Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Surreal Vortex of Sevenoaks

One of my favourite films is After Hours – not just because it’s one of the best things that director Martin Scorsese has ever done, but because I have the smallest of sneaking suspicions that most people’s lives are but a hair’s breadth away from the uncomfortable, nightmarish ‘comedy’ world that the (generally unsympathetic) Paul Hackett spends the vast majority of the movie attempting to escape from.

Oh. OK. Just mine then.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a series of meetings in London. Of course, the first step is to get there. When it comes to travel, I’m pretty well organised – I always allow myself far more time than I actually need, especially if the place I’m going to is unfamiliar. I take everything I think I might want: notebook, pen, wallet, phone, iPod, book, novelty Bender statuette. Lastly I make sure that my shoes are on the right feet and that I haven’t put my jacket on back to front. Right. Off we go.

That’s when everything starts going a bit After Hours.

Take Brighton station: to park in the car park there, you don’t need coins. You simply pick your ticket up at the automatic barrier and pay by credit card in a handy machine when you arrive back some hours later. Nothing could be easier. So, having to catch a train from somewhere other than Brighton, I automatically assume that all station car parks are like this. They’re not. Sevenoaks station is a case in point: pay and display? Jesus: I thought we were living in the twenty first century. OK, no problem, just whip out the old credit card and... Oh. The machine is cash only. Cash? Uh, OK, how much? £4.90? I haven’t got £4.90. Bugger.

Right: find a cashpoint. There’s a petrol station, they’re bound to have one, right? Wrong. "Nearest cashpoint is at the station, mate." Aware that I have about ten minutes before the Charing Cross train arrives, I traipse to the station (quite a trek as it turns out), find a cashpoint and take out a tenner. Back to the car park. Try to find somewhere in the devil’s parking machine to slot a ten pound note, only to discover that it doesn’t take notes: coins only. Bugger - again. Train leaving in five minutes. Hang on – the machine does take credit cards after all, but only for a weekly ticket, which is £23! Arse.

By now, I am out of time, so don’t have any option but to pay for a weekly ticket and leg it to the station – I make the train with about thirty seconds to spare (on the train someone tries to sell me pre-packed meat out of a Tesco carrier bag: “You want any meat, mate?” “Uh, no thanks: I’m good.”)

I wouldn’t mind so much if an event like this was a one-off. Problem is, it isn’t.

Next time round, I stock up on coins. Pull into Sevenoaks station right in front of a parking machine. Get out, pump £4.90 in change into the machine. Nothing happens. The instructions on the machine appear to be some sort of entry test for The Krypton Factor. After nearly ten minutes of pointlessly re-feeding coins into the parking machine, I decide that it’s broken. Off to find another machine: this one works. Hoopla! I make the train with thirty seconds to spare (on the train I sit opposite a twelve year old Downs Syndrome kid who is with her carer. “Hello”, she says. “Hello”, I say back. “What’s your name?” she asks. Before I have a chance to answer, she says, “Is it Elizabeth?”)

Next time round, I’m fully expecting to be hunted down by a baying posse of crazies in an ice-cream van. I’ll let you know how I get on.

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