With An Ironing Board On Christmas Eve
I left Bristol on a Tuesday. It was Christmas Eve. I enjoyed my year there - I was lucky to live with excellent people and I made some good friends. But it was something of a half-year - I was caught between two lives. Now I was back home to Winchester for Christmas, before returning to London, from whence I had came.
On Christmas Eve Eve, I collected all my souvenirs of the previous 12 months of life. Each object stirred a memory or a rumbling of the stomach. My clothes, ever dependable, were scrunched and shoved neatly into my backpack. I gazed proudly at the mirror I had retrieved from a local skip. I rolled up the one or two posters I had on the walls, humming softly as I remembered the gentle guidance they had offered me. And, finally, I folded up my trusty ironing board.
My ironing board is unexceptional. It bears some unexplained and inexplicable stains; some brown, some black, some violent magenta. The design is floral but it is unlovely to look at; more air freshener than a fresh bunch picked on a spring morning. It is not one of those sturdy models that resembles a hardback book or a man named Cornelius. One might go so far as to say it is a flimsy ironing board. It is borderline anaemic in character, and is prone to collapse from time to time. I bear a small but visible scar on my upper knee cap from one such episode.
But, in spite of its shortcomings, I have a good deal of affection for the board. It was a gift from a beloved friend, and thus, I cherish it. It may not be terribly attractive to look at, or even perform its duty reliably, but it has served me as well as I could have hoped. There is a hopeless charm to it, like that of a bedraggled dog or a drunken uncle. So I could not leave it. My ironing board came with me on that fated Christmas Eve.
On the morning of my departure, I heaved my backpack on, and put another smaller backpack containing valuables and trinkets on my front. In each hand, I carried 2-3 additional bags, some containing books, some containing presents bursting generously and deceptively at the seams. A water carrier was stowed safely somewhere on my person. I tucked the ironing board under my arm, stepped out through the front door for the last time, put everything down again to elegantly post my key through the letterbox, and began the walk to work.
Not five seconds after leaving the house, I encountered a woman pushing a pram. I knew her and she knew me. We would not normally greet each other, but we had certainly passed each other on this road before. There was a mutual recognition between us; no need for verbal or even physical greetings. Simply being human in the same space was sufficient. On this morning, she scrutinised me beadily, unblinkingly motoring along at an impressive pace. In a second, we were face to face, and I shuffled awkwardly, laden down by my various wares.
‘Oop, apologies,’ I smiled generously.
I made to move to my left and her right, anticipating a complementary move from her. I pondered whether to put down a bag or three in order to facilitate the stopping process. But this would have been too soon.
‘Sorry, haha,’ I chuckled again, hoping to elicit some response, some acknowledgement of the absurdity of the situation.
But she did not respond. She seemed intent on the piece of pavement just beyond me, greedily eyeing some unseen prize as she forcibly shunted me backwards.
‘Scuse me!’ she hollered cantankerously, her baby infant sucking on his thumb and staring at me smugly as I stumbled into the street.
I fell. The mirror tumbled out of my arms and my ironing board gaped open like a broken pair of scissors.
‘No!’ I cried, narrowly saving the board from splaying open fully.
‘Shhhh,’ I soothed it, clipping it back into its closed position.
I muttered angrily at the woman, but when she turned, I gave her a simpering smile and she nodded curtly in response. It was Christmas, after all.
It was an inauspicious start. I collected myself and my various belongings and prayed that the rest of my journey would be free of such encounters.
After a shuffle to the end of my road, I turned right onto Wells Road, a great throbbing vein of Bristol that carries in the commuters and school children each morning. Today being Christmas Eve, it was quieter. There was the occasional bus and grumbling old man, but largely, I was free to totter down the hill uninterrupted. I appreciated the general shape of the background noise without really registering its specific details, as if it were the waffling of a beloved relative I’d stopped listening to. My mind began to clear and I inhaled deeply, pleased that I was on my way.
Things took a turn when I crossed a side street. I failed to register a white van approaching me from the east until it was too late. My turning circle is expansive at the best of times, and as I was carrying at least my body weight again in various possessions, my movement resembled that of a bull with two broken ankles. I had no hope of getting out of the way. I looked skywards, braced myself for impact and prayed to the only god I knew. The driver screeched to a halt, his brakes effective but his momentum carrying him to halt just a few inches short of my personage.
‘Fucking idiot!’ he screamed merrily, shaking his fist out of the window in some unknown Christmas greeting.
‘And good day to you, Sir!’ I responded amicably.
He did not wait for me to finish my crossing, but rather skirted round me as a trembling racecar driver emerging from the pitstop. Ah, seasonal cheer, I thought to myself, shaking my head amusedly.
