Michelle and the Girl with Hairy Arms

Riding the Rails – May 2014
When I arrived at the hotel I discovered I was wearing odd shoes. I don’t know how I did that, but decided that, were anyone to notice, I would argue that matching shoes is just a convention, there is no logical reason why one’s two shoes should be of a pair. Except that there is, for the shoe that I hadn’t meant to put on was not very comfortable for walking, so I got blisters on my right foot. I bought some plasters in Ealing but they only helped a little bit. Left foot fine, right foot rubbing. Before going for a walking weekend, always check that you are wearing the intended shoes on both feet.
That I did not detect this shoe discrepancy before I left the house – not that I could have done much about it – was possibly because when walking from the house to the bus stop I got accosted by Steve who wanted to tell me about the new cabinets that BT have been installing, so when it came to it I was in a bit of a rush for the bus. I then had only a few minutes at the station before the London train arrived and then on the train I got talking to Michelle, or more precisely she to me, she seemed keen to talk, in whichever sense you interpret that phrase.
The trains on the West Coast Main Line to London are always busy, and Michelle sat next to me because she had to sit next to someone. From Lancaster, where she got on, she chatted to her friend who sat in the aisle seat behind her until Preston, where the friend got off, then Michelle was obviously keen to strike up a dialogue with me. Michelle was going to visit her daughters, both of whom live and work in London, though they were brought up near Lancaster where Michelle has lived all her life – no not quite all, for three years she was an au-pair in Salzburg. Her husband died last year and by way of a business they ran a garage. Michelle helps out with cleaning the church. Towards the end of the journey we discovered that we knew someone in common, Adrian who died last year in his mid-seventies after a lifetime of excessive boozing and smoking.
While the conversation may have been unremarkable enough I was vaguely aware that it was being listened to with interest by one of three young women in the foursome table-seat opposite us. These girls were dressed in their high heels and multi-brushed hair and painted faces and I suppose might have been going to some sort of hen-do. They boozed the whole way, pouring something from a bottle into triangular plastic glasses and topping it up with a fizzy sweet lemonade and sipping though concertina straws. They had periodic short conversations among themselves but also periods of silence, during which I now recognise the tallest and strongest-featured of the three was listening to Michelle and me.
As the train pulled into Euston, strong-features leaned over and said, ‘Excuse me’. We looked up. ‘Would you like some wine, we bought a lot of wine and some of it is Chardonnay, and none of us likes Chardonnay. There are three bottles, would you like them?’
I couldn’t take them, I had only a small rucksack that I would be carrying around all weekend and would have no occasion to drink any Chardonnay, so I said to Michelle, ‘You take it‘.
Michelle had to go to the luggage rack and get her suitcase, and with a bit of squeezing she managed to fit the bottles in. I envisaged her arriving at her daughter’s and telling her she’d met this really nice man on the train and as a result ended up with three bottles of Chardonnay, and her daughter saying, ‘Mother!’.
I was planning to grab something to eat in Pizza Express in Euston Road, not much relishing the idea of finding something in Hounslow late at night – the train did not get into Euston until after seven – and pondered inviting Michelle to join me, but her mobile rang and the daughter told her that under no circumstances should she eat anything as husband was in the process of cooking up a majestic curry. That solved the problem for me, I was a bit concerned about seeming too keen to be stay in contact, though company for the pizza would could have been fun too.
Pizza Express in Euston Road. I counted ten staff waiting on, five in the cooking area, and three staffing the bar. In addition there must have been some in the bowels dealing with the washing up. At least twenty people, working away busily. I estimated about 200 covers, with no table empty for long, so that’s one member of staff per ten customers, except that service in this restaurant is very brisk, so any table will have at least three sittings, more like five or six. Which is pretty efficient. If you think of a restaurant in France, where service is slow because the customer-staff ratio is low, one waiter might just service sixty customers, just about, total employment would be far less. The diners in France would have a much longer evening of it, but then do you need a long evening? I suppose some people like it. Certainly Pizza Express had no shortage of people arriving.
Lots of Employment, and mostly non-British, just one of the men cooking the pizzas looked like he might be British of West Indian family origin. Just the sort of thing to get the Daily Mail doing a huffy article, though perhaps not, as the journalists don’t want their pizzas to be unavailable for want of personnel either, especially in London.
Return Journey
On the final day of my trip I caught a bus to Kensington High Street and then walked through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park in the pouring rain, then Oxford Street among the shoppers with brown paper Primark bags this bank holiday Monday, then along posh Marylebone High Street to Euston Road for the 1.30pm train home.
Something I noticed both on this walk and on my street walk two days earlier, something that I have not seen for quite some years, the number of pubs and restaurants with a notice in the window saying ‘Staff Required’. It seemed like apart from the big chains such as Pizza Express and the pubs managed by the big breweries almost every catering establishment was advertising for staff, all the independents, struggling to find enough people to work there, including in Hounslow even a few of the Indian restaurants.
I blame the Poles. As some of them go back home and others improve their English and knowledge of what is available and get better-paid jobs, a big hole is appearing in the service industries that they used to work in. And it’s not clear who is going to fill it. Muslims won’t for the most part because all these places serve alcohol. So who? Oddly, I have seen nothing reported in the papers about this phenomenon, is it that the journalists simply haven’t noticed – which is entirely possible – or is it that they have noticed but feel it awkward to report on? The Indian restaurants in Hounslow are possibly struggling not because of the dearth of Poles so much as the tightening up on illegals I imagine, though the problem is the same for the businesses involved, and the answer equally unknown. I really cannot guess what is going to happen.
The 1.30 from Euston this bank holiday Monday was busy – like all the trains on this line – had it not been possible for some people to upgrade to first class for £15 there would have been people standing. I did not upgrade as I got to the train early enough to find a seat by a window. Next to me came and sat a somewhat overweight young Spanish woman who had very hairy forearms, which I thought looked rather sexy, and Elastoplast-pink painted fingernails, which by contrast I thought looked juvenile and repulsive. She was thumbing through a glossy magazine, in English, about science, popular science, the type of thing you might find in the ‘did you know’ section of a newspaper. Apart from pleasantries we did not converse, though I thought once or twice she looked like as he might want to, but for some reason I could not find an opening, possibly after the ride with Michelle I just wanted to read my book, about a family who lived in East Germany in Communist times.
At Preston there is always a turnover of passengers, and on got a group of young men who turned out to be farmers from the hills above Carlisle, returning from a stag-weekend in Blackpool. Blackpool these days is pretty seedy and run down, and it did not sound like these men had had an especially exciting time, but some of them were chatty – uncharacteristically so for farmers – and they got into conversation with a couple from Glasgow who had been to a wedding in London – the train is a Glasgow train. The Glasgow couple were keen enough to talk, which they did with the farmers for a bit but then the subject somehow got onto sheep, which led the farmers into a detailed discussion among themselves of the finer points of certain types of sheep, that kept them enthralled and they were still chewing it over among themselves when I got off at Oxenholme. My Spanish co-traveller was getting off at the following stop, Penrith, though I never got round to discovering what she was going there for.
So many people moving from place to place all throughout the daytime and (on the buses in London) nighttime. As was I, though I am different because I wonder what they are all doing, relocating themselves so numerously, whereas they don’t, or maybe they do, it would be nice to think they did.


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