Three Lions

Lions are frequently depicted as symbols of strength and courage and, as such, they feature in the works of various literary heavyweights. Aesop’s fable ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ used to be a particular childhood favourite of mine, not least because I fell in love with the idea that the humble mouse could lend such crucial assistance to a creature as formidable as the mighty lion. Of course, the lion is not portrayed in a particularly good light here, exuding vanity and arrogance as opposed to dignity and valour…

As I grew up, I discovered C.S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ and (like so many) found myself drawn to Aslan, one of the main characters. And whilst the description of his physical appearance (and irrefutable status as the ‘King above all High Kings’) was genuinely awe inspiring, it was perhaps his compassionate nature and strong moral compass that left the greatest impression on me during my teenage years.

More recent examples include Jessica Olivia Sinatra’s book ‘Leonardo the Lion. A leap of faith’ (written in 2018) which introduces children to a courageous and determined lion cub. The stories explore the many challenges commonly faced by today’s children (making friends, being accepted by others, and embracing diversity in the community) and each book in the series is centred around the core values of love, kindness, and respect.

The lion (sometimes referred to as a leopard) is also a dominant feature of the royal arms of England, having been adopted by the Plantagenet kings who ruled over the country from as early as 1154. There is something truly majestic about the sleek (golden) lions placed against a background of rich crimson and this bold image of heraldry has endured over the centuries – despite our country’s rather chequered history.

As I have mentioned before, I spend most of my Saturdays ‘braving the elements’ in order to watch our boys play football. At times, the biting wind and driving rain has tested my resolve to the limit, and I have frequently noted that ‘grassroots’ might reasonably be substituted with ‘mud bath’ (football) instead! (My washing machine would certainly agree…) However, the notion that healthy roots are the most likely catalyst for abundant growth and development has not been totally lost on me, and the ethos of Grassroots Football is one to which I can wholeheartedly subscribe. After all, bringing children together through sport “whatever their age, gender, physical condition, skin colour, religion or ethnic origin” is a powerful vision and one utterly worthy of the 40,000+ clubs that are represented by this organisation.

Since England’s defeat in the Euro finals last week, there has been much discussion in the media about managerial tactics, individual (under) performance and of course those missed penalties. And it would seem that everyone has an opinion on the matter, with little or no reluctance to share it! However, with the power of social media to reach an audience of epic proportions (instantaneously) it has been sickening to read the comments of a reprehensible minority who have seen fit to deride and wound this group of young players with their vitriolic remarks.

I am in no doubt that all 26 of the young men who were chosen to represent their country wore the ‘three lions’ with pride and I am also absolutely certain that each one wanted desperately to ensure that ‘football (was) coming home’ thereby putting an end to all those ‘years of hurt’.  However, for whatever reason, it was not meant to be, and it is now time to regroup and move on.

I, for one, enjoyed every minute of England’s progress to the final. If nothing else though, it has highlighted the need to address the abhorrent behaviour of some of our so-called ‘fans’ once and for all, and for us to take this opportunity to educate our children on the vital issues that have once again disgraced our nation. By exercising the compassion, wisdom, and humility of Aslan and casting aside the narcissism of both Aesop’s central character – and those individuals who feel that they have the right to boo the national anthem of every other nation – we might just build a national identity of which we can justifiably be proud.

Learning to dance in the rain

As a young child I was definitely a ‘glass half empty’ sort of person. I can remember grumbling about all manner of things, frequently behaving as if the world were about to end. Looking back, I’m quite sure that this pessimistic outlook on life was one of the main factors in earning me the title of ‘Mummy’s little ray of sunshine’ in my mid-teens. The irony certainly wasn’t lost on me, even then!

Of course, some of our character traits are inherited, whilst others develop in response to our experiences and surroundings. However, I’m inclined to believe that certain aspects of our personality can’t really be altered and that it is, therefore, simply a case of embracing those desirable qualities that essentially define us, and then working hard to dilute the less favourable ones – petulance included!