The rest of my journey down the hill was largely uneventful, aside from the odd look or weird glance. However, as my proximity to the office increased, so too did the frequency of my rest stops. It was a chill day, and I was suitably layered up, but my exertions had resulted in an intense build-up of sweat. I was dripping, and not attractively so. With a gloved hand, I wiped my brow, and attempted to air out the rest of my person by flapping my jumper back and forth. A passing old woman tutted vociferously at my exposed flesh. But I cared not - for my goal was in sight.
I passed the train station experiencing the emotions a mule might have done in days of yore - thirst, fatigue and fury at the idiocy of human beings. The station approach was busy, and its occupants seemed not to register my presence, preferring instead to stare absent-mindedly at their phones or feet. My path was a torturous hopscotch, a dance with death on the eve of Christmas no less.
‘Urgh,’ I grunted, dodging an infant on a scooter, ‘eesh,’ as I passed a man walking his dog, ‘sgrrrrr,’ I hummed as a gaggle of teenagers mocked me unabashedly.
Oh, the humanity.
But it mattered not. For I could now see the office. I had arrived. The first stage of my journey was complete.
I decided to enter, not unreasonably, through the revolving door. However, the ironing board got jammed as I neared the completion of the circle and I was as stuck as a lemming who had missed his flight and was forced to find an overpriced and tacky hotel close to the airport for the night. While the door opened slightly, the crack was nowhere large enough for me and all my possessions to pass through. The foyer was tantalisingly close, but I could not reach it.
‘Help!’ I pleaded, ‘please!’
The security guard looked on perplexed and then with increasing frustration as I vainly attempted to get myself out of the spot I was in. I heaved and pushed and raged against the world t0 no avail. With a roll of the eyes, he raised himself from his seat, sauntered to the door, gripped my door segment and wrenched it suddenly so I flew into the space beyond.
‘Many thanks,’ I mumbled, nodding bashfully as I did so. ‘A Merry Christmas to you and your family’.
He did not respond.
I struggled up to the second floor via the stairs, greeting all those I passed with merriment and good cheer.
‘Christmas,’ I snorted at a colleague. She retreated, aghast.
‘Merry,’ I screamed at another. He blinked shyly.
Finally, I reached my desk.
‘Fucking hell, Adam!’ my boss laughed, both amused and perplexed at my impressive pack-mule abilities.
I nodded proudly, possibly more pleased than I had ever been to make it to the office.
A small crowd gathered.
‘All you’re missing is the kitchen sink!’ noted the office wag.
I winked, and waggled a knowing finger at him.
‘Ha ha! A good one,’ I admitted.
He looked at me with murderous glee, pleased his joke had skewered me so. But I would not let it, on this day of days. For it was almost Christmas.
The next few hours at work passed without much note. I said my goodbyes, and my boss kindly gave me a lift with my cartload of possessions to the train station. I thanked her and bade her farewell.
‘Christmas!’ I shouted after her.
But it was now back to work. Stage 2 of my journey commenced.
Bristol Temple Meads was far less busy than usual, but there was still a gentle throng of people mingling with one another. The Christmas Eve crowd seemed to consist of people deeply committed to their jobs, those who had missed the last train the night before, and a number of busy elves. I assume they were elves, for they were dressed in hats and shoes. I might have stopped to enjoy the pleasant warmth of the scene on another day, but I was running late.
Indeed, I had to run. For my platform was the other side of the station, and my train was scheduled to leave in 3 minutes’ time. My ironing board yapped along happily like the reliable mutt it was. My back bag bounced contentedly. The front pack was altogether more violent in its movement and I had to take measures to suppress it. The presents, so carefully wrapped, were starting to fray.
No matter. I made it onto the train, and took a deep breath. It was standing room only. But there was an air of seasonal goodwill in the air, so I didn’t anger anyone with my presence as I had expected to. In fact, several people nodded at me cheerily.
‘Ha, moving house on Christmas Eve, stupid decision,’ I r0lled my eyes to demonstrate quite how self-deprecating I was being. They nodded in agreement and returned to their chuntering.
A train wag caught my eye on his way to the toilet and looked me up and down.
‘Here…’ he said, ‘the only thing you’re missing is the kitchen sink!’
‘Aha,’ I smiled knowingly, ‘don’t worry chap, it’s in the backpack.’
I would’ve patted my bag had I a free hand but I simply jerked my neck to indicate the bag I was speaking of.
‘Ahhhhhhhh,’ he looked down and raised a palm to the sky, knowing he had been bested. He got off a short time later at Bath Spa. I never saw him again.
Sadly the crowd on the train did not thin out as much as I had expected, and I was left standing for much of the journey. However, I was able to find a series of hideaways and cubby holes for my various belongings, all within my field of vision. The only one I clung to still was my ironing board.
The pure movement of the train was bullet-like: intent and piercing. I was lulled into a trance, as the Somerset countryside calmed my very soul. I thought of the farmers and families I was passing, all the roads I would never walk down, the trees I would never climb. There was something in that thought that restored me, and placed all my travels and travails into a wider context.
