Way, way back around this time last year, Clark and I travelled to Edinburgh to spend his 25th birthday there. It’s his favourite city and somewhere that I was definitely eager to go back to.*
Because it was (a tiny amount) cheaper, we decided to get the train instead of flying. This turned out to be A Very Bad Call™
The train journey up there wasn’t quite as bad as I’d expected – although when we got off at the other end, I discovered fairly quickly that being on a train for seven hours gives me horrible, horrible vertigo. We went for dinner at the hotel restaurant, and I was inadvertently swaying around so much in my seat that everyone around me probably thought I was drunk. Not a good look.
The return journey on the other hand, was a completely different story. I’m 100% sure that it was the worst travel experience I’ve ever had in my life, and every time I think about it (which is pretty much every time I get on a train) I get re-angry.
While we were waiting to go from Edinburgh to London King’s Cross, there was a tannoy saying that the earlier Edinburgh to King’s Cross had been cancelled, meaning that all the passengers from that train would now be trying to cram themselves onto our train – which just so happened to be Virgin Cross Country (which I feel obliged to mention by name AND write in bold due to their laughably shit customer care and total lack of organisation. Fuck you, Branson).
There were A LOT of people on the platform. It was post-concert levels of busy. When we were finally able to board, it quickly became apparent that there weren’t going to be any free seats
I’d decided to call upon my trusty stick by this point. Most of the time, I only use it in this sort of situation, as a visual clue to others that I’m not as steady on my feet as I may look. My balance is terrible at the best of times, but when you team that up with vertigo that still hadn’t completely gone and a crowded metal tube hurtling through the countryside at 100mph, it gets considerably worse. The last thing I wanted to do was hit the deck in front of a carriage full of strangers.
So the train pulls away and we’ve still not sat down. There’s not a single space in sight – literally every one had a person in it, so it wasn’t even like there were bags and luggage taking up necessary room. We walked/staggered from one end of the train to the other, weaving our way in and out of all the other standing passengers that were crammed into the aisles like proverbial sardines.
It was a strange experience, would have been a good analogy for some sort of social commentary. It was as though there were an unspoken opposition between The Standing and The Seated. I was obviously amongst friends with The Standing. They did their best to move out of the way for me, leaning over The Seated next to the aisle who offered dirty looks and passive aggressive sighs – how dare these people invade their precious, pre-booked personal space?! Some of The Standing offered hands and elbows and shoulders to help me through the tangle of legs and bags without falling over. The Seated averted their eyes as I approached – perhaps if they didn’t make eye contact, The Disabled would move on in search of easier prey.
Unsurprisingly, nobody offered me a seat.
Now I understand that Fibromyalgia (and on this occasion, vertigo) is an “invisible illness,” but as I mentioned, that’s the whole point of using the stick – so that everyone around me can see that I might fall over if there’s so much as a gentle breeze that hits me at slightly the wrong angle. My age probably doesn’t help – I’m twenty-five but (probably) look younger – and as we all know, young people are lazy and entitled so of course I must be either lying about my disability or exaggerating it in order to stick it to the older generations – no pun intended.
It would be foolish to assume that the metamorphosis from Seated to Standing is a simple process. It requires time, energy and very often requires A Catalyst in order to take place. This trigger varies from individual to individual – no two transitions are ever the same. I can’t say for sure what the motivations were for this particular lone ranger but, as we approached the back wall of the final carriage, we were able to witness the incredible transformation for ourselves. A kind, middle aged gentleman literally two rows from the back got to his feet and said “Please, take my seat.”
The audience in my mind broke out into a raucous applause.
I thanked him profusely as he joined the throngs of The Standing as, in my view, some sort of deity.
I couldn’t believe that he was the first and only person to help me out. As the carriage aisle was pretty rammed, Clark decided to go back and find some space between carriages, now that I’d managed to find somewhere to sit down.
It was, however, pretty short lived – about half an hour later, we pulled into Newcastle, and the next tsunami of passengers bombarded the train. This grey haired, beaky-looking Tory woman and her friend were huffing and puffing their way through The Standing as though they were going out of their way to deliberately make her journey as difficult as possible.
