Station To Station
She liked them to be in order.
She held the cards in her hand and placed them on the table next to all the others.
Rain was hitting the window, streaming down the panes in lines, with large, round, blobs, big round drips, on the end, which grew as they neared the sill, like giant tears.
No panoramic view today, fields, moor, estuary all hidden by a murky, rainy haze.
In the room the fire blazed. All golden warmth.
Winter was made for this. Sundays were made for this.
Rona loved these moments, lived for these moments.
She was 12.
It didn’t matter to her that the hands on the big clock on the lounge wall pointed to 2.50pm as it ticked its way lazingly through the afternoon.
In fact she liked it better this way.
Mid afternoon, and here she was in her winter "onesie", all fluffy, dark blue with snowflakes. She loved snuggling up in it. Afternoons on the sofa.
She loved it more when her family agreed to a game of Monopoly. This was a once-a-year moment at best. Usually they all came out with all sorts of excuses to avoid ever even getting to ‘Go’.
At moments like this Rona felt wrapped in warm, comforting love.
And here before her was the embodiment of that love, all her family sitting around a family heirloom, a Monopoly board passed down the generations, complete with fading silver-coloured metal pieces, and ‘weathered’ green wooden houses and red hotels, all without their brilliance, now long-lost, all instead with a slightly dirty, or as Rona liked to put it, ‘loved’ hue, due to the passage of time.
When everyone was settled in their seats, Rona rolled the dice. Five, “Yes,” she said, immediately reaching for the notes, and grabbing King’s Cross from the cards so uniformly laid out. “I love the stations.”
“We know that,” said Patrick, her brother. “We know you love the stations, we know you love the power companies. We know you hate to lose.”
“I don’t,” shouted Rona.
“You do. You’re just a loser,” growled Patrick.
“Stop it,” said Dianne, her heckles already up. Being mum, keeping mum, and playing Monopoly was mission impossible. Even now, even after just one throw, she knew it would end badly, knew it would end in tears. It always did.
The only difference today was that none of them, at this point, apart from Dianne, knew how badly, or how many tears. But it wasn’t Dianne’s turn. She passed the dice.
Patrick was 18.
He hated Sundays. He hated Monopoly. He hated life.
Patrick wore all black. Drop Dead the logo on his shirt.
The only thing that got him out of bed, even at this stage of the day, was the thought of moving away from his family.
Just a couple more weeks and he’d be gone.
He couldn’t sit in a chair and play a Sunday afternoon board game with his sister and his parents. He thought it might kill him. Literally.
He’d been told in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t do this for his sister he could forget any thoughts of his university rent being paid.
Patrick was playing Monopoly for money.
Make no bones about it. Cash was king. Love had nothing to do with it.
Patrick perched on a cushion. That was as permanent as he was going to commit. That way he was able to square it in his own head that he could exit upstairs, back to the sanctuary of his bedroom, at any point. And that was just about enough of a get-out-of-jail card for him to force his contorted legs onto the cushion, and swing round his feet to touch ground. Anything less, and he would never have even made it into the room. Either that, or he’d have wanted to smash down the walls.
To Patrick, family life was like a giant suffocating snake, slowly, surely, squeezing out every ounce of his individuality, crushing his creativity, strangling his mind, bleeding every last drop out of his contorted body. If he didn’t escape now he didn’t think there’d be anything left of him. Just a pile of black clothes on the floor.
Patrick rolled the dice. “Three,” said Rona, gleefully. “Whitechapel”.
“I know,” snarled Patrick, and let out a huff, as he sank back into his cushion. The sulk had only just begun.
Richard’s turn. He had chosen the top hat. He had to be top dog. He had to win.
He’d been here so many times. He knew it drove Dianne mad.
“Seriously?” Diane would say, looking over her glasses at 50-year-old Richard as he sat in their bedroom refusing to come out until the kids calmed down. Like a sulky teenager himself.
Today, he’d try to be different. Try to be laid back. But he wasn’t making any promises.
It went way back. It went deep.
