The Home Care Assistant | Conversations on the Train


Care Assistant

The Home Care Assistant

The local train in Bristol again.

“What do you do?” I ask the twenty-something woman sitting next to me.

“I support people to live independently in their homes,” she says.

“What kinds of people?”

“Elderly people, people with dementia, people with physical and learning difficulties.”

“So what’s your job title?” I ask.

“Home Care Assistant.”

“And what do you do on a daily basis?”

“We assist with daily living tasks – getting up, getting washed, dressed, having breakfast brushing hair, any laundry. That sort of thing.”

“And how many people do you visit a day?”

“About eight.”

“Tell me a story,” I say.

She thinks briefly, aware of the limited time the short journey allows and says, “I went to see someone last night and she thought I was trying to burgle her…”

“Did she know you were coming?” I ask.

“Yep, we’re there same time every time,” she pauses and then says, “a better story though… I was driving in to work and saw an elderly woman running across the road. I thought it looked like one of our residents, then saw a crowd of staff running after her. She was trying to get to the supermarket.”

“At one of the residences there was a lady who used to pack her suitcases every night because she thought she was going to Butlins. She’d beat us off with a stick if we tried to stop her. The building was in a square and she just walked round and round. Only way you could console her was if you got her into the dining room and gave her a guinness.”

I ask how it is that her job title is Home Care Assistant if she works in residential homes. She explains that she used to work in residential homes but changed job so the hours were better.

“A resident went missing once. Staff searched every room, as well as the grounds, but couldn’t find her. The police were called. They got a helicopter out. After half an hour, turned out she was hiding behind a bathroom door. And the helicopter cost like two grand – that was the same woman who’d been running to Morrisons.”

“Do you think you’ll do it forever?” I ask.

“No,” she replies.

“And how long have you been doing it?”

“Six years on and off.”

“Who was the most memorable resident?”

“I actually know the answer to that straight away. It was a woman who lived in the first care home I worked at. She used to call me ‘mum.’ Wouldn’t let anyone else care for her. We had a really good rapport. Then she died. That was the first time I saw a dead body too.”

I find it interesting someone can be so casual about death. I ask how many dead people she’s seen since. She says lots and I think how interesting it is that most of us very rarely come into contact with the dead.

“Will the job be any different next year?” I ask.

“As of April, we’ll no longer be providing a service for people other than those with dementia. So all the other categories of people we support will no longer receive that support. Not just the elderly and people with physical and learning difficulties – for example, there was a young woman who got stabbed in Stockwood the other month – in her shoulder and side four or five times – and we helped her dress and wash herself afterwards because she couldn’t lift her arms. That won’t happen. – Rehabilitation will no longer be something we do past six weeks. There’s a separate service – a short term assessment and re-enablement service. They’ll assess what help people might need. We’ll give care for the first six weeks as per the one-year trial we’ve done. Our long-term care for people other than dementia sufferers will stop. It’ll be done by agencies.”

The Writer | Conversations on the Train

Karl Webster on the train

Karl Webster on the train

My friend Karl ( is taking a train to his sister’s. I meet him at Waterloo. He’s been here for forty minutes. I’m late. We miss the 11.49am train by two minutes. I offer him breakfast. In the cafe there’s no bacon. I think he might cry about it. His blue lumberjack hat and glasses which enlarge his eyes invite you not to take him seriously.

We board the train and sit down.

“So what’s your next project?” I ask.

“I’m going away next year for a year.”

“Where are you going?”

“If it works out the way I want it to, I’ll be going to 60 countries in one year. I want do this thing, this project, where I go around the world in 80 festivals. And not just music festivals – no – Religious festivals, arts festivals… creative festivals, Burning Man – all that kind of stuff.”

“And can you elaborate more on which festivals?”

“I’ve got a list of about a hundred festivals and a rough itinerary, so most of the ones I go to will be on the list – not all of them, I’m sure I will find out about more as I go.”

“Are you going to all the continents?”

“Yeah, except Antarctica – there actually is a festival in Antarctica though.”

“Is there?”

“Yeah, yeah – it’s on the list but I’m unlikely to make it unless I get lots of funding – I want funding by the way,” he adds.

I mention the boo I intend to put up on Audioboo.

“Oh you can’t Audioboo any of this,” he says.


“Well you can, but you’re unlikely to find anything of use coming out of my mouth. Next question please!”

“Which festival are you most excited about?”

[a service announcement interjects with ‘…do try and keep all personal items with you. If you see anything suspicious please tell a member of staff’]

“Um, well I’m quite excited about La Tomatina, which is the one in Spain where I think for a whole day they just throw tomatoes at each other and get all wet.”

