Riding the Iron Poultry

After so long not travelling, and feeling nervous about failing a PCR test next week and not being able to fly, I edge out the house like a bear groggily emerging from hibernation.

I am under-dressed. How can I be leaving the house on a cross-country journey wearing shorts and a t-shirt and carrying nothing but a backpack? It just feels wrong.

I must have forgotten something nags the dark angel on my shoulder. I hate my anxiety, it does nothing other than make me check multiple times that I have got my tickets and packed my glasses, which I know I have, but there he goes, nagging away, and I just need to check again …

The first train is a commuter train, and so it’s uncomfortable, as commuter trains must be. As someone who grew up in Leeds, I am just grateful it’s a modern train and not a two-carriage converted diesel bus. At least here the trains are made out of trains.

It is surprisingly busy for a pandemic, but maybe everyday is like this and I just don’t know because I rarely use public transport these days, so different my life has become.

It doesn’t feel like the start of a journey. This may be the familiarity of the Cercanias trains that shuttle passengers in and out of the city, an experience now so mundane after doing it five times a week for a decade, that any glamour associated with train travel just doesn’t stick to these trains. Even a year-and-a-half of working from home doesn’t change that, it’s immediately familiar – and boring – as if I’d been there the day before.

I don’t read or do anything, I just gaze out the window and daydream. I made a stupid move in a chess game I’m playing on Chess.com, meaning I am only one move from being mated, if they notice, which I’m fairly sure they will because it’s glaring right at me.

An attractive woman sits next to me, but we don’t speak or have sex or anything, we just stare ahead. Someone asks her if the train goes to the airport and she looks to me, eyebrows raised. She doesn’t know … “No,” I say, “it just goes to Atocha” and I know this because I had just heard them say it at the last station. I like being asked directions when I know the answer, but hate it when I don’t. It still bothers me that when in 1998 I was asked by some passing motorists where Northgate Road in Crawley was, I gave them incorrect information. They knew I was full of shit, and sped off, turning in exactly the opposite direction to where I had tentatively (and erroneously) suggested. I sighed in frustration at my own ignorance and continued my walk into the centre of that unpleasant Sussex town, passing Northgate Road on the way, nowhere near where I’d said it was.

The train jerks into Atocha Station and I get off, making my way from the Cercanias bit of the station to the older Puerta de Atocha part, where the long-distance trains go from.

I still have 45 minutes, so have plenty of time, but that’s not a good thing in this station. It is big and busy, but devoid of softness and love. Even the RENFE first-class lounge is basic, although at least it has chairs, but this time I don’t get to slip behind those opaque doors into that meagre luxury, this time I’m on my own with the masses. Once through security I am stuck in the long low-ceilinged room that has exactly the right number of seats if there were only three people and they all wanted to play musical chairs. In fact, the normal number of seating options is reduced even further by Covid restrictions blocking half the available seats … and we’re not supposed to eat anything apparently, although all the cafeterias and bars are open, so that seems a bit off.

I find a corner and squat down, I shove some sandwich in my mouth under cover of my mask and hope no one notices. I don’t like following pointless rules, and will often petulantly find a way to break them, just to signal my displeasure, even if only to myself, but in this case I want to be helpful because I get why they want to stop everyone scoffing their sarnies in the waiting room if they want to stop spreading a virus … but if the cafés and bars are open and selling food then I think as long as I maintain a safe distance from my fellow humans, I should be able to scoff my ham and cheese butty in peace.

And so I do.

My train is announced, and luckily I am standing near the right boarding gate. I get up and show my ticket saying “hola” to the person who scans it but this saying “hola” thing seems a bit much and she just nods curtly, unwilling to get involved.

The train looks impressive and powerful, its aerodynamic nose and massive locomotive will pull us at over 300km/hr along the oldest of Spain’s high-speed lines to Sevilla, the country’s fourth largest city. I have never been, and unfortunately I won’t be seeing much this time. It’s just a flying visit to see a friend who lives outside the city, and it’s aboard a clean and efficient, and therefore fairly boring, train … but a journey is a journey and I am going to write about it anyway.

This first line was built to support Seville’s Expo status back in 1994, and it was the first of the new generation of high-speed infrastructure, the AVE trains, standing for Alta Velocidad and giving them access to a vaguely bird-like logo because the word ave is also a class of bird. Unfortunately it’s a flightless bird that doesn’t go very fast, but despite it being named after poultry, it’s become a hugely successful and speedy way to get around Spain.

I get on board and am struck by the interior’s dated look. It feels like a 1970s living room and I half expect Starsky and Hutch to plonk themselves down next to me. The seats are narrow but reasonably comfortable, but there are no electric charging points (there were charging points, I spotted them later as I got off), and the whole thing feels a bit of a let down, like it’s about as blandly mediocre as possible. Nothing wrong with it exactly, but not much right with it either.