He’d always been the loser in his own family. Substitute Monopoly or Tiddlywinks for “Life” and you pretty much had it. Richard had been the black sheep. The poor relation. The odd one, who didn’t communicate.
Laughed at for liking classical music and art in a family line hewn from the steel factories and mines. Picked on relentlessly for being different, for daring to think about the wider world.
Bullied by his own family, Richard did what all bullies do, failed to stand up to those who tormented him. Instead he took it out on those he could. Those weaker than him. His own family. The most despicable type of bully, if bullies indeed can be graded. All were just varied forms of low life. Richard one in a long line of them.
Dianne would spend the entire game on edge, sitting on egg shells, waiting for him to crack. Because when Richard snapped, you didn’t want to be anywhere near the firing line.
Richard was all jovial to start. Juggling the dice, making out like he was dancing and joking. Rona was laughing. She loved it when it was like this.
The worst bit was Dianne knew it wouldn’t last. It made the ‘fun’ even more excruciating. Knowing it would come crashing down around all their ears in a devastating outburst of destruction.
For now it was all achingly simple.
“That’s yours Patrick,” exclaimed Rona excitedly.
“I,” grunted Patrick, before adding a long pause and then, in his most exasperated tone: ”know.”
Then came the smirk. Oh the irony, the justice of it. Patrick loved that. “That’ll be 60 pounds, Dad.”
Through the grimace, money changed hands.
Dianne knew there was never going to be a good time to tell them.
More than an hour had passed.
She looked across at her family.
Rona, so excited, so happy, with all the stations in front of her, smiling away in her “onesie”, laughing at her dad.
Patrick far from raising a smile. But still in the room, still in the game. Counting his money.
Richard was winning. He had the biggest pile of properties, the most houses, the biggest wad of money. The biggest grin. For now.
Dianne wondered if they’d even notice if she slipped out of the room.
She got up, walked across to the woodburner, put two more logs on the fire. No-one said “thank you”. She thought she could exit the scene, even their whole lives, without many repercussions.
After 20 years of marriage Dianne, 48, felt surplus to requirements.
Her husband never even noticed her. Never so much as said goodnight or good morning, let alone accompanied it with a kiss.
He was far too wrapped up in his business. Far too busy making money. Far too focused on proving his childhood tormentors wrong. There was no room for anyone else in his life.
Patrick used her as a giant fridge or a giant cooker, alternately, depending on the time of day, depending on his needs.
Rona was the only one who really needed her. But even she was growing up. Even she wanted friends now, more than she wanted family.
This was a blip. This was a flashback because Rona found herself with a free Sunday afternoon and wanted to recreate the past, when they were all younger, and when it would have been more "fun".
Dianne didn’t have the heart to tell Rona those days had gone. Forever.
She had bigger things on her mind.
Dianne rolled the dice. “Seven”.
“Lucky for some mum,” said Rona, all eagerness and enthusiasm.
Dianne tapped her piece, the silver-coloured dog, seven times along the board.
And then, in front of her, in big letters, she could only see one word.
“See what you’ve got Mum,” said Rona. “A Chance, could be anything, could be first prize in a beauty contest.”
“I doubt it darling at my age. More likely to be hospital fees.”
She didn’t mean it like that.
But the words somehow came out.
And then more came out. Tumbled from her mouth like the drips down the window, only chaotic now, blown by a sudden gust of emotion into a pattern not instantly decipherable, scattering across the window, across the room, across the table. Destroying all order, shattering lives into tiny pieces.
They were jumbled.
In no particular order.
With lots of blurting of other words in between.
Rona wasn’t sure exactly what was being said. She knew enough to dread to guess.
Richard and Patrick caught enough to know exactly.
“Cancer. Hospital. Home. Hospice. Weeks. Not Months.”
Then came the tears.
Helena gave her a quizzical look. Margaux had been behaving erratically for weeks, which was not surprising in the circumstances, but Helena was bemused as to what this impulse was about.
"Going?" she asked. "Where in the world is Hell?"
"Yes, going," replied her sister with an impatient little gesture. "Why shouldn't I? There's nothing to keep me here now."