“Oh yes, I want to go to that,” I say.

In fact there are quite a few festivals I want to go to around the world. I’m quite envious.

“And in February, there’s the Frostbite Festival in Yukon in Canada. Yukon is obviously very cold but I believe it’s the best time of year to see the aurora borealis.”

“In Canada?” I say.

“Yeah in Yukon…”

“How do you spell Yukon?” I ask.

“Y-u –

y… don’t…u… look on the internet.”

I smile.

“Um,” he continues,  “there’s one in Malaysia where 800,000 Hindus with skewers sticking in their backs and pitchers on their heads climb to the top of a mountain.”*

“Are you talking about the vegetarian festival?” I ask.

“No, no, no, no, no…”

“But you know there’s a vegetarian festival where they pierce their skin?” I say.

“What with carrots? Sharpened swede? No I didn’t.”

“Next! Ask me something about trains. No, I’ll tell you about trains… I want to do this thing, chances of me being able to do it the way I want to are unlikely. I need 50 grand and I’ve got… minus two. But I’m definitely going to go travelling January 31st and leave the country for probably at least a year.

So what I’m thinking is, if it ends up not being an endurance test, you know, not being against the clock, then I want to do a lot more of the travel on trains. I really love trains and I really don’t like aeroplanes particularly. And I’d love to go on long train rides throughout Europe and the rest of the world.”

“So, a ‘Round the World in 80 Festivals’ book. Have you had books published before?’

“Yeah, a couple, but only one that I’m very proud of.

Karl takes out his (rather nice) green acoustic guitar.

“I’m going to sing a song about Jesus now,” he says.

“A song about Jesus?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. And he does.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” he says

“Why did you write a song about Jesus?” I ask

“Thought it would get a big audience.”

*(I look this up at later and discover he’s referring to ‘Thaipusam,’ which takes place in the Tamil month of Thai on the full moon. The skewers are called ‘Vel kavadi’ – kavadi being an expression of debt burden… ah Wikipedia, where would we be without you)

Around India in 80 Trains with Monisha Rajesh

Indian Train RajasthanThis week I have a guest post/interview with London-based journalist Monisha Rajesh. She embarked on a journey across India in 80 trains, travelling widely in the country, covering luxury trains, toy trains and a newly launched non-stop Duronto Express in the blog 

What did you do before embarking on your epic journey?

 I’m a freelance journalist in London and was working at TIME magazine while writing for a number of other consumer magazines.

What made you want to do the trip?

I was reading an article at work about how India’s domestic airlines had boomed to the point of being able to connect over 80 cities, which was quite a feat, but at the same time didn’t strike me as being too eco-friendly. After a quick google I found a map of the Indian Railways and saw that the network was far more impressive than any airline’s route. I’d lived in India for a couple of years in 1991 but had barely stretched a toe beyond Madras and had always wanted to go back and cover areas like Assam, Punjab and Sikkim. It looked like there was a train for the most extreme tips of the country and I wondered if I could travel around India in 80 trains, and there was the title of my book!

How was the trip funded and how long did you go for?

India is a relatively inexpensive country so the trip hardly broke the bank. It was nothing a few months’ savings couldn’t handle. We also bought an IndRail pass in London, which is like a little golden key given to foreign tourists. The pre-paid pass cost us £350 each for 90 days and included unlimited travel in air-conditioned two-tier compartments, although it meant I could travel in any of the lower classes too. If I’d paid for individual tickets the cost would have more than doubled. I set a goal of 80 trains in four months.

Have you noticed similarities between the British railway system and the Indian system?

To be honest, Indian Railways is by far and away superior to the British system. In terms of price, punctuality, friendliness, atmosphere and variety, no other railway network has a patch on Indian trains. Yes, they can be achingly slow at times and rather grubby, but it’s no worse than hopping on a late-night train from Beaconsfield into London and stepping over empty cans of Fosters, half-eaten bags of Quavers and general muck. Like everywhere in India, there’s always a residual Britishness, whether it’s the archaic language on train signs or the Shatabdi speed trains that offer cornflakes, hot milk and a crisp newspaper at breakfast.

What is the best thing about train travel in India?

The freedom. There’s something so comfy and relaxed about Indian trains that pervades every compartment. Everyone sits cross-legged chatting to anyone who will listen, and there’s always something to fire your curiosity, whether it’s a group of bauls – wandering minstrels – who play beautiful music in the corridors, or hawkers selling everything from Paulo Coelho paperbacks to wedding outfits.

And the worst?

