Abby Chapter ten, a short story by texrep. Date added: 2011-03-21. Times viewed: 1087.
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- Intro: Abby searches for her roots and finds a fascinating story and romance.
ABBY CHAPTER TEN
At first the valley was all black, a black so still and thick it had substance. The sky was not black however, as countless stars and the Milky Way splashed a kaleidoscope of silver across the wide expanse. Gradually from the east though, the sky lightened, transforming the black to indigo, the panoply of silver gradually faded and then vanished when the indigo metamorphosed into purple and then to blue. The hills evolved from dark indistinct masses, to a grey green as the aura of the rising sun in the east chased the night away; the dark shadows shortening and fading in the increasing light; revealing detail hitherto shrouded in darkness, the buildings, the long platform, goods shed and signal box. Tendrils of mist crept silently through the cuttings, and up to the platform transforming it into an island lapped by a grey misty sea. In the fields dark shadows resolved themselves into cattle and sheep, blinking in the increasing brightness. The warming light dissolved the mist and the tracks gained definition, turning from Gunmetal Grey to silver, flashing darts of white light as the Sun’s rays caught them. Down the track, a late fox paused whilst crossing the line, his brush held horizontally behind him, a front leg lifted, as he listened and scanned carefully in each direction; senses alert to any danger. Satisfied, he continued his journey, now loping alongside the track; using the last remnants of mist as cover, towards an earth somewhere in the tall stand of trees that men knew as Huish Coppice. From the chimney atop the Signal Box, a thin wisp of grey smoke rose, as the Signalman coaxed the embers of the previous day, returning the stove to life. The air was still, and all was quiet, until the Blackbird, sitting high in the tree that gave him a view of all his ground, gave voice to the new dawn. This was a signal and like one piece of an orchestra at a time the other birds became vocal too, building to a crescendo then fading as the daily toil commenced once more. Away over the hills, a Buzzard began his day of lazy circling, wings spread to catch thermals or the lightest breeze, incessantly searching the fields below for the unwary small rodent.
Thomas Tregonney closed the door quietly, so as not to wake the girl. He stood in the porch of the station house for a few moments, breathing deeply and filling his lungs with the clean crisp air. After a lifetime of early starts he had come to enjoy this time at the beginning of a day, when it was calm and peaceful. The railway was a twenty-four hour activity, and although a branch like this would not run all night, its business started long before the first train was due; and didn’t end until long after the last train had gone. He glanced down at his boots to check the polishing, they gleamed, no Sergeant Major could have found fault there. His wing collar was pristine too, although it was held together more by starch than fabric now. Next he tugged the Frock coat down at the back, to clear the crease that inevitably formed just below the collar, and then pulled the two halves together at the front. They still met as they had done when he first put the coat on, but they had never been buttoned up, it caused a bagging and creasing that he would not countenance. The pillbox cap suffered from the constant soaking and drying that was a natural consequence of his job. It had not shrunk, he took care to stretch it after any soaking, but the red initials of the GWR surrounded by a wreath of gold above the peak had become faded, and worn. Abigail, his wife, had been good with a needle; all girls then learned to sew; and she had made a satisfying repair of the embroidery, but his thick fingers had never been nimble enough to make any kind of a job of it, consequently the lettering that was supposed to read GWR now pronounced an approximation of those initials, and the unknowing would read them as CWE. Despite all this it was clean, and the black visor reflected the morning light, just as it done that year he had come here and proudly worn it for the first time.
In his office at the station hung a new cap, the British Railways cap, flat-topped, and with a badge proclaiming “Stationmaster”, over the visor. Thomas had no use for it. He had not worn it at all from the day it had been issued to him in nineteen forty-eight. He didn’t need a label telling passengers who he was; the style of Pillbox cap issued by the Great Western Railway, the wing collar and frock coat, all worn with dignity; identified him immediately. Now, even junior staff, were issued with the standard cap, not that they bothered to wear them. There was no distinction attached to his position any more. Perhaps if Abigail had lived she would have taught Marion, their daughter, still asleep in bed, to sew. Marion was quick, and he felt sure that she would have been able to restore the badge to its proper splendour. But what was the point now, the line was run down, already rumours of closures were circulating elsewhere. He didn’t know what future this branch would have, or how much longer he would have to wear the cap.
Be that as it may, there would be no slackening of the standards at Combe Lyney. Straightening himself up, he started up the gravel path that led to the platform, the chips crunching noisily under his boots. Opposite to his right on the other side of the tracks a thin wisp of smoke rose from the chimney of the signal box. Reg Purvess, the signalman leaned out of the open window to call, ‘good morning, stationmaster.’ Thomas acknowledged the greeting with a jerky arm, somewhere between a wave and a salute. Purvess would already have brewed a pot of tea, the first of many, which, no doubt, would be shared by the footplate men and the visiting ganger, who would make a contribution of an occasional rabbit, mushrooms or wild onions, gleaned from the embankments and fields that bounded his length. The enginemen would also enjoy the fruits of this gleaning, and if from time to time coal would accidentally drop off the engine, strangely close to the ganger’s cottage; well it was all part of the country railway’s unofficial custom. The quality of the tea would be thick and strong, as the pot was never thoroughly washed, but this was obviously to their taste. Purvess would now be busy, polishing and cleaning as if the District Superintendent was to make a visit today. The Superintendent would not be coming. Reg knew that as well as Thomas, because this backwater was of so little importance now that inspection visits were a thing of the past. Nonetheless Purvess kept the box spotless. The levers and brass instruments shone, the thin linoleum would be mopped every day, and a duster was always ready to hand as no lever would ever be pulled without that scrap of cloth between hand and metal. Thomas was just as particular at the station. It was an ethic ingrained from their induction into the railway; it was the Great Western way. Thomas thought that Reg, although only in his late twenties was a competent man in the box, even though he joined the railway after the demise of the GWR, but his father had been a GWR man and Reg had obviously inherited the ethic from him. True he had a tendency to cut corners but Thomas was always alive to this possibility, and insisted on proper procedure at all times. The railway, especially the G.W.R. had been patriarchal and encouraged sons to follow fathers into service, giving them precedence over other applicants for work. It was one of the ways that railwaymen would fit easily into their jobs, knowing the pattern of shifts and also gave rise to the ability of railway workers to recall anecdotes from the past.
