The look on her face said it all. I can always tell my friend Denise is upset about something when she is sporting an especially wide grin. Denise is from Jamaica and is a devout Jehovah’s Witness. She takes most catastrophes by being alarmingly cheerful about them because they just go to prove that the end is nigh. Whenever I am with her and something goes wrong, she invariably laughs and exclaims: ‘No good, Mey-lissah!’ She then treats me to a lecture about how wicked the world is and how the day of judgment is coming any day now.
I’m inclined to agree with her most of the time. And this time was no exception. I had invited Denise to Surrey for a day in the country. I keep promising her I will put her on a horse. ‘Get on the train and come to Effingham Junction,’ I told her. ‘I will pick you up from the station this end.’
But when she came through the barrier at Effingham Junction she had that big, wide, apocalyptic grin on her face. Oh dear. She yanked open the car door and exclaimed in her lightning-fast patois: ‘Mey-lissah! A policeman take me things on the train!’
It turned out Denise had committed the capital offence of travelling on her Oyster card beyond the point at which Greater London finishes, in the eyes of South West Trains. Because I don’t use the blasted trains much any more I had not thought to warn her, nor did I even know, that she cannot travel on Oyster beyond Wimbledon.
The ticket inspector wiped the floor with her. He confiscated her Oyster card and issued her with a terrifying-sounding ‘MG11 prosecution notice’. We looked this up and discovered it meant a hefty fine, of £250 or more, and could even involve prosecution in the courts and a criminal record.
I rang the number on the calling card the inspector had left her — for customer services — and after the usual run around the houses I got through to someone grumpy who said they don’t know anything about anything because nothing is anything to do with them, and certainly not this.
‘Who is it to do with, then?’ I asked.
He told me to ring the penalty line, where someone claimed it was nothing to do with them either. This was because it was not a fine but a prosecution. So I was to ring the prosecutions team. They didn’t even answer the phone.
Meanwhile, Denise was getting progressively more jovial. She revealed that when the inspector was throwing the book at her she told him she didn’t mind if he fined her because Armageddon was coming anyway. I assume this only made things worse.
I emailed head office and South West Trains pompously told me: ‘It is an unfortunate fact that every year the honest majority of passengers are deprived of around £200 million of potential improvements to their train services as a direct result of deliberate fare evasion.’
I told them Denise is not dishonest. She just does not know where London ends. She only knows when it ends, which is any day now. (She won’t say exactly. Just that it’s imminent.) I also doubt very much that they can blame her for not improving the railways. I note they use the phrase ‘potential improvements’ because even they don’t have the brass neck to claim that if Denise had only got off at an Oyster point they would have put her fare straight back into improving the trains, and not into the black hole that swallows up all the rest of the money passengers pay while being treated like cattle.
Denise was getting very excited now. She kept saying: ‘I got credit on me Oyster! They take me Oyster!’
We checked with the ticket office and they confirmed that the fare she should have paid to get to Effingham Junction, if there had been an Oyster point there to deduct it, was £6.70. Denise was now laughing so hard she could barely speak. ‘That’s what I say! I got £6.75!’
I fired off some more emails and eventually South West Trains admitted that they knew full well there was enough credit on Denise’s Oyster because they have now debited the fare owing from it. But they will still be fining her for fare evasion.
‘But if you accept that the money for the fare was on the card, and you have been able to deduct that fare, how can you be fining her for not paying?’ I typed, furiously.
‘No good, Mey-lissah!’ Denise laughed, wiping tears from her eyes. Then she explained to me exactly what happens when Jehovah comes and the world ends.