Working as I do in Liverpool, it is sometimes necessary to travel to and from work by train. For most people, this is as simple and as straightforward a part of everyday life as there is. How is it then that I manage to turn it in to the kind of transport ordeal normally reserved for Tiger Woods and Lewis Hamilton?
It's the wheelchair again. Yes, I know it is crass and melodramatic to blame everything on disability but in this case it's justified. Besides, crass and melodramatic is what I do, and I'm darned good at it too.
If you are still in any doubt that disability is the cause of all this then allow me to share with you a story of recent dealings with our friends in the rail service. It's Thursday March 11 and I have just finished work. I'm on the train. That is to say I have to get the train. I'm not on it yet. I end up wishing I never had been.
The train from Lime Street to Thatto Heath leaves at 5.01pm. I arrive at Lime Street around 4.50. I'm a little put out to begin with. The slopes between my place of work and the station are becoming increasingly unkind to me. It's the wheelchair again. No, it's not. It's age and the fact that I haven't done any meaningful exercise since Live Aid.
Catching my breath, I roll over to the barrier between the concourse and the platforms. I ask a chunky looking woman who looks more suited to working on the doors of the city centre bars if I might possibly have some assistance boarding the train. She doesn't answer, even though I say please. She just mumbles something incoherent into her walkie-talkie. I'm not suspicious yet but I should be. Who uses walkie-talkies in 2010?
Mercifully, it is only a few minutes until an equally heavy-set but different woman arrives on the platform. Like her colleague, she doesn't look at or speak to me, just nods in the direction of the far end of the train and begins unlocking the ramp. Yes, you read that right. Unlocking the ramp. They chain it to the platform railing, or the wall. Why? Who is going to steal a portable ramp, and what for? I should, as it turns out.
I push up the ramp and board the train. This is a minor triumph already. Usually the steps to the train are so steep that the ramp needs to be placed at an almost vertical angle. Edmund Hilary would have trouble making the ascent. Well he would if he couldn't use his legs. All of which necessitates the indignity of having to be pushed up the ramp. I look again at the woman assisting me and feel thankful to have escaped that fate on this occasion. She's a big lass. If she pushes me up that ramp I might very well come out of the opposite door and end up on the railway.
'I'll give them a ring' she says, meaning the people at Thatto Heath station who will need to meet me to assist me in leaving the train. She turns to the guard who is just approaching and repeats this promise to him, putting an outstretched thumb and little finger to her ear as she says it in that way that Peter Kay has made a living from lampooning.
'Where you going mate?' asks the guard.
'Thatto Heath', the burly woman answers for me.
'Sound. I'll sort yer out lad.'
But he doesn't. In fact he doesn't even get on the train because he is not the guard. I don't know who he is. He has a rail workers uniform on, but then I'm wearing a Liverpool shirt and I'm not Fernando Torres. My mistake.
'Thatto Heath'. he blurts in the direction of another man who has just entered the driver's cabin. The driver nods. We leave Lime Street.
We pass Edge Hill. Wavertree. Broad Green. Roby. Huyton. Prescot. Eccleston Park. Thatto Heath.
Thatto Heath. Hang on? Thatto Heath? But shouldn't I be...........?
Well yes, but I'm not. The driver has forgotten about me.
And yet it is not a feeling of horror, panic or even mild anger which envelopes me as we pull away from Thatto Heath on our merry way to St.Helens Central. It's just a kind of weariness similar to that which Blackadder conveys after hearing another of Baldrick's cunning plans. We know it will turn out this way, so what's the point of getting over-excited about it? Better to just roll my eyes and get on with it.
It is due to no small amount of good fortune that I am allowed to disembark at St.Helens, as opposed to any number of stops on the way to Wigan North Western. There happens to be a station employee wandering around aimlessly on the platform as the doors open, and I manage to attract his attention and explain. Not only is he a Godsend in as far as I know that he will help me, but I'm also struck by his ability to talk to me rather than about me.
Meanwhile the driver steps out of his balloon basket and offers a chillingly dense enquiry;
'Didn't they get you off the train at Thatto Heath?'
Er...........no. Didn't you? Didn't your colleague specifically ask you to? Two colleagues in fact, if you count the burly woman who was allegedly making the phone call. I want to say all of this but say none of it, choosing instead to huffily advance through the station towards the taxi rank, turning down the offer of assistance on the next train back the other way. I haven't got all night. I have to be back at work for 8.30 the following morning. Best make alternative arrangements.
So I get a taxi.
'Make sure you get a receipt.' offers the accidentally helpful station employee, but I hardly hear him. I'm in the taxi telling the driver most of this story. I pay him £5.30 for his trouble, but get nothing for mine. I resolve to write a letter of complaint, but then remember the last time I did this and received a written apology and a travel voucher worth £1.00 I decide my life is too short. I still haven't written that letter..............