I had about an hour and a half turn around from the moment I left my offices in Mayfair, before I was due to get the 19:47 train from West Brompton to my Mum's house for Christmas. With only one train every hour, I couldn't miss it.
It was going to be a miraculous feat for the best of people, involving a tube ride back to my flat (at rush hour), a quick change of clothes from smart/corporate to casual/comfy, a desperate last minute packing session, a double-check that the presents were in my gigantic suitcase, before scooping up the cat, suitcase and keys and locking my pretty wreathed front door behind me.
Feeling pleased with myself at having 40 minutes left, I dragged the suitcase along the open corridor of my block of flats until I reached the top of the stairs. Four flights down. Not impossible, but definitely a little tricky. I left the cat at the top of the stairs and bumped the gigantic suitcase (it was only four days I had planned to stay for, wasn't it?) down the first flight of stairs. The cat looked at me with an air of superiority in her comfy carrier, as I manoeuvred the wheels around the corner, trying to avoid the top heavy suitcase from toppling over. I ran up the sixteen stone steps and picked up the canvas bag containing my snooty black cat and brought her down to be placed next to my suitcase on level three.
I had originally bought the luxury cat carry canvas bag as a way to compensate for the fact I made a couple of trips from Manchester to London last year and needed to take the cat with me. It's rather spacious and lined in a soft woolly blanket, so doubles up as a cat's bed when she's not on a train. It's far cosier than a plastic box with wire bars at the door, and gets her admiring looks on trips to the vet. It also disguises very well as a canvas gym bag; except for the two rather beautiful sparkling green eyes which peer from behind the soft black mesh windows at the front, sides and back.
After completing my cat/suitcase yo-yo effect down three more flights of steps, we were off. The walk to the tube is only eight minutes, but somehow we made it in eighteen. Yet again, it seemed like the stairs were against me, although this time, a bewildered man offered to hold the cat carry bag while I lugged the ridiculously huge suitcase down the stairs at the station. I'd like to think it was the cat's big green eyes which made him feel sorry for us, and offer his help, rather than my red puffy face, manic looks or the swearing which would have had my Gran fainting as I saw the stairs I was to descend upon.
"Hello. Home for Christmas?" said the man two seats down in my carriage in a strong Scandinavian accent.
I smiled politely, and nodded. The tube to West Brompton was unusually quiet for this time of day, for which I was eternally grateful (and made a mental note to thank my lucky stars later). The cat was quiet and had curled up in the woolly blanket, the rocking of the train sending her to sleep.
The man two seats down was bald, wearing a suit and a green scarf and carrying a zip-up leather wallet. He would have looked stern except for his beaming face. He leant forward, peeking into my disguised gym bag;
"Your cat? What's his name? He's so beautiful." He asked, chattily.
"Er...she's a 'her'. Her name is Bess." I replied.
Then as an afterthought (and probably rather unnecessarily) I added:
"I named her after my Great Grandmother..."
The man's name was Gerard. He told me he wasn't able to spend Christmas with his family in Denmark this year due to snowy weather conditions. I nodded sympathetically. We moaned about the weather some more, and I might have stayed on the train breaking the unwritten social rules of the tube by talking to a complete stranger a little longer, had I not realised the train was finally pulling into West Brompton.
I looked at my watch. Oh God. Only four minutes to get off the train, down the platform, up the stairs, across the bridge, down another flight of stairs and onto a train which would more than likely arrive early.
I can't remember the next three minutes. I bumped the suitcase up the stairs (whilst trying to perform a gliding manoeuvre with the cat carrier so as not to upset the cat); my muscles burnt with the pain and I must have looked an absolute nutter.
The train was packed (as usual) but I managed to find a quiet corner away from the JLS fans on their way to Wembley Arena. I tucked myself between the prams with the doting new mothers. After all, I did have my baby with me (even if she does have whiskers). My dramatic exertions in getting on the train, had exhausted me, and I was starting to get a headache. I was looking forward to the rest of the journey being a quiet one. I put my earphones in, and closed my eyes. Only 40 minutes until home.
Appreciating the dark corner I had put her in, the cat curled up, peering out into the bright bustle of the train, watching people's shoes shuffle past; her ears pricked at the crunching of Christmas shopping bags.
I should have learnt by now that travelling with a cat brings all sorts of funny looks and stares. So it shouldn't have been a surprise to find myself in another conversation with perfect strangers. This time it was with two JLS fans wearing sparkling JLS hoodies and a girl in her early twenties. I really wasn't in the mood to talk for the whole journey, so subtly (on purpose) put my earphones back in and suddenly got rather engrossed with twiddling the wire and looking out of the window.
The two fans got off at Wembley, tipsy from their plastic cups full of cheap white wine and sung their way all along the platform. I settled back, hoping the last 20 minutes were of peace and quiet.
No such luck.
"Isn't it a bit cruel to take a cat out on a train?" Someone said.
It was the twenty-something girl, who was leaning against the window casually, looking right at me. The girl's mousy brown hair was tied loosely into a ponytail. She had wire-rimmed glasses and sniffed after she spoke. I'd gathered from our conversation earlier with the JLS fans, that she seemed to have an answer for everything. She was getting on my nerves. I gave her a bit of a look, and explained that the cat was actually used to travelling from Manchester to London and back again.
"The cat loves going to Mum's house" I protested. "It's a mansion compared to my house - she's off on holiday too." I added, in case I had been too harsh.
The girl, who's name I'd worked out from one of her previous stories, was Sarah. Sarah asked if she could put her handbag on my suitcase. I nodded.
She made herself comfortable and began to talk. Maybe I have one of those faces which has 'talk to me' written all over it. Possibly it was because there was a cat. It could have been because it was Christmas Eve. But we talked all the way up the line to Watford.
The carriage got quieter as people came and went, but our conversation carried on in the corner with the prams and new mothers. I picked up fairly early, that other than to advise me on my cat-care techniques, she had things to tell me. Perhaps not me specifically, but she obviously needed someone to listen.
The further the train travelled, the more she allowed me to see the cracks in her demeanour, until she didn't care anymore that I saw the signs of her vulnerability. She reminded me of me - but five years ago.
I listened to her tell me about her family. How her Mum had just left. How Christmas would be difficult this year. She told me about the sistershe was on her way to meet for some last minute Christmas shopping. She described the charm bracelet her Mum had bought for her just after she'd walked out. How afterwards Sarah had gone to the shop her Mum had purchased it from and exchanged it for a bright blue shell pendant necklace. About how she couldn't forgive her. I noticed Sarah was wearing the pendant that day.
"We are now arriving at Watford Junction." The woman on the automated recording announced, abruptly.
I felt like I had more to say to her. Something about it being easier to talk to strangers. To thank her for her honesty. To hug her and tell her that it does get better, even if it doesn't feel like it now.
But instead, I looked her in the eyes, and wished her a Merry Christmas. I really meant it.
Not many people get off at my stop, and the platform looked dark and quiet. All still, except for my Mum and little brother waving like loonies at the bottom of the platform, (and thankfully, by the steps). The cat stretched her legs in her canvas bag, awakened by the icy open air. My boots clack clacked on the stone pavement and the suitcase squeaked as it wheeled behind me. It was cold. I felt lucky to have the two loonies waving excitedly at the bottom of the platform at me.
I was home for Christmas.