Sunday, January 18, 2009

My Little Runaway

My first day of commuting, and amidst the bustle and haste of Platform 2, clutching my shiny new briefcase, a piece of grit from an imaginary steam train suddenly lodged in my eye. Tears streaming, I stumbled through the doorway of the ‘Runaway’ cafĂ©, and entered another world. Soothing classical music played; fresh flowers decorated every table; a chalk-board listed the lengthy bar tariff; and there was honey still for tea.
Ah, Runaway! How many times since then have I joyfully turned, on hearing the inevitable announcement of a delay to the 8.09, to enter its hallowed portals and shake the dust of the twenty-first century off my trainers? While other commuters curse and moan, I eagerly embrace the enforced leisure of a jumbo tea and a sit down in the blissful warmth of this most timeless of refreshment rooms. You wouldn’t be surprised to see Celia Johnson enter in a state of agitation and order a ‘small whisky please’ – steady on there, Cel! The friendly, patient and considerate staff would doubtless swiftly oblige, then keep half an eye on her to ensure she didn’t do anything rash, like step too close to the platform edge, or try and talk in a Cockney accent.
When you order a piece of toast, they ask not whether you want brown or white, but when your train departs. The staff like to make sure there’s time to cook, butter and wrap the toast lovingly in a napkin before you need to leg it out into the real world. When you order tea or coffee they don’t do anything as mundane as pour milk from a jug or – god forbid – a carton. They ladle it out of a large metal pitcher. I have no idea why, but I love them for it. 
There’s a striking impact on customers of entering such a space. A suited man shoves impatiently through the door with his elbows; a smartly dressed woman click-clacks faster than the Stevenson Rocket to grab some caffeine before leaping onto the 8.47. But something about the Runaway slows their pace. They queue quietly; allow themselves to be drawn into good-natured banter about the weather; and linger, long after they’ve received their order, humming along to the radio and agreeing that Rachmaninov is well-served by this particular recording, till all at once they remember where they are, look at their watch, utter a muted expletive, and bomb out of the door faster than they came in. Those of us long since surrendered to the Runaway’s spell smile to ourselves, for we know that in some tiny way they have been changed by their time here, and that the pace of their day will be different, imperceptibly altered by this brief encounter.
Of course, a few commuters are immune. That first day I staggered in, teary and red of eye, the staff tutted sympathetically and said I was in luck: that a doctor always came in about now for his regular cappuccino. When the tall handsome man with the stethoscope round his neck strode in, I tip-tilted my face for his inspection, and found myself saying, ‘It would be awfully good of you’, a phrase which has never before nor since sprung to my lips. But he brushed me aside as he hurried out with his coffee, muttering something about his Harley Street practice not running itself. 
‘Never mind, me duck’ said the woman behind the counter, ‘Let’s have a look’, and with a flick of a crisp white napkin, she deftly removed the grit.
‘Thenk you’, I said then, and say again, every time they ladle me another cuppa and tell me there’s just about time for a bacon butty. 
And I like to imagine the Runaway replying, ‘Thenk you, for coming back to me’.

Beth Miller, 13th January 2009. Published in Photo taken by Alex Leith

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