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Saturday, 7 October 2017

A Shocking Incident At St. Pancras...

The weather wasn't great as I pushed my partially disabled wife's wheelchair through the busy streets of London. After a refreshing cappuccino at an upstairs Winstone's Bookshop cafe overlooking Trafalgar Square, we carried on with the walk across London from Waterloo Station, south of the Thames, to our pre-booked room at Premiere Inn Kings Cross, close to the northern boundary of the City. Not that there was no public transport available. There is always public transport in Central London. As a matter of fact, it is possible to take a wheelchair onto the Underground at Waterloo to alight at Kings Cross St Pancras Station, after changing trains at Green Park Underground station. We had done this last year before boarding the Eurostar train to Paris which ran through the Eurotunnel. 

But this time I wasn't in the mood for long waits for the lift at all three Underground stations, nor was I prepared for long walks between platforms through a maze of lighted tunnels. Neither were we in a hurry. We were not due to board the Eurostar until just after eleven in the morning. So instead, by staying at a hotel room overnight has relieved us from the morning pressure of arriving at St. Pancras International station in a desperate hurry. And so, with plenty of time to spare, we delighted in the busy streets bustling with life and vitality. Too bad that when an item advertised as a raincoat was on display at a small, family-run shop in Dorset, it proved anything but a raincoat. For by the time we were walking northwards along Charing Cross Road, the heavens opened.

I quickly grabbed the raincoat out from my small rucksack and whipped it on. It didn't take long for the dampness to penetrate the "waterproof" fabric like water passing through a sieve, fully soaking the V-neck cotton tee-shirt underneath. Yet my spirits remained high, as my wife's spirit remained on the high as well. For the whole purpose of this trip was to fulfil my wife's dream of visiting the Palace of Versailles, which her Mum told her about within the past year, and therefore had excited her. 

We found the Premiere Inn Hotel without difficulty, as its entrance stood directly opposite the east side of Kings Cross Station, which itself stands literally next door to St. Pancras Station, therefore taking only five minutes to reach the international station from the hotel. With my soaking wet tee-shirt draped across a chair, Alex began to blow-dry using the hotel hair dryer. Such little actions goes a long way towards harmony, believe me, because that was the shirt I wanted to travel in on the next day. Later in the afternoon, while Alex was resting, I decided to saunter casually to the station. What I have found there was rather shocking.

There were massive crowds at the Eurostar terminal. Having already become fully familiar with the facility, straightaway I knew something was seriously wrong. This was confirmed by the apologetic announcement from the intercom, asking everyone present that there is a problem and to listen out for further announcements. I wondered around the large terminus. On one of the many illuminated signboards, the reason for the delay and buildup at the Eurostar departure terminus was displayed. Signal failure in the tunnel itself. My spirit fell, but with thankfulness that we were not meant to travel that evening, I resolved that this fault will be fixed within the next couple of hours. And so I returned to the hotel with a degree of hope.

Eurostar Terminal on a normal day.

About three to three and a half hours later, Alex asked if we can go out on an evening stroll. I thought that this was a good opportunity to see if any progress was made at the station. But as we approached from the street, I noticed that the main doors into the Eurostar terminal were closed - something rather unusual. We made our way to the main station entrance, and immediately saw the end of a long queue of people, complete with wheeled suitcases, snaking back and forth, switchback-style, in the foyer before disappearing round a corner. We followed the queue as it snaked towards the Eurostar terminal, where the queue widened out into a large crowd of frustrated passengers, totalling obscuring the rather flimsy barrier stretching the entire entrance, and patrolled by Police and station staff attempting to answer the barrage of questions thrown at them. Even I had quick access to one of the officers, and asked in typical British politeness whether this problem would affect next morning's departures. Her answer was that she didn't know herself, and nobody else knew either.

We lingered as I watched what could be hundreds, if not thousands, of frustrated passengers standing in apparent calmness. Yep, this is Britain, where a crisis such as this is met with astonishing calmness and reserve. I was thinking; had this been Italy for example, there would have been a massive riot, with shouting and arms gesticulating everywhere! Then came the announcement over the intercom:
Eurostar apologise that all trains are cancelled until further notice. Please go to the Eurostar website and claim your refunds.   

