A Schoolboy’s Journey

Peter kicked disconsolately at a stone that had somehow escaped from the manicured flowerbed and rested on the smooth asphalt of the platform. He had run most of the way to the station clutching his cap in his hand, his satchel banging against the back of his legs, in the hope of seeing the local goods train. But the station was all but deserted when he arrived – just a whiff of smoke from the chimney above the ticket office hinting that the stationmaster was up and about on this foggy autumn morning. There must have been wagons further up the line for the goods to collect and now it would run behind the passenger train that he should board to take him to Hatfield and school.

He gazed along the track. The fog was definitely thicker than when he’d left home – two maybe three telegraph poles were visible along the line and then he could just vaguely make out distant trees like faintly drawn pencil lines on grey paper. Very wet paper he thought, as he realised that droplets of mist were settling on his school coat, bringing a quick shiver. He guessed that he had ten minutes or so to wait – his watch was at home. Mum said he couldn’t wear it to school in case he scratched it – It had become Sunday best only!

Looking again at the flowerbed he pondered on whether the Stationmaster had been driven from the comfort of the fire like his Dad on the previous Sunday when his Mum had expressed her concern that she had lots of ironing to do and hadn’t his Dad got something he should be doing too? Dad had wandered out into the garden and lit his pipe before disappearing into the shed. A while later he could be seen turning over the same soil in the vegetable patch that he’d dug just two weeks previously. It wasn’t a waste of time – The Robin and Mr and Mrs Blackbird were pleased to share in the spoils of his Father’s work, taking advantage of the easy pickings uncovered by his spade.

A clip-clop of advancing hooves along the lane in the mist announced the arrival of the milk at the station house. Barely audible words passed between the Stationmaster’s wife and the milkman who, with a brief clatter of empties, strode back to his cart. The hooves and creaking of the cart receded into the gloom leaving only the sound of occasional footsteps in the ticket office and mournful chirps from birds sheltering in the hedge.

A couple of adult passengers arrived; men in suits dressed for work in the offices of the city. Both wore long overcoats and one had a trilby hat. Peter wondered if he too would work in London when he left school. But at present he was just jealous that the men were able to wear long trousers. Why was HIS school insisting on all the boys wearing shorts when some of the other schools were allowing their kids to wear long trousers in the winter? Anyway, the arrival of adult passengers must mean that the train was due soon and he turned to gaze expectantly to the west.

His straining ears first heard a strange whistling – faint and warbling sounds as if carried from afar that were reclaimed by the mist almost at the instant that they were heard. Then the sound became more real – more defined. It was indeed a whistling warble: Not the chuffing of the regular N7 steam engine. Mystified in the mist Peter stared, desperately seeking a foreshadowing of what was coming along the track. Then its shape, gradually solidifying, formed out of the grey.

A single light surrounded by a white disc glowed through the mist but there was no chimney behind; just a slab sided body where the locomotive’s boiler should have been. And at the rear, with the driver leaning out, was the cab. The locomotive slowed as it passed Peter, the water droplets covering the driver’s eyebrows and beard catching his attention. Here was a man of the steam age driving a glimpse of the future. A green beast that did not beguile passengers with its human panting but instead whistled at them and expected that they should, perhaps, whistle back? Peter was nonplussed, unsure of what to make of his new experience. He knew that diesels were the coming thing; he just wasn’t expecting them on his branch line just yet. He recognised it as one of the new English Electric Type 1’s that he’d read about in his magazine and he stood in a thrall as the other passengers boarded and was only spurred into action when the Stationmaster urged him to board with a friendly smile a wagged finger.

It was freezing in the carriage – there were no wafts of steam from the couplings. Was there no heating on the train? Peter had to rub at the window to clear the mist so that he could see out. He shivered with the cold – why were carriages always colder inside than the air outside. He pulled his school jacket closer and tightened his scarf.

The stationmaster blew his whistle and unfurled the green flag and the guard flagged too. With a blast of the horn and a quiet hiss as the vacuum brakes were released, the train started to move out. The engine note changed from a whistle to a burbling roar as the driver accelerated the train up to speed and Peter pondered on whether change was always for the best. Another day at school beckoned but perhaps he’d be able to see some of the racehorses and streaks passing through Hatfield on his way home. And, who knows, perhaps it would be an N2 or N7 on the train in the evening.

Martin Addison, 12/12/2012

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Comments

  1. This is wonderful, Martin… the kind of story you find yourself lost in before you ever even recognize it happening!
    You truly are a wonderful writer, sir! Are any of the details here inspired from thoughts / experiences you might have had yourself?! It almost seems like they might have been… the way everything seems to flow so effortlessly… I almost feel like I’m stepping into a memory that could have been my own!
    🙂

    • Thank you Bob 🙂 The one detail here that directly links to me is the vision of the English Electric Type 1 appearing out of the mist – in my case it happened at Hadley Woods and the locomotive came out of the tunnel there pushing smoke from a preceding steam train before it. I would have been about 5 years old at the time. The rest is research.

      I sort of anticipated your questions and I’m halfway through writing a post explaining where the depth of this comes from: The basic facts that I have built it around. Most writers won’t do that because they’re forever afraid that someone will steal their ideas. But as I’m a telephone engineer I rather suspect that it doesn’t make a lot of difference.

      ps – did you see that Arindam published his book? Really pleased for him 🙂

  2. I enjoy the way you tell a story, Martin, and thoroughly enjoy that you can interpret the energy of the sounds that bounce around the station. There is something very special about train stations. I enjoy spending time in them and watching people get ready to board for an adventure. I can hear the train whistle from my home. At a certain time of night it can make me want to board a train and go somewhere interesting!

    • Thanks Debra – I’m glad you enjoyed the tale. I live next to the London Underground’s Northern Line. It was originally a branch of the Great Northern Railway and still carried freight until the mid 1960’s. But nowadays it’s purely tube trains except when they’re doing maintenance work.

      I live just over 3km from the main London to York line which passes to the east. The one time home of the Racehorses and Streaks mentioned in the story – Hatfield is a station further up that line. I can hear the High Speed Trains passing through Southgate in the right weather conditions at night. I used to be able to hear the Deltics very distinct thrumming noise too back in the 1970’s/80’s. 4.5km to the west of me is the Midland mainline to Leicester.

      I think I should do a post along the Barnet Branch of the Northern Line from where it surfaces at East Finchley to its terminus at High Barnet. I have a number of suitable photos to illustrate such a post.

  3. yes I felt lost in the story too … the cold legs (one of my local friends went to school in Liverpool and wore shorts all year, so never appears cold in our winters!) and empty station …. wonderfully descriptive of the sounds and mist … you really bring the whole scene to life 🙂

    • Thank you so much Christine – I’m glad that my descriptions carried the image of the real world!

      The shorts issue remains a real piece of history – Even primary school children are allowed to wear long trousers in the winter over here now. I can remember when I was in primary school that one particular pupil was allowed to wear long trousers because he was (at age 10) close to 5 and a half feet tall. He did look ridiculous in shorts!

  4. Martin, I loved this. The detail of your writing and the research weights it with such reassuring authenticity. Wonderful stuff.

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