunshine.

 

Camioneta Dreaming, Part 2

IMG_0784Central Belt Shuffler and Dr D are back at the side of the road, waiting for the camioneta home. The light is starting to fade.

We stand a few paces away from three men, two older, fatter ones, wearing straw cowboy hats, and a younger, thinner one. They drink from beer cans, their language slurred. They’re doing a sum, ’17 and 17 is 42’, says one. ‘Oh God,’ says Dr D. ‘I hope they’re not getting on the camioneta with us. If a taxi arrives, let’s take it.’

A taxi comes, but it’s headed in the opposite direction from where we want to go.

A camioneta arrives, also heading in the opposite direction. The drunk men ask the driver something, then, as the camioneta heads off, swear at its retreating exhaust.

Walking down the road comes a small group of Mexicans, accompanying a tall, thin black man, smartly dressed with a calm demeanor. A visiting preacher from Paraguay. The drunks recognise one of the women walking with him, and say hello. She replies, nervously. The preacher calmly greets them, ‘Buenas tardes.’

Another camioneta arrives, heading in the right direction. It’s already quite full, and we get on quickly, making our way to the front. The three men also get on, causing a commotion on the camioneta. A few of the Mexicans look at them in disapproval, and shift around to give them space to sit together. A little girl is carrying a tiny puppy, which a woman then takes on her lap as the camioneta sways with the number of people on it. Several men are standing on the back bumper.

The drunks fall asleep. One lets fall an unopened beer can, which the younger man picks up. A family starts singing, the young boy repeating the words, to everyone’s delight. Then, the clear strong voice of the grandma singing by herself. Most of the camioneta join in for a moment, and laugh together at the end of the song.

An older woman, large in frame, gets on. One of the drunk men wakes up and tries to give her his seat. The woman, quickly assessing the situation, tries to dissuade his alcohol-fuelled courtesy, but he is insistent. She sits down, and he stands, swaying.

I reach my stop, and struggle to make my way through the throng to the back of the bus. The other passengers helpfully shout so that the driver knows to wait, and to the drunk, so he gets out of the way.

I squeeze my way out, then reach into my purse, counting out my 6 pesos, handing it to the driver. The camioneta continues onwards, passengers still clinging to the back. I hope Dr D manages to get out in due course. I head for some shopping, and a cooling margarita.

Dr D later reports on the continuation of this journey. The drunks start swearing, and she tells them off, reminding them there are children in the camioneta. When she reaches her stop, she climbs down. ‘Suerte,’ (Good luck), she says to those passengers continuing the journey.

They laugh.

 

Causeways

It didn’t seem like a day for setting out on foot, but Central Belt Shuffler’s journey today is a triangular one, out to the office and on to Edinburgh before setting back home again. Despite my umbrella, I’m already soaked by the morning rain as I reach the subway station; glad, at least, that I’m not on my bike. I see someone cycling along the path on the other side of the river, and think they must be much more determined than me. The rain has the quality of that in a Hollywood movie, but none of the joyous grace of Gene Kelly tap dancing along the pavement edge, flirting with the lamp posts.

At the other end, the wait at the bus stop is lengthy, the number of people growing by the minute. Some huddle inside Greggs, but the staff inside make them leave, explaining that it’s a fire exit. There’d be plenty enough rain to put any fire out. Eventually several buses arrive at once, and the scrum to get on fills each with the smell of wet coats, condensation, and students checking the time on their phones, already 20 minutes delayed for lectures.

The delay gets worse as we head to campus. Roadworks mean the traffic crawls along Causewayhead Road at slower than walking pace. We are, at least, out of the rain.

I arrive late. Everyone who comes in is dripping, and breathless from the conditions. Umbrellas are doing little good, and a walk across campus is inadvisable in this weather.

In the afternoon I get a text from my parents, checking I was not affected by flooding on the way to work. I look online; the motorway was flooded, and the southbound carriageway closed. Some days, despite a wet start as a pedestrian, it’s definitely better not to drive.

Mid-afternoon, I set off to catch the train to my next destination. The river races fiercely under the bridge, sweeping around the tree trunks, churning brown. The sun comes out, briefly. The view across the valley is spectacular as the storm clouds are chased by the sun, a kiss-chase of the weather. The elevated train tracks become a temporary causeway, running above lower-lying land. Water surrounds us on both sides.

Looking out of the window, I think of causeways around the country. The roads that link the islands of the Outer Hebrides, that one day I plan to cycle. The causeway to Lindisfarne in Northumberland, which requires visitors to plan their journeys carefully to avoid staying longer on the island than they had intended.  Burgh Island in Devon, to which you can walk over the sands to the Art Deco hotel.  Even the cheapest rooms (Shrimp, and Dorothy Button) are prohibitively expensive, and I’m not quite sure I could manage the glamour of the black tie/ball gown dining requirements, though I suppose I could give it a go. I remember The Bay of Fundy in Canada, which has the highest tide differentials in the world. One summer I ran a watery (and muddy) 10K across its ocean floor, on the appropriately named Not Since Moses run. I think of Kirsty Logan’s recent novel The Gracekeepers, which draws a vivid picture of our dry world overtaken by the waters of the floods, an imaginative rendering of the future of climate change.

The wind turbines are spinning fast on the broad plain of the Forth Valley. The fields below are sodden, covered with the water of today’s rain, not dried out from their previous soakings. The floods of the past couple of months continue to be visited upon us, making journeys unpredictable, homes ruined, the skies dramatic. The main train route south from Glasgow to London has been cut off since New Year’s Eve, and looks to be so through February and possibly March. A viaduct has been badly damaged by the rising waters of the Clyde.

It is raining again. At each station, people are huddled together under cover, standing closer than they might normally. When they step on the train, water falls off their coats, their hair lashed slickly to their faces.

The contact I’m meeting in Edinburgh apologises for being late. A chimney stack has fallen from the rooftop onto a bus, causing road closures and detours.

I still have another journey leg to go.

A Better Class

This week, Central Belt Shuffler has headed down the West Coast mainline to shuffle to and fro in the Lake District.

The short walk to the station reveals the aftermath of the recent flooding. Furniture and bin bags are piled high outside the rows of small terraced houses. The remains of kitchen units are piled against the walls. Many of the doors are open, showing men busily working within. The floorboards are lifted up in some of the houses: as well as pouring through the doors, the water rose up from below.

We change onto the mainline, jumping into the first class carriage as the connecting train is about to depart south. We make our way through the carriage to ours, dodging the complimentary drinks trolley. My companion spots the local MP (and leader of the Liberal Democrats) Tim Farron, seated at the very first table in standard class.

On his table, he has a big pile of Christmas cards. The Penguin design was chosen from pictures drawn by local schoolchildren. He’s industriously working through them, signing each one. If he gets them all done before Saturday, he’ll be able to get them in the second class post. Just like the rest of us.

Later in the day, on the way home, there are many more bags outside the terraced houses. They’re filled to the top with rubble. The newsagents is open again, and shining clean. I go in to buy some stamps. They warn me it’s cash only; their card machine isn’t working again yet. I try to buy the local paper, but it’s last week’s copy. They’ll be stocking the papers again tomorrow, they tell me, smiling.

As I continue home, the lights of Christmas trees fill the front windows of the battered houses.