My reverie was brief. For at Warminster, Margaret boarded the train. She introduced herself immediately and explosively upon boarding, trailing a wheely bag behind her with the determination of an angry dog-walker or fisherman.
‘’Ello, I’m Margaret,’ she said, offering a firm hand. I sensed she was coming for the ironing board, so gripped it closer, and gave her a warm smile instead of the handshake she desired.
She was inordinately drunk, so blissfully full of Christmas cheer that I would’ve been surprised if she was aware she was on a train at all, never mind the day or the year that it was.
‘How arrrrre ya, darling?’
‘Very well, thank you Madam,’ I responded.
‘Ah lovely, lovely,’ she rubbed a red wine hand on my cheek, smearing it with her rosiness. ‘You’re a good buoy.’
She belched loudly.
I concealed my discomfort by suppressing a gulping sob and whispering ‘thank you’. I hoped desperately that she would go away soon.
‘Keep an eye on tha’ bag, will ya!’ she said, offering me the handle of her roller luggage bag contraption.
Again, I suspected a ruse to pluck the ironing board from my unsuspecting hands, so I held the floral patchwork ever closer. I was eager for her to leave me be so I nodded that I would do as she said.
Thus I felt partially responsible for the carnage that ensued. For the following twenty minutes, Margaret rampaged up and down the carriage, kissing babies, scratching dogs, and patting elderly ladies on their elderly heads. She jibed at a couple who had been enjoying some peace and quiet. She riled a man with a gardening magazine by insulting his taste in begonias. Most egregiously, she ruined the ending of a television programme being watched by a small boy from Dundee.
‘Where’s the trolley???’ she beseeched of the ticket inspector.
‘No trolley on this service, I’m afraid,’ the cheery fellow replied.
‘Naaaaaargh,’ she wailed disconsolately, her alcohol levels beginning to dip. ‘NO TROLLEYYYYYYY!!!’
It was hellish, a scene from a nightmare, some fictional demon sent from the depths to torment me and my fellow passengers. While she seemed to be well-intentioned and perhaps even pure of heart, we could not bear this affront, this confidence, this drunkenness in a public and crowded space. My heart began to palpitate. A small woman wept quietly as a grandfather turned off his hearing aid and threw it out of the window, screaming ‘GOOD RIDDANCE YOU SHIT!’ at the device as he did so.
After several more minutes of torment, we arrived at what appeared to be Margaret’s stop.
‘Arrecgh!’ she screamed, ‘here I am!’
She hiccuped aggressively, and made to get off at the door she was standing by. It suddenly occurred to her that she’d forgotten her bag. She looked around desperately and set her eyes on me.
‘You! It’s you!’ She steamed down the carriage, clobbering a young family out of the way as she bore down on me.
‘Thanks darling! Oho, an ironing board, I might grab it - HAHA!’
She made to grab the board, an eventuality for which I had been prepared from the start.
‘No, you demon!’ I shouted, and pressed my open palm against her forehead, ‘please, for the love of God!’
A brief and pathetic struggle ensued, as I made to force her away and she flapped like a fish on a hook raging against the dying of the light.
Suddenly, a calm descended over her.
‘Thanks darling! Merry Christmas, give us a kiss -’ she leant forward, tongue outstretched and waggling expressively. I feared the consequences if I declined outright, so proffered a melancholy cheek towards her. It was grotesque, a fleshy and slippery slug painting an outside wall.
The train doors began to beep, indicating her last chance to get off and away. She hopped off the train, turned and cackled maniacally, and waved us off as we were again on our way.
Once she was out of sight, I wiped my cheek, slumped to the ground disconsolately, and did not look up again until Southampton. I kept firm hold of my ironing board all the while to ensure that there would be no further attempts to part me from it.
Gradually, my breathing slowed, and I looked up. The carriage was now largely empty. As we arrived in Eastleigh, an elderly lady placed a sympathetic hand on my shoulder and said warmly ‘Take care son. Merry Christmas’. I twitched at the physical contact, but I was deeply moved by her goodwill and generosity of spirit. Perhaps things would be alright after all.
At Southampton, I changed trains with little fanfare. After a short wait, I boarded the last train to Winchester. I was almost home. The comforting vibrations of the carriage resonated deep within me, as a boy of about 8 regarded my dishevelled form with curiosity. 15 minutes away became 10, 10 became 5, and 5 minutes dissipated as it always does, as if it is no time at all. Rolling into the city had never before elicited such a surge of gratitude or warmth. My journey had been long, the obstacles many and varied. But I had made it. My beloved ironing board, so unsteady and unsure of itself, had survived. I realised how proud I was to own such a board, one that dependably gets on without asking for any acclaim or recognition. One that’s there when you need it, one that never complains, one that tries its best against the odds and accepts failure as a part of the process. My board is good and true. I am lucky to have it.
‘Merry Christmas, board,’ I said softly.
I stepped off the train, and into the future.
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