On 23 September 2014 I caught the train from Lydney to Cheltenham for a mandatory training course at Gloucestershire College; I’d been sent by the job centre without any awareness of what I was getting in to. The view from the platform that morning was gorgeous, the sky a luminescent orange-gold. It was the sort of colour that calls to mind adventures in time and space:
The last time I went to Cheltenham was for the Book Fair in 2010. Curated by China Mieville, the programme was in honour of weird fiction, fringe science fiction: guests included Ian Banks, Michael Moorcock and Gwyneth Jones. Perhaps to some extent I am primed to think of Cheltenham in speculative terms but I also remember it as very leafy suburban Britain (until the lights went out). Disembarking from the train at Cheltenham Spa station I was also minded that Cheltenham (or at least the street outside the station) has not changed in nearly four years. This stasis is contrasted in my mind with the past years of economic contraction, austerity and crisis in the country.
I walked along the wide streets, passing green trees and nice houses empty of people. It was sometime around 8.45 – 9.20am, so most people would already be on their way to or arrived at work. The city was abandoned to me, like a time in a near future where humanity has abandoned Earth but, being British, the people of Cheltenham had left everything neat and tidy should anyone happen by.
Gloucestershire College Cheltenham campus is immediately impressive. The single campus is probably as large as South Downs College, where I studied from the age of sixteen to eighteen. It was dislocated in time again; as much as time and distance change, it could have been South Downs. Though some of the student body might not have been out of nappies when I went to college, the dress and the speech was not all that different. I even looked the part in combats, spider-man t-shirt and blue trainers. I reported to reception and was asked to wait to be seen.
I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveller from the forest, Richard, who was here for the same course. My personal time-line edged forward as the Executive Skills rolled on. Now I am one year out of college, at another mandatory training course put on at the request of the job centre. (As an aside, my age is incorrectly guessed, and I reflect on the difficulty of telling staff from pupil. Our times are all muddled). None of us are sure why we are here, but we have to be, so we make the best of it.
I go home on the train, thinking of how my subjective experience of life means when I go somewhere, I am also travelling to all the times I have already been there, or to the moments in time it reminds me of. We already travel in time, even if only in our minds. I have to go back next week for three more days.