Ring out, ring in
The decay and finally the closure of the railway in our Scottish village brought about a considerable transformation in the life of the community. Before it happened we wrote outraged letters to the County Council, to British Rail and to our MP. In the end there was a glum and aggrieved acceptance of the inevitable and perpetual nostalgia for the good old days of steam and for our two stations.
Nostalgia is never enough. We had to adapt to new times and none more than the two railwaymen, Rab, the signalman and Davie, the porter. Up till then their whole world had been the narrow confines of the signal box and the platform, Rab working the signals, Davie clearing out the waiting room fire, selling tickets and calling out in a dirgelike chant the station's name at every train.
Now that they were flung back on their own resources, an intense rivalry started up between them. The energetic Rab adapted himself to changed conditions. He could turn his hand to anything. He became not only the village children's barber but their hero by his imitations of the birds he had heard on his dawn walks to the signal box. He could hoot like an owl, wail like a whaup, cry like a peewee and, in his phrase, burlm the cuckoo. The children followed him, cupping their hands to their mouths and calling, "Teach us the cushy doo, Rab. Show us how to burl!"
Davie on the other hand was doleful and rancorous, with little native wit. For years he had foretold the death of railways; now that he was redundant he saw the whole universe as doomed. A latter-day Jonah, he brooded over the newspapers, deploring the state of the world. If we were rash enough to ask him how he was, the floodgates of his woes were at once unleashed. "No weel at all, but what can you expect! Things have never been worse. See what's in the papers today!"
He haunted the various village events such as the Guy Fawkes bonfire on the 5 th of November, glaring balefully at the children with their squibs and rockets and at Rab in the thick of it all. "Mind yon gunpowder plot? They'll blow up Parliament next time they try. Not but what some of them inside don't deserve it," he would add darkly.
It was the fuel crisis that struck Davie with sudden inspiration. He constructed briquettes from coal dust, tightly squeezed into empty packets of porridge oats, trundling them along in a wheelbarrow that he had salvaged from his portering days. Instead of the station's name he now called out "Briquettes!" in such a dismal croak that the imminent end of the world seemed more likely than any fuel economy.
"What do you charge for your briquettes, Davie?" we would ask him. "What!m A pun a dozen! Yon's inflationary!" "Inflation . . ." Davie began, but we would beat a hasty retreat before he could launch out on that thorny topic.
Disconsolately Davie would hang around Rab, enviously watching his former colleague's ingenuity."Mind he doesn't sneck the lugs aff you!" he warned the children as Rab snipped at their tousled heads, chirruping, burling and hooting. "Him and his burlings!" Davie would mutter spitefully, since he could hardly tell a hoolet from a cuckoo, let alone imitate one.
"No one's daft enough to buy yon!" Rab exclaimed, surveying the disintegrating briquettes, symbol of Davie's inadequacy. "You'll no' earn much on trash like that. Here Davie, I'll clip your heid for nowt."
"You've roupit my heid," Davie would complain bitterly after one of Rab's trims. "It far too cauld to lose so much hair at one go."
"You've not all that much to lose," retorted the new-style Figaro nonchalantly, swaggering off on some new ploy. Like Flaubert's Monsieur Homais, he believed in progress. Davie, who did not, went slouching back home to read the papers and lament that lost golden age of railroads.
All over our village things continue to change. With no more trains, more and still more cars appear. The farmhand, Bobbie, goes sweeping along the village street on a motorbike, followed by a whirling, yelping flurry of collies , as addicted to speed as he is.
"He'll be the death of us all yet," Davie grumbles, springing into the ditch as Bobbie flashes past. "Don't say I didn't warn you."
"Naething like a wee touch of danger to keep us from stagnation," says the optimistic Rab.
The two railway stations, the high and the low, are invaded by willow herb and birch saplings. Children play in the deserted booking office and along the platform while the grassy track is transformed into a setting for games of bandits and cosmonauts. Hares, foxes and roe deer trot peacefully along where steam locomotives once thundered.
The two former railway men represent two opposing life forces, the acceptance of change and its rejection. Ring out the old, ring in the new! Ring out the darkness in the land,m could fittingly be quoted of Davie, while for Rab: Ring in the larger heart, the kindlier hand,m is more appropriate.There is not the shadow of a doubt that Rab is the man for us.