She reached my row of seats, looked at the number above it, then at me and said (in a distinctly Southern accent, I might add) “errr excuse me? you’re in my seat?” (It wasn’t a question, but her voice did that thing confrontational people do where it goes up at the end.)
I just blinked at her. It took me a minute to process that she was actually talking to me, because her approach was insulting (this is how I know she was a Tory – her intense dislike of a millennial in her way was a dead giveaway). Had she politely said, “Sorry, I think we’ve got these seats reserved”, or something along those lines, the whole affair would probably have reached a far more painless resolution. Despite my disability, I would certainly have been more inclined to move had she not been so pissing rude – and, for the record, I have absolutely no problem with the concept of standing for a train journey. I’ve coped with standing on short journeys around Hampshire, even without my stick. It’s not ideal after a long day on my feet, and I always suffer for it afterwards, but that’s true of most things these days. Standing for seven hours on a moving train however, where I have to continuously shift my weight in order to match its movements, is a completely different scenario. Pretty sure that’s going to be tiring for everyone, whether they’ve got a chronic health condition or not.
“You’re in my seat.” she said, again.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, “it’s a busy train and I’ve got this stick because I’m not very steady on my feet”
I’m definitely not the sort of person that milks my illness or uses it as an excuse for things – but, full disclosure, given the circumstances, I decided that if I was ever going to, NOW was the time. I heaved myself out of her seat using my stick and let out a massive sigh, making it as clear as I possibly could that it was a struggle (which to be fair, it genuinely was, even without my amateur dramatics)
This is the part that baffles me and will probably continue to baffle me for as long as I live.
Rather than wait for me to grab my bag and move into the aisle like I was trying to, (which was tricky anyway, because there were still millions of people trying to get onto the train and she was standing so close to me that I couldn’t get round her), she grabbed hold of the edge of the baggage rack above us and swung herself into the seat behind me. The seat that I may as well still have been sitting in because there was physically nowhere else for me to go, other than backwards and downwards. I regret now that I didn’t say anything at the time (and believe me, I’ve rehearsed that speech a good many times since) but I was just so shocked, it took me a couple of minutes to process what the hell had just happened. I reluctantly rejoined The Standing again, and slowly dragged myself back down the aisle to find Clark. A lovely Standing lady who witnessed the whole thing was absolutely fuming on my behalf. She checked I was okay and said, very loudly, “that’s absolutely bloody disgusting.” I wanted to hug her, and I’ve no doubt that this wonderful stranger would have said something to the Beaky Woman had the circumstance arisen.
Clark was understandably very surprised to see me when I emerged from between the sea of bodies and found him awkwardly positioned between the toilet and the door of the train. I just burst into tears and garbled that The Wicked Witch Of The North had just ejected me from my seat.
In true millennial fashion, we contacted Virgin Cross Country via Twitter, who’s idea of a solution was to suggest that we should have booked a seat before our journey – and then neglected to reply when we told them that we had in fact tried before we left the hotel, but were unable to access the details for that particular train because it was “unavailable.”
I actually can’t remember what happened after that, but I did end up with a seat for the rest of the journey – a young Seated guy (who I think also saw the whole thing) insisted that I take his spot next to his wife/girlfriend, and parked himself on the floor of the aisle next to us. Clark remained in the division between the trains for the rest of the journey. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he and the other passengers in the partition were literally huddling together for warmth by the time we got to London.
Whenever I tell this story, I try to think about the two gentlemen who were kind enough to help me, the stranger who stuck up for me and the people in the aisles who teamed up to guide me along the corridor like some sort of vertical crowd-surfer. I try not to think about the one person that couldn’t even manage something as basic as being polite. I try not to think about the remaining 500 or so seated people on the train who made full eye contact with me and ignored me. I try not to think about the £218 that’s probably now lining the pockets of Richard bloody Branson, rather than going towards improving a service that is, from this experience, bordering on dangerous.
Obviously this isn’t going to stop us from returning to Edinburgh in the future. It’s still a wonderful city and we did have an amazing time while we were there. Next time though, I’ve told Clark in no uncertain terms that we’re damn well flying.
Thanks again for reading,
*Most of the photos are either stolen from Clark or Google because I accidentally re-formatted my memory card a few months ago and lost everything because I’m an idiot and hadn’t backed everything up. Schoolboy error if ever there were one.