Back in Town

Are we middle-aged or elderly, the quartet of us waiting in the Moreton-in-Marsh railway station? It strikes me that this is a moment in time. I am particularly struck by transitions, moments in clearly advancing time. This being my departure for London. It is in many respects overdue. Only this morning I realized that the notes in my wallet were all American, the coins the same. For protected within the walls of Caroline’s and Alastair’s country house, there is no need for money. The Farriers Arms…the single pub being the sole business in Todenham, Gloucestershire…happily takes credit cards. In short, I have barely been out in the larger Britain.

But there was no time to mess about as Alastair got me and my wheelchair and my bags loaded into his van. Being up early this departure morning, I was able to chronicle the advance of morning. At 8 AM, there is a pink glow in the sky, a sunrise in progress. By 8:30 one can say it is truly morning, but not before. This always amazes me, this simple fact of northern European life. That’s what you get for a certain latitude. Try being in Scotland this time of year. No, don’t.

The cold rain on the Moreton platform stings like fine needles. This will do, this cold, in terms of winter. This is quite sufficient. As for the company, this is bounteous. Friends and relations, people like these have kept me going and continue to do so.

It is hit and miss, the Great Western Railway experience. On this occasion I am loaded aboard a train that really has no room for me and my wheelchair. I park in the vestibule and make do. The staff is aware of the situation, that must be said. In the past, British Rail would have treated the whole matter with utter indifference. At least the train is on time as we sail through the sodden fields of Gloucestershire. I vaguely know the passing scene, having taken this trip for several years. Farmer’s fields are under water, mile after mile. Climate change. A global lesson in meteorology. Poor Lavoisier, who lost his head over a chemical grasp of CO2. He would turn headless in his grave.

This time all the right people from the Network Rail crew meet me. At Paddington Station the wheelchair ramp appears within moments. And off we go. The man from the disabled help office even has my name. The same is true at the station hotel. My room is even ready. It seems too good to be true at 11:30 in the morning. It is.

In fact, I am almost out the door before I see it, the bathtub. I don’t do bathtubs. Even with Jane about. The roll-in shower I phoned about weeks ago…well, it must be in another room. I phone the front desk. The receptionist asks me what a roll-in shower is. I explain, or try to. A standup shower, she asks? I think hard. A disabled room with no bathtub, I say. Instead of a bathtub, there is a space. This seems to ring a bell. I roll out of the room to meet my theater companions.

The latter include David, son of my West London friend Marion, and his girlfriend, Manon. I have a spare ticket, and Manon is going to use it. With time short, I urge us into a cab. This is easier said than done. First, the wheelchair lift out to the street is broken. It did not work the last time I stayed in this hotel. I let the bellman know this is not good. Actually, it is not the end of the world, but we disabled people must stick up for each other in this way. No reason why the wheelchair lift has to keep breaking down. I nip out the back door of the hotel, roll through Paddington Station and meet my young friends on the other side.

Naturally, I can’t make it up the ramp into the waiting taxi. What is there to do but back in? This works, as it always does, and within moments we are pleasantly bouncing through Westbourne Terrace, along Bayswater Road, the Park, Buckingham Palace and on to the river. This is as it should be, being in London. Also being with young people. Also, being with people period.

For I am trying not to remember this exceedingly unpleasant moment when I boarded the train in Gloucestershire. The wheelchair stopped. For a disquieting instant the battery indicator glowed, but nothing functioned. I turned the chair off and on, and everything returned to normal. Still it was scary. This is the last thing one needs 6000 miles from home. And, yes, the main switch on the wheelchair is wearing out. But it must, absolutely must, last another three days. Is this too much?

The lobby of the National Theatre is way too much, crowded with the pre-matinee audiences from its three playhouses. Somehow, we order lunch and elbow our way into a vacant spot at the end of one table. David and Manon stand, for there are no chairs. We munch sandwiches, I down an espresso, then we split up and the two of us head for Alan Bennett’s latest hit. I am enormously proud that I have two tickets to this play, sold out until April.

Tony, my California massage artist, explains that in the course of his Rolfing, it is sometimes the small well-placed and very light touch…that does the trick. A general ability I also attribute to Alan Bennett. While superficially his concerns seem very British, this is a function of his grounding. The themes are universal. The laughter in ‘People’ feels timeless, universal. He captures the hollowing out of human experience in our modern world, the commoditization.

There is a vicar and, briefly, a bishop in ‘People.’ One character lightly floats the suggestion that the church could build wealth and attract participants by instituting ‘celebrity Eucharists,’ drawing upon stars from sports and television. After all, this is the age of style. Even traditionally styleless England has fallen prey. The whole country is on display, Bennett suggests. ‘England: suggested serving.’

Wonderful when laughter opens the mind as well as the heart. There is so much to think about as Manon and I emerge into the pitch blackness of 4:30 PM. The rain is back, so is the wind, with wet blasts of ice water stinging the face. I ask Manon to flag down a passing cab. This was worrying me, this part, trying to find a taxi in the cold. As soon as the lithesome 24-year-old raises her shapely Dutch arm, the cab screeches to a halt, as does every other taxi on the street, several full, not to mention five delivery vans. At Paddington, she heads off to her David and I have the only thing that goes with 5 PM. A cup of tea.

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