Thomas had little authority over Purvess, although theoretically he had jurisdiction over everything and everybody within the Station limits; but practically he had no sanction to apply, as the signalman could not be replaced at the drop of a hat. He would like to have done so at the time he found Marion working the box whilst Reg attended to his allotment, a patch of ground on the line-side close to the box. There was no real danger as Reg could hear the Bells, and there wasn’t much traffic on the line these days. Nonetheless, Marion was an unauthorised person, and she was only fourteen years old! He would have liked to take Purvess out of the box and suspend him. The problem would have been that the only person who appeared to be able to work the box in Purvess’ place was a fourteen-year-old girl! His anger hadn’t lasted long; in fact it had been tempered by the pride he felt in his daughter that she could master the procedures in the first place. Not that he told her so. He felt that his praise, could have given the impression that he condoned this behaviour.
Thomas continued his short walk to the centre of his kingdom, the station, counting the trucks and goods vans in the siding as he did. There was the usual assortment awaiting the 'Goods' for returning empty. Very little goods traffic originated from Combe Lyney now. As ever, he mentally noted anything that would need attention, stopping to examine discrepancies that required closer inspection such as an intruding weed, or a sign that needing paint. He brought from his pocket a little notebook into which he scribbled a brief note. These notes would be transcribed into his Journal on arrival at his office. Later these tasks would be given to the Lad Porter, Bob Fairworthy, who was thus denied any chance of joining Purvess in the signal box, for a mug of that indescribable tea, at least until his jobs had been completed to Thomas’s satisfaction. The Leading Porter, Alfred Anson would arrive with the first train Down from South Molton where he lived. This would be an empty stock working, designed to form the first train in the Up direction from Paverton. Over the years Valley people had become aware of this working and would frequently make use of it, with the help of an obliging crew. This placed Thomas in a quandary; he would like to have charged the fare for their journey, but his returns would have brought the situation to the attention of the District Office, who would have censured the crews involved, as theoretically the passengers would not be covered by insurance. Thomas had little choice but to let it go. There were compensations, however, as from time to time, a freshly plucked and drawn chicken, vegetables with aromatic soil still clinging to them or the first pick of new fruit, would appear on the doorstep of his house. The locals did not believe in something for nothing. There had been a time when Anson would have been expected to be at the station well before the first train, using any means of transport to make the journey, walking the four miles if that’s what it took. Now the dispensation had to be made; otherwise there would be no Leading Porter. So, the empty stock working would pause just long enough for Anson to jump out of the Guards compartment, together with any other informal passengers, who Thomas would pretend not to see. Therefore he timed his arrival at the station for just after the empty stock train had gone through.
The Leading Porter would collect tickets, ensure that important notices were displayed, and would also double as the goods clerk. There were not that many trains plying the branch these days, but Thomas had no intention of allowing his porters an easy time during the hours between those trains. Not that Thomas himself was allowed any relaxation; as hard as he drove his porter, he drove himself harder.
The station was a much grander affair than most would think necessary for this small village on a small branch line. The Comberford family were major shareholders in the line when it was built, and as such could insist on a suitable monument to their participation. That the line had never made a profit under any of its owners was immaterial. The Bristol and Exeter had insisted upon a full staff, as did the Great Western Railway. Nowadays British Railways, with its cumbersome bureaucracy were probably unaware that they were maintaining a station far too large for the traffic it created, nor that they were paying wages to two porters, when one would have been taxed to find a full day's work. Into the breach stepped Thomas Tregonney, who found work to ensure that neither porter was ever idle.
Thomas walked up the platform ramp. Already the station was the scene of activity. From a small van, milk churns were being unloaded to a trolley, which would then be wheeled through and placed on the platform, close to where the ventilated trucks, known to the G.W.R. as Siphons would stop. From five-forty five until six-thirty half a dozen farmers would arrive in a variety of vans, wagons towed by tractors, or even horse drawn, to offload their milk. The first up train always conveyed two or three of these Siphons, taking milk from Paverton, Lills Platform, and Combe Lyney, down to South Molton, where they would be shunted and coupled to a larger train bound for Torrington and the Creamery. Anson was stacking parcels on another trolley. Later there would be a goods train, but small parcel traffic would go with the first passenger in a parcels van, or the guard’s compartment. Thomas stopped to check the labels, he could remember well the days when there would have been a special parcels train, the days when everything into the valley and everything out of the valley was conveyed by rail. The days when there would have been at least half a dozen Siphons to pick up milk churns, which would stand four to five deep, covering one hundred feet of platform. Then the cattle dock would be full on Market days, the air pungent with droppings, and the ear challenged with the lowing of the cows. Now increasingly the milk went by road, as did those cattle, which were still sent to market. The little used cattle dock now sprouted lush grass, growing exuberantly from the rich nutrients left by the cattle.
