Children have a real gift for the inconvenient. Or, at least, mine do. One is eight, the other three, and whenever things get tricky for daddy, they always react the same way — my eldest will hit me with an impossible trivia question, while my youngest will demand an immediate embrace.
When I’m running for a bus with too much shopping? Eldest: “Daddy, how do you make things look 3D?” Youngest: “Cuddle?”
If I’m hanging onto an umbrella blown inside out by the wind? Eldest: “Daddy, when will the AD era be longer than the BC era?” Youngest: “Daddy? Cuddle!!”
When I’m doubled over on the bottom stair under the full weight of a wardrobe? Eldest: “Daddy, if everything is orbiting something, is there anything in the universe that’s actually still?” Youngest: “I WANT A CUDDLE! NOW!!!”
It’s a brutal double act that often leaves my nerves in tatters. But there are some occasions where I cope with it better than others. And one of them, rather surprisingly, is when I’m travelling.
It’s strange, given the stresses inherently involved, but these days, as a family, we travel together in relative harmony. And this is particularly true on trains. Give us a modestly scenic rail journey, and you’ll find us an oddly content little gang.
I suspect this is a lot to do with me. In normal life, like many parents, my mind is usually elsewhere — on a work email, a looming deadline, an unfinished tweet or an unattended saucepan. And, when you’re in this type of distracted mindset, everything is an interruption and all interruptions are maddening. But when sitting on a train, I’m unusually present. After all, I’ve nothing to do but get little Eight & Three safely from A to B. Beyond that, I’m all theirs. Go on eldest, ask me anything. Yes youngest, you may indeed have a cuddle.
But there’s a tiny bit more to it than that. Because, as I think back, I realise this is one area of parenthood where my partner and I have really put in some hard yards. Over the past eight years, we’ve taken the kids on what feels like hundreds of train journeys, and, I think, crucially, we’ve always done our very best to sell the journey itself as a desirable activity.
You can imagine what this involves. Views are eulogised with implausible enthusiasm. The appearance of a cow, horse or sheep in a passing field is heralded with a hearty cheer. Games of I Spy are drawn out indefinitely. Paper and crayons are in unusually plentiful supply and whipped out at a moment’s notice. Walks with daddy up and down the length of the train are always on offer.
It can be exhausting, maintaining this level of forced enthusiasm. Nor has it all been plain sailing. For example, I’ll never forget standing speechless on a packed train out of Cambridge while my infant daughter rolled around, deliberately, in a puddle of spilled coffee.
But these are moments one needs to endure — and suddenly all this effort feels worthwhile. Because these days, my eldest will spend the journey reading, writing or resting (or asking me impossible questions), while my youngest is happy to enjoy the view and sometimes even naps (often in tandem with a cuddle).
All of which opens up a world of possibilities. For now, a host of great destinations are just an enjoyable journey away — Cornwall, the Lake District, Edinburgh, Paris, even Amsterdam. In fact, if things continue as they are, I might even risk a family adventure further afield — on a night train to Barcelona or Budapest or possibly even Venice!
There are many ways in which I fail my children. I make promises I can’t keep. I’m bad tempered in the mornings. I let them watch too much telly, and don’t play with them often enough. But when it comes to train travel, at least, I’ve given them a gift — I’ve turned them in to good little passengers. Now surely that deserves a cuddle?
Published in the Family 2019 issue, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)