This is a perfect vacation morning. The sky is fading from blue to white in the distance, cheered by an Indian sun bright and unnervingly hot on the back of my neck. I’m at Maidenhead, nondescript on its own, not famous by association to any other town either (not even Slough, which purportedly houses the largest branch of Tesco in England). Everytime I tell someone I’m coming here for a break, I’m greeted with a blank stare. I explain its geographic location through its proximity to Heathrow, Reading and Windsor. No good. Anonymity isn’t entirely a bad thing though, this town can remain blissfully paparazzi-free.
Much as I grumble about having to change trains thrice during the three-hour long journey from Falmer to Maidenhead, I quite enjoy the process. I like the excitement of looking at the electronic display boards and reading the names of the stations I’ve already been to. Bristol Temple Meads? Southampton? I know these places and I can fool myself into thinking I’m a seasoned traveller. I grumble everytime I have to pack to leave Falmer- but once I’m out alone on the platform, with only a book for company and the crowds surging around me, I know I’ve made the right decision. Watching people can be an incredibly interesting experience. Stations like London Victoria offer a miniature version of the world- hugs, restless babies, high fashion- unconnected elements of human drama in constant motion. Men in Arsenal jerseys pop up in large, happy groups, reminding me of my ‘resolution’ to watch atleast one game of football before the year is out.
When I boarded the train to Brighton, a backpacker got on with me on the same coach- he wore orange-and-blue trousers (depicting what I think was sunset at sea), carried a huge rucksack, and had a straggly beard. He looked dishevelled; he must have been on the road for quite a while, tramping around and hitch-hiking. An hour later, emerging onto the Circle Line platform at Victoria, I saw him again. We acknowledged each other’s presence, feeling that brief moment of kinship that travel- no matter how insignificant- evokes, then got on the train to get off at Paddington, where I saw the last of him.
A single aeroplane traces a trajectory of white smoke- at an especially busy time, the blue sky is gashed by unruly white streaks drawing complicated coats of arms, and my undiscriminating eyes make me believe there could be a collision any minute. The noisy aircraft from White Waltham Airfield add to the confusion caused by the busy white planes- they are the raucous schoolkids amidst suits (also reminding me of the famous Vodafone Blackberry Boys). I can’t tell cloud from smoke, so I watch till the illusion disappears.
I should be writing an academic essay, but it isn’t an easy job when the weather chooses precisely the second week of vacation to be this jaunty and inviting. The shelves lined with my young cousins’ books don’t help, either- after reading about crises and conflict, all you want to do is curl up with a book of the kind where puddles are formed on the floor by weeping giants’ tears and the world is safe enough for children to sneak out in the middle of the night, unmolested.
Maidenhead is a delightful place to be in if you want to work at pretend-highfalutin essays uninterrupted. It is quiet and peaceful, the quintessential English village of an Agatha Christie or Enid Blyton book. Watching ‘The Midsomer Murders’ on TV is about the most thrilling thing I’ve done over the last week, and I’m not complaining. For a break, the Thames is just a couple of miles away; my sightseeing ‘coup’ this week has been a visit to Dorney Lake, which belongs to the Eton Rowing Club and is the rowing venue for the 2012 London Olympics. From the bridge on the lake, I caught site of a clump of grey buildings which my aunt told me formed Windsor Castle. From where I was- with my glasses on- it could have been an industrial site for all I knew. Gradually, ramparts and round walls emerged from the afternoon haze, and given a little more time I’d probably have imagined a moat and cannons into the picture. The pretty white houses on the waterfront seem to have emerged straight from a book or a movie (though, of course, it is the other way around). On this sunny afternoon, several people were out on the footpath by the lake- Eton boys in training, walkers with their numerous dogs and cyclists passed us as we walked on, admiring the willows hanging low on the water and watching boats speed by.
Maidenhead checks all the boxes for an idyllic holiday. Or maybe it’s just me.