He was glad to see that Fairworthy had helped with the churns; left to themselves the farmers would leave them all over the place. Fairworthy, under Thomas’s tutelage had made sure they were placed neatly, so that loading them would take as little time as possible, the timetable was God; and everything that could be done, would be done, to keep the trains on time. No one would point the finger at Combe Lyney as the cause of late running. When the station was first built there had been no Canopy extending out over the platform, but the G.W.R. had built an extra structure sometime in the early thirties, presumably to give shade for the increasing numbers of churns. The churns no longer blocked the access to the station building. Fairworthy would then go on to sweeping out the Porch. This was sometimes unofficially referred to as the Greenhouse, a feature, which for some reason was particular to stations in this area. It occupied the space between the two gables, which on the platform side were deeper than the approach side. There was some weather protection from a half glazed partition, but with no door to cover the access opening this was of dubious efficiency. With wind in any quarter except from the northwest, dust would blow in, entailing the sweeping, which was the first job of the morning for the lad porter. Inside and to the right was the ticket office; whilst to the left was the waiting room. Thomas nodded to Fairworthy as he walked past, his intention as every morning to walk the length of the platform, again noting anything that needed attention. He was pleased that this morning there appeared to be nothing untoward. This being the case his mind worked on the tasks that might be imposed. The platform edging could of course be re-whitened; the flowerbeds could also be in need of attention. ‘Good,’ he thought, that would keep Fairworthy busy for most of his shift.
Thomas’s office was at the back of the booking office, and shared with Anson when he was issuing tickets. He removed his coat, as he entered dressing it on a hanger that then went on the back of the door. He kept his Cap on. He opened the safe, an antique Chubb affair with a large key. A child could probably have cracked the safe; but the paltry sums kept within would hardly tempt any but the most desperate. Taking the ledger and cash-box, he sat down to enter into the ledger the previous day’s takings. Every ticket supplied to them as their stock, was registered at the District Office. As Anson issued the tickets, each had to be accounted for, together with the requisite fares. Thomas had to balance these transactions, and return each day the account sheet, and the cash, which went in a Leather pouch; marked clearly “Combe Lyney”; with the guard of the first up train. With no Till, just a cash drawer, and the uncertain mathematics that Anson exhibited, often there was a discrepancy. Thomas had learned over the years to hold onto the surpluses, to offset the inevitable losses. Even so on occasions, he had to put his hand in his own pocket to make up a balance. Now he worked quickly. The first service would be due in twenty minutes, and it was a matter of pride to Thomas that he had never missed getting the pouch onto the train on time. He scanned down the ledger, holding his pen just above the paper, and mentally adding the column, Pounds, Shillings, and Pence all at the same time. Satisfied that for once the value of tickets issued equalled the cash received, he wrote out the dockets, and put them together with the cash in the pouch, clipping it shut. It locked automatically.
A distant whistle told him that the train would be arriving soon. Automatically he checked his pocket watch. He lifted his coat off the hook and taking a brush from the desk drawer, energetically brushed the coat down. Satisfied that it was clear of lint he put it on. With the pouch firmly clasped in hand he left the office, through the ticket office, and strode out onto the platform. Glancing down the line he ascertained that the Home signal was off, the board lowered to forty-five degrees from the horizontal; the so-called lower quadrant signalling, in the Great Western manner; and paced slowly two or three steps in either direction, the pouch clasped in front in both hands. A commotion at the end of the platform drew his attention. Arthur Gill, a local Dairy farmer had just arrived with six churns. Calling for Anson and Fairworthy he told them to help get the churns into place, and approaching Gill he chided him.
“Mr. Gill, now you know what time the train arrives, the same time it has arrived for the last twelve years, and you know that this being the Great Western Railway the train will arrive on time. So, why do you always turn up at the last minute; giving us inconvenience and possibly disrupting the timetable?” Arthur Gill just smiled weakly, an apologetic smile at having inconvenienced not just the Great Western Railway, but more importantly Thomas Tregonney. Quickly the churns were wheeled into place just as the train, hauled by the G.W.R.’s maid of all work coasted into the station.
This was a six-wheeled locomotive with water tanks seemingly slung on either side of the boiler like panniers. Indeed these engines had always been referred to as Pannier Tanks. This particular locomotive had recently been shopped for a heavy overhaul. Thomas viewed with distaste the new livery. It had emerged from Swindon painted in British Railways unlined black with the crouching Lion and wheel emblem on the side. Behind the Loco were the two Siphons; placed there so that they could easily be detached at the junction; and then two compartment coaches. The coaches were trundled up and down this line, eking out their last days in passenger service. Once when they had been new, they would have worked out from under the soaring bays of Brunel’s High Church at Paddington, rubbing shoulders with the elite coaching stock forming the great expresses; 'The Cornish Riviera', 'The Red Dragon', and 'The Cheltenham Flyer'; expresses hauled by the elegant racehorses of the Silver Road, the Kings, and Castles. Later they would have gone to the second division, cross-country services, and now they were here. The Great Western Railway never threw anything away, refurbishing and repairing locomotives and stock to get the maximum value for their investment. From his waistcoat pocket Thomas pulled his large pocket watch, and checked the time.
The line since Lills Platform had been on a downgrade. The Pannier tank, therefore had little work to do, and just as the loco arrived the safety valve blew off with a great gust of steam. The fireman quickly turned the injector on, to cool the boiler, but knew that the stationmaster would have words to say on the subject. The train stopped, so that the guard’s compartment was precisely where Thomas was standing.
“Good Morning Mr. Metcalfe.” Thomas stepped forward proffering the pouch.
“Good Morning Mr. Tregonney.” The Guard took the pouch, and with Thomas observing placed it into the locked box through a non-returnable flap. At South Molton, the box containing the pouches from Paverton, Lills Platform and Combe Lyney would be transferred to another train, which would take the Exe Valley route to Exeter, where it would go to the District Office for checking. Anson was making quick work of loading the parcels into the luggage compartment, and would shortly join Fairworthy in loading the last of the churns into the ventilated wagons.