Like so many parents, my husband and I have (inevitably) had to weather countless ‘storms’ where prepubescent hormones have clashed violently with parental exhaustion and (as someone for whom a strong sense of justice is inextricably ingrained) I have genuinely struggled to tolerate such bouts of unreasonable behaviour. On each occasion though, I have just about managed to remind myself that I am the ‘grown up’ and that being drawn into a full-scale shouting match with a 9- or 10-year-old boy is neither dignified, nor productive. I’m not going to lie though; it’s often been a close-run thing!

Then came covid-19, a global aggressor intent upon flaunting uncertainty, fear, and anxiety galore. With daily liberties revoked, livelihoods at risk and a substantial threat to life, perspectives began to shift, and families had no choice but to adapt.

With trips to restaurants quite literally ‘off the menu’, the focus on home cooking intensified. With cars sitting redundant on the drive, walking or cycling became the favoured mode of transport or exercise. Little by little, daily routines evolved and (with them) so did our expectations.

We simply had to accept that instant gratification had been placed (rather ironically) ‘on hold’.

And it was being forced to live through this strange new existence that really made me stop and think. The stark realisation that my ‘glass half empty’ approach to life would be of absolutely no use to me now, hit me like the proverbial sledgehammer. With no legitimate timescale in the offing, I figured that ‘waiting for the storm to pass’ was probably not the best strategy here, but that ‘learning to dance in the rain’ might just be the better option! 

Trailblazing (of sorts!)

We’ve all come across them. Those individuals who demonstrate an enviable flair for coming up with ingenious ideas. Or those for whom pushing the boundaries to the absolute extreme, is nothing more than idle sport.

For most of us mere mortals, however, we learn to content ourselves with exhibiting professional competency, and a good day at the office tends to equate to the conquering of one’s inbox (albeit only fleetingly) whilst perhaps managing to snaffle the last Dairy Milk Chunk from that rapidly depleting tin of ‘Heroes’!

Small victories, and all that…

Imagine my surprise then, when almost 12 years ago I unwittingly found myself poised to become something of a trailblazer amongst the ranks of my burgeoning NCT friendship group.

We’d all met during the summer months of 2009 and our babies were due to make an appearance in the autumn. Our group was an impressive mix of professionals, all eager to excel at the next assignment – Parenting. We’d sat through sessions on birth plans, pain relief, relaxation techniques and feeding and we were all now raring to go.

One by one the various bundles of joy arrived (delivered, I seem to remember, with wildly varying degrees of grace and composure!) and the journey began in earnest.

Many an afternoon was spent exchanging tips, sharing concerns, and I don’t mind admitting that a wealth of delicious biscuits and cakes were consumed along the way too. And very quickly, each new mum assumed their vital role within the group. It was almost as if we’d been cherry-picked to provide as broad a skill set as possible because (rather conveniently) we had two teachers, a surveyor, a designer, two amazing creators of ‘all things delicious’ and even a readymade parent in our midst. Surely, we were collectively ‘holding all the aces’…

Now as any new mum will know, the value of having a support network (particularly of friends who are going through similar experiences) should not be underestimated. After all, there is no postpartum handbook (and each ‘model’ seems to throw up sometimes quite literally its own unique challenges!) so being able to talk things through, surrounded by sympathetic company, was an absolute blessing.

Any chance of losing those post pregnancy pounds was looking pretty slim though, my little man being only too content to sleep soundly in my arms whilst I chatted away happily – and indulged (utterly unstintingly) in a wide assortment of pastries!

In the weeks and months that followed, there was plenty of laughter, a few tears and much soul searching over what would be best for our little ones and it was an unexpected honour when I began to sense that my friends might be starting to look to me as a sort of ‘benchmark’ for parenting. My baby had been the last to arrive, and yet it seemed that all eyes were on me when it came to feeding, nappy changing etc.

