We were sitting on a bench waiting, at a Kent station with no ticket office.
The train was announced. Suddenly she said
“Can I pay on the train?”
I looked at her, neatly dressed, with lush afro hair.
“They used to fine passengers who get on without buying a ticket.”
I was thinking of those notices:
“If you travel without a ticket, you can be fined – Penalty £100”
Then I recalled the numerous times lately I have seen the guard, now called the train manager, using a nifty portable machine to sell tickets on the train. I guess we are in a kind of changeover era with regard to ticketing routines. I do think they should make that clearer with a new set of notices. So I added,
“But I don’t think they would fine you. How long have you been in this country?”
“A week,” she said.
“Then they definitely won’t fine you.”
We could now hear the train approaching.
“Let’s sit together,” I said, “I’ll show you how to buy your ticket on your phone.”
So we climbed in together.
“Where are you from?”
“Gambia,” she said. “I’ve come here to work in a care home.”
“Your English is good,” I said (admiring that correct present perfect tense, that as a TEFL teacher I have spent many merry hours teaching).
“So where are you travelling to today?”
She got out a phone.
“See, I have got the journey on my phone. I get out of this train at Stratford, and then change to get a train to Tottenham, and then from there to the airport.”
“There’s a problem with that. Look closely, you will get out of this train at Stratford International, which is a different station from Stratford. You will find you have to walk through a large shopping centre from one end to the other, with your suitcase.”
(Alas, the tricks of station naming that trap the unwary tourist, including me a few years ago with a heavy suitcase and a husband with incipient mobility problems…)
“I don’t mind that. My suitcase is small.”
“Let’s get the train app on your phone then, and find that journey on it.”
She downloaded the SE Train app. She put in the journey.
“Choose single or return. When are you coming back? Put in the dates and times…
Now click through to journey information and see if you are happy with it… Okay?”
But then I could see the app was confused by the fact she was already on the train. It was offering her the next train and the ticket for collection at the station we had just come from. “That’s no good. You want e-collection so that the ticket shows on your phone.”
At this point the train manager was looming over us.
“I am teaching her how to use the South Eastern train app,“ I explained.
“Okay, I’ll check you on my way back.”
I then suggested she get Google Wallet on her phone as this will make paying for other things easier. So she did this and linked it to her bank card. I explained this makes it easier to pay for things with just your phone. But I didn’t offer to show her the TfL site,and explain all the complications of the varying costs of TfL journeys depending on time of day. She then got out a second phone and put the wallet on this too.
We tried the SE app again but it was still not offering the e-ticket. I had wanted to show her how to download it into her wallet and so use this to click through the barriers – a skill I only acquired two months ago so I am rather keen to show it off!
Let’s try a different way
At this point the train manager returned, and took charge.
“Have you got your bank card?”
She handed it over.
“Tell me the details of your journey.”
She gave them to him and soon he had printed off the tickets on his portable machine.
He completely forgot to ask to see mine, so I never did get to show off the ticket in my wallet. She will have to try another time to get the SE app working before she boards a train.
It’s good to talk
Instead we continued chatting.
“So is your job under the NHS?”
“Yes, in a nursing home.”
“And how did you get into care work?”
She told me that she had started in a job with computers, and then moved back home when her grandmother got dementia.
“Only we don’t know about dementia in Africa. We just think it is getting old.”
“So were you the only one looking after her?”
“No it was in the family compound…we live as a large family. But I was her favourite so I did most of the care. That helped me actually, because after she died I then changed career and took up care work.”
At this point I would have loved to pry further as I have been following the news about how agencies recruit people for the special care work visa but charge them extortionate fees, when the official fees are much less. But somehow, I doubt if she had been a victim. With her two phones and good English, she is too sassy for such con tricks.
“And where are you flying to now from Stansted? “
“I am flying to Edinburgh to see my sister.”
We chatted further. She is happy to be earning in the UK as she needs to pay the College fees of her son who is studying aeronautics in Cyprus. I explained my connections to South Africa. Also added that I did not know much about Gambia. In a flush of African solidarity, we exchanged phone numbers.
At this point, I had to get ready to get out of the train. So she moved over to sit opposite someone else across the other side of the carriage while I got out.
Staying in touch
After the weekend, I got a phone call from her.
“So how was Edinburgh?”
“Alright I saw my sister.”
“And how was the rest of your journey?”
“It was alright. I sat talking with the man in the carriage until we both got out at St Pancras.”
“Yes, but it was okay. I got the other trains to Stansted. I just asked everyone along the journey.” (Brilliant language-learning technique…thought I)
Talk about the weather
“Was it raining all the time in Edinburgh? The news says there have been floods in Scotland.”
“Yes, It was raining most of the time. And it is grey and wet everywhere.”
“Yes, it has been raining all the time here too.”
“And it was dark early in the evening.”
“That’s right – because Scotland is further north.”
“I think people get depressed with all that grey and dark.
“And in Gambia? How is the rain there?”
“We have three seasons: the dry season, the rainy season and harmattan when the wind blows and it is sometimes a little bit cold then.”
We did not chat for long as she was going to work and I had to go somewhere. But the thought of her assimilating to life in the UK has been dancing through the back of my mind. It is not only the complications of train travel or of the way we use the present perfect in English. It is also the weather that is hard for those coming from the tropics. I must send her a text message to remind her to take her vitamin D or she will succumb to SAD (seasonal affective disorder) as a result of the lack of sun on her African skin.