Thomas approached the engine.
“Look busy, here he comes,” muttered the driver out of the side of his mouth to his fireman. The man was busily checking water levels when Thomas looked into the cab.
“Fireman,” he barked, “you know well enough that safety valves should not blow off whilst in the station. Please ensure that there is no repetition. Driver, you were one minute down. Why?”
“Two minutes late off Paverton, Mr. Tregonney, don’t know why, just didn’t get the board.” With this excuse the Driver checkmated the stationmaster. Thomas couldn’t berate him as he had done well to get a minute back. The Driver knew, as did Thomas, that there was no point in checking. Thomas could only do that through his colleague at Paverton, who would not want to waste time answering questions on such a trivial matter, just to please a martinet like Thomas, who at one time or another had upset just about everyone on this line. Anyway the signalman would probably cite operational reasons for not pulling off the Starter, such as a sticking point. Thomas gave him a dark look, knowing that to investigate with his colleagues at Paverton would be a waste of effort. He looked up the track toward the signal that stood at the end of the platform.
“You will observe that our Starter is now off; I trust you will make a smart get away when your guard gives you the flag.” He turned on his heel and marched away towards the guard’s compartment once more. The churns were now finished loading and Fairworthy was closing the van doors. Thomas checked that the drop bolt was securely in place, and approached Guard Metcalfe, who was standing at his door awaiting Tregonney’s confirmation that everything, and everybody was aboard. He looked at his watch again, checking the time.
“Right away, Mr. Metcalfe,” called Thomas.
“Thank you Mr. Tregonney.” Metcalfe gave a short blast on his whistle to attract the Driver’s attention, and raised his Green flag. He didn’t just wave it, he held the shaft in one hand, and the other hand stretched out the flag by the corner, so the Driver would be in no doubt that he had been given the Green. A short “pop” on the whistle, and the train moved off. Thomas checked his watch again. He called to his porters.
“Smart work, away on time from one minute down.” Alfred grinned at Bob, as the Stationmaster went back into his office,
“Always economical with praise, is our Mr. Tregonney.” Bob shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s that bloke Gill, he’s always late, if he would for once get his milk here on time we could have got the train away early.” Alfred regarded his young companion with a withering look.
“So we get the train away early, what will happen? Nothing. What praise will we get? None. Because it’s early the train will be held at the junction, and all we will have to show for it is sweat, and blisters. No point in working your socks off, it makes no difference.”
He walked away towards the ticket office. There was little chance of passengers this early, and those that would appear would have weekly Seasons anyway. He would check though, and if it was all quiet he would make his way ostentatiously to the goods shed; giving the impression that he had work there, and then when Thomas was no longer on the platform he could slip away for a mug of tea with Reg in the Signal box. No such opportunity for Bob Fairworthy though, for Thomas emerged from his office once more, carrying in his hand the little slip of paper that Bob knew would be his tasks for the Shift.
“Ah, Fairworthy, have you changed the lamps yet?”
“Just going to do that, Mr. Tregonney.”
“Good. Now when you have done that, please check all the Fire Buckets, the Gentleman’s facilities will need to be mopped out, and then the flowerbeds will require tidying. I noticed one or two weeds coming through the platform slabs at the north end, please attend to those as well.”
“Very good, Mr. Tregonney.”
The Lad Porter set off to the Lamp Room; built in to the front of the station building, another peculiarity of this station. Usually at most stations a separate corrugated iron hut was used for this purpose, a precaution against fire. Today was Thursday, the day for replacing the oil lamps that illuminated the red and green spectacles on the signal arms. The oil lamps would burn for eight days. Unlocking the door, he collected two replacement lamps, trimmed and filled, one for the up home signal and one for the up distant, and began the long trek to the signal. This was situated in the cutting by Huish Coppice, and was three-quarters of a mile from the station. Today would be a good day for this job, a pleasant walk in the warm sunshine, even a chance, once out of sight to lie back beside the track and have a cigarette. In winter, he hated it, with rain sleeting in on the South-Westerly winds, he would arrived at the distant with his back soaked through, climbing the steel ladder to the lamp would be treacherous, and then on the way back his front would be soaked in its turn. The wet weather gear supplied by the railway was efficient except in high winds, when it tended to act either as a sail, speeding progress outward, and impeding progress inward; or as a parachute, at all times trying to fly above his head; either way the soaking was inevitable. The down distant was even worse, the signal standard being on a slight embankment, where the wind and rain ruled without mercy. In those conditions climbing the ladder to pull the old lamp off and replace it was extremely dangerous, he thanked his lucky stars that it only had to be done once a week.
Thomas worked quietly at his desk; a relic from the thirties, scarred, damaged and repaired on more than one occasion, it was now secured by an angle iron to the wall, as the joints were so sprung that nothing else would save it from wobbling. He was reading the latest promotional literature special rates, and changes in timetabling. He would select those items, which would be of benefit to the potential customers in this area, and later today would write to the largest outlining the offers, and enclosing a handbill with the details. He could never decide which would be better; to write longhand, or to use the ancient Remington Typewriter that had been issued to the station in nineteen forty-nine. The problem with the typewriter was that the punctuation, needed a double shift; the first shift was for capitals, and the second for punctuation; and he was constantly forgetting to do this. His typed letters therefore tended to take twenty minutes to half an hour for a simple two paragraphs, and would contain many erasures or overtyping and as he would normally send out twenty such letters, he found himself working well into the evening to complete this work. He could as a matter of course write in Copperplate, but this could take almost as long. The sorting proved to be far longer than he originally thought, as two of the special rates would at first glance appear to be the same, as he puzzled over this his hand instinctively went to his waistcoat and pulled out his watch; he was no longer amazed that this now unconscious action happened when there was four or five minutes to the arrival of the next train.
