Monday, 19 October 2015

Bucket List

Mine was not an ordinary childhood.

At the age of ten I refused to comply with the school dress code and opted for a tie with the Taj Mahal on it and a deerstalker hat ( I was going through my Sherlock Holmes phase). When the school    insisted I comply I did, but wore my mum's false teeth to class as a protest.
I was threatened with 'consequences' when they found me singing rude songs in a cemetery and I  nearly drowned my friend Derek when I entered us both in a lifesaving competition even though neither of us could swim.

In fairness though, it has to be said that I did not come from a normal family.

My father ( a respectable white collar engineer with a romantic, nostalgic nature and a very selective approach to the law) was an unpredictable mixture of traditional values and bat shit crazy revolutionary tendencies.

When they shut the local railway station he decided that it was our civic duty to rescue as many historical artefacts from it as possible for the Nation, for future generations, but mostly for us.

Our first acquisition was a large red fire bucket which made it out in broad daylight under his coat.

After that, it sort of snowballed.

Lamps, signals, twiddly Victorian iron things with knobs on and even on one occasion part of a locomotive which he somehow wrestled into the boot of the car and couldn't lift out when we got home and the adrenalin had receded.

We became Ninja-like, stealthy and expert at scuttling about in the dark with large amounts of things that nobody else wanted stuffed up our jumpers.
There were a lot of redundant  railways, and a lot of 'liberating' to be done.
In fairness to him, all of this stuff would have been bulldozed into a ball and dumped in a landfill site, but that wouldn't have formed much of a defence if we'd come within the boney grasp of a local magistrate.

We covered a lot of ground and amassed a considerable collection of toilet door signs, bits of railing  and other fabulous examples of railway related tat but there was one site that eluded us:
On his way to work each day he passed an almost forgotten station that, although technically closed, lay within the grounds of the local racecourse with all its attendant security.
It was just too risky, but it bugged him that all those Great Western toilet roll holders and monogrammed boot scrapers were so close and yet so terribly far away.

I loved, and hated these midnight walks on the wild side, with the risk of capture and the thrill of getting away on our toes with yet another rusty prize.
Most of all, though, it was about me and my dad getting up to stuff together.
We walked for miles along abandoned tracks, the cuttings thick with Rosebay Willow Herb that grew wherever ash and cinders from long gone steam trains lay.
When we spotted the constabulary waiting by our parked car, we hid our loot in the bushes and wandered back as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a father and son to take a stroll at two o'clock in the morning dressed entirely in black.

Looking back, I can see now how much it has influenced me today, and I'm grateful for it.
"Show me the bug eyed weird ten year old and I'll show you the man" etc.

My dad, like all those old stations and pilfered plunder, has gone now.

He loved the romance of old railways, and I loved that he shared that with me.
I buried his ashes by a track leading to the cottage he and my mum rented when they were first married.
Escaping from war torn Glasgow, and a selection of dragon-like mothers, they hid themselves away in rural Hampshire.
He worked away all week, but Friday would find him on the last train home.
The image was one that lived with him to the end and when he captured it in a poem, he inadvertently gave me the clues as to where his last call should be.

I'd planned to keep some of him back though, but for that I'd need a fire bucket...

I found the very thing at my first attempt, on ebay.
An original railway fire bucket in need of a lick of paint - "it's in the garden, put the money through the letterbox".
The house I collected it from was, unbelievably, in sight of the racecourse station.
A little part of him is in there now, and the Rosebay Willow Herb I planted seems to appreciate him too.
Cheers dad, it was a blast.

Yet in my heart those ancient trains
Will run while memory remains,
For when I worked in Gloucestershire,
On Friday nights (in their last year)
To lamp-lit Wickham, down the line,
Would come a train, entirely mine,
And Northbound, into growing night
Would spangle Hampshire fields with light.

The whistle yelped, the chimney spoke,
And owls and drowsy duck ponds woke:
A dry ditch sloped up from the lane,
And through a cornfield, trodden plain,
A path led to my week-long dream
Of high red roof and window-gleam:
"Infuse the tea-he's home again!"
And she would bless its sound and fly
To fetch a hero's apple pie.

Ian Stuart Alexander

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