Copyright 2008, Sarah Hartwell

Based on a dream I had some time in 2006

I had to hurry to reach the platform where a station porter in green uniform was pushing a loaded sack-barrow and several other passengers, seemingly in period costume, were about to board. The platform itself was little more than a halt a boardwalk just long enough for three train carriages and low enough that I had to climb up the steps into the carriage. It was old rolling stock as well, pre-diesel, but those expecting a carriage with corridor and compartments were disappointed as it was the open plan style with a central gangway and rows of seats either side with luggage racks above the seats, not against the wall of the train. It had been years since I'd seen such an old-fashioned carriage and even then it was probably at a working rail museum rather than a British Rail service.

I found a seat about halfway into the carriage on the left side. Two rows ahead of me and on the right side were two women with a babe in arms. Both were wearing servants or country-women's clothing loose and with a white bonnet - and fussed over their charge. I wondered which, if either, was the mother. Opposite was a woman in her late 20s or early 30s, her full-skirted dress and matching hat striped in yellow and brown. A hatbox and large bag, like an old-fashioned doctor's bag, were stowed neatly on the metal mesh above her seat.

The train chugged steadily through a drizzly grey English landscape. The weather was cool and trees were in leaf, but it was hard to judge the season they weren't the bright green new leaves just burst from buds, nor were they the tired and battered leaves waiting for autumn's signal to turn brown. There were no bright flowers, nor berries, in hedgerows, nor golden fields of ripe grain. If it were summer, it was a cold, wet and dreary summer.

"Which station are you headed for?" asked the woman on the seat opposite me. She had been reading a small leather-bound book, a bible or prayer-book perhaps.

"I'm not sure, but I'll know it when I reach it," I answered. I couldn't remember buying a ticket to any particular destination. I must have a ticket, otherwise I wouldn't have boarded the train. Strangely, I didn't feel particularly curious.

"Someone who doesn't know their station in life, how quaint!" she replied, turning her attention to the rainy window.

Up ahead, the two nursemaids were fussing about the baby who needed his nappy changed and was making a fuss. I must have been mistaken about his age as he was a toddler and kicking up a great fuss until one of the women smacked his behind to make him behave.

"Doesn't know how to behave in public," the nursemaid grumbled.

"He'll have to learn, once he reaches his station," her companion agreed.

We chugged past small shabby stations and halts, not stopping and I caught only a few of the quaint names: Commoner's Halt, Tied Cottager, Peddlers Halt, Clergy .

The train guard came into the carriage asking to see our tickets. The nursemaids produced theirs and their charge was definitely a five year old boy with curly fair hair.

"Belowstairs, very good," the guard said, "And the young master? Gentry? I'll see he gets off at his station, I can't let you travel past your own station." The guard politely touched his hat as he inspected the young master's ticket.

I still didn't remember be given a ticket, but fumbling in my little black drawstring bag I found one. It looked more like a raffle ticket. The guard was working his way through the carriage, "Scullery, next stop Scullery!" he called inbetween checking tickets.

"Excuse me," I asked, "How many stops?"

He squinted at my ticket, a thick brick-red thing with "Common" printed on it.

"Belowstairs, just a few stops along, just follow the nursemaids, can't have you staying on to the end of the line."

"Which is the end of the line?" I asked.

"Why Gentry, of course!" the guard said, "Where the young master alights." He pointed to the nursemaids and their sulky looking 12 year old charge, now in his velvet suit.

More countryside rattle by before the whistle blew and the train pulled into a small station with wooden platform and wooden building. The station sign said "Saddlery" and porters in dark blue uniform waited with barrows to take the luggage of the two or three men that got off.

We passed Gatehouse and Butlers and when the train reached Belowstairs I followed the two nursemaids. Their charge, now looking 15 years old, remained on the train as did the well-dressed woman who had sat opposite. This was the busiest station I'd seen, a positive bustle of men and women and their baggage. At least it had stopped raining. What now?

"Come along dear," one of the nursemaids said, "The cart's over there. It will take us to the big house at Gentry"

"Why couldn't we just stay on the train to Gentry station?" I asked.

She laughed at me, "We all have our station in life, dear, and this is ours."

The cart was driven by one of the men who'd alighted earlier at Saddlery, his station in life being somewhat down the line from ours. The cart rumbled along a dirt road alongside the railway with only a hedge between the two. Up ahead, the train chugged into the distance before curving away from us, its position marked by a plume of smoke.


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