I am early to my seat but it seems like most of the train want to be in the same coach and it fills up quickly. I thought I’d booked the quiet coach, but it soon becomes obvious that I haven’t, the child opposite me is making that point very clearly. Another child sits behind him, accompanied by her grandmother, and she (the child) starts screaming at the first kid … I don’t wish to sound intolerant because I have children, and have travelled quite a lot with them when they were very young and I understand that travelling with young children is a horrific experience that no one should be made to suffer. I have oceans of sympathy with any parent struggling to keep their little bastards quiet and amused, and will happily send them a knowing smile and raised eyebrow to show my understanding. I will even offer to help if I can see the parent is on their own and in need … although this doesn’t always work out. Some people don’t welcome offers of help from strangers, especially male strangers, sometimes to the point of being offended. I don’t usually let this stop me, because I think offering to help people who seem to be struggling is the right thing to do anyway. In this case I don’t offer to help because there’s nothing I can do – it’s not an awkward moment of physical discomfort as someone is trying to fold a pushchair whilst holding a screaming baby and a massive bag of supplies, it’s just two excitable infants screaming at each other.

My patience is fake, of course. I am desperately wishing they’d shut up, but we’re not moving yet so it feels like it’s OK for them to let off a bit of steam and get it out of their system … but … there is a line and perhaps that line is crossed by the shouty Granny first howling down the phone about how hilarious the little kid’s screaming is, and then putting the kid in front of a high-volume video on her phone. I get that not everyone is as thoughtful as I am, not everyone had the advantage of being raised in civilisation, but surely even this ignorant witch could see that playing noisy high-volume videos are, not to put too fine a point on it, not the most thoughtful things to do in a crowded railway car.

I have passed Puertollano, we’re well into La Mancha now, and things have quietened down a little.
Still no chess move from my opponent so I don’t yet know if he’s clocked that his knight is trapping my king and he can swoop in with his rook for a simple back rank mate. Let’s hope he’s distracted by my threatening the pawn next to his own king.

The noise lull doesn’t last long, the kids – now fuelled by crisps and sweets – are jumping up and down and screaming at each other again. These are shrieks of pleasure, they are having a fun time making an infinite amound of high-pitched noise whilst jumping on a bouncy seat. Soon a third kid is introduced to the equation, and now we have a small but noisy creche forming in the seats to my right. An ideal situation for people who love decibels.

Granny is trying to get the kid to calm down now, and I feel sorry for calling her a witch before because she must be exhausted by it all. They’re playing peek-a-boo, with the kid hidden under a jacket to dampen the noise a bit and I have to reluctantly accept that the babyish giggles are endearing. I know I should be more sympathetic, but instead I make a mental note to never help with my future grandchildren’s travel needs should public transport be involved.

We’re going to get to Córdoba soon, and then maybe someone will sit next to me. If they do, I hope they are dressed in insulation and are able to block the noise a bit.

Spain doesn’t really do beautiful train stations, and Córdoba is no exception, which is a pity for such a lovely city, but at least no one sat next to me so unless they’re in the dining car, I get a double-seat to myself for the whole journey.

Dining car is not right. I wish it were an old-fashioned dining car but I understand that that’s not realistic given the short journey times and high passenger numbers. RENFE call it a cafeteria which is a better description, but even that isn’t quite right. It’s more like a food stall with a very limited menu in a wobbly room with no seats – again, it’s not bad exactly, it’s just not that good either.

Granny is now trying to stop the kid eating an entire pack of Pringle’s, but she is giving up under threat of yet more noise. The kid has worked out that she can yell and yell and Granny has to give in, she has no other moves open to her. She’s trapped, like my king in my chess game, and the kid has realised she can checkmate her by yelling. In that sense, I’ve got to give credit where it’s due; Granny’s keeping her patience well. She’s speaking calmly, trying hard to balance acceptable nutrition with acceptable behaviour, and although failing on both counts, she is just about managing to keep the noise level below deafening.

It’s a relief to get to Seville. The trains are so smooth and effortlessly quick that it’s hard to appreciate the distance I have covered. It seems too straightforward, and it’s easy to under-value the engineering skill that has linked these two cities so reliably. I ignore all that, and grumble to myself as other passengers get up and stumble about as we try to get off. One day someone will invent a train that you can off without needing to shuffle down a corridor to a central door, like they used to have in the olden days. If they do, they can stick it on a plane too, because the whole getting on and getting off again process is definitely the Achilles heel of the aviation experience … well, that and the massive carbon footprint.

I get off, again oddly aware of having so little luggage, and follow the crowds along the platform to give the impression that I know where I’m going.

The station is fine, nothing special, and certainly not up to what a city as beautiful as Seville deserves, but it is clean and functional and there is a pleasing logical flow as we head toward the exit.

I get out into the hot Andalusian sunshine and find my friend waiting with a big floppy sun hat on her head, and we head off to the hills for a weekend of conversation and wine.

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