On the book tour for Miranda Dickinson’s new book called ‘The Day We Meet Again’, sit back and enjoy the first chapter from the book.
ALL TRAINS DELAYED, the sign reads.
No, no, no! This can’t be happening!
I stare up at the departure board in disbelief. Up until twenty minutes ago my train had been listed as ON TIME and I’d allowed myself a glass of champagne at St Pancras’ Eurostar bar, a little treat to steady my nerves before the biggest adventure of my life begins. ‘Looks like we aren’t going anywhere soon,’ the woman next to me says, gold chains tinkling on her wrist as she raises her hand for another glass. She doesn’t look in a hurry to go anywhere. But I am.
I arrived at St Pancras two hours early this morning. The guys driving the cleaning trucks were pretty much the only people here when I walked in. They performed a slow, elegant dance around me as I dragged my heavy bag across the shiny station floor. I probably should have had a last lie-in, but my stomach has been a knot of nerves since last night, robbing me of sleep.
I’m not always early, but I was determined to be today to make sure I actually get on the train. I want this adventure more than anything else in my life, but doubts have crept in over the last two weeks, ever since all the tickets were booked and my credit card had taken the strain. Even last night – frustratingly wide awake and watching a film I didn’t really care about, after the farewell drinks in our favourite pub in Notting Hill when I was so certain I was doing the right thing – I found myself considering shelving the trip. Who jacks in everything and takes off for a year, anyway? Certainly not me: Phoebe Jones, 32 years old and most definitely not gap-year material.
It wasn’t just that thing Gabe said, either.
Although it threw me when it happened.
After all his bravado inside the pub – the You won’t go through with it, Phoebs, I know you speech that in his actor’s voice rose above the noise and look-at-me-I’m-so-important laughter from the tables around us – the change in him when he found me on the street outside was a shock.
‘I’ll miss you.’
‘You won’t, but thanks.’
And then that look – the one that got us into trouble once before,
the one that has kept me wondering if it might again. ‘Then you don’t know me, Phoebs. London won’t be the same without you.’ Why did he have to launch that at me, the night before I leave
for a whole year?
But the money is spent. The tickets are in my wallet. My bag is packed. And Gabe is wrong if he thinks I won’t go through with it. I know my friends privately think I’ll cave in and come home early. So I got up hours before I needed to this morning, took my bag, closed the door on my old life and posted my keys through the letterbox for my friends and former flatmates to find. And I’m here, where Gabe was so certain I wouldn’t be.
But now there’s a delay and that’s dangerous for me. Too much time to think better of my plan. Why is the universe conspiring against me today?
‘Having another?’ the woman next to me asks. Her new glass of champagne is already half empty. Perhaps she has the right idea. Maybe drinking your way through a delay is the best option.
‘I don’t think so, thanks,’ I reply. I can’t stay here, not until I know exactly what kind of delay I’m facing. ‘I’m going to find out what’s happening.’
The woman shrugs as I leave.
The whole of St Pancras station seems to have darkened, as though a storm cloud has blown in from the entrance and settled in the arcing blue-girdered roof.
Beyond the glass the sun shines as brightly as before, the sky a brave blue. But I feel the crackle of tension like approaching thunder.
At the end of the upper concourse near the huge statue of a man and woman embracing, a crowd has gathered.
Somewhere in the middle, a harassed station employee in an orange hi-vis gilet is doing his best to fend off the angry mob’s questions. And then, without warning, the crowd begins to move. I’m almost knocked over and stagger back to stop myself falling. Being trampled to death is definitely not in the plan today.
The mob swarms around the station employee as he makes for the stairs to the lower concourse. The forward motion of their bodies pushes me backwards until my spine meets something immovable. I gasp. Around me the angry commuters part, a splitting tide of bodies flooding either side of me, their feet stomping inches from mine. Once they pass me they continue their pursuit of their prey as the poor station official flees down the stairs.
I’m shaken, but then I remember: I hit something. Someone.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I rush, turning to see the poor unfortunate soul I’ve slammed into.
But my eyes meet the kind, still expression of an iron man in trilby and suit, his billowing mackintosh frozen in time as he gazes up, as though checking the departure boards for his train.
The Betjeman statue.
I’d forgotten he was here. Compared with the huge iron lovers beneath the enormous station clock over the entrance, he’s diminu- tive. I’ve seen visitors double take when they find him. He’s just there, standing in the middle of the upper concourse, humble and friendly. The only thing marking him out as a statue and not another train passenger is the ring of slate around his feet, the words of one of his poems carved into it in beautifully elegant script. I’ve heard station announcements asking commuters to meet people by the Betjeman statue when I’ve been here before and thought nothing of it. But finding him here this morning, when everything has suddenly become so uncertain, is strangely comforting.
‘I don’t think he minds,’ a voice says.
I jump and peer around the statue.
Over the statue’s right shoulder, a face grins at me. ‘Sir John.
