- Last night’s winds had finally blown themselves out; all that was left was an occasional gust. The accompanying rain was now little more than moisture dragged from the foliage, yet still with the ability to soak the unwary. The gusts that blew the autumn leaves around like dervishes would suddenly evaporate, leaving the leaves to settle in clusters of red and brown, until another gust picked them up to swirl and then settle in another corner, the eddy’s vanishing as swiftly as they arrived. Thomas Tregonney knew all about these conditions, having seen them for the past twenty-eight years ever since he came here to assume the position of stationmaster. He had seen all the weather that this tiny valley in the south-west of England could experience. Hot dry summers, when the rails shimmered like light dancing on water, cold winters when rain and snow would make the long haul up the bank from the junction almost impossible for the tiny locomotives. Almost impossible except that they had made it, the loco drivers had pride in their job, and would use all the tricks in their repertoire to keep the train moving, but then they; like Thomas; were Great Western Railway men.He closed the door of the house and locked it, the first time in all those years that he had done so. He wore his uniform, not the plain double-breasted jacket and trousers provided by British Railways; until recently they had been hanging in his cupboard where they had always hung; but his first uniform, that of the GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY; he had always thought of his erstwhile employer in capitals giving that Company the importance and respect he felt its due; this was the only uniform he would ever wear, scorning any other. The wing collar was threadbare in places, and the black tie shone with continual use. He settled the pillbox cap on his head the red embroidered initials of the GWR entwined over the peak the only colour in the uniform, pulled the front of the Frock Coat tightly together, and strode down the gravel path and up the slope of the platform.
As he walked this short distance it had been his habit to count the wagons in the Goods sidings, always a reliable indicator of how well the local economy was performing. For years he could rely on at least a dozen trucks and vans awaiting the pick-up goods train. On market days there would be more and even at this early hour of the morning the cattle pens would be filling with lowing and bleating beasts destined for South Molton. Now they were empty, as were the sidings themselves.
His station was a single platform affair, with waiting room and offices seemingly too large for just that single platform. Even though he realised that he had no need he still worked in the habit that those years had engendered. The platform was inspected thoroughly for signs of weed growth, or cracked paving slabs which could trip the unwary passenger. Little point as no passenger would ever wait here again, little point as no train would ever again pull in to discharge travellers or pick up. Little point as there were no longer Porters who could be detailed to pick the weeds, sweep the paving, or renew the white line painted on the very edge of the platform. Instead there was just Thomas and his lonely station.
It had been this way for two months since the last train had run, British Railways having decided to close the line, an act of vandalism according to Thomas, preceded by months, when trains would run at times when experience indicated that no trains need run, yet did not run when that same experience indicated that there were passengers in need of trains. Thomas was in no doubt that this was a deliberate policy designed to make the case for closure. He had made his protests, bombarding his superiors with complaints; telling them that this was not the way to run a railway; his letters had been acknowledged, but no action was forthcoming. Decisions had been made far away, and the actions of an insignificant Stationmaster at an insignificant station in an insignificant valley would have no influence on that decision.
For the last five months after the remaining Porter had been transferred elsewhere Thomas had done what he could to keep the station tidy. He did this despite the fact that in the April that year he was sixty-five and officially retired, although no notice had been issued for him to quit the station house. The waiting rooms had been swept every day, metal and wood work polished; often with polish and dusters purchased from his own pocket. Even when the track gangs were withdrawn, and the rails became crowned with rust, and the ballast choked with weeds, Thomas still cared, going down on the track running through the station to painstakingly pull every weed that showed its head; determined that HIS station would not show the air of neglect which others might and that it could still fulfil its function if required.
Occasionally one of the villagers would make the mile and a half walk to share a moment with him, to reminisce on how it used to be, or discuss the weather; and he would from time to time make that same walk in the reverse direction to drink a pint at the Combe Inn and eat a sandwich for Lunch. His was a constant dream that one day the bureaucracy would see its errors and the service would be restored. That dream ended when a Poster miraculously appeared on the notice board at the front of the station announcing that the track would be lifted in January the next year. In all his years here no poster was displayed unless Thomas gave his approval, yet all of a sudden the poster was there. No-one had thought to enlighten him, nor consult. They had taken his trains away, now they had taken his station away. Thomas was now superfluous.
Thomas was and remained a diligent Railwayman; duty was paramount and took precedence over everything even his family. He was allowed one day off every week, yet rarely took advantage of it. Trains ran seven days a week and as stationmaster Thomas would meet every one of them. Many branch lines would not have a Sunday service, nor did this branch, the Combe Lyney branch, until the First World War. The military authorities had insisted on Sunday services, much against the opposition of the Presbyterian Fathers in Paverton the terminus of the line. Troops under canvas on Exmoor needed to be moved at any time, even Sundays, so the Sunday service was set in place. Those same troops also needed some entertainment when Sunday passes were granted. The Presbyterians had succeeded in ensuring that the Magistrates allowed no Sunday opening of the local Pubs, so the Tommy’s crowded on to the trains bound for Combe Lyney and South Molton, where the Pubs were open. The returning trains were met by the stationmaster at Paverton, an Elder of the Methodist Church who declined to work on Sunday but nonetheless met the trains and with Bible in hand harangued the well-lubricated soldiers with promises of Damnation for desecrating the Lord’s Day. To men destined for the bloodbath of the trenches in France, his words had little impact; many knew they were heading for Hell in any case. The Sunday trains remained, even after the War had ended. Thomas knew all this because the Railway was a family, and like a family there was always an older Aunt or Uncle, or in this case a retired railwayman who would visit to sit in the Sun on the platform, and could be easily persuaded to relate the tales of yesteryear.