The service that had triggered this was the first down passenger due at eight fourteen. He put on his coat and walked out onto the platform. This was the train, which would take most of the Village children to school in Paverton, his daughter included. The children waited quietly, knowing that the stationmaster’s displeasure would be incurred by any larking around. Thomas nodded to Marion, pleased to see that she was well turned out as usual, her School uniform neatly pressed and clean. It was a source of pride to him that she would get herself up in the mornings, breakfast, wash up, and dress, in plenty of time to catch this train. His personal sense of duty and integrity applauded his daughter for these similar attributes. Yet apart from that nod he would not acknowledge her in any way. He was the stationmaster, and he was on duty.
The engine could be heard now, working hard on the almost continual climb from the junction close to South Molton. When it approached the down distant, the driver blew the whistle, and moments later the train appeared. It came over the level crossing and as approached the signal box, came almost to a complete stand, the fireman leaned down and handed a ticket to Reg, who had come out of his box to collect it. The regulator was opened again briefly, and then closed, the driver allowing the train to coast into the station. The engine was one of the little tank engines so often used for lightly loaded passenger trains, with four coupled wheels and two trailing wheels. Almost everything about the engine was on the diminutive scale, with the exception of the vast polished dome on top of the boiler, which seemed completely out of proportion to the rest of the locomotive. The coaches were the two, which had formed the last up train. As ever with a train, even though they travelled twice a day, there was a sense of repressed excitement amongst the children, as the train drew to a halt, and there was some jockeying for position in order that they could share a compartment with their best friend; or that some other child could be excluded from their select group. Thomas’s stern gaze would put a stop to the more physical of this selection process.
The train stopped predictably with the guards compartment just where Thomas was standing. The guard / stationmaster acknowledgment intoned just as before, except that this time the guard was the other regular on the line, George Bird. Combe Lyney’s stationmaster was not one for idle chat, which was strange in a way, as that position was a solitary occupation, and other railwaymen, were probably the only people that they would come into contact with on a regular basis. Bird knew of some stationmasters who relished a chat, and would return to a topic that interested them with the regularity of the timetable, picking up two minutes conversation with a guard every time that train returned to his station, as if the last words said on the subject were only a minute ago, instead of an hour or so. Thomas supervised the embarking of the children, walking slowly down the platform ensuring that all the doors were closed. As he walked he peered into each compartment, and acknowledged regular travellers with a nod, or in the case of First class touched his cap. He wasn’t much called upon to do that these days. Anson was standing at the picket gate, having examined or collected tickets of those passengers who alighted. As he passed, the stationmaster enquired.
“All correct?” to which Anson replied.
“All correct Stationmaster.” Thinking to himself, “how can it be any other way with only three passengers to deal with?”
Thomas arrived at the engine, just as the down starter signal dropped. The train could not depart yet as the driver was not in possession of the Token, which Reg would be bringing now. The Fireman was leaning out, watching the activity on the platform. Thomas called across to the Driver.
“Driver, it isn’t required in the rule book that you sound your whistle at the distant, or have the whistle codes changed in the last twenty-four hours?” The driver had been ready for this.
“I thought I saw an animal on the line, Mr. Tregonney, but I was mistaken.” Thomas nodded; this was in the rule book.
“Very well, Driver, but you should be careful, or our signalman would believe that you wanted to come inside.” This was the railwaymen’s colloquial for leaving the main line to enter a siding or loop. The fireman, trying hard to keep the grin off his face applied himself studiously to the rear of the train, where Reg Purvess was just walking up the platform with the token for the next section; he handed this to the driver who checked that he had the right token.
The guard had just placed his whistle between his lips; and with his pocket watch in hand he waited until the minute hand reached twenty minutes past. Thomas had his watch in hand as well, also checking the time; he raised his arm to indicate that the time was right. The guard blew his whistle, and the Green flag was shown. The driver tugged the whistle chain just once, and immediately opened the regulator, being on the far side of the cab, his comment to his mate, “and that’s in the rule book as well.” Did not reach Thomas’s ear.
Whilst the train had been in the station, there had been considerable bustle, the idle chatter of the children, the opening and slamming of doors, the hiss of steam from the engine combined with the crackle of water dropping on to the hot surfaces. Yet the moment the train departed there was silence, except for the sounds of the engine away in the distance, working hard on the bank towards Lills Platform. This was the extraordinary characteristic of branch line stations. Five minutes of hectic activity and then an hour or more of tranquillity. The platform was deserted as the staff went about the jobs that passengers rarely saw. Thomas to his never-ending paperwork; Alfred Anson checking in the tickets he had collected, and Reg Purvess wandering back down the track to close the level crossing gates, and then returning to his isolated signal box. A viewer from the distance would see a deserted station, with apparently nothing happening, giving rise to the impression that railwaymen lead an idyllic life. Only was there an occasional movement as one or the other of the staff would make a brief appearance walking out of one door, only to enter another.
In the office Thomas pecked carefully and laboriously at his ancient typewriter, grinding out the letters to his potential customers. His hand went instinctively to his pocket and consulted his watch; he called out to Anson.
“Anson, Goods due in forty-five minutes, is everything checked in and loaded?” Anson had been sitting quietly, enjoying a few moments of calm.
“Yes, Stationmaster, I am just going now over to make sure nothing else has arrived.” Thomas did not look up from his typing.
“Do that if you please?” Framed as a question, this was more an imperative. Alfred knew this and reluctantly left the ticket office.
