“It’s a train!” says the eight year old, incredulously.
“Well, yes,” I say. “What were you expecting?”
We have spent the week in London, the children and I; visiting family, seeing old friends. We noted the traffic, the air pollution, the scowls, and we commented accordingly, as one is programmed to do upon moving out of the capital. You thought the countryside ex-Londoners were the worst, but hi! Call that a bike lane? Oh you’re busy? With homework? My kids don’t have homework. Or uniform. What’s that? AHHHHH <manic laughter> A BIKE HELMET! That’s so sweet. I thought you’d coloured in your head. Did I mention I live in The Netherlands now? I did? I’ve said that already a few times? Where are you going? Wait! WAIT! WHERE IS ALL THE DOG SHIT? DID YOU KILL ALL THE DOGS?
So here we are at St Pancras International, five pm on a Thursday evening, boarding the new Eurostar service that will take us directly to Amsterdam in 3 hours and 40 minutes. That’s two movies, I think wistfully, as the four year old tries to feel my bra. Imagine.
We take our seats around a table. I cannot remember whether I intentionally booked a table. If I did, that was smart. This whole idea was smart. Flying takes 45 minutes, but the faff-fuck-faff (a phrase I encourage you to adopt) of airports means that it takes just as long, from start to finish. Plus: let’s not be coy about this: we have two bags FULL of middle-class bounty from Marks and Spencer. Screw you, Gatwick. Screw you and your fucking shuttle bus to North Terminal.
We settle in. A Dutch woman and her teenage son take seats on the other side of the aisle. The son carries his mother’s bags, and shows her where he has carefully stowed everything when she returns from the bar carriage with a miniature bottle of sauvignon blanc. My mouth waters.
“I think,” I say to the kids, “that mummy deserves a glass of wine.”
“I agree!” says the Dutch lady, raising her glass. “Definitely!”
A few moments later, wine in hand, I watch the kids get stuck in to their magazines as the train pulls away. Smug doesn’t cover it. I feel positively –
“I wrote I LOVE YOU, in knives,” says a loud voice. I look up; a group of six or seven English men have ricocheted into the carriage, and are taking seats around a table just in front of us. “She SHAT herself, because she didn’t know I’d been back!” he continues.
His brethren respond with a flutter of fucks, wankers, dicks. I survey the men and our surrounding area with a checklist familiar to all female readers: Drunk? (Ish) Dangerous? (Probably not immediately) Nearest safe person? (Dutch Lady) Nearest exit? (Behind me – the bar carriage! Result! Oh, wait – I guess that’s why they are sitting here. Godammit.)
One of The Men catches my eye, and the volume lowers. Everyone around us has the advantage of headphones; I have packed the iPads deep into The Big Suitcase, because I thought we’d be talking about the countryside views or some shit. Oh, remember? Remember when I thought I was smart?
“She has got blonde hair, yeah,” says one of The Men. He wears short chinos, a black t-shirt and a tan jacket. None of The Men are wearing socks; just shoes. “Well, it’s not really blonde. I mean she has blonde hair, but she is a brunette.”
A mumbled question, and then The Man exclaims: “Oh, SO young! Twenty-one!”
Opposite me, seven year old writes her name at the top of each magazine page. She works studiously through the Disney Princess quizzes, and then marks her own work.
“Her instagram is half naked, basically,” says The Man.
“I’m not on Instagram,” says another, with regret, or embarrassment, or both.
“Shall I show you?”
“No, don’t show him, he’s getting married!”
“I think it’s okay,” says one, his face unseen, “to live vicariously.”
“Look, mum,” says the seven year old, pushing her magazine to me, knocking our big bag of crisps on to the floor. We look down.
“Sorry sorry sorry!” says the seven year old.
“It gets better,” says Dutch Lady, nodding at her Good Son beside her.
“FARM!” says the four year old.
“Oh yes,” I say, pleased. Here is my countryside chat.
“ANOTHER FARM!” says the four year old.
“Oh yes,” I say.
“ANOTHER FARM!” says the four year old.
I refill my glass of wine.
One of The Men stands up and reaches up for his case on the luggage rack to get more beer. His sleeve rides up, revealing tattooed high-heeled legs in fishnet stockings, leading up to an absurdly spherical buttock, plump like a plum. I wonder, as Legs sits down again, how many women in the world have a well-hung man tattooed on their person. I imagine the tattooist’s bewilderment: “You want the final scene of Boogie Nights tattooed on your arm? I mean, okay, I’ll do it. It’s just a bit FUCKING WEIRD. I’ll use this mole for the foreskin.”
“Can you read me this story?” asks the seven year old, climbing on to my lap with her magazine. I read a story about Snow White’s Picnic, which turned out okay even though circumstances seemed to be against them. Even Grumpy, by the end, had to agree that it was wonderful. The ripe fruit tempted him from his gloomy malaise.
“I’ve always liked brunettes,” says Legs, “but now I really do like my blondes, too.”
The seven year old leaps back into her seat and tips my wine all over the table and the four year old, who howls.
“Do you need help?” asks Dutch Lady.
“We’ll be okay,” I say. This is English for “we will not be okay”.
I find a change of trousers for the four year old. I calm him down, whilst simultaneously making the seven year old cry by telling her that the now-wine-soaked Disney Princess magazine must be disposed of. I hold the corner of the magazine, watching Snow White’s face wrinkle, inevitably, with Sauvignon Blanc, and take her to the rubbish bin behind The Men, who do not give us a second glance. Welcome to your new life, Snowy. After The Picnic.
“Hey, Siri,” says A Man to his phone. “Where is my dick?”
I sit back down. We have one hour to go. The long, Northern European summer evenings have begun, and the light outside is finally dimming. I am tired. The eight year old is word-searching. The four year old is on the floor, playing with a Lego man that I found at the bottom of my bag. The seven year old is still sad.
“I’m so clumsy!” she says. “I’m going to punish myself for a long time.”
“Please don’t,” I say.
“Hey Siri,” says A Man. “Have you seen his dick?”
“Hey Siri,” says A Man, “Send a picture of a dick to Gemma.”
The seven year old leans forward to me. “They are not being very nice to Siri.”
“No,” I agree.
She turns to look at The Men, and gasps. “They have so many beers! Look!”
She shakes the eight year old. They both stare through the gap in the chairs.
“Drink your fucking beer!” says A Man. “Drink your fucking beer, Siri!”
The children gasp, and look back at me. I roll my eyes, and they do the same. The quickest way to disarm misogyny; render it boring.
“Siri!” says A Man. “Play something rude!”
“On loud speaker!” says A Man.
The eight year old turns back to his magazine. “Siri won’t,” he asserts.
A train official walks through the carriage, and the volume momentarily subsides.
“We could be worse,” says Legs; the man with a stranger’s ass tattooed on himself. “At least we’re not in vests. At least we’re not chavs.”