Was this my chance to shine? Was I to become a much-revered model of motherhood?

Of course not! For when the cake-induced vanity eventually wore off I realised that, far from setting the gold standard for parenting, it was more a case of “Well, Gaynor’s already done that (and her baby is still alive) so it can’t be all that bad”! And so, the gradual shift from breast to bottle, cotton wool to wipes (and oh so many other guilt-ridden adjustments) began.

Trailblazer?
No.
Source of reassurance – albeit tinged with mild dismay?
Let’s hope so!

…And the wisdom to know the difference

Having undoubtedly stumbled upon the barren wastelands of middle age, it would be far too easy to look back upon past events and pay gratuitous homage to regret. The dreams and aspirations of youth seem strangely unattainable now, and life has acquired an almost brutal propensity for galloping inexorably onwards, whether we like it or not.

And yet, if one can just look beyond the aging reflection in the mirror (and embrace with gratitude the many blessings that life has bestowed upon us) there’s a chance that something of the indomitable adolescent spirit of yesteryear, just might endure.

Without a doubt, the last twelve months have afforded plenty of opportunity for reflection and a great many people have found themselves looking at ways in which they might alter certain aspects of their lives – either through necessity, choice, or a combination of the two. 

Only a matter of days ago, I was reading an article entitled ‘Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ and it was fascinating (and somewhat alarming) to learn of the many and varied emotional reactions that are likely to have been triggered by such a virus. Mercifully for many, resilience will have come to the fore and indeed, some people will have found new strengths and developed fresh coping mechanisms. However, for those who have been exposed to significant trauma, depression and anxiety are likely to have either surfaced or intensified and will no doubt have been exacerbated by the need to shield or self-isolate.     

For me personally, the aspect I struggled most with was having my freedom (coupled with the ability to make any plans whatsoever) suspended indefinitely. Without the prospect of a family holiday on the horizon (and feeling utterly starved of any external form of social interaction) I’ll happily admit that the working week seemed significantly less alluring! However, having two young sons to take care of gave me the purpose that I so desperately needed – and we often talk about the endless bike rides and home baking sessions that carried us all through.

And so, being mindful of the fact that 2020 taught us that we can never be entirely in control of our own destiny, the sentiments of the ‘Serenity Prayer’ seem as pertinent now, as ever they were:

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Calling all Superheroes!

I often think that parenting is akin to an extreme form of superhero training. There may not be any kryptonite involved (and I’ve yet to encounter any infinity stones) but daily survival has, nonetheless, been known to present its own challenges with everyone’s wellbeing (especially mine) frequently left hanging (rather precariously) in the balance.

However, even the most stressful of mornings (when the relatively straightforward task of leaving the house as a family unit, suitably equipped for the day with one’s sanity broadly intact) has nothing on the abject horror of the ‘in-tray exercise’!

Yes, with one foot firmly seated in middle age (and the other desperately seeking a new and exciting chapter) I finally came up against this veritable instrument of cognitive torture. And I have to admit that I was more than willing to wave the white flag of surrender just a few short minutes later!

For those of you who haven’t yet had the ‘pleasure’ of such an experience, let me attempt to give you an indication of what to expect.

Now obviously, my little Pandora’s (In)Box was full of school-based scenarios – the likes of which (if they were to occur simultaneously on a Monday morning as suggested) would literally require the help of the ‘Avengers’ and the ‘Justice League’ combined in order to demonstrate even a modicum of managerial supremacy – but if you can imagine apocalyptic levels of employee, client, or customer dissatisfaction, coupled with a lack of resources and wholly unrealistic deadlines, then this should prove universally relevant!

In just 30 minutes one is required to ‘solve’ a seemingly near exhaustive list of ‘problems’, ranking them in order of priority and explaining what course of action should be taken. Simple, right?

Wrong!

