To say I cut it fine for the 10.30 from Kings Cross would be putting it mildly. The journey started off well, Eric arriving on time and taking me to the local station, unfortunately without my case that sat mutely in the hallway at home. He whips the car round and we speed back home, the suspension groaning as we fly over the speedbumps. Eric is normally a steady driver, but he drives as if the fragile future of my project rests in his ageing Galaxy. I make the connection in Reading by about 23 seconds, and reach Paddington just before 10.00. In the taxi the cabbie gives me a pep talk.
“You’ll get there mate, even if you miss the 10.30 and catch a later one; as long as nobody dies, that’s the main thing.”
I refrain from telling him that he will die if he comes out with any more of that crap, as I’m not sure it will help my cause. Instead I just mention that it would be really nice to make the 10.30 as we have Advance tickets for that service only. The traffic is shocking. It’s like that scene in The Truman Show where he’s trying to leave the city and all the choreographed stooges rush to block his path.
I phone Simon to explain its touch and go, and that he may have to accidentally faint whilst boarding the train and loll halfway out of the doors. He tells me he will do his best and I’m to head for platform 1 on the right hand side. The cabbie drops me at 10.26 and I rush inside, shouting at strangers “Where’s platform 1?” but nobody knows, or if they do they are not telling this lunatic with flailing limbs and baggage. I see a sign and sprint past a phalanx of tourists just before a bottleneck, but there’s still a long way to go and I’m not sure my burning lungs can cope with any more sprinting.
I find what I think is the last platform as whistles are blowing sharply, but I hesitate as all I can see are signs for platform 0? What station in its right mind would invent a platform 0? As I pause I feel the whole thing drifting away from me (or is that the blood draining from my head?), and momentarily wish to lie down on platform 0 and sleep for a very long time. Then I see Simon at the train door frantically waving and manage to summon one last Herculean effort, legs and lungs screaming their objections.
He is getting short shrift in his attempt to delay the train, the guard barking “Get clear of the door lad!” as Simon boards like a Thunderbirds puppet having a stroke, all exaggerated and interminably slow pantomime movements as if participating in a bizarre game of blind man’s buff. I’m losing sound and vision as my oxygen-deprived body shuts down superfluous systems, but have just enough strength to croak “never in doubt” as I flop through the door literally a second before it closes.
We then begin a two mile march up the train to find our pre-booked seats, through carriages that seem to get narrower and longer. Simon says he can’t feel his right arm any more because of the unnatural angle of hoisting his bag, and an unspecified arm-wrestling injury from a few days ago. Eventually we are seated and celebrate that the whole shebang is still on track (geddit?) with a vodka and tonic. The lady on our table looks askance at us as she sips at a green concoction of spinach and goodness knows what else, but can’t help secretly smiling as we recount our versions of the last hour from our differing perspectives.
“Why on earth did you stop when you were just yards from the train?” Simon demands, and I explain my rabbit in the headlights act by saying that all I could see was zeros, like an internal fuel guage telling me that the project had finally run out of gas.
At Peterborough there’s a bit of a hoo-har over the seats, as various people sit in slightly the wrong place. We are joined by three mature ladies who are celebrating a 50 year school reunion in York and are visibly shaken when I disclose that we may be staying in the same hotel, before we work out that Judges Lodgings and Judges Court are separate entities.
As the Scrabble dictionary didn’t make the cut in the packing list, the ladies kindly agree to be arbiters in the likely event of a word-related dispute in our game. Almost immediately Simon places the word ‘Frig’ in a taunting manner, knowing that I will not ask the ladies for their opinion. The astonishing thing is that this guy sees these sly gamesmanship tactics as an entirely acceptable part of any match he contests.
We are met by a variety of ‘straight bat’ responses from the good people of York. The taxi driver to the hotel simply pretends not to hear Simon’s repeated questions concerning the loud groaning noise coming from the car, and a young man holding a large sign for a watch shop misses the irony when I ask him if he’s got the time and simply says “12.48”.
The hotel is so well hidden away that we have to phone for directions despite being 20 yards away. The receptionist is Polish and explains in a weird cocktail of accents that to get in and out of the gate we need to press the “green booten”.
“There is a chill wind coming.” Simon decrees at 1:27 like some bible quotation. He uses this to justify bringing his coat on a day of sauna-like heat. I make sure to comment how wise this was about eleven times in the first ten minutes as I stave off heatstroke by keeping up my fluids. We have a really quite nice lunch in the Pitcher and Piano and I realise that this is the way to get decent food when racing – eat nowhere near the course!
York racecourse is a revelation. The grandstand enclosure has immaculate facilities to rival any Premier enclosure in the country. Space abounds, you can get a drink immediately, and there are a full four floors to explore in the grandstand itself. The sun is shining, the views are great, and the winners are flowing. I have never been before but I can tell you that for £19 this is a must for any racing fan. After panic-backing and winning on Delizia in the first race, we only realise that the Mark Johnston and Silvestre De Sousa combination are literally on fire, sort of, when not backing them in the second race. We soon decide that we are not going to miss out again and back two more winners, one of them at 25/1 before it is backed into 12/1, called Indescribable – it’s hard to explain how I felt after that.
We go back to the hotel via a quick stop in Pound World. This is my first trip to the store and I’m utterly taken with the experience. You can get a 5 pack of Branigans ham and pickle crisps for a pound! I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the price given where I am, but somehow I think this is the best thing ever. I celebrate my success by also investing in a Party Prize Trophy Set – I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to do with the three, yes three, finely crafted plastic mini trophies, but I just know that I need them.
Back at the hotel Simon makes short work of his 5 pack of McCoys as we watch some It’ll Be Alright On The Night clips on YouTube (as you do) before hitting the town and exploring York. There is a slight essence of Galway about the place as tired and emotional racegoers lurch about the Shambles. It is a fine city but we can’t seem to find our niche in it, so after a few bars where Simon claims he is too “waterlogged” to drink a pint, we return to the Judges Court to face the sentence of sleep. We play out the finale to our Scrabble game, one so thrilling that it is regularly punctuated by one or both of us nodding off. It’s been a long day, but a good one.