He won’t mind you bumped into him. He’s a pretty affable chap.’ Laughter dances in his voice, his green eyes sparkling beneath dark brows and a mess of dark curls. And I instantly feel I know him.
‘I can’t believe I just apologised to a statue.’
‘Happens to us all, sooner or later.’ His hand reaches around Sir John’s arm. ‘Hi, I’m Sam. Sam Mullins. Pleased to meet you.’ I hesitate. After all, this is London and my seven years in the city have taught me strangers are supposed to stay anonymous. But Sam’s smile is as warm and inviting as a newly opened doorway on a winter’s night and – suddenly – I’m accepting his handshake.
His hand is warm around mine.
‘Phoebe Jones. Pleased to meet you, too.’
The concourse is eerily empty now; the raging commuters all disappeared to the lower floor chasing the poor man from the train company. It’s as if me and Sam-with-the-smiling-eyes-and-laugh- filled-voice are the only people in the world.
Apart from the statue, that is.
‘Did you get to hear what the bloke from the station was saying?’ I ask, suddenly aware I am still holding Sam’s warm hand, and quickly pulling mine away.
‘Most of it, before the mob closed in.
They’ve stopped all trains in and out of the station. I haven’t heard the Inspector Sands announcement, so I’m guessing it isn’t a fire or a bomb threat.’
My stomach twists again. I’ve only heard the automated announcement used to alert station staff to a possible emergency like a fire or a bomb once before at Euston and I ran from the station like a startled hare then. Given my nerves about my journey, if I’d heard Inspector Sands being mentioned today I would already be halfway to Holborn. ‘Did he say how long it was expected to last?’
‘Well, I heard four hours, but there were so many people yelling around the chap by then I guess anyone could have said that.’
‘Nightmare, huh? Trust me to pick today to make the longest train journey.’
I blink at him. ‘Me too.’
‘Oh? Where are you headed?’ His eyes widen and he holds up a hand. ‘Sorry, you don’t have to answer. That was rude of me.’
It’s sweet and it makes me smile. ‘Paris, actually. To begin with. You?’
‘Isle of Mull. Eventually.’
‘Oh. Wow. That is a journey.’
He shrugs. ‘Just a bit. Already had to change it because of the engineering works at Euston, so I’m going from here to Sheffield, then over to Manchester then changing again for Glasgow. Going to stay with two of my old university mates near there for a night or two, to break it up a bit. Then I’ll catch a train to Oban, take the ferry to Craignure and then it’s a long bus ride to Fionnphort, where I’m staying with a family friend.’ He gives a self-conscious laugh. ‘More than you wanted to know, probably.’
Although I’ll move on from Paris later, Sam’s journey sounds epic and exhausting by comparison. And it’s strange, but I don’t even consider that I’ve just met him, or question how he can share his entire travel itinerary with me when we don’t know each other. Like the heat from his hand that is still tingling on my skin, it feels like the most natural thing.
So I forget my nerves, my shock at finding myself here beside the statue, and the looming delay. And instead, I just see Sam.
‘How long will all that take?’
‘The whole journey? Hours. Days, even.’
He laughs. ‘It’s okay. I have several books in my luggage and my music. I’ll be fine.’
Novels are one thing I do have, although they are safely packed at the bottom of my bag. Books are the reason I’m here, after all. The Grand Tours across Europe inspired my PhD and have underpinned all my dreams of seeing the places the authors wrote about for myself. My much-loved copy of A Room with a View is in my hand luggage and I’m more than happy to hang out with Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson for the thousandth time, but I’d much rather be on the train heading off already.
What if this delay is a sign? I hate the thought of Gabe being right, but the doubts from last night return, swirling around me, Sam and Sir John Betjeman like ragged ghosts. There are other ways of pursuing a great adventure, they call.
You don’t have to spend a year away to prove you’re spontaneous… My room at the flat-share is already someone else’s but I could persuade one of my friends to let me stay at theirs until I can sort out a new place. I don’t really want to go home to Evesham, but I know my parents and brother Will would love having me to stay for a bit. Maybe I should be a bit less intrepid – Cornwall would be nice this time of year, or maybe the Cotswolds? Safer, closer, easier to come home from…
I don’t want to doubt this now, not when I’m so close to boarding the train, but I can feel panic rising.
But then, Sam Mullins smiles – and the ground beneath me shifts.
‘Look, if you’re not going anywhere for a while and neither am I, how about we find a coffee shop to wait in?’
Did I just say that? But in that moment, it feels right. Who says my new, spontaneous self can’t start until I board the train for France?
‘Yes,’ he says, so immediately that his answer dances with the end of my question. ‘Great idea.’
As we walk away from the statue of Sir John Betjeman, Sam’s fingers lightly brush against my back.
And that’s when I fall in love.
You can buy ‘The Day We Meet Again’ from Amazon and is available to buy from good bookshops.