Part 39: Steam Trains

Ah the steam engine! Symbol of that great industrial age when all was deemed possible. It’s enough to warm my hardened city cockles to the countryside, to strong young men in flat caps and overalls with muscles and jobs that involve lifting things, to sandwiches under umbrellas on park benches in the rain. The chug-chug of a vehicle moving at rhythmic speed; the mechanical, metallic vibrations of a system of pulleys and wheels and pointy things rotating beneath you, manoeuvring you in a slow straight line from Tenterden to London Bridge. Steamy cotton wool trailing from the iron chimney (?) like a low hovering cloud against the blue summer skies/rolling green fields. Mahogany carriages with those velveteen seats – the luggage racks hand crafted from thin rope inviting battered leather suitcases. Doors that can only be opened by lowering the glass window and awkwardly pushing at the handle on the outside.

You might be wondering at this point what the actual fuck I’m on about, and whether I’ve been indulging in recreational hallucinogens to cope with the mad propaganda spewed forth through our telly screens in a confetti of union jacks and be-hatted royalty over the bank holiday. But no.  My little hiatus from the interweb has been spent ignoring the jubilee and indulging in that other twee Brit-fest: historical re-enactment. Kinda. A day out on the carefully restored steam railways of the Kentish coast. Why? Because my Dad wanted to. It’s not an activity I’d usually consent to without a modicum of contemptful sarcasm, but ahhh, Daddy looked so excited – and anyway – there were tiny little station huts with shiny vintage light fittings that, I have to admit, won me over before the steam engine had even hissed its arrival at platform one.

All that derision I felt but two days ago towards the countryside and its people began to peel away. That brittle, lacquered, red-taloned shell of wit and conceit I’ve been honing dissolved like a vapour through my open pores. There I was, in a carriage made for six, looking at the sheeps and moo-cows through windows propped open with leather belt-type straps. In my mind’s eye I was a post-war lass who’d saved for her ticket by earning one and sixpence a week typing and filing dusty forms in a provincial solicitors office; a bright, hopeful girl with thick hair tamed and set in neat waves, who was to alight at some country station and fall into the arms of a strong, stoical solider lover, returned from war with neither physical injury nor psychological turmoil leading to an inevitable, devastating breakdown. For forty or so minutes, I was at the centre of wholesome, nostalgic, imaginary love affair. A love affair that it breaks my heart I’ll never really indulge in.

What are we doing single people, in this post-industrial, technological age that makes simple things so very frustrating and difficult? When did progress become another way of hammering the soul into submission? A pleasant train journey through undulating greenery becomes a jihad with the self as one battles not to punch the face of the teenager with the tinny dubstep basing from cheap headphones to a pulp, or to scream levelly into the face of the nasal-voiced train guard issuing insincere ‘apologies for the inconvenience.’

And, like the peaceful journey through rolling hillsides, romance is also an outdated concept. It belongs to gentler days; back when the world was in soft-focus, when things were permanent and predictable: jobs for life, seasons that did as they were told (no outdoor drinking in January/fur coats in June), bumblebees, flattering skirts, gentlemen who carried one’s luggage and refrained from swearing in front of ladies, wedding dresses made from net curtains etc. Romance has been ruined via facebook meaning that you can rifle through your lover’s past in photo-format (and learn not only that his ex was prettier than you, but that he was better looking back then too), and via sexism coming back into vogue, meaning that he’ll expect you to take his name if you get married, and dress demurely when invited to meet his Nan.

I’ve never been a fan of those types of human people who enjoy hankering after the ‘good old days’ that never actually existed. In fact, I’ve often openly scorned them as pathetic, bigoted morons who need to relocate to Benidorm with immediate effect and get out of my face – rather than threatening to do so for several years and causing endless tedium to friends and acquaintances before finally buggering off. It’s therefore something of a massive shock to the system to learn that I am one of these nostalgia-morons when it comes to love. I’ve spent all these years secretly hankering after a fictional era when other people could be trusted and ‘I do’ meant ‘I do forever’. In the disturbed crevices of my brain matter, relationships belong to a simpler way of life that went out of fashion with steam trains. The thing is: I’m not sure that there’s a Benidorm equivalent for the romantically bigoted. So, until someone invents a time-machine, or reintroduces the steam engine as non-novelty transport option, I’ll continue to be single and to chunter on re: the perils of modern romance to an indifferent audience of friends, colleagues and strangers. Yes, that does mean you. Soz.

Oh! And if you’re of the romantically embittered/fabulously single variety too, as of next Monday, I’ll be doing 7 days of posts based on suggestions by readers. If you’ve got a reason to be single you’d like to see here then tweet me @elfinkate #reasonstobesingle, or leave a suggestion in the comments box below.

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