And so the watcher from the distance would have seen Anson leave the building, stroll down the platform, descend the ramp, and cross the line on his way to the goods shed. He passed Bob Fairworthy, who was just returning from the down distant having completed the task of replacing the oil lamps.
“If you get the chance, come over and help,” he shouted, “I’ve got one large crate to load.” Bob raised his hand in acknowledgement, and continued on his way, stopping at the Lamp room, where he stored the exhausted lamps. Within the next couple of hours he would trim the wicks and re-fill the lamps so that working spares were always available. He walked up onto the platform wondering whether to just go over to the Good Shed, or tell the Stationmaster first. He opted for the safer of the options, and went in to the office.
“I have completed the lamps Mr. Tregonney, the leading porter has requested help with a large crate, shall I go now, or is there anything else you wish me to do?” Thomas looked up wearily from his typing.
“Go help load the crate, you should know well enough now that that is the priority.”
"Yes, Stationmaster.” replied the porter, and backed out quickly, before Thomas could add any more sarcasm to his reply. Typical he thought. If he hadn’t said anything he would be in trouble for not letting the stationmaster know where he was. You got it in the neck for doing something, and also for not doing it.
In the signal Box, Reg Purvess, had re-filled the kettle, and put it on the stove in anticipation of the arrival of the goods. His timing was right for at that moment the Bell gave one ring, Reg immediately pushed the plunger once to signify that he was alert. The bell then rang three times followed by a pause, then four times with another pause, then once, signifying that the goods wished to enter the section. Reg set the signals and points, and sent back the same bells he had received. The moment the passenger had cleared the section he had set the block instrument to show 'Line clear'. A few minutes later he got the bell code for “Train entering section”. He acknowledged this and set the block instrument to “Train on Line”. The line was divided into sections known as ‘Blocks’, and the signalling system ensured that only one train could be in any block at a time. Having done this he ambled down to the level crossing to open the gates. In many places these gates would be interlocked with the signals, so the signal could not be cleared unless the gates were open for the train. Due to the amount of traffic this had never been thought necessary at Combe Lyney, and more than once a signalman who had forgot, watched horrified as an engine smashed through the gates. The crossing gave access to the goods yard only, and so little traffic used it these days that it would have been easier to leave the gates shut, only opening them when a wagon required access to the yard. That would probably have happened were it not for Thomas Tregonney, who of course insisted on everything by the book; therefore Reg had to make this walk many times each day.
The goods ran as it had for years on the same timing, irrespective of the fact that there was little work for it these days. Where once it would be a dozen vans and half a dozen wagons, all to be shunted and reformed, a process taking up to an hour or so; now there would be three or maybe four vans and two open wagons, and the shunting could be accomplished in twenty minutes. The demand had changed but the timetable hadn’t; and the goods would have to wait for the up passenger from Paverton. The crew were quite happy as this gave them an hours’ break to drink Reg’s tea, and gossip in the box. In the goods shed, Alfred and Bob had manhandled the heavy crate into one of the two vans standing on the goods road. Bob, with regret now had to return to the station to carry on with Thomas’s job list. Anson made the final check that all the crates, and boxes had been written in the rate book, that the vans had the destination labels clipped into the carriers, one for Exeter, and one for Taunton, and settled down to wait for the goods.
Thomas bestirred himself, glancing once more at his watch. Whilst the goods train would not be dignified at every station with the attendance of a stationmaster, he felt it incumbent upon himself to oversee the proceedings from a distance. Therefore he was standing on the platform when the goods arrived and made its way slowly into the goods loop, again hauled by the six-coupled Pannier tank. It stopped to the accompaniment of the clanging buffers, as the un-braked wagons closed up to the wagon in front. Reg set the points for the head-shunt, a short length of track on which the guards van could be shunted to clear the vans and trucks that would be detached here, and the little round ground signal turned to clear, the guard, it was Mr. Metcalfe again, waved his green flag from his van, and slowly, groaning, the train set back, until the guards van was placed well into the head-shunt. Anson had wandered down, and ducked under the couplings to release the guards van from the train, which was then allowed to pull forward leaving the van in the head shunt. Anson and Metcalfe then discussed the wagons to be dropped off; the wagons to be picked up; and with the contribution of the driver who had now joined them; how and in what order it would be done. With so few wagons nowadays it was relatively simple. Twenty years ago, the train was so long that many of the wagons had to be shunted on to the running line to give them the space to carry out the shunting, very often delaying the up passenger, which had to be held at the distant. Forty years ago they would have had a Shire horse to pull individual vans into place, reducing some of the many engine movements.
The shunt took place, again with the characteristic clanging of the buffers, and the groans of bearings in which the grease lubrication had gone solid. From the vantage point of the platform Thomas watched carefully, anxious to notice the shunting practice that would save time; but was deemed unsafe according to the regulations. Those involved in the operation were well aware of this scrutiny, and took care not to give reason for censure, not that they would have, as Metcalfe said. “With so few wagons there really is no need to cut corners.” Reg Purvess was little involved, as once the train had entered the goods loop, it was effectively ‘out of section’, and moving trucks over the various points was effected with ground-based levers. Nonetheless having closed the level crossing gates he leaned out of the window in his box, and watched the process with interest, he was after all a railwaymen, and would no doubt tell Anson and Metcalfe where they had gone wrong, once they had their hands around the mugs of tea he would provide.