Because for every choice that you make, you are basically providing your future employer with a Velux style window to your soul, laying bare your capacity (or otherwise!) for compassion, logic, and leadership. And the final straw here, is that your line manager will almost certainly be ‘unavailable’ to lend any support to this fire-fighting exercise, and your future colleagues are apparently representative of the very small percentage of the population for whom physical or mental impairment should really have rendered them unemployable – and thoroughly deserving of every benefit going!

The final twist, of course, is that (having prioritised the immediate safeguarding concerns of any pupil who has been hypothetically placed in your care; having dealt with any pressing staffing shortages; having provided pastoral support to a distressed team member; having prepared the necessary academic data for a governors’ meeting; having written a captivating article for the newsletter; having responded to a parental complaint; having disciplined a junior member of staff and having referred a parent back to the school’s policy on the administering of medication) your own child is apparently in need of urgent help too.

What to do now? Where exactly should your own ‘flesh and blood’ rank in all of this? I mean, if you deal with your own son / daughter ahead of a school issue, then there’s a strong chance that you will be inviting criticism along the lines of
a) not being very dedicated to your job or
b) failing to take your professional responsibilities seriously.
Then again, to ignore your own child’s ‘cry for help’ paints you in a rather unfavourable light too – not to mention lining you up nicely for a child protection concern that is frankly a little too close to home!

Thirty minutes later, I left the confines of that tiny office a mere shadow of my former self.

My head was literally throbbing with the strain of trying to deal with such a kaleidoscope of child-related chaos; the academic data had been delegated to possibly the only other suitable senior leader (assuming that they were not, of course, amongst the previously mentioned high numbers of staff absences); my newsletter article was about as engaging as a bowl of tapioca (having managed to devote just 2 minutes and 48 seconds to it, off the back of far too much ethical and logistical deliberation) and try as I might, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that I had more than likely overlooked something of real significance.

In summary, I suspect that my performance was moderate to mediocre, and it was undeniably an experience that I would be in no particular hurry to repeat. However, in a humble attempt to adhere to my original analogy, I would suggest that certain qualities would be a minimum requirement – if ever (like me) you should find yourself bravely pursuing ‘in-tray utopia’…

At the very least, you should aim to exhibit the genius of Iron Man, the leadership of Captain America, the resilience of Thor and the compassion of Superman. Otherwise, prepare for the comparative ignominy of, for example, Marvel’s Jack of Hearts.

If at first you don’t succeed, shout a little louder!

When I was growing up, Cornwall was very much the destination of choice for our annual summer holiday. Every year, we’d set off from Shropshire in my Dad’s Citroen Familiale with a variety of hearty homemade meals stashed under every conceivable seat. Then, many long hours later, we’d pull up outside our holiday accommodation, only to find that one of us had fallen asleep en route (again) and left a sizeable footprint in the top of one pie or another. And whilst the flavour never seemed to have been palpably diminished by such treatment, I’m sure that you can imagine just how well this tended to go down with our parents… 

Imagine my excitement then, when Mum and Dad announced that we would be going to France for a change. The plan was to catch the ferry from Dover to Calais and then take the motor-rail as far as Brive. This in itself sounded like quite an adventure – taking your car on a train was ‘quite something’ back in the 80s and (quite apart from eating fresh croissants and trying out my term and a half of French) I couldn’t wait to see what sleeping on a train would be like.

The summer holidays finally arrived, and we all piled into Dad’s car for our first taste of foreign travel. The journey down to Dover seemed distinctly less onerous than the laborious annual struggle from Exeter to Wadebridge and standing up on deck waving a fond farewell to those iconic white cliffs, with the sea air blowing a gale, was nothing short of exhilarating. 

Fast forward to our arrival in Brive, following an ‘interesting’ night spent split between two 4-berth couchettes, wondering if what I could hear was the train’s engine – or my Dad’s snoring! Suffice it to say, I don’t think that any of us felt particularly well-rested the following morning – and both parents seemed to be sporting that ‘end of their tether’ kind of look, as they stepped tentatively out into the Aquitaine sunshine.  

