The night is dark and I am small
but tall enough to stand
next to my father’s case,
battered leather, brown,
in the crowded corridor.
My mother is sitting down,
in fur trimmed hat,
on matriarchal luggage,
grey imitation crocodile,
its belly pregnant with camisoles,
sponge bags and old towels.
My childish world that day
a swaying cacophony
of piled up kit bags
and bracing legs,
wearing khaki or navy blue
and the Few
displaying stripes or wings,
Brylcreme boys in lighter hue.
Outside the window,
cinders spark and flash
with that funny smell
of burning coke and ash
that invokes the sound and fury of
Behemoth striding through the night,
on a working holiday from Hell.
In compartment and corridor
the dolorous air is full of smoke:
the stench of Woodbines,
Players and Craven-A combines
with the rank perspiration
of other ranks,
seeping from serge uniforms
and woollen socks,
brown or grey,
darned in desperation
by yearning wives,
inured to loss and separation,
ground down by force of habit
turning factory wheels
and keeping home fires bright.
The night is warm:
the window’s leather tongue
lolls out long, swaying,
buttoned down for ventilation,
a breath of air refreshing
the Victorian dream,
preserved for each new generation
of travellers in the age of steam.
Nose pressed to the window,
I see the repeating shadows
of the latticed bridges, black
telegraph poles and trees;
red and green eyes burning,
signals raised and lowered by
invisible hands and ties pulling levers
in windowed boxes along the track.
On the horizon Bessemers roar,
licking at the purple sky;
flaming desperation of a nation
facing sure defeat in war
or, maybe, the elation
of unexpected victory.
the Plough turns the celestial sod
about the ill-lit maypole,
a vacant carousel
without its rider god.
In glimmering cities light fingers
reach out in vain,
feeling for the throbbing aeroplane,
bearing incendiaries to rain
down fire on the Co-Op
courtesy of Heinkel
or Messers Smith and Co,
whistling into mean streets below,
and allotments (to maim
the odd marrow or geranium)
where stirrup pumps and red buckets
stand ready to dump cold water
on German ire and magnesium.
Underfoot the floor bucks and clacks
to the unwritten song of the railway tracks.
Sleeping heads loll and jerk,
Pontoon players brag and smirk,
knee to knee over yesterday’s daily rag,
dusted with droppings from a drooping fag.
Doors slide open and slam,
bodies squeeze and cram
in urgent procession
to the lavatory pan
or distant dining car.
A woman stoops and spits
into her handkerchief and,
with a toil worn hand,
wipes away the smutty smears,
puffed out from iron lungs by straining gears
and blown through the window where I stand.
On towards the North
the iron charivari rides,
shattering the silence of the night,
through England’s craggy spine
and lonely valleys striding forth
along the trans-Pennine line,
into the grey glimmer of first light.
From battered Crewe to Manchester,
Wigan, Huddersfield and Bradford,
the LMS express drags its motley load
into the industrial fields of grimy Leeds
where barrage balloons hang out,
hawsers dangling overhead,
angling nightly for a German scout.
Slowing before the destination,
we wait while the lights are red.
Ghostly figures loiter in the siding
beneath the curving iron shed
or lurk within the murky station,
shunting coal tenders up ahead.
Within the train, sleepers wake,
yawning, stretching, standing,
dragging luggage from the rack,
the weary throng prepares to disembark.
Couplings jerk and clang
and with a last triumphant shriek
and bang the monster comes to rest,
disgorging smoke and oily reek.
Windows crash down:
weary arms reach out,
dangling hands grope
for brass handles;
doors fly open and idly swing,
releasing the damned
from their mobile purgatory
into the Yorkshire morning.
Sixty years after, in my brain,
the travelling ghosts alight again
from their journey into night.
But none remain to haunt me now,
lost riders on that ghostly train.