Having walked the length of the platform, Thomas returned to the station buildings, and brought out the broom from the office. Methodically he swept the waiting Room, and the office, sweeping outwards towards the covered porch. The Waiting Room and the Office formed two gables, and between was the porch, usually known to the Staff as the Glasshouse, a glassed area with an open exit to the platform. It was a nuisance and a blessing. A nuisance because at this time of year the leaves would gather in the lee it created; a blessing for in Spring and summer it was ideal for propagating plants which would then go to create the floral platform displays of which he had been rightly proud. All GWR stations were encouraged to garden, and the Company would happily supply seeds and bedding out plants. The GWR also organised competitions for the display, and on one occasion Combe Lyney had come second in the area competition. He swept slowly and thoroughly, taking care not to sweep the leaves out on the platform where they would be picked up by the wind and soon find their way back into the porch, but instead gathering up the piles and putting them into a sack. At last with all the leaves gone he swept the paving in the immediate area of the platform. These old paving slabs many laid in eighteen seventy four when the station was built, were pitted and scarred by the thousands of feet that had trod them. Thomas himself had added to this with his heavy boots for this was his beat. He met every train and it was here outside the entrance to the office that the Guards compartment would stop, the Guard and Thomas exchanging greetings as well as small parcels and Company paperwork. Thomas would then patrol the platform to where the Locomotive was, to glare at the Driver even when no infringement of the many rules could be found. As the trains were rarely more than two coaches long, never occupying more than half the length of the platform, that made it a relatively short walk.
He went into the waiting room with a duster, running it carefully over the long bench still showing its coat of Grey but worn through to bare wood on the arms and the leading edge of the seat, where so many hands and bottoms had rested. He straightened the few surviving leaflets and timetables, offering services that would never happen and left, locking the door after him. Next was the booking office, and at the rear of that his own tiny office, a desk; bolted to the wall to stop it falling over; with an antique of a Remington typewriter, and an ancient Chubb safe. He knew not what British Railways would do with these, but they were the property of the Railway so would be kept secure. Another door was locked, another chapter of his Life closed.
As he left the Porch he noticed that the clouds were building up again in the West, a sure sign that rain would once again be with them. Walking down the slope of the platform he paused to look both ways, and listened, before crossing the track. It would not occur to him that this was not necessary, as no train would be coming; it was just another habit of his lifetime’s service, drummed into him by his first Stationmaster at Par, who reinforced the lesson with gory details of the foolish souls who had perished, caught up in the wheels and driving rods of a locomotive. That some of these stories were fanciful never occurred to Thomas, at fourteen he was prepared to believe anything that his elders and betters cared to tell him.
He crossed the track and turning right made his way towards the Goods Shed. Here the desolation was greater, the rusty rails, hiding amongst the weed growth seemed intent on tripping him. They had been disconnected from the running line when the Signal box was demolished. Soon along with the running line they would be lifted by the last ever train; a Crane and numbers of flatbed wagons would make their way up to Paverton and then descend ripping the rails from the ballast behind it as it came. With that final act ninety three years of service to the valley would end. He gave this little thought as he approached the Good Shed. The rails ran up to the great doors, underneath them, and inside giving enough room for two or three wagons to be unloaded. Set into the right hand door was a smaller door, which Thomas had to duck through. Inside the shed the rails were still bright, although splattered with Pigeon droppings. The shed was perfumed with the aroma of the multitude of goods that had passed through its doors; the sweet smell of apples, the must of Wheat and Barley, the eye-watering sharpness of Paraffin and Oil, Cattle Cake, Fertiliser, all mixed together into a fragrance of the treasure which lay at the heart of the Great Western. For it was Goods traffic; not the passengers; that was the commercial reason for the railway. The Goods supplied the Dividends the shareholders of the GWR came to expect, year in year out without fail. Goods did not need fancy and expensive accommodation and carriages. Goods didn’t complain about slow trains, nor about being cold and rough handling. Goods created the greatest income for the lowest outlay. British Rail didn’t seem to understand this and wanted to abandon Truck loads and Parcel traffic in favour of Train loads, thereby giving the Road Transporters a free hand with this business. Therefore it was no surprise to Thomas that when the goods ceased to flow, the passenger income was not sufficient to justify the Line.
Thomas climbed up onto the goods deck by way of the small steps set into the end, and walked to where he had set an old Vegetable box. Picking it up he shook it, and out fell a desiccated carrot, half gnawed by one of the mice which had moved into the shed all those years ago, and which despite the cats which generations of Railwaymen had set to work, thrived on the produce stored almost every night. The mice had fed well, the cats had fed well and grew too full to be bothered chasing the mice, preferring to doze in the Sun or sleep in the relative warmth of an open Truck and then occasionally inadvertently locked in. How many cats had been shipped off to another part of the country in all those years would never be known, nor would the numbers who would arrive at Combe Lyney in the same way. Traps and cats had never in all those years resolved the problem of the mice and pigeons.
Thomas set the box on end, and climbed up; allowing a nod of satisfaction as the rope and noose he had set yesterday was at the right height. He looped the noose around his neck, and with no further thought, rocked his feet on the box until it fell over. He made no sound as the noose tightened around his neck, for that was not his way, no complaint, just acceptance. Not even when the tautening rope dislodged his beloved cap. It fell to the dusty floor, as Thomas Tregonney hung swaying, and with eyes closed waited for death. His duty was done.