Comings and goings

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When we came to our small Scottish village over twenty years ago, the centre of life, apart from the parish kirk, was the railway station. We had, indeed, not one station but two, the high and the low line, and a whole series of little worlds connected with them.

The day began with a signal man going down the main street to his box, calling to the owls on his way. They hooted back at him and set all the farm dogs barking. Towards 8:00, a stream of villagers found their way to the low station for the first train to town. The owner of the village shop, the guardian of village standards, stood at her door watching stragglers and school children, calling out, "Can you no' dicht your face, Jamie?" or "Button up your jaisket, Geordie!" and to an absent-minded Sanskirt scholar who kept forgetting to change out of his carpet slippers, "And whaur's your boots the morn?"

The waiting room fire was a morning meeting place. In snowy winters the village became one outstretched hand, toasting itself at the glowing coals. There were shouts of "Mair fuel, Davie," to the porter. He came staggering in with bucket, grumbling. "I've mair to dae than cart coal."

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Famous dramas were connected with the railway -- the year the loch overflowed and flooded the line; the day Bob the farmer's champion bull went careering in front of the London express; the night of the great blizzard when the train was held captive in the snow and the most intrepid villagers tried to dig their way through the drifts to bear hot drinks for the stranded travellers.

The signal man, Rab, acted as Village Crier. He leant on the window sill of his box in shirt sleeves, shouting out information about trains and about far more than that. He might have seen a duck leading her ducklings over the line and down to the loch, or a voice announcing the return of the wild swans, or the sighting of a badger or an otter in the burn. His box was a paradise for the village boys when Rab invited them up to see how the signals worked. "Can I haud the lever, Rab?" "Aye, haud it for a wee minute. Canny noo!"

Coal fallen from train to line belonged by holy right to Rab and Davie but since saving cash was a main preoccupation, the most parsimonious of the villages crept down to the line with bags hidden under their coats.

"Look out, here's the minister," some one might whisper. "We can't let him see us nabbing coal." The oldest inhabitant and keenest saver never lost her wits. She would hand her bag to the minister who walked along beside her, murmuring, "Poor old soul. Far too heavy for her!" unaware that he was carrying contraband coal.

The local children haunted the high line at the time of the six o'clock train , for sometimes they were handed the green flag by the guard, even, on special occasions, his hat. They had the glory of signalling the train's departure for town. "See yon!" they would shout triumphantly. "It wouldn't go aff till I shoogled the flag!"

If we missed the post we went dashing down to the nine o'clock train, calling to the driver, "Wait! Post this letter in town," producing in those halcyon, predecimal days, a half-crown. "Here, tak' this."

Woven into the fabric of village life along with bird-song was the puffing of steam trains, then the clanking of diesel and, punctuating the daylight hours like a litany, Davie's doleful voice bellowing out our station's name. When the last train left, the station had become a darkly mysterious place, filled with shadowy forms, rustlings and creakings and the distinctive smell of paraffin lamps.

"Pit oot they lamps!" the guard shouted, and the village children would tug at the lights, plunging the platform into pitch darkness, and go darting out into the starlit street, squealing at the creepiness of the glinting moon and the barn owls flitting overhead with eerie cries.

One of the village collies became notorious when, late in life, he took to travelling. He got on at our station, off at the next one down the line, then trotted slowly home through fields and woods. "Yon dug's weel named Rover," said Davie, deeply impressed. He himself hardly moved beyond the village all his days and spoke as if Rover had journeyed between Tiflis and Samarkand at least. "A real globe-trotter, yon dug!"

Fearful rumours of railway closures began to circulate, threats of what was called the Axe. Then, first the high line was closed, a few years later the low. Rover would commute no more between two stations. The tracks became gradually overgrown with a tangle of wild roses, brambles and willow- herb overrun by hares and foxes.

The final blow fell when Rab, aghast, announced, "They're going tae burn doon my Boax!" It had been his sanctuary when his wife was crabbit or when he fell out with Davie. We gathered round to watch this funeral pyre, almost expecting Rab to go down with his Boax as a captain with his ship. He stood, a pile of salvaged belongings at his feet, poking mournfully at the embers with his umbrella, as if expecting the signal box to materialise, phoenix-like, out of the ashes.

A new era had begun for us all. Davie and Rab would have to find new jobs; we, the villagers, would take to walking nostalgically along the grass-grown tracks, bird and badger watching and planning nature trails. No more would Rab howl from his box, "Hurry, here she comes!" as the morning train came thundering down the line, snorting and sparking, delighting the heart of every village boy. A quaintness of character, a center of life, was gone from our midst. Nothing would ever be quite the same again.

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