Torrential rain and overactive under-fives call for measures of Machiavellian brilliance.
Brilliance which I, Auntie Kate, possess.
When I walk away from my three working days the eyes of my colleagues follow me with envy. I’d like to be walking out just like you, they intimate hungrily. And that, my friends, is because they have never met four-year-old Big Al.
You can imagine that the incessant spell of rainy days has presented some challenges. Not to sound like a 19th century matronly nanny, but small children need exercise, physical and intellectual.
And by yesterday there was an agreeable but slightly unhinged look in the eyes of my small nephew.
I had been giving this matter some consideration, and came to the conclusion that the only thing for it was a train ride. Train rides provide a modicum of air, albeit diesel-laden. They provide long walks down endless covered platforms and a different stimulus every millisecond.
One gets the exhilaration of crowds and the sustenance of a bun shop.
What more could one want?
So I met Al from playgroup and we cheated: we went out for lunch and then drove with great ceremony to park in the station car park.
My plan was to take any train, anywhere, the first one that came and promised to be back in time for school collection time. My car is an ancient seven seater Mercedes with a rear-facing chamber at the back.
This is Al’s office. He uses it to conduct his many operations with the voice of a bellowing balrog.
I left him sitting in his office and stepped three cars away to the ticket machine.
It was a phone-your-ticket one. I dialled and battled with the automated lady on the other end. It took a long time. The small enthusiastic town-crier in the car began to bellow. “Auntie Ka-ate! Can I get out now?”
One cannot tell an automated lady to hold. I bellowed back: “Al, I’m just talking to a lady to get a car ticket….” but I had lost her. She said “goodbye”with infuriating finality and hung up.
No time to rant. I scrabbled for change and found just enough, unstrapped the bellowing town crier and put him in the position which has dangerous levels of potential energy: on his two feet.
Holding his hands firmly, we gazed through the chain-link fence at the rails, jut a metre of so from where we stood. “Auntie Kate, is that the rails?” “Yes, Al, that’s the rails.”
We talked about electricity, and why the fence was there and why the yellow line which runs along the platform as a safety guide. I don’t necessarily think Al was receiving: the sights and sounds were becoming intoxicating.
We pottered past the bicycle bank and into the ticket office where Al introduced us to the man behind the counter.
He brandished Felix’s toy train, a long black number, and before I could say “A return to Reading, please,” he had interrogated the gentleman as to whether the train we were about to get on was bigger than Al’s handheld.
Al enchants people. The iron visage of the ticket officer softened, and he said, yes, the trains here were quite big actually. We got our ticket and climbed the stairs to the platform on the other side.
We hadn’t long to wait. The coming of a train slowly along the track into a platform is an exercise in building suspense that Hitchcock would appreciate. Al’s eyes grew bigger and he waved energetically to the train driver. Who, because Al is Al, waved back.
We sat down next to a window. I had thought his attention might wander during the 25 minute journey to a major station: but no; every inch of the way he was glued to the view. Firing questions possible and impossible, we sped through the countryside of Berkshire, noting car parks and fields and level crossings and signs.
Al fell in love with the graffiti scratched into the glass of his window by some young citizen. It think that was his favourite.
When we reached the big station we clocked high-speed trains and guards and whistles and the big bridge that runs over the busy track. We visited the bun shop to buy a bun to munch in the carriage on the way home.
“Look at my train!: Al shouted joyfully at the cashier, who smiled indulgently.
We got on the train, and munched happily, all the way home, tired but happy.
And I am informed Al slept inordinately well last night.