With a (not inconsiderable) final leg of the journey still to be made, we were instructed that this would be the last opportunity for a comfort stop. I dutifully headed to the ladies with my mum (where we joined the obligatory long, snaking queue) whilst my brothers sauntered straight into the gents. No change there then! And after what felt like an eternity, there was just one woman standing between us and the sanctuary of the first available cubicle.

Now, to say that she looked distinctly French would be an understatement of epic proportions. She could have stepped straight out of ‘Tricolore’, minus the shallots and the beret, of course! Anyway, when the time came, this sophisticated Mediterranean lady made no attempt to stake her claim on the facilities; our expectant glances being met with a typically Gallic shrug that was truly mystifying, given the time that she had already invested in this exercise.

Far from happy to just sidle past this lady and potentially ‘jump the queue’, my mum decided to engage her in a conversation of sorts. Ten out of ten for effort – bearing in mind the (not insignificant) language barrier that was about to rear its ugly head.  

With full eye contact established (so as to avoid any possible confusion) mum asked, “Are you waiting?”

“Pardon?” was her reply. [The first clue.]

“Are you waiting?” mum offered once more, pointing in the direction of said cubicle.

“Pardon?” her slightly louder response this time, accompanied by that infamous shrug.

And so, in true British style, mum went for absolute linguistical supremacy…

“ARE YOU WAIT-EENG?” she asked once more, only several decibels louder and with an accent worthy of Rene Artois from the BBC’s ‘Allo, ‘Allo!  

And then the penny finally dropped.

Looking at me (nothing short of aghast) Mum said, “I think she’s French!” and rushed blushing into the cubicle, leaving me to endure much lip pursing, shoulder shrugging and (I’m willing to bet) some guttural native expletives – which my term and a half of tuition had left me ill-equipped to translate!

You can imagine how much flak she got for that, over the years…

In one sleep-starved moment, she had unwittingly confirmed what many Europeans had suspected for some time – that us Brits are notoriously bad at learning other languages, with a whopping 62% of the population still only able to speak English.

And there’s a fair chance that, having been responsible for publishing these damning statistics, ‘Honte à vous!’ might plausibly have been the verdict of the European Commission!

Sandwiches with a pinch of Friendship thrown in!

Many friends have told me that they have acquired new skills during the course of one national lockdown or another, and Facebook has borne witness to a veritable deluge of posts about the success (or otherwise) of home baking projects, ingeniously crafted ‘Fakeaways’ or the cultivation of fresh produce.   

I have to admit that (pre-2020) I had staunchly shied away from baking of any kind, believing that my efforts would almost certainly fall woefully short of my mum’s delectable creations. However, with lockdown 1 came the desire not only to rekindle precious childhood memories with my boys, but also to lay that particular ghost to rest. And by choosing a homemade chocolate cake (over a shop bought Harry Potter one for his birthday earlier this week), my youngest son unwittingly gave my baking skills the resounding endorsement that I so desperately craved! However, as I sat basking in the glory of my new-found culinary success, I found myself taking a somewhat reluctant trip down memory lane to a week’s work experience, carried out shortly after sitting my GCSE examinations. 

It was the summer of 1991 and my parents had kindly arranged for me to go and help out at the local primary school. My mum dropped me off at the school office and I waited nervously for my instructions. The Headteacher (a terrifyingly exuberant character) cantered towards me, welcomed me to his school and promptly dispatched me to Class One. I was immediately put to work cleaning up the painting corner (surely that was a job for a Friday afternoon, not a Monday morning?) and sorting the Lego from the Duplo – which I dutifully did. Later that day, I was entrusted with delivering ‘Storytime’ to twenty-four rather fidgety four- and five-year-olds but I relished that particular challenge, and I have to admit that (before long) I had them all captivated.

