All Aboard the Edinburgh Express

Departure Time: 12.30pm
Destination: Edinburgh
Status: CANCELLED

No, that can’t be right. I walked across King’s Cross station in search of a second opinion, past an excited throng awaiting their turn for a picture with a trolley smashed against a brick wall under a Platform 9 ¾ sign.

I found another status monitor just past this group:

Departure Time: 12.30pm
Destination: Edinburgh
Status: CANCELLED

I stared at the ticket in my hands, a ticket spewed out by an automated machine barely 5 minutes earlier, a ticket that promised a comfy seat aboard Coach 22 of the 12.30 express to Edinburgh. How did I get a ticket to a train that didn’t exist?

I spent half an hour in line at the ticket counter to get my answer, amidst a group far more sombre than the one I’d left at Platform 9 ¾. “Take the 1pm train,” said the man behind the desk. “Next.”

“Can I get a reserved seat?”

“No. Look around for a seat without a card on it.”

I walked back to the giant screen at the front entrance, my thoughts preoccupied with how ordinary King’s Cross looked compared to the image conjured by JK Rowling’s prose. They say film adaptations of good books are always a letdown; well, just wait till you try the real world adaptation.

Huddled below the giant screen was yet another serious crowd. The 1 o’clock express hadn’t been assigned a platform yet. I passed the time by counting people not attired in black, white, or grey, the unofficial national uniform of the English. When I got to five, I knew considerable time must have passed and turned back to the screen.

Current Time: 12.56pm
Departure Time: 1.00pm
Status: On Time
Platform: -

Still no platform! There was no way this train could be on time. My rucksack tugged relentlessly at my shoulders. Mirroring my internal frustration, a woman behind me got into a giant row with her friend on the phone. They went on and on about how much money they owed each other after a camping trip that sounded like an unmitigated disaster. I moved closer, admiring the way the Brits use their language to cutting effect when their tempers flare.

A sigh went around the group clustered around the screen. I looked back up at the board.

Current Time: 12.59pm
Departure Time: 1.00pm
Status: On Time
Platform: 0

By the time I looked back down, I wasn’t surrounded by a crowd anymore. I hurried behind Fighting Woman, the sights and sounds reminding me of the mad scramble for the Unreserved Compartment in India. Who knew the chaos on the Indian Railways is just a lasting vestige of the Raj?

Rushing aboard the last compartment, I moved quickly up the aisle until I was met by a wall of humanity with the same bright idea heading in the opposite direction. Left with no standing room, some of us took whatever empty seats we could find, hoping their owners wouldn’t show up to boot us out. A camaraderie of sorts built up among us squatters; we clucked sympathetically and gave each other wry smiles as we lost our seats one by one. I caught the eye of another recently evicted traveler, and asked her how often this happened on British trains.

“All the time,” she smiled.

And so I was on my feet for the next hour and a half on what I’m sure was a picturesque journey through the English countryside. I got well acquainted with the elbow of the American ahead of me, for it had a tendency to jerk unexpectedly right into my stomach. My rucksack stayed loyally glued to my back and, I swear, gained a few kilos over time. Finally, at Petersborough, a large contingent of shoppers disembarked and left behind a few empty seats for the rest of us.

One of the passengers who departed was a portly gentleman who sat next to where I stood. He’d been one of the lucky few on that journey, finding himself a seat whose real occupant never materialized. His punishment was to be whacked on the side of the head a few times by my oversized backpack as the train (and I) took a few unexpected turns. He was a polite man, and kept offering his seat to those around him. At one point, he turned to me. “You said earlier this is your first time on a British train, is that right?”

“Yeah.” I’d exaggerated, having taken a train to Bath just the previous day. But when traveling, I’d found that a more colorful response often led to more interesting exchanges than the narrow truth allowed for.

“Oh, do you want my seat then?” he finished, and everyone around us laughed. It had been his most brazen attempt yet at cooking up an excuse to give his seat away.

“No, no, that’s alright,” I said. “It’s more fun standing. This way, I have a story.”