I decided to volunteer at the Citizens Advice Bureau. It seemed like a good idea - as well as doing something socially valuable, it would keep me active, give me some structure in my life (get me out of bed in the mornings) and give me experience in a sector which I could potentially be interested in working in.
The nearest sizable bureau was in Haywards Heath - "the average sized town between London and Brighton on the A272". I had an interview with the area manager on Monday and and arranged to go in on Tuesday to get an idea of how they work.
On Tuesday morning, I arrived at Hassocks station to discover that Southern Railways' networked ticket machines were all simultaneously out of order. The ticket barriers were open and I was advised to pay my fare at the other end. On arriving at Haywards Heath, I found commuters forming an orderly queue as the staff rallied round in true blitz spirit, quickly and calmly selling tickets to the assembled punters.
I went in to the CAB again today to pick up a few more tricks. Arriving at Hassocks station in the morning, the ticket machine would not take my money and again the barriers were open. Assuming it was a similar problem to the other day I took the train, expecting to be greeted by friendly staff working hard to make up for the failings of information technology at the other end.
Instead, I was greeted by a revenue protection officer. "Any particular reason you didn't buy a ticket, sir?" I politely explained the situation, hoping it was plain to see that I was no longer 17 years old and trying for a free ride. "And why didn't you use the ticket office, sir?" he asked me. I explained that since the gates were open, I'd assumed the ticket office was closed, (a not infrequent occurrence on that particular under staffed station).
Long story short, he wasn't having any of it and in the faux polite manner of officialdom, issued me with a penalty fare of £20, (the standard fare being about £4). Again, no longer being 17, I considered my options and rather than getting hot under the collar, swearing at him or jumping over the barrier and running away, I gave him my correct name and address, paid the £4 I had in my pocket and signed the Penalty Fare Notice instructing me to pay the balance within 21 days. He was good enough to point out my right to appeal and advised me "don't say you were running late."
This set me up badly for the day and the fact that the CAB, through no fault of their own, didn't really have anything for me to do left me stewing all morning only to be reminded of the issue again when I had to make use of the station to get out of Haywards Heath.
I came home still feeling tense and genuinely a little upset. I knew the Revenue Protection Officer was only following the letter of the law, but who really believes them when they say they have no discretion in the matter. Too bad I'm not a leggy blonde or a little old lady.
On my way home, I considered stopping to buy a nice bottled ale from the shop. Discounting that, I considered stopping in the 400 year old village pub for a pint of Harveys (the local brew). Again, caution got the better of me. On arriving home I tried drinking tea, reading The Guardian and listening to Radio 4 in the kitchen to relax. It didn't help much. I tried juggling with devil sticks in the garden (usually very relaxing). It loosened me up a bit but I still felt bad.
Finally I went up to my room and leafed my way through mine and my brother's combined record collections. There's something very special about vinyl, its feel and the tactile nature of the process one goes through in putting it on. Combined with the classic tunes of Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd taking me back to the time when I was 17, I began to feel better at last.
I'm now off to the pub for that pint of Harveys with my dad.
*Additional research about Haywards Heath from www.thisishaywardsheath.com an invaluable resource, I'm sure you'll agree.