By lunchtime, I was beginning to feel much more relaxed and had already warmed to several of the children in that class. It was evident that many of them viewed me as a sort of ‘big sister’ and, rather like the Pied Piper, I seemed to have quite a following by the time I accompanied the TA out onto the playground! When I returned to the classroom, the teacher presented me with a large canvas shopping bag and quickly informed me of her plans for the next session.

The children had been growing their own cress and so they were going to make egg and cress sandwiches for their afternoon snack. I glanced into the bag and saw a loaf of bread, some low-fat spread, some hard-boiled eggs, and a plastic container filled with a thick creamy substance that looked like a cross between mayonnaise and salad cream. The cress, of course, was on the windowsill on a bed of cotton wool. All very straightforward, I thought.

The children were sent to me in batches of six where we swiftly found our rhythm (in true production line fashion) buttering bread, removing the shell from the eggs, and combining the ingredients before plating up the sandwiches and allowing the children to tuck in.

Well, they were thrilled with their efforts and utterly effusive in their verbal feedback. I beamed at them, rejoicing in the notion of a job well done. The teacher seemed pleased with our efforts too and it was soon time to tidy everything away and send the children home.

Once the last child had been safely handed over to his parent, I went to collect my things from the staffroom. As I was leaving, Miss B called after me to ask where I had put the canvas bag etc. I proudly informed her that I had placed it under her desk with the plastic container (meticulously washed and dried) inside. She looked at me aghast:

“But what have you done with the contents of the container?” she enquired.

“Most of it got used,” I replied. “So, I didn’t think that there was much point in keeping the rest.”

“Used?” she asked, “On what?”

(I began to wonder why Miss B was being quite so slow on the uptake!)

“In the sandwiches,” I stated rather incredulously, “to bind the egg together.”

“Oh, no!” she cried. “That wasn’t mayonnaise, it was Friendship Cake mixture!”

She went on to explain that she had been given the recipe by a parent and that it was one that had taken quite some time to ‘cultivate’.

Taken from an Amish tradition, the idea was to keep adding ingredients over a ten-day period and then to give portions of the ‘starter batter’ away to friends, so that they could bake (and enjoy) a cake for themselves.

I remember thinking that this was quite a long and drawn-out process. That it might have been considerably more ‘friendly’ simply to have given someone a cake that could be enjoyed immediately, with a nice cup of coffee perhaps? I resisted the urge to voice these thoughts, however!

And with that, my first day euphoria instantly evaporated and I beat (what can only be described as) a hasty retreat. I had absolutely no idea how Miss B might go about telling the parent in question that her well-intentioned gift had just been ingested (uncooked) by each and every child in Class One. Looking on the bright side though, the week could only get better!    

In pursuit of the happy medium

People constantly talk about ‘striking a happy medium’ and I’ve often wondered if this is, in fact, possible? So many factors would have to be finely balanced in order for this to be achievable and human nature is so inherently fallible (certainly in my case, anyway!) that somewhere along the lines the potential for error must arguably be too great!

I’m always utterly fascinated by family dynamics and I derive huge comfort from seeing that my parental struggles are by no means unique! The notion that the ‘second child’ is always something of a handful certainly rang true in our case, but then I’m the fourth out of six – so I’m not entirely sure how that should have affected my own personality or emotional development… Perhaps being ‘somewhere in the middle’ has left me ‘floundering’ (in hierarchical terms at least) and unable to voice my wishes / feelings with any degree of conviction? I suspect, though, that my colleagues might (ever so politely) disagree! 

I’ve written before about the sibling rivalry that pervades our home-life and (by association) my largely unremitting role as judge and jury. However, as the boys get that little bit older, I’m beginning to catch glimpses of certain (almost desirable) traits coming to the fore, and I find myself daring to hope that they will, eventually, manage to reach an ‘uneasy peace’.

