I lower the black plastic rubbish bag onto the rail platform and hear the familiar clink of glass, thinking how the other passengers must wonder at the strange visage of a well-dressed middle aged man carrying a large bag full of bottles.
It’s past 11:00 in the evening and the good people of Windsor are mostly already in bed. To my left, looming over the station, the brooding, flood-lit ramparts of Windsor Castle, home of sovereigns for generations innumerable. Straight ahead the town itself, stately and confident, drawing proudly on its long association with royalty.
Was it really almost eighteen years ago I arrived here for the first time, long before smart phones and Google Maps, earnestly scanning the rail station maps for guidance to an obscure convent? By whatever providence or ill humour of the gods Windsor was chosen as the venue for determining my future among the ranks of Church of England clergy. For three days they prodded my theology, tested my intelligence, explored the finer impulses of my pastoral instincts. Two weeks later the Bishop called to confirm that my life had taken a turn, forever.
I’m coming from a Christmas dinner at a swanky restaurant on the banks of the Thames in Eton; Heathrow Airport has paid the tab for ten of us to gather and celebrate a great year of serving our customers, of Making Every Journey Better. And Secret Santa has blessed me with a heavy collection of assorted pint-size bottles of beer, completely oblivious to the fact that I have no car and must carry the cherished burden home on public transport.
A train approaches to my right, one headlight shining directly into my eyes, the other errily illuminating the street on the far side of the tracks. Welcome to British rail services; we’re so tired of winning.
I swing the heavy black bag over my shoulder, careful to maintain the bit of balance I have left. The wine at dinner was good, and flowed freely. I feel less a clergyman now, and more a friend of winebibbers and sinners. That comes with more headaches than one bargained for.
It’s exactly 00:00 when I board the local U1 bus at West Drayton, back in West London, joining the late shift of airport workers and a horde of exuberant high school students. This night isn’t exactly what I expected of Church ministry when I made my trek to Windsor nearly two decades ago.
Can I say “Thank God” about that? Yes, I think I can.
(Written fully on the way home, on Great Western Railways and a red London bus. It’s now 00:22 and not far to go…)