Tim Dowling: we’re on a packed train with the wrong ticket– and I’m meant to relax?

<span>Illustration: Selman Hosgor/The Guardian</span>
Illustration: Selman Hosgor/The Guardian

My wife and I are at the station awaiting the departure of our train. We are visiting friends for the weekend, and my wife has made all the arrangements, which is selfless but not ideal: the control freak in the relationship – me – should be forced to plan everything.

Our train has yet to be assigned a platform, so we join the crowd watching the departures board.

“I accidentally bought return tickets for the same day, but there you go,” my wife says.

“What do you mean, there you go?” I say.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says.

“What are we gonna do?” I say.

“I knew you’d be like this,” she says.

“Then why did you tell me?” I say.

The platform for our train is posted, and what seems to be the entire population of Paddington walks briskly in the same direction.

“Busy,” my wife says.

“Do we have seat reservations?” I say.

“No,” she says.

“Why would you not …”

“Here we go,” she says. “Don’t start.”

“But …”

My wife reaches the barrier, brushes her phone against the ticket reader, walks through the gate, then, as it closes in front of me, begins to scroll through her phone looking for my ticket.

“Oh my God,” I say.

“Will you relax,” she says, finally passing her phone over the gate to me.

My wife walks quickly to the far end of the train while I, carrying both bags, struggle to keep up. By the time I find her she has secured two free seats.

“See?” she says. “Nothing to worry about.”

As the carriage fills up, the train manager announces the inevitable collapse of the seat reservation system.

“That’s lucky,” my wife says.

“So these seats may not actually be free,” I say.

“We’ll have to butch it out,” she says.

The minutes wear on. Passengers arrive to find other people in their reserved seats and negotiations take place. People politely get up, even though the reservation system is technically not in force, or enforceable. I think to myself: of course I will also get up. But no one approaches us.

“This is unnerving,” I say.

The aisle fills with standing passengers. The train manager apologises for the overcrowding and announces the cancellation of the trolley service for safety reasons. I’m now pulsating with anxiety. My wife is reading a book.

The aisle is rammed; no one can move. The man in front of me gives up his seat for a child. I should do the same, I think, but the seat probably isn’t mine to give up.

‘Our tickets are for yesterday,’ my wife says, holding out her phone. ‘How many hundreds of pounds will that cost me?’

My heart is racing as the train finally pulls away.

“Phew!” my wife says, almost silently. I lean in close.

“Don’t forget about Reading,” I whisper.

But no one claims our seats at Reading, or the stop after that, or the one after. By the time we get off, the aisles have thinned a little, but it’s still a struggle to reach the doors. Our host is waiting in the car to pick us up.

“How was the journey?” he says.

“Unbelievably crowded, but weirdly fine,” my wife says, climbing into the front seat and nodding back toward me. “He was miserable, as usual.”

“I have survivor’s guilt,” I say.

The next afternoon we are late for our return train: there is an unexpected detour that takes us the long way round to the station. I look up alternatives on my phone, but the next train isn’t for another two hours, and involves a complicated journey that starts off in the wrong direction.

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“You’ve gone silent,” my wife says. “I can’t handle it when you go silent.”

I don’t say anything.

The train is in the station when we arrive; we have to run the last bit to make it on board, but we do. In contrast to the outbound journey, the carriage we find ourselves in is empty. Before I can catch my breath the train manager arrives to check our tickets.

“I’m afraid our tickets are for yesterday,” my wife says, holding out her phone. “How many hundreds of pounds is that going to cost me?”

The train manager scrutinises the phone screen, frowning. I close my eyes and clench my teeth.

“No, you’re all right,” he says. “These are good for a month.”

“Well,” my wife says, beaming. “There you go.”