Bart

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Comedy
General
Bart is a glib-tongued, authority-despising young teenager who lives with his divorced father. His great passion is trains, so he is delighted when given the chance to spend the summer by the world's longest mainline railway in miniature. But how welcome will he be by the staff once they get to know him? And how will he react when his father takes up with another woman?

Bart One

Thor was in a right tizzy that night, hurling his hammer for all he was worth from one corner of the heavens to another. Lightning forked, flashed and floodlit the sky, while the thunder rumbled and rolled, then roared, now far, now near, constantly returning.

A grander spectacle could not have been imagined to herald any entrance. But speak to me not of portents, omens, harbingers or signs. I didn't believe in them then and I don't believe in them now.

The fact remains, however, that like the very universe itself, Bart came in with a bang.

                                                   * * *

Hello. I'm Bart. And I’m bats about trains. Absolutely train mad! I adore trains and draw trains, eat and drink and dream trains, imitate trains, sing train songs, write train names, play train games, pray train prayers... Our Father who art in the Great Control Centre, hallowed be Thy rails... Give us this day our daily trains and forgive us our trespassing... etc., etc. My greatest, most solemn and holy desire in life has always been to drive a train. How many times have I gone down on bended knee and said, O Lord above, Creator of every trunk and branch line, every siding and every switchpoint, Lord of all the locos, grant but this my greatest wish...?

Otherwise I'm perfectly normal.

                                                   * * *

Bart's Mum had been firmly resolved not to dash off to the hospital at the first false alarm. So we waited. And waited. And when the decision to depart was finally made and I couldn't get a taxi, I had fearful visions of a makeshift domestic delivery without even a DYI guidebook to turn to. When we did eventually arrive, both the driver and I had to assist BM to the maternity ward.

I was then shown to a waiting room where several men were sitting, showing clear signs of nervous fatigue. Five or ten minutes went by. A nurse came in. All the tired and anxious faces stirred, legs moved, bodies straight­ened. She called my name, so I rose and followed her out, aware of indignant, even outraged, stares, as though I were blatantly jumping the queue, having doubtlessly bribed the powers that be.

But in I went. The hospital encouraged Dads to be present at arrival time and I certainly wasn't going to miss out. There are no second chances, with the same child that is. Indeed, I pity all those paters who have not shared the experience. I helped administer gas when necessary. I got out of the way when necessary. And I saw him first.

                                                   * * *

Never can anything without wings have had an opening in its face more suited to snapping up worms from the soil than the creature who takes us for English. So we call him Birdie. (There are other reasons too.) His real name's Smith.

Well, I suppose it all started that day when we had Birdie at the end of the morning, having already suffered Bio Bill going on about our feathered friends, with tits and cranes and heaven knows what else (but not Smith), and Stone Age Sam babbling about the time before even he was born and the place, or much of it, was covered with ice.

Birdie came in with his book of poetry under his arm and in no time at all was spouting about moons waxing and waning, things wheeling and straining and people being cut to the quick, while 'doths' and 'eres' and 'perchan­ces' poured from his beak and flew through the air in flocks.

“Wouldst that thou...” I heard him say, before I switched off and started to scribble a poem of my own. It was better than listening to him.

    Wouldst that though might shut thy gob,

    Depart and seek another job,

    Ere I to the quick am cut

    And ram your book right down your gut!

Then I abandoned poetry altogether and turned my attention to something more worthwhile – drawing trains in my rough-work book. I'd done a couple of Inter City 125s and was well into a poor, still-born APT tilting round a bend, when an elbow hit me in the ribs. It was Sandy, who sits next to me. Now believe you me, knobbly knees (and he's got those as well) are nothing to the sharp, pointed bits of bone joining that boy's upper arms to the parts that hold on to his hands.

I turned round fast, ready to poke the ball point of my pen in an appropriate place, hard, because it's not pleasant being derailed so suddenly and painfully. But although he was facing straight ahead, his eyes were looking at an angle of ninety degrees past my right shoulder. So I turned that way. And there was Birdie, standing just behind me, staring at my book from somewhere near the ceiling. He's about eight foot tall – when you're sitting down. Six-foot-four otherwise. Talk about Bird's eye view!

“And what have you been doing Silver?” he said.

“Me Sir?”

“As far as I am aware you are the only Silver in the class, the one and only piece of precious metal we have.”

He has a sense of humour, Birdie, about on a par with any other dumb animal in danger of extinction.

“I've been drawing Sir... Drawing trains Sir...”

“But this is an English lesson Silver. And don't for goodness sake say they are English trains,” he added hastily, no doubt delighted to earn a few laughs, though he looked as po-faced as ever. “Do you ever think of anything but trains Silver?”

“No Sir. I mean yes Sir. Sometimes Sir.”

“But not when we are talking about poetry.”

“No Sir. I mean...”

“There's only one thing I can think of Silver to overcome the difficulty you obviously have and that is to try to combine your passion for railway locomotion with what you should be thinking about during my lesson. You can write me a poem, Silver. Let's say about twenty lines. On trains. Now that should suit you fine, shouldn't it?”

“Er, not really Sir...” I began to say. But I couldn't get the thought out of my mind that if he started fishing around on my desk he might find the little verse I'd already scribbled. “I mean yes Sir...”

