Pad Life: Tunnelling Through
Saturday morning brings a call from the Princess.
‘I thought I’d pop home this weekend.’
‘That’s nice. What time train are you getting?’
‘I’m on the train. Be there in about an hour.’
My mother didn’t do spontaneity, but I’m quite sure that if I’d ever phoned and said ‘I’m on the train’ (not that you could phone from a train in those days) she wouldn’t have had to dig out very creased clean sheets from the back of a cupboard, rush to the shops for milk and something to feed her child, and remove a pile of newspapers from one side of the sofa and a load of cat hair from the other. My mother’s definition of ‘a dreadful mess’ was a tea cup left on the draining board.
The trot down to the Sainsbury’s Local takes about fifteen minutes, through a tunnel under a railway bridge. I like this tunnel. It evokes happy memories. When I was a kid my paternal grandmother lived in a part of London that is now gentrified and was then a slum, and my youngest uncle rented a garage nearby. You had to walk through just such a tunnel, with the dirty white ceramic tiles, the cigarette butts on the ground, and the pungent aroma of bodily fluids, to reach my favourite thing in the world: Uncle Nick’s motorbike, which was in due course succeeded by Uncle Nick’s Bubble car.
My tunnel doesn’t have the smell or the cigarette butts – it’s comparatively well-tended because it’s the main route to the National Railway Museum – but there is often a busker. Having offspring of the busking persuasion, I am normally quite sympathetic, and will chuck a few coins at any old crap on the basis that it, too, probably owes its mother money. There’s a limit, though.
The tunnel attracts particularly bad and usually middle-aged buskers, due to the delusion that echo enhances the voice. Not unless you’ve got Mark Ronson twiddling knobs somewhere. Echo actually enhances the bad tuning of the guitar and the gravelly drone that is nothing like Joe Cocker. Or Eric Clapton, or any other old singer you care to mention. A couple of weeks ago I did consider offering violence to some bloke insulting the memory of Scott Walker with ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, but I was carrying shopping at the time so he got away with it.
Today there’s a chap doing a version of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. I suppose the good thing, from his point of view, is that only obsessives like me will know if he gets the words wrong.
Passing through the tunnel I’m against the flow, as adults haul children to the Railway Museum. At the corner of the road leading to the station, another wave hits, as trainloads arrive for the Races and for Stag and Hen parties. The city is very popular with Stags and Hens, despite both drinks and taxis costing stupid amounts of money. The city centre is small, you can stagger from one venue to another on foot, or hands and knees, there are no hills, and it is, despite what huffy locals say, still a safe place compared to larger cities.
‘Where’s the Weatherspoon’s?’
‘Big one or small one?’
‘Hey, Margie! Big one or small one?’
‘Big one or small one?’
‘Big one every time!’
Shrieks of hilarity.
Dear God, am I now so old that I have to be apologised to for a vaguely off-colour remark?
Having done Margie a favour and dispatched them to the big one, I take my place alongside a family of geese waiting to cross the road. Mama Goose looks as pissed off as any parent trying to steer her family through race-goers, Stags and Hens, and traffic that doesn’t know its way round the one-way system. Eventually she loses patience entirely and takes advantage of a brief gap between cars to start ushering the goslings across the road.
I see this happen at least once a week as I walk between the Pad and the city centre, and each time it brings joy to my heart. There is some reassurance in sight of human beings still prepared to wait, however impatiently, for other creatures to meander across the highway, and there is never any shortage of people wanting to assist. The family are nearly across when her friend arrives with more little ones. Hopefully revving cars subside once more, and trains are possibly missed as even the most evil-minded of humanity cannot bring itself to run over a gosling.
There are quite a few street sleepers in the area round the station. The number has, of course, increased over the last few years. When I first worked at the council I was part of a generic first contact team that covered all social services and homelessness. We worked closely with the Salvation Army homelessness workers, and while my attitude towards most religious organisations is ambivalent at best, my respect and regard for the Sally Army workers is unfailing. Back then, there were always a few people begging on the street who, we knew for a fact, commuted in on a daily basis from other places, where they had perfectly good accommodation, because there were good pickings from tourists. Now, hardly anyone does that. If someone is on the street now, they need to be. The public’s attitude towards people on the streets has changed, and not because of one or two chancers. The street has always been hard, but now there is a wider ‘hostile environment’. People have always nicked their stuff and abused them, but now there is a formalised ‘game’ on social media where you can get points for posting your pictures of persecuting someone on the streets. The other day I passed a location which has been used by street sleepers for years, and there was a sign there I’d never seen before: ‘Instead of laughing at us, why don’t you help the homeless?’
Perhaps they should tap Mama Goose for the loan of a few goslings, to invoke the kinder side of their fellow human beings.
The Scion and Girlfriend live just round the corner from the Sainsbury’s Local, and I sometimes bump into them there. Not today, though. He’s playing two weddings in Hull, and she’s holed up in the University library. After being given notice on their flat, they found another within a week, despite not having a ‘proper job’ between them. They’re both educated, articulate and personable, and have families who are willing and able to help them. I’m tempted to say it’s a different world, but it isn’t. It’s the same world, a couple of wrong choices, health problems or sheer bloody misfortune away.
In Sainsbury’s, the lad on the checkout asks me if I’m getting supplies in for my Eurovision party.
I see your game, Princess. Eurovision on a decent telly. She has always loved Eurovision, a passion she shares with Girlfriend, but at least Girlfriend has an excuse, because she is Swedish and they frequently win. Perhaps the Princess can go and keep Girlfriend company while the Scion is trying not to murder Our First Dance, twice, in Hull.
On the return trip through the tunnel, the busker is bellowing ‘We gotta get out of this place!’ without a trace of irony. Who knows, though, why a thin middle-aged man in a grubby parka is playing guitar in a railway tunnel, hoping that the echo is helping. I put down my shopping and chuck some change in the hat. I can tell he’s not a regular busker, because he stops playing to thank me.
The Princess arrives home shortly after I do. She’s on crutches.
‘What have you done??’
‘I fell off the sofa watching Game of Thrones.’
It’s only a bad sprain, apparently, but hoofing it down to Girlfriend’s is probably out of the question. Also, the Princess tells me, Girlfriend is already booked for a Eurovision party with the Scandinavian society at the University.
I shove a bottle of wine in the fridge. ‘I don’t think you should have any. I don’t want you falling off my sofa.’
‘You’re going to have a whole bottle to yourself?’
‘Boom Bang A Bang.’
‘Shut up, Mother.’