I was three days into my stay in Great Britain when I decided to venture out of the safety of Birmingham, which had quickly become as wonderfully familiar to me as if I’d lived there for years. Directions, supplied by the attractive bell captain at my hotel (yes, it’s important that I mention he was attractive, do you not know me at all?) in hand, I made my way to the train station.
I went through the double doors and looked around for a gate or a ticket booth, but found neither. There weren’t many people, either. I smiled at a nearby man and he smiled back, clearly wondering what I was doing pivoting slowly in a circle in the middle of a big empty space. (Please note that in New York, this would not be considered odd behavior at all.)
“Where can I buy a ticket?” I asked him.
“Usually there’s a kiosk in here where you can buy one, but it’s Sunday now, you know,” he said. He seemed genuinely apologetic that the British mass transit people would dare to inconvenience me this way. “You need to go down the stairs just there, and then you cross over the walkway and you pop up again on the other side. You just kind of pop up, you know. And then you’ll see the main concourse.”
Naturally by now I’d fallen deeply in love with this man.
Following his directions, I went down the stairs, crossed over, and popped up again on the other side. I just kind of popped up, you know. And sure enough, I was on the main concourse. This part of the train station was teeming with people, all going in different directions at warp speed. I again looked around for a ticket counter but still didn’t see one. Not too far from me I could see a man in a uniform leaning against the wall talking to someone. He was cartoonishly tall and lanky, with a kind face. Had he been wearing a bowler hat and doing a silly walk, I’d have thought he was John Cleese.
I had no idea how tall he actually was until I approached him. I tugged on his pant leg and he looked down at me.
“Well, hello there,” he said.
“Hi, uh, can you tell me where I can buy a ticket?”
“Where did you come from?”
“Where did I … come from?”
“Yes,” he said. “Where did you come from?”
“Uh … America?”
“Okay, very good. Now, how did you get to England from America?”
“Um, on a plane?”
“Good, good. And to which airport did the plane bring you?”
“Uh, Birmingham International?”
“Splendid. And when you came out of the airport, how did you get to your hotel?”
“I took a taxi?”
“Wonderful! And when you left the hotel today, how did you get here?”
“I, um, I walked?”
“And when you walked did you come straight here?”
“Yes! What are you getting at?”
“You shouldn’t be able to get onto the main concourse without a ticket. Since you’re here, I figured you must have come in by train from another destination. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, why didn’t you just to ask me that to start with?”
“But I did,” he said. “When you said you came from America, I just assumed you were giving me a thorough accounting of where you’d been. And it’s been my pleasure to listen to your adventures.”
By now I couldn’t stop laughing, and he was inordinately pleased with himself. He pointed in the direction of two people sitting behind a table.
“Go see my mate over there, and he’ll get you a ticket. You may have to repeat your story for him, but if you need me to back you up, just wave me over. Cheers then!”
I thanked him, bought my ticket and got on the train, still cracking up.
The next day I was bound for Wales, to meet up with my friend Trisha Ashley and some of her writer friends. I went back to the train station and went through the same door. This time there was a ticket table set up right inside, so I went over and got in line. When it was my turn, the ticket seller looked up. It was the same man. When he saw it was me, he covered his face with his hands.
“At least I’m sitting down for this today,” he said. “Okay, where did you come from?”