Buying tickets at short notice isn’t really an option unless you’re a foreign tourist. Whimsical travel is reined in, as bookings open 90 days in advance of a journey and the tickets go like hotcakes. That’s why the IndRail pass is so useful, you can often jump on trains, flag down the train manager and be assigned any spare seats he may have.

Did you watch Bollywood films featuring trains along the way?

Not one. I did watch the Darjeeling Limited which was quite the parody of train travel, but I was devouring books which might be why my rucksack weighed a ton. Paul Theroux, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai, Chetan Bhagat, Amartya Sen and Rohinton Mistry have been good company.

Who’s been the most interesting person you’ve met on the trains?

This was more of an interesting situation than anything else. I was incredibly sad and homesick one day, desperate to talk to either my best friend Jane, or my parents, and boarded a Shatabdi train from Chandigarh to Delhi that I hadn’t booked. The inspector found me the only spare seat on the entire train in executive class and when I glanced down the carriage I saw Jane’s parents, Chris and Lynn, from Cambridge. I don’t think I’ve been so happy to see anyone and literally launched myself onto them. They gave me a hug and it was like having a little piece of home in my hands again. That’s the fun of Indian trains, you never know what you’re going to get.

Did your schedule work out?

 Perfectly. Mainly because I didn’t have one. I had a handful of dates when we had to be in certain areas, for example Kanyakumari for a solar eclipse, Mumbai to board the Indian Maharaja Deccan Odyssey, Madhya Pradesh to watch orthopaedic surgery on the Lifeline Express and Khajuraho for the classical dance festival. But I didn’t want to plan more than a couple of weeks in advance. Life never goes to plan and it’s much more fun to live in the moment and see where it takes you. My best experiences came from serendipitous meetings, trains I hadn’t booked, cities I hadn’t heard of and people I didn’t know.

What message have you taken away from the experience?

 Live a life without expectation and you can never be disappointed. Keep an open mind, listen more than you speak, and remember that everyone has a story to tell.

The Teacher and the Business Psychologist | Conversations on the Train

I’m not sure these two are going to talk. Clearly a couple, the woman looks like my old primary school teacher, a kind face with a long auburn bob. The man has grey hair, small blue eyes and a tight mouth with slightly wonky teeth. When the lady starts humming, I’m given hope she’ll be a good person. After all – good people hum.

The conductor comes round to collect the tickets.

“Have you got the card?” the lady asks her partner.

“Yes,” he says, pulling out an East Coast trains-branded wallet.

I go in for the kill, “What’s the card?” I ask.

“It’s for old people,” the man says, “for want of a more politically correct term,” he adds.

We launch into a conversation about discounts for the over 60s. I ask what the man does.

“All my career I’ve been working as a psychologist. I now run a business but I’m part retired. Because of my age I mainly do senior assessments for directors and chief executives of companies.”

“What does that mean?” I ask.

“I do psychometric testing and write reports for the client, usually looking at the skills of the job versus those of the employees.”

“So it’s business psychology?” I ask.

“It is. I mean, I hated clinical psychology. Education was a growth area and occupational is relatively new in the UK.”

With part retirement in mind, I ask about the changes to retirement age.

“You escaped that didn’t you, Glenys,” he says.

“I escaped that,” she agrees,  “I got ill and took early retirement.”

“And what were you working as before?” I ask Glenys.

“I was a teacher.” Her voice is lovely.

“Oh really, what subjects?”

“Art was my main subject. And English.”

“But then you got ill,” I say.

“I didn’t know I was ill at first. They were a bit bad with it at school.”

“Kept saying you’d hit the bottle,” her partner adds.

“Hmm, I started falling over and kept walking into things,” she turns to look at me and says, “I had a brain tumour.”

I raise my eyebrows and my eyes grow sad.

“It’d been growing for forty years,” she says, “it was the size of a golf ball.”

“That’s awful, how did you find out?” I ask.

“As I said, I’d started bumping into things and people at school were joking I’d hit the bottle and I suppose it might have looked like that. In a way I felt like that.”

“And when did you realise it wasn’t right?”

“I was decorating. I climbed a step-ladder and suddenly felt really weird – which I later found out was the pressure – so I went to the doctor, who said it was just a headache. I wasn’t happy with that, so we went to get a second opinion. The next doctor I saw asked me to do a couple of tests. For one, they get you to walk along a line. I couldn’t walk straight so they sent me straight to the hospital. I was lucky because it turned out to be benign.”

“How long were you in hospital for?”