Immediately I saw one young man pull out his mobile phone as he began to walk away. More and more phones began to appear as the crowd slowly began to disperse. So concluded that Friday evening, the most peak time of the week for national and international travel. I myself felt crushed at the uncertainty of our own travels. Alex felt very perturbed too. As we exited the station for a stroll into central London, I was forcing myself to understand where God is in all this. Should we call this whole trip off and go home, just as most, if not all, of that crowd may be doing? Would our travel insurance policy reimburse us? After all, none of this was any of our fault. Should I even turn up unexpectedly at church on that Sunday morning to testify of our faith in God, even if I would be aware of one or two in the congregation who would grin from ear to ear with gloating and self-satisfaction?

Then my thoughts turned to the crowd as they all dispersed. I wonder how many were excited at their first try with Eurostar? The satisfying of curiosity on what would be like to enter a tunnel in England and to emerge out of it in France - exactly as I felt a year earlier at our initial trip. Then how many more were regular travellers and therefore perceived the crisis as a one-off nuisance, one of life's mere inconveniences? Whichever may be, a massive crowd of negative emotions, with hardly a positive feeling within the station premises. All caused by a signal failure. Which allowed me to perceive the value of life altogether. Let's face it, we are incredibly privileged to be able to travel overseas in the first place, whether it be by train, boat, or 'plane. And not travelling to war either, nor even for business, but to travel for pleasure. How many here in Britain are homeless and spend their nights in the street, in hostels, even in hotels, or forced to live in homes of their friends, or stuck in unemployment for a prolonged period of time? Or depending on State handouts with a very uncertain future, living off food banks? Such aren't ever likely to see the inside of a Eurostar train.

A Eurostar train at St Pancras International Station.

Then considering Third World countries where many eke out a living ploughing the field, sowing and reaping, often with the risk of drought or flooding. I reckon they have never heard of Eurostar, and as a result, are quite content with their lot. Or to look back at history, when many were born to be slaves, to live without any other choice but to constantly satisfy the will of their masters. If any of them breached his master's will, then its likely to be flogged. Or those born to die young in battle. Or of many more who died of illness or malnutrition. Yet they tended to see all these things as normality of life, and tried to make the best of it. We are indeed a privileged generation who can travel in comparative luxury and style - at a level unknown by previous generations.

And yet, if something like a signal failure had totally wrecked our holiday, I know for sure that both of us would have been very distressed, no matter how loud we might have proclaimed our faith in God. I would have asked, Why did God allow such an insignificant thing such as a signal failure to wreck everything in our lives? Of course, I would have recited Romans 8:28 - For we know that all things work for the good for those who loves God, and are called according to his purpose - but would my own heart really be settled by this form of assurance? I need to be true to myself. Then again, with multiple hundreds in that crowd waiting to board, how many were true Christian believers? There must have been some among the crowd. What was going through their minds? Did their faith in God give them strength of inward assurance which allowed them to give thanks in all circumstances? Or, on the other end of the scale, decided that all this religious stuff is nonsense and unable to withstand the realities of the real world, and then apostate?

It is one of these things I find difficult, if not impossible to answer. A slave manages to please his master, and he is content with his reward - something equivalent to a small piece of candy. He would never dream of anything more worthwhile. Or a reluctant soldier marching away from his sweetheart or his pregnant wife, knowing that he may never see her again, as he imagines standing in a snow-laden, wind-blown trench with enemy bullets flying close past until one passes through his heart. Or a impoverished farmer suffering crop failure yet again for another year. Or a single mother of two children on state handouts, failing one job interview after another. Or confined to a bed at a hospital terminal ward. Life can be cruel, so unfair, yet I am aware of the reality of distress felt had there been no trains departing on the following Saturday morning. The reality of it all. Indeed, the one of two in our church may feel justified in gloating over our misfortune. Our holiday could have been wrecked. There have always been, and will always be people worse off than us, whose chance of boarding a Eurostar train remains an impossible dream.

