Wennington School, Wetherby, West Yorkshire.
Kings Cross Station in September. Bars of yellow light from the skylights in the great curved roof, falling through steam. The London – Leeds express. The doors in the long maroon carriages stand wide open, concave against the gentle swell of their sides. Parents and porters heft bags and suitcases up from the platform into the Wennington School carriage. Kids clamber past them either way, shouting and gesticulating. Others wedge their faces into the small open spaces of the window quarterlights.
Geoff and I head down the platform towards the locomotive. It’s a green 4-6-0, the white-painted lamps positioned at either side of the buffer bar indicating that it’s a passenger express. We’ve read that dreary diesels are to replace the steam locos that, as tiny kids, we longed to drive and this may be our last close encounter. Up in the cab, the fireman is wiping the water glass with a dirty rag. Wisps of steam curl around the cab roof. The driver glances at his watch and then leans out of the cab to check it against the platform clock. Geoff hits my arm and races back towards the school carriage. Momentarily breathless with exhilaration, I follow him, skidding to a halt in front of Mum and Dad who are standing patient guard by my overnight bag. Mum smiles uncertainly and brushes a tear away with a knuckle. Only as the train jolts forward and the tableau of myur parents slides out of view of the window do I feel a corresponding jolt of isolation and loss.
As the train speeds across the bleak fens north of Peterborough, I play poker with Geoff, Adam and Bridgey. I win 1/10d and Geoff and I lurch along the corridors towards the buffet car, pausing only to straddle the rocking concertina doorways connecting each of the carriages on the way. As you push your way into position with legs and back you can see through the gaps between the footplate to a blur of sleepers racing past. We each buy an iced bun, cramming them in whole to see who can finish his first without laughing the contents onto our maroon jumpers. And then, still hysterical, I lean out of the drop-down window in the carriage door, shrieking into the gouts of steam and motes of soot streaming back from the labouring locomotive.
Within the close confinement of the carriage, the rhythmic hammering of the wheels, the spectral blur of the passing landscape, time arrests. I’m strung, weightless, between my two worlds, domestic and scholastic, the plunging momentum of my life suspended. All my teenage self senses in this moment of repose is a coveted comfort relinquished, a complacency challenged and the cataract of events ahead, external and internal, that must be encountered head on. To be able to slip into the current for a while before striking out is the means whereby we flourish or falter. This I know as a dumb, wordless truth. For all that, I know too from before that there will be times of unanticipated confusion and despair. Such episodes will come spinning and whirling out of nowhere like personalised tornadoes and I shall be absorbed into their vortices. But there is, even here and now in the arrested moment where intuition and guesswork over reason and experience guide me, a grim acknowledgement of the wisdom that comes from pain…
4-6-0 : The locomotive’s wheel alignment – a bogie of four wheels and six driving wheels.
Water glass : Pressure gauge.
1/10d : One shilling and tenpence (approximately 15p.)