Max stood there, the wind blustering around, throwing litter between the platforms across the station and letting it dance in front of waiting passengers. The train was delayed by five minutes, perhaps inevitably since it turned out the Connex trains were of the same slam-door kind as the SouthWest Trains stock; a different coat of paint on the outside, but ultimately the same old same old with the accompanying problems.
She tried to relax. The queing had frustrated her, lasting as it did for almost twenty minutes. It seemed logical to employ more than two ticket sales staff at peak times, but that was all they had. Two selling tickets and one observing the people trying to use the only working automated ticket machine. Max had made the mistake of joining those people, only to find that after three screens of options she was presented with one where none of the possible responses applied. The observing staff member asked if she could help.
"I want to go out to Tunbridge Wells tonight and return tomorrow."
"Oh, you can't do that using these machines."
Typical. All the machines advertised was that tickets could be bought with credit or debit cards - no warnings suggesting not all tickets were available. Less than impressed, Max was pleased to be allowed back into the queue at the front by an understanding woman who muttered under her breath about staff shortages as the generic announcer called out "Desk number SIX please!" Getting from desk to platform was uneventful but slow, weaving through the crowds laden down with the stuffed laptop bag. The late train shouldn't have induced stress. There was no rush, nowhere to be at any particular time, but it did, all the same. The familiar twitch tugged at her right eyelid periodically.
The journey itself was equally uneventful, she slept through most of it in her usual upright position, her head rested on her right hand. An acne covered youth was less reserved, moving around the carriage, noticed by Max in moments of lucidity. As the carriage emptied he found himself a better seat each time until he finally lay curled up across two seats, Nike trainers snugly pressed against an arm rest and his empty fast food wrappers serving as a pillow. At Tunbridge Wells the station exit led out to a row of waiting taxis and Max climbed into an MPV to be taken to the hotel.
It wasn't what she expected. The word "hotel" conjoured up images of buildings much larger. The Du Vin of Tunbridge Wells houses roughly forty rooms, a modest bar and a celebrated restaurant. Upon checking in she was led up to her room by a female member of staff, wondering as she went whether she would recall the route back, and wishing the walk were slower in order to accomodate the awkwardness of the backpack being carried suitcase style.
The room was pleasant enough, but dark. The one question she asked, about plugging in the laptop was met with a response that made little sense. The suggestion was to use the desk and unplug the phone, however the two items were at opposite ends of the room. Max approached the problem by turning the bedside table into a makeshift desk when she eventually came to use the laptop.
Before then, though, she chose to eat and spent a slow hour in the restaurant all alone. It afforded her a chance to eavesdrop on the three women who had turned up ahead of her and who were comparing life stories and situations - all of them more affluent than Max's, all of them older, all of them more worldly. One expressed surprise at this being the first time she had seen four women all alone in the hotel. Knowing she was among the number, Max considered joining the conversation but had no small talk to offer in response and conversation would have been difficult since she was seated with her back to the others. Instead she just listened to the tales they told. One extolled the virtues of BT as a family oriented company, another talked of her time in India where she grew up and how she thought she might go back one day. The third talked of her children, a boy and a girl, the girl an adopted Chinese child. She broke off conversation to call her son at his boarding school and they chatted about weekend plans, about how Matron teased and about school marks. Max listened and ate. Crispy duck with potato and turnip gratin served with a side order of courgettes and tomato with parmesan. Reaching the end of the food she wondered what the payment protocol was and ordered dessert simply to have a reasont to wait at the table longer and watch what the others did. Dessert was a sickly sorbet than tickled her throat which she soothed with water from the still mineral water bottle she had chosen instead of wine. She felt a little lonely and mused on how it would be to live alone.
Snapping out of it she reminded herself that this was not a place she had come to by choice. If this were a cinema then she would be perfectly happy to be alone. If this were a cinema she might have found a companion to go along with her, even if she were living alone. This was work, this was different.
And she told herself this as she climbed the stairs back to her room and ran a bath. The bath was huge, the largest she'd seen. Filled to the brim, she got in an floated. Relaxing at last she enjoyed the immersion for a while before getting washed and dried and investigating the television. She had hoped for more TV stations. Sky One was what she assumed she wanted, but it wasn't there. Thinking further she realised E4 was the channel showing ER and Friends, the entertainment of choice for the evening. Not that it made a difference, it wasn't available.
After interrorgating the numerous leaflets around the room Max realised that online time would need to be severely limited as work were unlikely to stump up in the region of twenty five quid for a couple of hours of net access. She logged on, checked the essentials and logged off again. Three times. She couldn't help but justify it with "But there's nothing ELSE to do!" in an unspoken, unnecessary exclamation. It wasn't even true. Burried in the bag was the book she should have finished by now in order to keep her book-a-month target as set at new year. She'd known new years resolutions were a bad idea - why did she make it? Along with the book was background reading for the course, but the travel and meal had left her wanting to do something more passive and with few options remaining she chose to sleep after hanging out the "bring me breakfast" indicators and checking carefully that the alarm on her mobile was set.
On Friday she woke up three times before the alarm, and was dozing when it actually went off. Fifteen minutes later the telephone alarm call sounded. The double alarm was an indicator of her paranoia regarding lateness. Max could never be late, was forced to make adequate arrangements to avoid being late. She accepted that this was the phobia she was cursed with and thanked her lucky stars it wasn't something less useful like a morbid fear of spiders.
At eight the third assurance that she was on time kicked in, when the ordered breakfast arrived. Toast, toast and more toast. And croissants - one plain, one chocolate. And coffee. And orange juice. Max feasted, the TV blaring trivia in the background while she flitted around getting ready. Thursday night she had stared around the bathroom, wondering why hotels would supply soap and shampoo and bubble bath and sewing kits and yet always neglect to provide toothpaste. Thursday night this was an issue as she seemed to have brought none with her. Friday morning, however, it surfaced from the depths of the small cluster of toiletries inside the backpack.
She called a taxi, photographed the rain falling on the picturesque view from the window, gathered everything together and went downstairs to check out. Sitting waiting for the taxi she watched men carry boards and stage blocks into the building for a while before going out to meet the taxi driver just as he arrived on the grounds.
The trip to the building where the training was to happen was uneventful, the arrival less so. Two attendees were there already and had been waiting some time to get access to the building. Eventually, as others started to arrive, they were let in and Max was surprised to find that the training facility was staffed and attended by people she knew from the London office. Was it really worth the expense? She had noticed she had cost the company over a hundred pounds simply by staying in the hotel - this being before the expense of the travel was added.
The day was kept interesting by the lively colleagues rather than by the subject matter. The subject matter itself held unpleasant implications of beaurocracy and was complicated with intricate levels to confuse the issue. Max tried to concentrate, tried not to clock watch and wished the mobile could get a signal in the building so she could read email. When finally released the whole group split into two in order to use the cars available to ferry people to the station. The train journey was like any other, but with company. At Waterloo the trains were delayed but Max caught the 6pm and rushed to the front for a seat, like on any other day. A phonecall, a lift home from the station, and an excess of mail opening followed interrupted by chips from the chip shop. Max flicked through the new information about the house purchase and pushed it aside. There was the whole weekend ahead for sorting that out. The computer was calling.