The recession has hit us all, and our economy drive has now extended to our days out. Last weekend we visited a Railway Centre in the next county. Not everyone’s cup of tea, granted, and to be frank my pre-children outing list would no more have included a train-spotting expedition than my wardrobe would have included sensible shoes and a humungous pair of pants, but the children will love it, and it’s only £3.50 to get in. We pile into the Galaxy, returning twice to collect the things we’ve forgotten (My husband’s wallet, my phone, one of our daughters…) and settle into a few choruses of Wheels on the Bus.
My husband is unimpressed with my choice of family outing.
“It’s not a train museum, it’s a Railway Centre” I tell him primly, folding the copy of Heritage Railway I picked up at the newsagent to get us in the mood. My God it’s dull; the children have eschewed the photos of vintage carriages wafted in front of them in favour of playing with their own socks.
The Railway Centre is significantly busier than I had expected; cars are backing up onto the main road and bunting flutters in the wind. The weather’s pretty grim; it’s gusty and threatening to rain. In fact, as we draw up to the gate the first drops splatter onto the windscreen.
“Who’s that odd bloke?” asks my husband.
“How should I know? I’ve never been here before. The one in the long coat, you mean?” I peer through the rain-smattered glass at the large man taking the money. It looks… well, I mean with the top hat and the big stomach it kind of looks like…
“It’s the Fat Controller” I finally tell him.
“You know, the Fat Controller. From Thomas the Tank Engine. Aw that’s sweet – the kids are going to love this”
We inch forward until we’re level with the sign, where we both baulk simultaneously at the price displayed in bold white paint; ‘Meet Thomas and his friends! For one day only! £10 adults, £7 children’.
How much? To look at trains and a fat man? I could get the same experience at home with my husband and a Lego set, and I wouldn’t have to pay forty one quid for the privilege. So much for our cheap day out. I’m still fuming as I hand over the credit card and we park up about a million miles from the entrance. Typical. Fancy choosing the one day the Railway Centre actually charges a proper entrance fee for its pathetic collection of scrap metal, just because one of them is currently sporting a big cardboard face. What a con. Right, that’s it, we absolutely have to have a good time today, otherwise it’ll all be a total waste of money.
“Have you got the coats?”
“No, I thought you put them in the boot”
“I thought you had them”
Oh genius. We’re miles away from anywhere, at an outdoor exhibition in the driving rain, and the kids have no coats. E is already shivering and G’s lips have turned purple. J is standing miserably under the opened boot like a kicked whippet. There’s no other option; my husband heads off to the nearest town with strict instructions to locate a Primark or similar store and buy the cheapest fleeces he can find. The kids and I troop across the muddy field to the only roofed building in sight, where a couple of trains jostle for position with a ropey old café and a gift shop.
We’ve done three tours of the barn and tempers are fraying. The Fat Controller turns out to be more of a Grumpy Controller who doesn’t like having his tummy poked (turns out it’s not padding), and there’s a Nazi in a British Rail uniform who thinks small children should keep their mitts off the exhibits. Where the hell is my husband? I mean, how hard is it to find a charity shop? He’s been gone an hour and we’re only three minutes away from a town.
I’m desperate for the loo and E’s nappy is sagging so we slip into the disabled toilet when no-one’s looking. It always makes me nervous being so far away from the door in these sorts of cubicles. I haven’t quite recovered from doing an emergency poo in a Starbucks loo, when J decided to unlock the door and fling it open to the masses. It quite put one man off his pain au chocolat.
Fortunately J is distracted by something in the corner and I’m able to finish my own wee and tend to the girls’ nappies, both of which contain a toxic substance that could strip paint. It never ceases to amaze me how a small child can produce smells so heinous… There is a bang at the door as I’m elbow deep in wet-wipes.
“Just a minute, I’m going as fast as I can!”
The insistent knocking continues.
“Look, I have three children to sort out; I am going as fast as I can, okay?”
I hear the sound of running feet and there is more banging at the door, this time accompanied by someone fiddling with the lock.
“For Christ’s sake! I have three nappies to change and my own needs to attend to. If you would like to come in here and lend a hand then be my guest, but otherwise just BUTT OUT!” I fling open the door and glare at the queue of people stretching out of the foyer and into the museum. Blimey, what’s with the crowd of on-lookers?
“Um, you’re okay then?” says the woman in front, who I now notice is wearing an official looking tabard with ‘Toot for Thomas’ on it. “It’s just that the alarm’s been going off for a bit; we thought you might need help”.
I finally tune into the high-pitched wailing sound which is echoing round the barn and realise that every three seconds the gazing faces are being bathed in orange light from the revolving beacon on top of the loo door. I glance back into the cubicle, where J is perched on top of the sanitary bin swinging on a long red cord.
“Look Mummy – monkey!”
I have lost count of the times I think I can be embarrassed no more by my progeny. I’d like to say I no longer care, but my cheeks burn with shame as I gather up the children, the nappy bag and my dignity, and we file past the gawping crowd. Where the fuck is my husband? He’s been gone nearly an hour. I drag the complaining kids into the café, where I spend thirty quid on a plate of dried-up sandwiches and some crusty cake. I glare them into quiet submission and there we sit for another twenty minutes until my husband returns, having been unable to locate any store other than Gap, consequently spending seventy five pounds on three coats.
If that’s how much an economy drive costs, I think we’ll splash out next weekend.