You arrive at Victoria and dash to platform 15 for the 18.24 to Littlehampton, only to be stalled by the over-familiar sign: all trains delayed. An enormous crowd fills the waiting area, listening to the roll of announcements: “Delayed, cancelled, broken down at Croydon station, cancelled, delayed.” Daytrippers and tourists press in panic around anyone in a uniform, desperately trying to understand what the crisis is. Old-hands and regular commuters stand in exhausted resignation, desensitised to the horror. A few cognoscenti gather at the gates’ ‘secret’ display, where the barrier guards get first wind of approaching trains and platform notifications.
Your dismay is as great as anybody’s; your exhaustion runs bone-deep. But you are a long-term commuter and have perfected the art of self-treating and acts of compensation more tangible than the laughably partial ticket price refunds that are credited to your bank when things get really dire, timetable-wise.
At home, you have a secret. Something to keep you holding on, something worth getting indoors for. Patiently, it waits. Forgiving of Southern Rail’s worst excesses. Comfort in a box. It will thrill you, then fill you and leave you sated and drowsy.
Tell us, tell us – which one is it, this wet and windy Thursday? Did you choose old-fashioned steak-and-kidney or a bougie steak-and-stilton? Mushroom-asparagus? Humble beef-and-onion, perhaps? Maybe you went wild and bought steak, mushroom and truffle? Did you, did you? And did you also buy gravy? And – (Granny! Don’t listen!) – ready-made mash?
We don’t know what you chose, but we know it’s been on your mind, comforting you, all day today. Staff meeting? Pie. PC crash? Pie. Target – budget – performance? Pie. Pie to the lot of it. And Pie to Southern Rail too.
Finally, the train arrives and you slump gratefully into a seat and start the long journey home, comforted only by the thought of the lavish self-care that will unfold the moment you step indoors. Warm sheepskin slippers, sympathy from waiting dog and human, and that pie.
Hang on, though. The decision must be perfect. This day has been purgatorial and the journey home infernal. The reward needs to match the suffering. Something more, then. You load up the website and browse a bit. Aargh, so much choice and too many distractions.
You realise with a start that you’re already in Portslade. Blessed, heavenly Portslade. You (and many of your fellow-travellers) silently and gratefully mumble the litany along with the auto-announcement: Shoreham, Lancing, Worthing, West Worthing, Durrington-on-Sea, Goring-by Sea. World Without End. You wonder why Durrington is ‘on’, while Goring is ‘by’, feel sorry for the many folk who commute to East Worthing and are obliged to change at Hove – and rejoice that you do not live as far away as Angmering.
Time has run out and you need this to be quick. Only one thing for it.
Tom picks up the phone, hears your garbled opening, listens to your anxious enquiry and says, “Give me a minute, I’ve got people in. I’ll have something ready”. You slump back into the seat and then, remembering that you’re nearly home, sit bolt upright and prepare yourself to get down at Worthing Central. (A name to make the commute feel more exciting. Who wants to be the middle sibling, sitting awkwardly in the family of double-barrelled East Worthing and West Worthing?)
Tom looks up grinning as you rush in, a tangled mess of bag, umbrella, scarf. You thank God that at this moment there is nobody else waiting, ahead of you. This needs to happen fast. Partner, Pup and Pie are waiting in your warm home.
Tom is wearing one of his collection of terrifying Christmas jumpers and you grin back at him. “What you got?”
He hands it over, you pay and dash for the house.
(Next week: Part Two). Follow WoBy to hear the end.