I am not sure what made me smile as I speed through the countryside on a train that moves at a speed greater than 70kph. It may have been the familiar landscape with its thatched cottages, rolling hills and places that I know so well. Or it could have been that, if I chose to do so, I could buy and consume booze at 8.30am. 2 things you definitely can't do it Oz: speed through anywhere on a train or drink booze on them at anytime. It could even have been that the Welsh accent of the train conductor mixed with early morning energy and enthusiasm made him sound surprised that we were arriving in Reading. Was he not expecting Reading to be there or was he not expecting the train to make it on time?I think my smiling contentment probably came from a combination of all three.
Even pushing my luggage through Paddington station made me smile, mostly because I know it so well and started a good many adventures from there. Smiling isn't that common In British train stations though and I may have had the only happy face in the place, which is a shame as it's an impressive place, steeped in history and at the heart of one of the most exciting places in the world. People have reason to smile more if they chose to stop and soak it up.
Coming back to England at this time of year is odd and I don't think I have experienced a UK winter for 6 years. To leave Australia on the longest day of the year to arrive in the UK just after the shortest is a remarkable contrast in the same way that going from good Champagne to warm flat lager is a remarkable contrast. It won't kill you but you'd rather not.
My last couple of trips have been in June and I have loved the long, long evenings but in winter you realise that the trade-off is massive. On a cloudy morning it is pitch dark until about 8 am, it kind of gets light for a few hours and then starts to dim about 2. I should know this. I had about 35 English winters but you try to forget, try to push it to the back corner of your mind. Like if you had a family friend who was a bit too friendly with you as a child.
The great bits about England remain great though: the depth of history, the range of accents, the perfect pubs and fact I just get it. The nutters are less intimidating coz I've grown up with English nutters. The fact that 50% of drivers go very, very fast, no matter how narrow the road is, seems sensible. And I know that I will ALWAYS get served in a bar.
At the time of booking, the reason for the trip home was an odd one: to spend the last Christmas with Mum after she had been diagnosed in June with terminal lung cancer, with a prognosis of 'months not years', so I had anticipated a rather intense and emotional trip full of reflection and many private tears. By September, the prognosis was a bit more confusing and in October it was confirmed that Mum had been misdiagnosed and cancer was in fact solidified mucus........ Hurrah for the NHS. I, like everybody else, am celebrating the fact that Mum is not dying from cancer, but then again, she never was, and that's the bit I can't quite get my head around. We could all celebrate not dying of things that we haven't got, if we just had someone tell us we had got them. That would be odd though wouldn't it? I am very glad I was there for the prognosis though, as I am sure that J would have been convinced that it was all an elaborate way of Mum getting me home at Christmas.
The massive upside is finding myself enjoying Christmas without the horrible 'last Christmas' backdrop (the Wham song is bad enough) where I am sure we would have all been putting on a brave face, quaffing champagne and pretending all was fine, then occasionally walking into a field and finding a bush to crawl into and cry in. During a wet December, that would have been particularly crap. We just drank the Champagne with friends and family, visited cosy pubs and we didn't need to pretend all was fine, it just was.
The trip to Bangkok started in Bristol, with an afternoon and evening with Guy and Lou, which was quieter than normal as Guy was unwell (more about that later), and a cancelled flight out of Bristol the next day due to very bad weather. I have to say that KLM handled it all very well and within 10 mins of canceling the flights I had a new email with new flights a few hours later and a £10 voucher to invest in Guiness. I matched their contribution, and a bit more, and spent the next few hours sitting in the bar, phoning friends and family and observed the life of Bristol airport, concluding two things: if I ever decided to open a business in Bristol it would be selling make-up as demand is exceptional; there are more drunks in the airport from about 11am onwards than you would find in an Australian pub at closing time. This last observation is a reflection to the Brits relaxed attitude to booze and the Australian exceptionally anal 'Responsible Service of Alcohol' rules that punishes the sensible many for the actions of the poorly behaved few.
I boarded the plane in a happy frame of mind, having had a great Christmas, some lovely runs through the English countryside and, despite the delay, I was looking forward to seeing J in about 20hrs.