The fact of the matter is that my boys couldn’t be more different. My eldest is shy, relatively sensible (he is a prepubescent boy, after all!) and prefers to observe first, then join in later. My youngest is self-assured, quick-witted, and impetuous – and causes us far more heartache as a result. In this regard then, I must confess that I am utterly guilty of wanting my boys to ‘strike a happy medium’. After all, being polite and unassuming doesn’t tend to fare all that well in a Saturday morning league match but then again, neither does one want to be the parent of a child for whom a red card might almost become a ‘badge of honour’!     

With the return of a third UK lockdown, I’m fairly confident that parents far and wide have been desperately striving for a healthy balance between ensuring that their children continue to make some sort of academic progress, whilst trying to protect their physical and emotional wellbeing too. For those parents also trying to hold down a job, it can feel like something akin to being a trapeze artist, where the margin for error is depressingly slim. It seems to me then, that the quest for a better work-life balance, the holy grail of parenting or indeed the happy medium, is something that is destined to haunt us all for many more years to come. If, on the other hand, you are fortunate enough to stumble upon it, please don’t be shy in coming forward; my liver and /or sanity might depend upon it!

A brief encounter

Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting someone truly remarkable. It was one of those chance encounters that renders you momentarily speechless, then acts as a powerful catalyst for change.

It was a dismal February evening and I had just left a rehearsal in central London. We’d been working on Michael Tippett’s five spirituals from ‘A Child of Our Time’ and it had been one of those rehearsals where you come away feeling as though your soul has been suitably nourished, and that something within the music has transcended human understanding.     

I had been experiencing some problems with anti-social behaviour in and around the housing development where I lived, and I was seriously considering handing in my notice at work and moving away from the area. However, having just been part of something so utterly inspiring, I was loath to concede defeat and allow the local ‘Youf’ to drive me out of my home and away from my Monday night refuge.

Having caught up on everyone’s weekly news over a quick drink, we all went our separate ways, as was the usual routine. I headed for Victoria station and, upon arrival, gave the departures board a cursory glance. My heart plummeted when I discovered that, not one, but two trains to Swanley had been cancelled and that I would have just over an hour to wait. There was nothing for it. I would just have to grab a coffee and a magazine and set up residence on platform 5.

When my train did eventually arrive, I was delighted to note that two cancellations had not rendered this three-carriage-wonder ludicrously full, and I settled thankfully into my window seat. Before long, the train pulled away and I felt reassured that home was now within reach.

The first part of the journey passed without incident and I became quickly engrossed in my magazine. There were additional stops to make, but there was something pleasantly mesmerising about the staccato rhythm of the wheels moving over the track and the sound of needles of rain bouncing off the windows at jaunty angles. And then I became aware of a different sound. The sound of raised voices and dull thuds.

I felt myself stiffen and the all too familiar feeling of fear and unease (associated with broken windscreens and trampled fences close to home) resurfaced. I looked around the carriage in an attempt to establish where the noise was coming from. And then I spotted the silhouettes of three men looming in the doorway of the adjacent carriage. It was not immediately clear what they were doing, but their presence was both threatening and unwelcome, reminiscent of an ITV drama, but sickeningly real. In a matter of minutes, the train slowed, and all three men came hurtling through our carriage, disappearing just as suddenly into the night.        

A little later, a young man staggered into view and gingerly lowered himself into an aisle seat. He had a cut on his face and looked badly shaken but there was a disarming aura of composure about him too. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, “Are you alright?” seemed painfully inadequate and yet I couldn’t just ignore his plight altogether. So, I made do with frequent glances in his direction, hoping against hope that he would somehow sense my feeble attempt at compassion. He must have done, because he looked straight at me before giving me the most tender of smiles. But rather than providing the comfort that was no doubt intended, the warmth of his gaze made me feel even more ashamed. How could he be so calm, after what he had just endured? Hadn’t he just been badly let down by his fellow passengers? By me?

As if he could read my thoughts, he said simply “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. And as he left the train, I wept uncontrollably; not just for him, but for humankind.