“Only for days. And yet it seemed a long time. We drove 40 miles and got there at 2am. I had the operation on Boxing Day. Then there was a bit where they stuck what looked like straws in my head to relieve the pressure, which I found out later was actually the most dangerous part. I would’ve been more scared if I’d fully understood at the time. Obviously the location of the tumour affects the danger. I was lucky – you can end up paralysed.”

“Was it near the top of your spine?” I ask.

“Yes, it was here,” she points to the lower right-hand side of the back of her head.

“It was in an area that affects your motor skills,” her partner says, “a tumour at the front affects speech, at the back it can affect motor skills.”

Glenys nods and says, “I met this guy in there, we saw him afterwards, and he was such good fun to be in hospital with – if you were going to be in hospital with anyone. When you have brain injuries or damage, they’re always asking you general knowledge things – just to make sure your memory’s alright. We used to have learning sessions you know, and do stupid things between us. It was just a way of keeping going really. He was terrific.” She looks up, “he died not that long after he left.”

I comment on how sad it must be to make friends with someone only to lose them so soon. She sighs, in the way that people do when they’re accepting the gravity of the inevitable cycle of life and death.

Then her husband says,“Course there were a lot of jokes in there. Like when the nurses said, ‘it’s a no brainer.’ The best bit was when we managed to visit Glenys in hospital and there was a young male nurse who – and Glenys was looking her worst right (He winks lovingly at Glenys) – said to my wife; is that your s..s..son? I felt really good – I’d lost twenty years!”

And we all laugh.

The Man Who Designs 3D Environments | Conversations on the Train

Richard Fraser

Richard Fraser

I try something different on a trip home to Bristol. I sit down at an empty table and leave it to chance as to whether anyone will join me. Not long after sitting down, a man wearing a leather cowboy hat walks past.

“Do you mind if I sit here?” he asks.

“Not at all,” I say.

He puts the hat on the luggage rack and takes out a large Packard Bell computer. I make a comment about the size of the thing and ask what he does.

“I used to do website design but it became monotonous. I live and work in Glastonbury. Most of them are luddites, so they can’t afford a website.”

“Could they build their own?” I ask.

“No, they’re 30 years behind.”

“So, sorry, what do you do?” I ask again.

“I design 3D environments…Like Ringworld,” he explains. I stare at him blankly.

He shows me his screen. There’s a virtual image of a grassy landscape. He flicks through some more images. I think I get the idea.

“Hopefully, fingers crossed, touch formica, I’ll have an interview with 422 this week,” he says.

“What’s 422 ?” I ask.

“You know when you watch a programme like Horizon and you get a digitally created image of what they think the temple/fort/ship they’ve uncovered would have looked like?”


“That’s what they do.”

“So you’re a freelance 3D Environment Designer?”


“And what was your last job?

He pauses for a second, then says, “it was for EDF Energy. They were putting up windmills in Rutland. Part of the process of putting them up involved public consultations. They wanted to produce a virtual image of what the landscape would look like once the windmills were up. People could type in their postcode and see a computer generated image of where the nearest windmill would be. So if you saw a windmill planned for right in your back garden, you could point it out to them.”

“How were you involved?” I ask.

“Well the landscapes were real images, I had real digital terrain maps and real photographs – it was just a case of matching it all up. Just editing reality a bit.”

“And what do 422 want?”

“The 422 guys want real guesswork – I think they’re working on something at the moment that’s like; if you removed all the ocean in the world what would it look like? And if you think about it, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge would make the Grand Canyon look like a little trough.”

I notice a tattoo on his arm, “what’s that?” I ask.

Richard's Tattoo

“It’s the seven-antlered stag. It comes from the Mabinogion (eleven ancient Welsh romances). The line is ‘I am a stag of seven tines.’* The Welsh is the closest we’ve got to what we’re all thinking now.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The Welsh folklore is the oldest in the UK and what connects us most to our original spiritual thinking.”

“You definitely are from Glastonbury,” I say.

“This is me unfluffy – you should see me when I’m fluffy,” he says, “and I’m from London, not Glastonbury – but I came to a small festival 23 years ago and I haven’t left.”

“Ah, so as a resident you get in free?”

“I haven’t paid for a Glastonbury ticket in 23 years – but not because I live in Glastonbury, it’s only a small radius around the site that qualifies people for resident’s tickets. I get in free because I’m one of a crew of about twenty to thirty running backstage passes in the circus area. Glastonbury Festival is the most nepotistic environment.”

I consider asking if he can get me in backstage but can’t think what circus act I would perform to justify it. We talk a little about where he lives – in a cottage off a main street, where Google Street View’s tentacles do not reach. And he has a girlfriend, ‘whose brother is a wizard.’

