For once, our arrival at Heathrow had been uneventful. Virgin had not kept us waiting for an hour on the aircraft, the handlers had not misplaced our baggage. Even the rail transfer bus was reasonably prompt at the Central Bus Station and its hasty traverse to Reading unimpeded by Friday afternoon traffic.
So here was the deal. Clare would take the ten minute walk to our elder son’s flat, where we had left our car, and I would guard our suitcases and hand-baggage and wait for her to come back and pick me up. We found a bench backing onto the wall of the station, overlooking the bus station and taxi ranks, and off she went. “Don’t get mugged!” was her merry parting shot.
Compared to the pristine environment of The Greens, where we had been staying in Dubai, Reading station is a sorry space. I was sitting amidst litter – discarded gum, paper wrappings and a disquieting stain on the pavement just to my right. I had placed our bags in a careful ring around it.
If I ran this station, my thoughts went, I would hire cleaners to regularly patrol this whole area with zero-tolerance for filth (exactly what they do in The Greens). The Greens also employs uniformed, bereted security guards who patrol their blocks, keeping an eye on things. No sign of that here.
My musings were interrupted by two shaven headed thirty-something men who weaved unsteadily up and lurched down onto the bench to my left.
“Don’t mind if we sit here, do ya mate?” asked the one who had pushed his beer bottle into my shoulder.
I did that ignoring thing, looking into the middle distance. I wasn’t that worried, they were drunk and unpleasant, but not as big as I am. I begin computing how long it would take for Clare to come back.
“Where ja come from mate?” asked my new friend, in that insinuating way street thugs talk to their marks. I waved my hand in an aimless, detached, warding kind of way, and said nothing.
“Don’t want to talk, do ‘ee” said his friend, “I fink he came dahn from the Isle a Wight.”
“Come dahn from the Isle a Wight , didja?” my friend remarked.
“I saw bags like that in prison,” his friend remarked. “Don’t seem more than a coupla months, does it?”
He paused to reflect.
“Nice throat on ‘im. Could just see where t’ cut that, don’cha think?”
This happy thought provoked an animated, slurring conversation between them.
I guess it was then that some kind of line must have gotten crossed in my subconscious. I pantomimed that my bus has just arrived. Exaggerated glance, yes, look again, check, yes that’s it. In an unhurried way, I got up, pulled all the bags together, and made off, dragging the two large suitcases, to jibes from behind me. I didn’t stop until I had left the station area and was on the main road, 400 yards away, from where Clare picked me up five minutes later.
You know, there was nothing unusual about this experience, except perhaps that I wasn’t actually harmed.
Trust me, it wouldn’t have happened in Dubai.