I've just installed Sunbird (a calendar/task application) on the computer, and was playing round with the dates, when one came up: Sunday, October 5th 1986. Exactly twenty-two years ago to the day, I was on my way to university for the first time. Indeed, it was my first time away from my family, if you except a week at scout camp and another on a school trip. The weather was actually not too far removed from what it has been today: cold and grey and damp, although the rain then came in gobbets and gusts rather than the fairly solid downpour of this morning. My going was not exactly what you could call a cheery affair: for starters, I was feeling extremely apprehensive about what I was heading to, and about what I was leaving behind. My parents had only just split up, and there was a lot of pain and rancour floating around. Dad had moved out, mum was trying to keep it all together, and my sister was going to have to face all the emotional maelstrom by herself. In a way, I was glad to be going – I could shut out all the hurt. At the same time, I really felt for Karen and mum, and was worried about what would happen.
Anyway, I'd packed my bags the previous night. Actually, I should say bag: An enormous blue rucksack, stuffed to the gills with clothes, books, a kettle, some fruitcake crushed in the bottom, a sandwich toaster donated by my aunt, a few items of cutlery, various bits and pieces and, on the outside, a collection of pots and pans, meaning I'd clank as I walked. I say walked, I mean staggered, as the thing weighed a ton. My dad had promised to bring up the rest of my stuff, including my camera, later on in the term. I'd gone up to the pub and said bye to my mates, and had, if memory serves me well, a fairly good night's sleep. Then, early on that cold Sunday, my dad turned up on the gravel drive in his company Volvo, and loaded my stuff, and we all set off for the station in an atmosphere of tense, nervous bursts of talk interspersing the tense nervous silences. We picked up my girlfriend en route, adding another layer of emotional unhappiness to the mix.
We arrived at about eightish at Reading station, and I remember it being surprisingly busy for a Sunday morning. The entrance at that time was through a narrow door in the old Victorian station building, past a grimy, grey ticket office with scratched plastic panels separating the vendors form the public, and a station guard in the old BR uniform, his grey hair slicked back beneath his cap, busily checking tickets and pointing people in the right direction. We crossed over to platform 8, and my dad insisted on us all having coffee in the depressing little tearoom. As we waited, announcements floated through the air, then there was one relating to my train:
'Due to works, the 8.50 to Birmingham New Street will terminate at Didcot. Please alight there and take the connecting train to continue your onward journey.'
My mum looked at me with a wave of first, shock, then disappointment, then concern, then brief anger passing over her face. I just shrugged. Well, we all just waited on that platform, me smoking with Jo, Mum, Dad and Karen stood around, and no-one really knowing what to say. The wind picked up a little: it was cold, and flicked rain at us. Eventually, and with some feeling of relief on my part, the train arrived. I hauled my bag onto the train, kissed mum, hugged Karen, said goodbye to dad, and then Jo burst into frantic tears, but what could I do? I hugged and kissed her and said goodbye and that I'd call that evening, then she abruptly pulled away, sobbing. I got on the train, and pulled the door to behind me. The guard walked up and down the concourse, and blew into his whistle. I leaned out of the door window and said goodbye again, then there was a soft judder and the whole engine strained forward, each wheel rolling first gently then gradually picking up speed. I waved to mum, and karen, and Jo and dad and blew kisses, and they waved back as the receded into the distance, and I saw Jo suddenly turn her back again and sob. The train pulled out of the station: rain flicked into my face. I saw a line of shirts on a washing line, waving goodbye, I saw the graffiti on walls and alleys, the industrial units lining the train tracks, train carriages in sidings, and then I went to sit down, dragging my rucksack with me. I don't recall much of this part of the journey – in fact, it didn't last long, before it pulled into Didcot station, in the shadow of the power station chimneys, and I had to run, or rather stagger with greater alacrity, to catch the connecting train.
What I recall of this journey was first, how long it seemed to take. The train crawled all the way through Banbury, Leamington Spa, Coventry, Birmingham International and Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton, Stafford and finally Crewe, where I had to change again. Next, I recall the cheery voice of the train driver, who happily recounted the names of the stations and any and all delays and cancellations due to works on the line, and who whistled and sang to himself, having left the intercom on. Over the next few years, I heard his voice many times, and always associated it with that journey into the north. The carriage always seemed to be mostly the same, and in fact seemed to contain pretty much the same people: there were always several students, pretending to read something academic, somebody, usually male, talking loudly and self-importantly, a little old lady, and a group of Glaswegians drinking McEwans and playing cards. On this first occasion, there was also a group of Japanese tourists, taking photos out of the window. Incongruously, sat right in the middle of them, was a fully-blown hippy, with long frizzy ginger hair, John Lennon glasses, and purple corduroy flares with yellow loons stitched in. Considering that this was 1986, it was retro to say the least.
At Crewe, I had to wait nearly an hour in the freezing cold before my connection arrived – the train to Bangor. I got on, and somehow got talking to the hippy, who, it turned out was an ex-student at UCNW Bangor. Anyhow, I spent the journey talking, and the sun suddenly appeared and mountains rose like waves suddenly, and my heart rose, and I realised that I was entering a brand new chapter of everything.
At which point, I think I should stop for now and leave the description of what happened next for another time.