Margaux knew that the only way forward for her was to travel. She'd thought of a pilgrimage of some kind, perhaps walking one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago, but doubt and hesitation stopped her every time. Then she'd heard about someone who had travelled by train from Hell to Heaven and knew immediately that it was what she'd been looking for.
"Hell," she told Helena, "is a town about four hours north of Oslo. It freezes over for three months of the year, but you can go from there by train all the way to Thessaloniki in Greece. I don't know where the place called Heaven is exactly, but I'll find it when I get there."
Ten days later Margaux was sitting in a train heading south from Hell, talking to a stranger about what had happened to Toby, her son, her beautiful lost boy. The man looked nothing like Toby, but there was something about him which reminded her of her son, something which drew her towards him and which made her trust him, even though she knew nothing of this man, nothing at all.
At Oslo they changed together for Gothenburg, and so on through Sweden, Denmark and Germany. The days went by for Margaux as if in a different world, as if tragedy had not touched her and as if she really could get away from hell.
At Hamburg the man, who told her only that his name was Simon, said that he had appointments, but that if she cared to wait they could perhaps continue on their journey together. Margaux found herself saying that she would do this. They booked into a hotel together - separate rooms of course, this was not a romance, neither of them was looking for one - and Margaux went sightseeing with an easy heart. There was nothing in Hamburg to remind her of her son. Germany was as foreign a country to her as she could wish to find, and the past did not, for that brief time, seem to exist. She drifted from gallery to cafe, wrote a postcard to her sister and slept, long and peacefully.
Two days later Margaux and Simon boarded the night sleeper to Vienna. Curiously, neither had felt the need to tell the other of their final destination, and nor had he asked more about her life, or she of his. They were, as it were, held in a mutual suspension from both the past and the future.
In Vienna Spring was fresh-minted, there were strains of violins from upper windows and they strolled arm in arm as if they were in love, which, they each repeated internally, they were not. From Vienna it was twenty hours to Budapest, the Dacia express through Hungary and Romania. Simon had been there before and showed Margaux signs of the history of Buda on one side of the river and Pest on the other, the bullet holes of old wars.
"We all have old conflicts, don't we," he said, and his voice betrayed an emotion into which she knew better than to pry.
Only then, on the last stage of her journey, did Margaux dare to enquire of Simon where he was heading.
"Mount Athos," he said. There is a place there, just outside the gate, called Ouranoupolis. It means the city of heaven. I will show you."
Margaux told herself, quite firmly, that she must not fall in love with this man. It was too soon, she was too raw from the death of her son. But as they embarked together for the last stage of the journey to Thessaloniki, where they would leave the railway, she knew that she too was heading for a kind of heaven, and that she would be foolish to deny herself another chance of happiness, even though she could not tell whether it would last days, weeks or years.
"When we reach Ouranoupolis," she said, with a little inner frisson at daring to use the word we, "remind me to send a postcard to my sister. I need to tell her not to expect me home for a while."
And Simon, who understood perfectly, and was himself amazed that life had presented him too with another, quite unexpected and till then unlooked-for chance of happiness, nodded, smiled and leant forward across the train carriage to kiss his new love.
The Improving Life of Jack Freeman, Engine Driver.
You can put anything in a box and forget it except questions and, by definition, memories themselves. Dad is in a box and so is everything from his home that isn’t in the skip outside. I am left with many boxes, memories and questions.
Now his many railway postcards are boxed, a partial record of his life. Some of the earliest cards are addressed to the young woman who became his wife and so, at many removes, speak of their courtship. I know that he met my mother in the buffet at Temple Meads station Bristol during the war. Odd isn’t it, the way that successive generations of a family can inhabit the same streets and send postcards from the same tourist spots without being even tangentially aware of each other presence? Is this evidence that we live for ourselves?
His 78 rpm records now in a box. I noticed one, ‘Give Yourself a Pat on The Back’ sung by Albert Whelan. This must have been the latest thing in its day, now forgotten but good advice anytime. ‘Love’s Old Sweet Song’, by Scout Teddy James, boy soprano, must have held memories for him. Were they happy ones or ironic or perhaps merely hopeful. I shall never know.
