STORYLINE - 18: Country Lane - A Leisurely Walk Leads To Recalled Memories
I'm out in the forest, away from the city crowds...
Ahead of me the lane bends to the right and the way's clear well ahead. I can see no horse riders or cyclists through the trees that I'd have to get out of the way for. All's well with the world and I've got the day off, it's like having a midweek Bank Holiday Monday!
Stress has been my watchword at work lately. Too much responsibility and not enough time or help. The boss beckoned me through the glass partition. I thought straight away, 'Oh hell! This is the chop, the jolly old office meat cleaver was about to be wielded'. I'd made some mistakes with calculation - corkers, no less. And now the company's umbilical was about to be severed to my desk. I was to be cast into the deepest recesses of the Jubilee Line. In another year I'd be free anyway, a pensioner, but I always get this feeling of being due for the 'push'...
'Jeff', the boss told me, 'you haven't been your usual chipper self lately. Everything all right with you, is it? Look, tomorrow's going to be slack, you know. You're due a bit of leave next week, why not add the extra two days coming to you and say 'see you a week on Monday'?
What, no chop? They'd started calling me 'Jeff' lately because they reckoned me a bit slow on the uptake. Either that or due a hearing aid. Cockney rhyming slang is, 'Mutton Jeff' for deaf, see? You didn't see me for dust. The boss split himself laughing, I almost fell over the tea lady on the way out, and I used to be the first in the queue at break time! For twenty minutes the office sounded like a cow byre, 'chomp-chomp, burp, slurp'. That day I was out of it before you could say 'sarnie'.
So now i'm on this lane. It's early October with a westerly blowing the tops of the trees, and I'm down here looking up, feeling happier for the first time since I won a Grand on the Lottery. Down here you can hardly feel a breeze. With all these trees around me, it's like being cocooned. All's right with the world then... or is it?
That westerly wind feels as if it's worked its way around the north-east. I look up and sure enough, the wind's blowing across the treetops with a vengeance, from the direction of Ongar. That's Essex for the uninitiated. Keep that location in mind, it'll have a bearing on what's to come.
Following the path southwards is easy enough at the moment with the wind at my back. I came out here with a sweater over my shirt (and sweatshirt under that. I might thank my stars for that yet). After the bend comes a parting of the paths, with a horse track that leads west over open land, overlooking North London beyond the King George Reservoir. At least it did.
You remember I said I'd been a bit stressed lately. Would you believe stress could move you over two hundred and fifty miles north - and back almost forty years?.I swear I set out in October, 2014. What I can see in front of me is what haunted me from January, 1963. A railway accident that happened mid-month when I was a young lad.
We'd been ushered into the toolvan on a breakdown train, to go up to Stainmore, the highest railway line in England on the Pennine 'backbone'. An engine had come off the line and we'd have to re-rail it. That was on the Thursday afternoon at Bishop Auckland. The guard's whistle seemed to be too close for comfort, almost in my ears when the engine pulled away, westward. The clouds had been chased by a following easterly, brisk they call it. Brisk and chill. Still, it could be worse.
'It could be worse', I told Danny, sitting next to me, rocking along sideways, now and then being thrown backwards against the wall of the toolvan. I sat closer to the stove. Back then I seemed to lead a charmed life, but I had the feeling a tomcat does when he's about to part with one of his lives. It was uncanny.
'Cheerful sod, aren't yer!' Danny looked my way, then away at the tools swinging on their hooks. There was allsorts in here, packing to lift wagons or the like off the ballast and steel poles to ease the packing toward the wheels so they came back into contact with the rails. There were loco jacks to get the heavier stuff back onto the metals, and there were shovels aplenty for us 'soldiers' as the gaffer called us. The general manager, permanent way department, was an ex-officer in the Royal Engineers, worked on the Burma Railway under Japanese 'supervision'.
We rattled about for half an hour before we were all called out to do our 'bit'. Somebody banged on the toolvan wall and we grabbed our shovels, dropped down onto the ballast and took one look.
'Snow?!' It was bone dry when we left Bishop Auckland!
'Where did this lot come from?'
'It's been 'ere since this mornin' lad!' Arthur Dean laughed at the look Danny gave him. 'That'll get yer noowhere. Come on, let's get on wi' it. Strappin' lad like you, we'll be away again in no time!'
Danny was big, a bit on the chubby side but with muscles like a navvy and only seventeen. He wanted to join the Navy on his eighteenth, he kept telling us. So they gave him the back-breaking jobs the rest of us weren't keen on. That day he was given the job of pushing down on the steel bar along with 'Tarzan', Michael O'Halloran from County Offaly whose great-great grandfather came to work as a navvy on the Midland Railway between Settle and Carlisle. He was built like a *Dreadnought!
They both pushed down together, Michael grinning like a ginger Cheshire cat. As the crane lifted the pole jerked and threw Danny into the air, under the wheels of the crane runner as it lurched forward with the sudden freedom of movement. Michael had let go and fell back against the packing timbers, to stand bruised but in one piece. Danny wasn't so lucky.
I left the railway a year later to join the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). Still risky with postings to hotspots like Northern Ireland, but comparatively safe. Then again the railways became safer as well. I was in Civvy Street after my forty-fifth birthday, working in telecommunications. But that stayed with me, seeing Danny in a pool of blood with both legs gone. The cold saved him. He was in hospital off and on for the rest of his days. The booze saw him off.
Funny, as if it was all a dream the sun comes out and bathes the field in an almost summery light. The picture of an icy cold white Barras Station fades to the view of North London again, the clouds coming high across the tree tops from the north-west now, wispy with the wind-change. I still see Danny, though, sharp as anything. I hear him as well. You can never get away from that, even with the sun shining. I look forward to finishing work, with the freedom to walk anywhere - except on this lane..
"Your prompt is this photograph of a country road. Perhaps you have walked this path many times; do the colors, sights and sounds of the autumn woods bring you peace and contentment? Or, is this a place you have never been before? What lies beyond that bend?
That was the brief. You might have enjoyed reading this rendition. If so, take a look at some of the other challenges I took on from Hub-pages members, and the other pages in the STORYLINE series of pages on this site
*That asterisk above beside the noun 'Dreadnought': these were WWI Royal Navy battleships built to match those of the Kaiser's North Sea Fleet
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