He had grown up on the railways: on this particular line, anyway. He was still young but already could open the carriage doors without any help. I suppose you could say that he was a bit of a vagabond, although he did keep himself clean and tidy. Regular commuters talked to him, and often, somehow, found themselves sharing their food with him: the ticket inspectors merely took one look into his innocent eyes, and didn’t bother to ask. They all knew him, and accepted that he was a seasoned, if slightly unconventional, traveller.
The station was fairly typical of a country village stop. The buildings and flower-boxes were neatly kept, even if the signs, doors, and other woodwork could do with a fresh coat of paint, but that hardly mattered. He knew where he was long before the ‘Spirit of Dunkirk’ Class 4-6-2 locomotive, tender, and rake of six carriages, had wheezed and clunked to a complete stop. He shuffled off the seat, and was soon sitting on the platform at Corwen Halt, watching the train move noisily off on the next leg of its journey, towards the larger towns, and the end of the line.
He momentarily scratched an imaginary itch at the back of his head, and then strolled casually past the railway guard: on towards the end of the station building. Old George didn’t say anything: just nodded, and grinned at him. He knew what that meant. The guard’s room would be empty; the stove would be on, and the battered old armchair was still comfy enough that he could doze there through most of the afternoon, without anyone interrupting him.
He did sleep, and therefore missed her arrival.
The thick woollen skirt rustled slightly against her overcoat, as she stepped down. The ‘fresh’ country breeze was exactly as she recalled it, and she was glad of the extra petticoat that helped to keep her legs warm. The railway guard at the gate looked much as she expected him to. Maybe the wrinkles in the gnarled, rustic face were a fraction deeper, but it still held the same open, helpful and welcoming expression she remembered. It took only a moment for his name to resurface in her mind. She smiled as she approached, and extended her gloved hand.
“George: isn’t it? Corwen doesn’t appear to have changed much”.
He shook her hand, after a brief hesitation, and queried,
“Miss … “?
“Miss Rodgers … Harriet Rodgers. I was evacuated here. I have often wondered how on earth you put up with us youngsters. I think we almost doubled the local population”.
He ventured a polite laugh.
“Oh, you rascals certainly turned our quiet lives upside down: probably for the better, overall. Please forgive my memory: there were so many of you: I’ll place you eventually. What brings you this way again, if you don’t mind me asking”?
Harriet ventured a quick look around before replying.
“I don’t think I was ever cut out to be a city girl. It feels so right to be back. I’m going to be working here, and sometimes with you … Does Martha still have her tea shop? I’ll treat you to a cuppa, and one of her wonderful Eccles cakes, if she still makes them, and we can chat for a while.”
“That’s very kind of you, Miss. There’s slightly over fifty minutes before the Gartlleston train is due, so it won’t do any harm for me to take a break. The old tea room was closed down some fourteen months ago, but Martha is still around, and I can offer you something just as good … if you’d like to follow me”?
George led Harriet through to the station hall, and past the small ticket kiosk. There in one corner, where an over-large waiting room used to be, was a cheerful looking ‘new’ tea room. George spared a glance at the bright sign above the door … ‘Corwen Café’.
“Never really liked that modern term, café, but we are more than half way through the century now, so I suppose even us country folk have to ‘move with the times’. Martha runs it, and it makes far better use of the space … you’ll be pleased to know that she ‘does’ still bake all her own cakes”.
Her coat was hanging on a hook near the door, and they sat comfortably close to the small paraffin heater. It was, for her, like stepping back in time. The furniture was familiar to her: the curtains, and pretty green gingham tablecloths. She felt as if they had merely moved the old place into here as a complete entity: lock, stock, and proverbial barrel. Some food items were still subject to rationing, of course, however this didn’t seem to affect the display of pastries and cakes on offer. She remembered that even four short years ago, during the closing stages of the war, a certain lady had always managed to produce mouth-watering delights, despite the scarcity of ingredients like sugar, fruit, and fresh eggs. The same ‘certain lady’ greeted her with open arms, and a brief peck of welcome. Martha still had that ‘ruddy’ country glow to her cheeks: still wore her grey hair in a tidy bun, and hardly seemed any different to when they had last seen each other. The floral apron, though faded slightly, was almost certainly the same one she had always worn.