Thomas returned to his typing, he would have almost a full hour at this task before the next up passenger. Yet again that curious peace returned to the station. Thomas was working in his office. Anson, Metcalfe and the crew of the engine were drinking tea in the box with Purvess. The engine stood quietly simmering at the head of the now reformed train; occasionally attended by the fireman to keep the boiler quiet. The only person that could be seen working was young Bob Fairworthy, who had mopped out the Gentlemen’s facilities, and was now lethargically, weeding the flowerbeds along the platform. Most railwaymen were quite keen gardeners, either by inclination, or necessity. The Great Western had encouraged this by allowing line side plots to be cultivated for vegetables; very welcome to a family economy used to living on a low wage; and making seeds available for Station gardens and hanging baskets. Bob had not joined; or so he thought; to become a gardener, and had incurred the displeasure of the stationmaster more than once by ‘weeding’ plants that did not require weeding. He was learning, though, and was starting to show some enthusiasm for the job.
In the box, the signalman, driver, fireman and the guard, supped noisily at their mugs of tea. The fireman, who was only in his twenties, took it upon himself to remark on Tregonney's habit of watching the shunting movements.
“It's almost as if he doesn't trust anyone else to do the job right,” he complained. Metcalfe laughed.
“Our Thomas is quite able to pull a few stunts himself.” He commented, only carrying on when Reg asked him to explain the comment.
“I remember one, it was during the war. The Yanks were up on the Moor for exercises, and as they couldn't go anywhere without all the comforts of home, the number of trains that went up to Paverton was considerable. Well on this one day the Yank movements Officer down at Molton assembled quite a long train of wagons, and despite the fact that the stationmaster told him that it wouldn't fit into the loops, sent it off. They had put a large Prairie on from Taunton, so the crew didn't know, and the pilot had only been up the line twice before, so although he had signed for the route he didn‘t know what length of siding we had here.
“Hang on,” interrupted the fireman, “the regulations. wouldn't allow that.”
“No,” replied Metcalfe, “but this was wartime and a lot of things like this happened.”
The driver nodded. “Yes I heard tales of crews having to drive on to all sorts of unlikely places, remember when that Hall ended up somewhere near Sheffield, it was over-gauge for the line, and took quite a few platform edging stones off, the crew were so far away from home they thought they would be interned for the duration.”
Metcalfe grinned, he knew the story well. He continued. “There was no trouble until they got here, when it had to go in the loop. It was of course too long. They stood there for some time with the crew, the guard, and the signalman all scratching their heads. Then they heard the whistle of the up passenger at Lills platform, and the panic really set in. That's when Thomas Tregonney came onto the scene. 'Split the train,' he says, 'get as many wagons as you can into the Good shed road, and then get the rest into the loop.' Well they did that, but it soon became obvious that there were still too many wagons; the last wagon was still fouling the turnout. 'Right,' says Thomas 'we'll get them right up into the down head shunt.' Now that would have been o.k. but the Loco couldn't get behind the wagon, because they were still fouling the point, and of course it couldn't haul them into the head shunt as it would trap itself. Thomas beckons the driver to come with him into the shed, where he points to a great coil of Manila rope.
“Do you reckon that that would take the strain?” The driver looked at the rope, and then at Thomas.
“You're not thinking what I think you're thinking?”
“Well you tell me another way of clearing the line,” says Thomas. The driver thinks about it and says.
“Mr Tregonney, I'll do it, but get everybody well away, because if that rope parts it will kill anyone nearby.” So that's what they do, attach the rope to the wagons, and the back of the Loco, and the driver takes it slowly up the main line, until the rope's taut, then gradually the wagons move up the goods loop into the head shunt, where because they had no braking on, they demolish the stop block, and the lead wagon drops two wheels off before they stop. That clears the line, except for the Loco, which had no place to go, so they attach it to the front of the up Passenger when it arrives and send it back to Molton, double headed. Then it came all the way back light engine! By this time Thomas had managed to get a Shire Horse from one of the local farms, and they moved sufficient of the wagons for the loco to assemble the train again, except for the wagon that had dropped off. That stayed there for days until they could get the Breakdown crew up."
They all laughed at this story, and Reg Purvess ventured the opinion that it was all make-believe.
“No,” says Metcalfe. “I know it happened because the driver was my Dad. There is one other thing though. The wagon was full of supplies for the Yanks, which included a couple of cases of Whisky. Needless to say they weren't in the wagon when it eventually got to Paverton. Their laughter was heard all over the station site, and Bob cursed his luck that he could not be with them.
Metcalfe was not done yet. “If there was something that Thomas loved; apart from the Great Western; it was Cricket. He turned out for the local team from time to time. He was quite handy as a slow bowler, off-breaks, leg-breaks, the Googly, he could do them all, as well as a rather tasty faster ball, which got him quite a few leg before’s. Problem was that Thomas could never stay for the whole match. He had to get back here for the seven fifteen.” Reg interrupted.
“He didn’t have to; it was Sunday, his day off.” Metcalfe grinned.
“Yes but you know Thomas, he didn’t like to leave it for anyone else to do. Probably thought the leading porter would derail the train or something. So it was important that Combe Lyney won the toss and elected to field first, and then at least they would get the benefit of Thomas’s bowling, before he had to leave. Of course he was never available for away matches.” He took a sip of his tea. “I was told about another dodge that Thomas got up to. They were playing Bishops Nympton, and there had been a stoppage for rain, so the whole match which was a bit of a needle match was late. Well the Bishops Nympton team would always catch the eight-thirty five, but the way this match was going it probably wouldn’t end until about eight ten, and it was going to be nip and tuck for them to get to the station in time. The train was in on time and driver was very surprised that when he stops, Thomas goes down in the six foot and starts to examine the outside cylinder very closely. So the driver gets down as well and wants to know what Thomas is doing. Thomas explains the situation and the driver goes along with it, as Thomas said he would cover the report. Thomas gets back on the platform and tells the few passengers that there was a slight problem with the engine, says to those who ask that it could be gland packing. Wouldn’t you know it but the problem disappears the moment the Bishops Nympton team run onto the platform. I heard later that he wrote in the late report that there was a suspected leak from the cylinder, so the driver could not get into trouble.” The fireman laughs and says.