“A wizard?”

“Yes, one day I’m going to watch all the films he gets his quotes from,” he laughs, “he hates me though.”


“Oh I dunno, he’s Italian and I’m going out with his sister.”

At this point, two people come and join us on the table. And I think both of us know the looks we’ll get if we continue talking about Italian wizards. So I look out the window and make a comment about the beautiful autumnal colours lining the railway just before Bath. He calls me a hippy.

* On looking this up it appears to be from the Song of Amergin, translated by Robert Graves in The White Goddess.

Conversations on the Train: The Repatriation Officer

I‘m sitting next to a gentle man in his mid-forties who has friendly eyes and is balding.

The couple opposite ask me to guess what he does for a living. I take one look and think civil servant.

“Do you work for the government?” I say.

“Good guess,” he replies.

It turns out he’s actually an international repatriation officer. This doesn’t (just) mean organising corpses sent back to the UK when people die abroad. It’s more exciting.

I share my fears (from watching films like Midnight Express) about being put into a Thai Prison. I’ve seen the Drugs Will Result in the Death Penalty signs at Bangkok airport in the past, next to signs saying We ♥ Our King.

“So is it true if you get caught with anything someone may have planted on you you get put in prison forever in Thailand?” I ask.

“We brought back a guy in Thailand who was serving 46 years for possession of a small quantity of drugs… He’d been in for nine,” says the man.

“How did you get him out?”

“We applied for a King’s pardon.”

“A King’s pardon?”

“Yeah, the Thai King awards several pardons each year. We all turned up in suits to get this guy and he thought it was the end. He thought he was going to be killed. No idea what was going on.”

“Because he was traumatised?”

“Yes. He was offered a lot of counselling when he returned.”

I ask what other people he’s got out of which prisons in the past. He clearly reads ‘what high-profile cases have you dealt with?’ and changes tack.

“Okay, so did you know each EU country has to have its share of war criminals?” He says.

“I didn’t,” I reply.

“Well we brought back the guy from the ITCY.”

“The ITCY is?”

“The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We got the man responsible for the massacre of 8,000 people and brought him here.”

“And now he’s in a secure unit or something?” I ask.


“Gosh,” I say.

He smiles.

“And that Samantha Orabator, the one in Laos?”

“Oh, the pregnant one?” I look up, remembering.

“Yeah, we brought her back. You would’ve seen me on the telly with that one. And we brought her partner back in September.”

“How did you bring her back?”

“Transit, through Thailand, with two officers and a midwife – as it was late in the pregnancy.”

“Was she alright…was she terrified?”

“No, she was absolutely fine.”

“And how did she get out?”

“An agreement was made. Trouble is there’s no embassy in Laos so it all has to be done by  Australia. There’s an amazing woman,Kate, at the embassy, she’s the person you want to talk to if you’re stuck in a prison out in South East Asia. But the moral is: don’t do something wrong in Laos,” he smiles.

We talk for a bit longer before he takes out his wallet and opens it. Inside is what looks like a US police badge. He’s clearly enjoying my interest in his job and wants me to be excited. I am excited.

“Wow”, I say, “looks like the ones you see in films.”

“When we’re in the States we become federal agents,” he beams.

I laugh because anytime anyone says federal agents I think of Mulder and Skully. But I don’t tell him that.

“So how did you end up doing this job?” I ask.

“I was a missile escort on vehicles with the army. After that I went into sandstone ballast for six years… then got into the prison service. An opening came up – they wanted someone picked up in Cuba – I wrote a report and I got picked.”

He tells me there are ten people doing what he does and at any one time two to four of them will be out of the country.

“What name shall I give you, for the piece?” I ask.

He thinks for a moment then says, “Frank.”

“Frank,” I repeat.

“Yeah – like Frank Drebdin from Police Squad.”

The Doctors | Conversations on the Train

I’m on the train to Doncaster sitting by two doctors: one English, one American. They’re married to each other. They’re on their way to a wedding.

“The last time I was at a wedding I had to resuscitate someone,” she says.

“What happened?,” I ask.

“Oh, he was choking, I mean properly choking,” she says, as if fake choking is common.

Somehow the subject changes.

“Are you going to donate your body to science?” she asks her husband.

He doesn’t really answer. She relays a story from when she was at medical school.

“The first thing they asked us to do was work out the cause of death,” she says,“my corpse had a hole going through one side of its head, and out the other… and I thought, ‘Well I know what happened here’.”

“Gosh,” I say.

“But it turns out that’s how they hung the bodies!”

“Like on a meat hook,” she continues.

I haven’t eaten. I no longer plan to.