The Pensive And Cheerful Travelers
(Page 2 of 2)
``What do you think! Badger-watching, of course!'' He beamed. ``I'd never seen a badger and its cubs. I waited, shivering; the moon was up, the air keen with frost. I was going to give up when there came a wonderful sound: a grunting and gruffling, a snuffling and sniffing, then the parents and three cubs.Skip to next paragraph
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``I sat, still as a leaf, watching those black-and-silver moonlit forms somersaulting, tumbling over and over, worrying at each other and squealing, while the mother watched, warily.
``All at once, they thrust their snouts in the air and were off, swallowed up in the darkness of the woods. You never forget a sight like that. Or of mad March hares at dawn - bounding and loping, drumming with their hind legs, their long ears flapping. Another wonder!''
He gave a funny secret smile. ``Once I did something really criminal.''
``What on earth was it?'' I wanted to know. I couldn't imagine him involved in a crime.
``I pulled the communication cord!'' he said triumphantly. ``Just read that notice up there: Penalty for improper use 5 - a lot of money for a fellow like me. From this front seat, I have a clear view of the track, and right in the middle of it was a sheep with lambs. The driver would never stop. He didn't care, but I did.
``So I pulled that cord as hard as I could. What an uproar! The train stopped, the lambs vanished off the siding after their mother, and the driver and the guard stood over me, roaring. They'd like to have flung me off the train. I was antisocial, they said; they had to keep to their timetable.
``I said that I'd made very proper use of the cord, but they'd never agree that saving lambs was more important than running five minutes late. Fine five quid, pay on the spot! Worth every penny of it.''
Another of his passions was for foxes. We saw them in the country, and even more of them when we entered a grimy cityscape of factories, high-rise flats, and tower blocks. ``Sometimes, before catching the last train home, I go fox-watching,'' he said. ``They're quite fearless. I'll see them, bold as brass, lifting up the lids of litter bins, taking out the best tidbits, snuffling them. Epicures!
`THERE'S something else they're addicted to - churches. There's nothing they like better than going down into the church vaults. As soon as the organ begins, they start their foxy barking - woof! woof! along with the hymns. They could sing in the choir. And I'm sure they know the timetable of every train entering and leaving the Central.'' He had a wonderful way of creating fantasies, laughing so much at his visions of those vulpine train spotters, notebook in paw, writing down the name of every locomotive, that tears trickled down his cheeks.
On our way into Glasgow, we passed the White Cart River, where tufted ducks and mallards swam, then on to a wider river, the Clyde, where great ships were once built. ``You'll maybe see another miracle here,'' he told me. It was true - over the river and outside the Central, the sky was often darkened by vast, swirling circles, like winged Catherine wheels.
``Our city starlings,'' said my companion proudly, as if he owned them. ``Did you ever see such acrobatics, thousands and thousands of them, turning and twisting, never touching, shrilling all the while? Why do they do it? From sheer delight! They're called the city pests, but they're another wonder. The world's full of wonders!''
ON what turned out to be our last journey together, he pointed down the river. ``See that tall building - that's where I work, in a grain store. It's not much of a job, yet when I'm down in the basement, I think of all the wildlife I've seen that day - swans rising up from the reservoirs, a cormorant blown inland by storms, the flight of a heron, the first swallows.
``I let the rice and lentils and millet go slipping and slithering through my fingers, and I dream of the countries they come from and the birds and beasts there. It's not likely that I'll ever travel to such parts, but I'm lucky to watch this world from the train, coming and going from the Central.''
As happens in life, I didn't see my two travelers again. I was away from home, and when I returned they no longer traveled on that line. Perhaps they had retired or moved away, but I always thought of them. I imagined Il Penseroso in his dreary city classroom, facing apathetic children year after year, longing to inspire even one of them with his sense of history, his hatred of the corruption of politics.
And somewhere, in a dingy basement, stands l'Allegro, among his lentils and rice, dreaming of wonders unseen. I wondered if by any chance those two had ever met and exchanged ideas.
What could they have taught one another? I would never forget what they taught me - the burning love of truth in the one, the unfailing optimism and sense of joy in living in the other. What indeed can you not learn in a journey to and from town?