Harriet wiped the last few crumbs of the second Eccles cake away from her lips, and turned to resume her conversation with the guard.
“… So that’s about it. With all the opportunities now open to young women like myself, I decided that I would rather live away from the city, and closer to the countryside. I worked hard and, as a result, you now have the pleasure of knowing the first female ticket supervisor for this region. As soon as I heard that the post was available, I just ‘had’ to apply for it. They did say that a railway house would be one of my perks, but I thought I would get here a week early, and look up some of the families and friends I haven’t seen for a while. I take it I’ll be able to get a room at the Plough, while I’m waiting for my things to be brought up from London”?
George put down his teacup.
“No need for that. I know Doris and Jonathan would be more than happy to see you, and have you under their roof, but the number three cottage, next-door to mine, is habitable now. Fireplace is clear, chimney is open, and there’s coal in the bunker. Fresh bed-linen in the cupboard, and even a few basics in the larder. Area office didn’t say who would be staying there, but I like to be prepared in advance. I’ll get the keys for you, as soon as the two-thirty-seven has gone through … What are you now, young lady: twenty, twenty-one? … and a supervisor already … can’t say as I either approve, or disapprove. It’s a changing world sure enough. I think I can honestly claim that, for all the chaos you caused, most of you were well behaved, so you’re welcome as my new neighbour. I’m glad to know you, again, Miss Harriet Rodgers”.
They walked slowly back to the gate. George still limped slightly, courtesy of the leg injury that had prevented him from doing military service. They continued chatting: ‘catching up’, and Harriet was delighted to discover that Rose and Maurice remained up at Saracen’s Farm. They had been her ‘parents’ whilst she was here before, and she really looked forward to seeing them once more, as soon as possible.
Corwen Halt was exactly as busy, or not, as she expected it to be at this time of day. Two people got off the train: one got on. It hardly broke into their conversation at all.
“I’m very pleased that we had such an impact on you. I’m just not too sure that I really understand why you chose to come back and live here or, for that matter, why you decided to work on the railway”.
She looked a bit sad: he could see it in the young woman’s face. Her voice was quiet, wistful, as she answered him.
“I was a very impressionable girl. I remember, when we came here, most of us hadn’t even seen any animals apart from cats, dogs, and budgerigars. Cows and horses were quite strange things to us. I liked it from the first day: not because it was different and exciting, but because it was so warm and welcoming. It was ‘right’ for me to be here, and it actually felt wrong once I’d returned to the city. This village managed to touch my heart, and my life … As for the railway connection: it wasn’t something that I’d even considered, until the day I was leaving”.
Old George dabbed at suddenly moistened eyes with a handkerchief, and turned his friendly smile towards her. His voice cracked slightly as he spoke.
“I remember you now. It was in the old carriage that was rusting away in the siding over there. I remember a curious girl, couldn’t have been more than sixteen-year-old, waiting for the train back to London: not expecting to be a mid-wife, until she heard the noises and went to investigate. I saw it all through the window: how she held the new-born in her lap, and named him, before having to give him back … There’s one familiar face around here that should be glad to see you”.
He raised his voice to yell, in a very un-gentlemanly way,
“Hey: Lazy bones … Guess who’s here”?
He woke abruptly at the call. There was the scent he would never forget: the first thing, after his mother, that had imprinted itself on his little life. He raced down the platform at full speed, and threw himself into her arms.
Harriet was almost bowled over, but managed to brace herself just in time to avoid being knocked to the ground. She cried, and tousled the light blonde hair while she hugged the precious bundle close to her. It was several minutes before she could keep back the tears, enough to hold the squirming Labrador slightly away from her face, and softly whisper,
“You’ve grown quite a bit since I last saw you … It’s alright, Albert. It’s alright: We’re ‘both’ home now”.