On Monday, the boys and I took a series of trains, all the way from the south of France where my brother got married.
Yes, a toddler and a nine-month old, 11 hours of train journey, right after a weekend of poor sleep and too much sugar and excitement for all. And Simon had left on the Sunday to be back at the hospital, so I had my sister-in-law with me, and her own two tired children.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, it was obviously awful.
The boys were tired and cranky, I was exhausted and short on patience and Gabriel was making special use of his awful shriek (said shriek is pure mischief on his part, he is never upset when he wields it, just enjoying the power of his own lungs). But the thing I hadn't taken into consideration in my many hours of dreading the journey were the other passengers.
We took three trains in total, and they offered a perfect typology (in three parts, my geography teacher would have been so proud) of how people react to small children encroaching on their precious train space.
The first train (from the South to Paris) was middling. There were a lot of other families with babies (I suspect the train company of putting us all together to avoid complaints) and mostly people minded their own business, not helpful, but not aggressive either. And people did help me with the buggy and luggage when I got off. So we got on the middle train - the Eurostar - in reasonably good spirits.
How wrong we were.
As soon as we got on, there were audible sighs, glares and muttered reproofs. Bearing in mind the kids had done nothing wrong. The man next to us had two seats to himself and fell asleep instantly (so clearly, we weren't that noisy) so I sat there to give a bit of space to the boys. The man woke up after a while, glared, sighed, muttered and as soon as I got up, he pointedly put his feet on the second seat to make sure I would get the message that, yes, we were squashed like sardines in our seats, but his feet were more important.
That was only the beginning.
Then Gabriel started his shriek. From the comfort of their seats, out of sight and safe from eye contact or recognition behind us, started shooting up comments, complaints and disparaging remarks as well as demands that we make him stop. To no-one on particular (since no-one actually managed to own up to their own comments to our face) I said that if anyone had a magical way of making a nine-month old understand that his shrieks were bothering other passengers (and obviously us as well, but we weren't threatening to throw him off the train so our need was probably less dire) we were happy to hear their suggestions.
This carried on for the whole 3 hours (not always because of Gabriel, the other children were also DONE by then). Then when the Eurostar arrived in London, the other passengers cheered. They then filed out one after the other, going past us, imparting the occasional joke on how awful our kids were.
Roughly fifty passengers filed passed us, passed women burdened with luggage, wrangling toddlers (who were doing their special blend of giraffe fight and headbanging) whilst trying to keep out of their precious way. They passed and passed and passed. Complained and passed. Until one lady, right at the end, offered her help. One. One person remembered the children and us were human beings, not just aggravations directed at them out of our obvious spiteful nature.
So I was pretty shaken up when I boarded the third train, London to home (on my own with the boys now). And it started badly. People were moving away from me, putting fingers in their ears and shaking their heads.
Then one lady, on her way off the train, took the time to audibly say "Don't worry, you are doing a great job". An obvious lie, but it made me burst into tears to just have someone acknowledge the efforts I was making, instead of resenting my children's very existence. And then the mood shifted, instead of shaking their heads, people were giving me encouraging smiles, and when (after I had loaded the buggy, strapped Jude in and Gabriel in the carrier), with three minutes to spare before my stop, the loudspeaker announced that I needed to somehow offload everything, and make my way three coaches down to reach the platform, and Jude refused to budge, 3 different people came and offered their help, took my bags, encouraged Jude out, folded the buggy and helped me off the train.
Now the reason I am telling my tale of woe, is because I don't think I was in a train of bad people on the Eurostar, and in a train of good people in England. But I do think that just a couple of people can set a tone and make the difference between another person being made to feel hated or helped.
So if you think that the woman ferrying small children on her own is not actively spiting you with her bad parenting, if you don't think children under seven should be on house arrest, if you see someone struggling and you know the glare of strangers is heavy on their shoulders, you can do more than just a special hand sign, you can actively be a change for good, YOU can shift the tone with just one sentence said loud enough.
Next time you see a mother struggling with small children, don't be the Eurostar, be the kind lady.
Be that train.