The old song I remember most is now in my hands, ‘Like the Big Pots Do’, by Jack Morrison. This song lauding the good life has more than a touch of irony but I know that it used to rile plain honest Jack, born too near the tracks. Did he come to envy the rich or despise them? He didn’t tell directly say and I didn’t ask. There are many things we didn’t talk about together. Maybe that’s why there are two copies of ‘Forgive Me’ by Harry Bidgood in the box.
I remember him once reeling off a list: 900 Eton, 901 Winchester, 902 Wellington, 903 Charterhouse and on up to 939 Leatherhead passing by Clifton, 327.
I was impressed but also bewildered.
“Those big pot bastards named the engines I drive after their schools. They let you know where your place isn’t! Realy rubbing your face in it, eh boy?”
When I found no answer being only a boy he continued,
“No ‘Filton Tech’, then? No sir.”
He had similar lists for engines named after Kings and Dukes and Earls, after the fancy mansions they lived in, and other establishment strongholds. Not one engine, he said, was named to honour the men who built or drove them. I think that was the extent of his politics. He had understood where he was in the system.
On the surface his life story is simple. This is what I remember now.
Dad’ earliest view of the trains was of them passing along the viaduct below his bedroom window, aged 18 months. The tracks, the smell of the soot, the names of the engines and the waves from drivers were all in his very blood from his first breath.
Dad started work as a young lad of 16 in the repair shop, a cathedral of trains. He was proud to be given a locker and some overalls (but no mask, not in those days) but then was instructed to crawl under a locomotive and scrape out the body parts of a suicide that were stuck there. The family had to have something for the funeral. He never learned the name of the deceased but found parts enough to know it had been a woman.
This was followed by 12 years in the repair shop. Long years maintaining the boilers (you crawled inside to file off carbon deposits, scrape off the skin from your knuckles and breathe in air that felt like sandpaper). Later, through union connections, he was given a chance on the footplate, to become a driver. This was a big, big promotion. Most of your former mates couldn’t, yes couldn’t, talk to you any longer. Had he learned that to advance in the system you need friends?
Think about the position of engine driver if you haven’t already. One man at the controls of 100 tonnes of a metal fireball at 90 mph and 500 people riding behind! He became a member, in a real sense, of an elite.
Now my question is this. What happens to a working class lad who becomes a train Driver and gets a bloody good wage, as much as the salaries of many a ‘Big Pot’ middle class professional? Does his station in life, as it were, change too? Or, does a life time of following the tracks laid out ahead limit your thoughts and lead to predictable, though padded, buffers?
I have no memories of him at football matches, whippets or greyhounds, or drinking like miners used to in the D H Lawence books I guide students through at school, only a spot of fishing. Well this is the West Country, not the north. We had free rail tickets though – family ones for any destination. So we had days out and vacations in most of the holiday places you’ve ever heard of. He was teaching himself, and his family, geography, history and as we have seen, politics.
I was never quite sure what he made of my career. I finished as a housemaster at Clifton College (Engine #327). Sometimes I felt he was pleased I was a successful professional, other times I suspected he felt I was even more a servant of the Big Pots than he had risked being.
On retirement he bought the house in Clifton that I am standing overlooking Brunel’s suspension bridge. The house is now worth a great deal more. I could if I wanted sell this place and buy a real Nob’s house and all that goes with it. So, do we perhaps live for our children’s future?
During 20 odd years of retirement he drove a succession of stylish foreign cars and had angling holidays abroad with my mother and ,after she died, with his friends. He worked hard for a charitable group and represented them on trips to Africa. Had his station in life changed? Was he promoted to the middle class and did he assume middle class attitudes?
Did he heck! My main memory of my Dad, what his life is teaching me at this very moment as I contemplate the boxes of memories that have replaced him is, and I can hear his voice clearly, “ Live your own life, not somebody else’s description of it, you bloody fool!”
Jack Freeman: Engine Driver and much more. He saw people where old boys from #s 901 to 939 only saw classes.