“Go on tell me the driver was your dad again.” Metcalfe nodded.
“Yes it was. Thomas would not have dared pulled that stunt unless it was someone he knew.”
The sun was well up now, and heat was building. Bob had undone his waistcoat, and rolled up his shirtsleeves, as he bent to his task. Although he was some distance away from the Signal Box, it was so quiet that he heard the ‘ting’ of the bell. Knowing that this would herald the arrival of the up passenger, he straightened, and leaving the bucket he used for the weeds, started back down the platform, dressed as he was. His fates were never so kindly, that he was unnoticed by Thomas; who appeared on the platform just as Bob walked past the Porch.
“You will not be greeting the service dressed like that, I trust?” Thomas growled. Bob held up his hands, which were dirtied with soil.
“I was going to wash before I buttoned my waistcoat, Mr. Tregonney.” Thomas could not argue with the sense of this and merely grunted,
“Carry on.” He of course was wearing his cap, and frock coat, despite the heat. Bob walked on, a smirk on his face and the unspoken comment, ‘gotcha,’ in his head. Any victory, no matter how small was sweet.
The bell had also stirred others back to life. Reg was pulling signal levers, the engine crew rejoined their locomotive, and Metcalfe his van. Anson appeared on the platform and took his place by the wicket gate to collect tickets. The ceremony had started again. The train arrived, and left, leaving a handful of passengers trickling out through the gate, some to a waiting car, most to walk the mile and a half to Combe Lyney.
Thomas did not wonder why the station was so far from the village it served, this was often the case with country railways, laid down at a time when two or three mile walks did not deter folk. The better classes would have carriages to bring them to the station, so they would not have complained. Now attitudes were different, people would not use a mode of transport that was not convenient for them, and increasingly bought their own transport.
With the departure of the passenger train, the goods could resume its slow journey to Paverton. Reg set the points, and with much groaning and clanking the train cleared the station and commenced the uphill struggle towards Lills Platform. It was at this time of the day that Thomas would make his way over to the Signal Box. Part of his responsibility was to sign the train register, a record that Reg was required to keep, listing all train movements and their times, in and through the section. It had once been the time to await the “signal”, a tone broadcast from Paddington over the company’s private telephone lines that enabled all stations to synchronise their clocks. This was the end of the first part of Reg’s shift and he would ‘switch out’ the Box. He worked what was known as a split shift. Coming on early, and working late, when there were most trains, with a break in the middle of the day, when there were least train movements. Switching out created one long section from the Junction with the Barnstaple line; to Paverton, controlled by the boxes at those two points. Thomas climbed the stairs to the box, and knocked on the door. The door carried a sign marking it 'Private' and even Thomas would observe the courtesy of knocking.
Reg was speaking on the Telephone, the railway’s private line, which connected the signal boxes. He was confirming to the boxes at either end of the branch that he had switched out, although they would already know this from the bell codes and the line indicators. He waved Thomas in.
“Good morning, stationmaster, there is tea left in the pot, would you like a cup?” Thomas accepted, not just because he had to remain on good terms with the signalman; but also because they lived close, in railway houses, and his widowed mother, would shop for Thomas when she went to Paverton. Reg’s father had been on the railway, and had been killed by a shunting accident at South Molton. Sipping his tea, which was stewed to an extent that not even the Sterilised Milk could disguise? Thomas tried to make small talk, not a skill with which he was at ease.
“It’s a warm day today,” he was standing there in his cap and coat, with perspiration trickling over his forehead. Reg smiled.
“That it is, Mr. Tregonney,” thinking to himself, why didn’t Tregonney take off that stupid coat. “Saw Marion going off to school this morning, you will be proud of her, the way she has adapted.” This was a reference to the death of Abigail, Thomas’s wife, and Marion’s mother just three years ago. Thomas was cautious; he was unsure of the Signalman’s attitude towards Marion. Particularly after the incident when Marion had operated the box, she must have spent quite some time here to learn the skills. Reg was in his late twenties and was going out with a girl from Combe Lyney; surely he would have no interest in Marion?
Reg didn’t have any interest in Marion, apart from the fact that he felt sorry for her, especially as Thomas was always too dedicated to his job to have much time for her.
“Yes, she is a good girl.” Anxious to change the subject Thomas moved on to ground upon which he felt safe. “Not too much on the goods today.” Reg agreed.
“And it’s getting less all the time.” Thomas nodded.
“Time was when we would have need of every inch of the track out there, just to clear the line for the passenger, and then to add to the problems, there would be the quarry trains. I don’t know what we will do when it starts picking up again, I shall have to see if District will put in some improvements.” He finished his tea. “You will be going off now, let me sign the register.” Thomas did that, but not before scrutinising the page to make sure that everything was in order.
“Thank you for the tea, Reg, I shall see you later.” He left the cabin, and Reg rinsed his cup out with hot water, and hung it on a hook to drain. Funny old Bugger, he thought, aloof and throwing his weight around one minute, and then quite reasonable the next. Then he laughed to himself, if he thinks that things will get better, he’s kidding himself. The whole system is falling apart; soon there will nothing left. Reg was realistic, he had been looking at other jobs, and felt that he could in all probability get another box. It would mean moving, he had talked with his girlfriend, Gladys, and she had agreed that if that happened they would marry and she would move with him. He checked around the box, closed the damper on the stove, and left himself, locking the door on the way out.
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