We were up fairly early the following morning. After breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we checked out and then I explained at Reception that because of the crisis at St Pancras, would there be a chance of a room for the following night? This was a question I put to them after an unsettled night. Seeing my wife in distress, she began to suffer symptoms which could have put her in an ambulance. Instead, I suggested taking an extra Diazepam medicine pill, and as such, managed to make a recovery. And as I lay on the bed and thought matters through, I spoke aloud, so my wife heard what I had to say. I said that because we have enough resources, we will go to Paris, whatever it takes, and I will fulfil her dream. Even if we had to re-book the train for both outward and return journeys and the hotel dates too. I was willing to pay the extra, if it meant Alex's happiness. I assured her that we will not be returning home until our trip is complete. Suddenly I felt strong. And reassuring. And from then on I slept soundly.

So with the promise of a room at the London hotel assured, we set off early to the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras terminus. Everything looked normal, including the open entrance doors leading into the facility from the street. Once inside, there were very few people about. Noticing Alex's wheelchair, two of the Eurostar boarding team approached us and called us aside. We were then offered an upgraded place on the ten o'clock departure. After phone calls and verification, we were allowed to board the earlier train, which left right on time, ninety minutes earlier than we had originally scheduled. It was incredible! We literally walked into the station and (of course, after passing through security and passport control) we were settled in so quickly, as if a daily commuter after a day in the office.

Really it all goes to show: What had everything went so smoothly on the Friday evening, watching people board the Eurostar as normal as always - only to discover that the signal failure had occurred during breakfast time on our morning of travel? Yes, what then? I would have been crushed emotionally and gutted! This backed by a fierce envy of everyone who had the fortune to board normally, not only on the evening before, but at all other times. The trouble would have been this -  my thinking being in panic mode, I would have quickly collected my refund instead of sitting down, and with rational thinking, assure my distressed wife that we will be going to Paris, even if it means spending another night at the London hotel and rescheduling our return trip. Although why God allowed many to suffer distress on that Friday evening, that is a mystery I cannot answer, yet I do feel God to be on our side, and even allowed as a little bonus of an earlier departure.

Alex's dream was fulfilled. We had no trouble visiting the Palace of Versailles on the next day after arrival. As I watched my beloved break into tears of sheer joy at the beauty and magnificence of the Palace interior, I could not help realise that life is a precious gift from God. Yes, it does seem grossly unfair, why I was born into this privilege and freedom to travel, whilst just a generation back another was born to face warfare, and yet further back, those born into slavery. Why is it that some are born into a life of Royalty, while another is born to live in the ditch? One rather striking example of this gross unfairness was during negro slave days in the New World. Back then, two sons were born to one father. One was born to inherit the plantation, its wealth and all its slaves. Then his half-brother was born to be a slave. It all depends where the father and plantation owner had planted his seed, whether into his legal wife or into his coloured concubine.

Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, taken Oct. 2017.

Fountain at Palace Gardens, taken Oct. 2017.

But after all this, I have come to this conclusion: All life is a gift from God, and regardless of which course it takes, it is all by divine grace. Because, if our livelihoods depended on human merit, not a single human being would live! By nature, we are all deserving of death and eternal separation from God. The very breath we take, at each heartbeat, as our food is digested, our immune system, all these and more are constantly maintained by God, with Christ shining his light into everyone born into the world, according to John 1:9. Yes, life is incredibly unfair. There are more questions than answers. But I believe that everything in our lives is a gift of God by grace, including life itself. So I, for one, need to be thankful to God for each day he gives me.


  1. Dear Frank,
    Praise God that you were able to fulfill Alex's lifelong dream of visiting Versailles! I have been there three times, many years apart and in different company, and have always felt that it is one of the most magical and visually opulent places I have been blessed to see. Praise God that His timing is always perfect, and that He cares about even the "little" things in the lives of His children, desiring to bless us with good gifts. Thank you as always for the excellent post and for depicting your adventures from a Biblical perspective. God bless you and Alex.

  2. Amen, Frank.

    I frequently deal with people who are worried about being in the wrong place, not realizing that while they may have gotten where they are as a result of disobeying God, they are exactly where he wants them at the moment, and if they will trust him he will guide them from this point on. Far too often they are panicking about what they need to do instead of just trusting him. Great post.