“Servant?, well it’s, er, someone who performs duties for someone else, like someone who used to work in a big house in the old days, like a butler or a maid.”
“Did they get paid?” asked Elsa, my eight year old granddaughter, a pretty little thing with blonde hair.
I laughed. “Yes! Otherwise they’d be a slave. Not a lot though, I don’t think. Anyway, I was a Civil Servant, a government pen pusher!”
We were headed into a green tunnel. On both sides of the path, stretching back many yards, was a wall of burgeoning saplings, mature trees, bracken, vines, beds of nettles – a mass of lush verdant vegetation, flourishing in chaos. Dappled sunlight filtered through the greenery, here and there turning patches of leaves a variegated yellow.
Elsa pointed ahead to a row of low concrete columns that seemed to stretch forever along the left hand side of the path. “What’s this granddad?”
“Ha, this was a platform. That’s the edge. Trains used to stop here.”
“But it’s covered in all these trees and things!”
My daughter Mary was visiting. She was separated from my son-in-law, Martin, and they’d been living apart these past six months. It was ‘Till death do us part’ in my day, but what could I do? My well-meant advice fell on deaf ears and just led to bad feelings. It was heart-breaking for me but I’d learned to stay schtum and just play the part of the doting grandfather. I’d left Mary on the phone to her solicitor and taken Elsa to the shops along an old railway line, now converted into a cycle path. “Well, the trains stopped running in 1965. That’s over fifty years ago!”
“That’s a long time. Before mummy was born even.”
There wasn’t a single square foot on the whole platform that was free of vegetation. “Look, see how the roots have buried down through the concrete and broken it up.” Hundreds of young elder trees had sprung up along the edge of the platform and the path itself was encroached by nettles and grass. The council penny-pinching as usual. “This path was the railway line!”
“What happened to it?”
“Oh, the council took it up in the 1980’s.”
“I don’t know. For scrap iron I suppose.”
Elsa’s wide blue eyes met mine but she remained silent, walking along, swinging her arms and gazing at what had once, incredibly, been a bustling railway platform.
I envisioned an army officer waiting on the platform – tall, slim, dressed in khaki, with a leather dispatch bag over his shoulder. Next to him a shorter fellow, destined for a bank with his charcoal suit, polished black shoes and Homburg hat, puffing on a pipe.
It was 1952 and I’d get out of the train here with my workmates to walk to the nearby aircraft factory. I still remembered the clanking carriages; large metal boxes with worn, faded, chequered cloth on the seating that always smelt musty, even when new, and how we’d wait to go home along this line again in the evening, tired, nails blackened after a day in the machine shop, but in good humour, laughing and joking with each other.
Then we’d hear the distant puff-puff rhythm of an engine and a cumbersome steam train would suddenly appear, coming over a long-vanished bridge and pulling into the station, smoke belching out, blackening the sky.
“Granddad, granddad, I can hear a train coming! We’ve got to get out of the way!”
I smiled. “OK, we can go down these stairs.” I pointed to a short flight of steps with a handrail, twenty yards away. They led through woodland to our right, down to some houses.
“Quick, granddad, we’d better hurry!”
“OK.” I bustled along as fast as my old legs would carry me, Elsa’s slim young legs hurtling ahead.
“Come on granddad, hurry up!”
Out of breath I reached the ‘sanctuary’ of the stairs and we both retreated a few steps down. I laughed. “Just made it!”
Elsa didn’t say anything, just looking from left to right and back, and gripping my hand tightly. “The train’s so noisy, and all that steam!” she shouted.
Finally she let go of my hand. “It’s gone off over the bridge now, it’s OK.”
Funny, I didn’t remember saying anything about a bridge.
Elsa spoke excitedly, “A man waved to me and threw something out of a window. I saw it land just over there.” She pointed to the left.
“Oh, OK, but we need to get to the shops. Your mum asked me to get some things for lunch.
“Please!” said Elsa, looking at me anxiously.
“OK, be quick.” I stood and looked up and down the path as she scampered off. Some houses just visible to the left beyond the far end of the platform were almost unchanged from the thirties, maybe new windows and roof tiles, and perhaps a new chimney, but the railway, the trains, the fences, the ticket collector – all gone.
Elsa returned, holding out a small piece of yellow paper. “Look!”
I took it and gazed in astonishment. “Good Lord, this looks new!”
The thick oblong paper had clear blue print. ‘L.N.E.R. Available for three days, including day of issue. Nast Hyde Halt to Hill End. Fare THIRD, Class C.’ and the price, ‘5d.’ It was undated.
“Five pence, when there were 240 of them in a pound!” I laughed.
Elsa looked up at me earnestly, “The man threw it to me, I told you!”
I smiled at her. Suddenly a strong gust of wind snatched the ticket out of my hand and it flew high up into the air. Helplessly we watched it sail into the impenetrable ‘jungle’ on the old platform.
Elsa looked horrified. “Granddad, we’ll never get it back!”
“Never mind, maybe we’ll find another. Best be getting on our way.” But my heart felt heavy. I hadn’t held one of those for sixty-five years.
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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