“Good. You can bring it to me in the morning.”

“But... But...”

“But what Silver?”

“... Nothing Sir.”

                                                   * * *

He howled for the first six months. Almost non-stop. “Colic!” they said – the pundits, the ones with an instant answer to every care caused by the additions to other people's families. “It's colic, poor thing! Colic!”

“Get a hot water bottle.”

“Turn him over.”

“Lay him across your lap.”

“Pick him up.”

“Put him down.”

The advice was as unending as it was conflicting. And useless. Nothing worked, except perhaps the plug. We bought him a special rack for his dummies. The pundits were horrified. “Filthy habit!” they might mumble, not quite out of earshot.

“Overworked tum,” said the down-to-earth doctor.

Which figured. The Bartlet was always hungry. Could never guzzle down enough. It was the same throughout his early childhood. The problem was not getting him to eat, but getting him to stop. No wonder his tum hurt. Whose wouldn't? So he howled.

People felt sorry for him, and said so, with never a word or gesture of sympathy for the prime sufferers, who piled sleepless nights upon stress-filled days till the strains could no longer be glossed over. Worse still, often they blamed us for his wails, as though we deliberate­ly tormented him.

If there is one thing I have learnt in life, it is compassion for those who have begotten infants that screech and squall without end, for they are the true martyrs of mankind, tortured by day and by night, beset with doubt and beheld with contempt. What human person­ality can fail to undergo change after exposure to a prolonged dose of such treatment? If ever my ship comes home, my fortune made, I swear I shall endow a fat foundation for the psychiatric care of parents suffering from chronic bawling infantitis and its disastrous side effects. It is time someone stood up, aware of their plight, and championed their cause.

                                                   * * *

So that's this evening ruined, I thought when Birdie went back to the teacher's desk. I'd planned to go train spotting straight after school. But in fact, I got most of the poem done in the lunch break and finished it in maths in the afternoon. It went like this:

    Give Me A Train

    by B.Silver

    When moon doth wane

    And dog doth strain,

    When sky doth drain

    And limbs do pain

    (From outlawed cane)

    Give me a train.

    When others stroll down country lane,

    Observe the tit, the wheeling crane,

    The ridge where ice once left moraine,

    When endless lessons tire the brain

    Till one wonders who is sane

    Give me a train.


    What train?

    It matters not I say,

    Old or new,

    By night or day.

    A dreamlined, streamlined,

   Dashing, flashing,

   Super-speeding,

   Sound-exceeding,

   Mainline train.

   Or with puffing, hooting,

   Crawling, stalling,

   Hissing, steaming

   Perchance stopped and dreaming,

   Local loco,

   In the rain (t’wit).

As long as it’s a real life train.

OK, it was more than twenty lines. But that was to stop him complaining about their length. I know what he's like. As it was, when I handed it in the next day he glanced at it, cheeped a “Thank you Silver, there's nothing like poetry for improving the concentration,” and put it in his desk. But I could have sworn he had trouble keeping his pecker stiff and straight.

                                                   * * *

When sufficient damage had been done, he gave up howling on all occasions as a matter of pride and principle and kept his outbursts for specially selected moments, such as four-thirty in the morning, when he woke up. Always at the same time. He also kept his complaints for private consumption. When other people were around he’d sit up with sparkling eyes, full of goos and gahs and little giggles.

“What a delightful baby!”

“Isn't he pretty!”

“Just like my little grandson!”

“My Johnny used to be like that!”

“What a joy he must be!”

And they would coo and cluck and cackle over him, never understanding why he had such careworn parents.

                                                   * * *

Dad's a deadly menace in the kitchen. I think. Some might disagree. There are even those who say he could have been a chef, gawdelpus! Trouble is he's a veggie nut. An organic veggie nut into the bargain. Grows most of it himself. When he gets going in front of the cooker there's no telling what concoction he's going to come up with. You wouldn't believe such a mixture of rabbit feed was possible. And if he's in the mood, he'll give it fancy names as well, like pommes provençales, or soufflé espagnole, or boulettes á la this or that, instead of saying straight out: spuds with garlic, dump­lings, or what-have-you. Then there are times when he won't go near the cooker at all if he can help it. Everything'll be as raw as the moment it came out of the ground, but scrubbed and scrubbed, and hacked to bits.

I suppose we all have our quirks. But give me a plateful of spaghetti with lashings of meat sauce any day. Or bangers and mash. Or an oversized hamburger. And heaven save me from those pommes provençales! They must have been developed as a secret weapon during the Second World War to keep invaders out of southern France.

Anyway, we came to an agreement, Dad and me – one veg-only night a week at most, no grated grass as main dish and no garlic. Ever! There was some pretty hard bargaining, I can tell you. But we hammered it out and put it in writing. There are what Birdie would call “differences of interpretation” at times all right, a few grumbles here and there, but on the whole it seems to work. Thank the Lord Mum's not like that. At her place it's fish fingers and chips, beefburg­ers and chips, beans and chips, with seldom a veg in sight. I sometimes wonder whether she got the way she is because of Dad, or whether he got the way he is because of her.

The night I got home from train spotting was a veggie night. I was so hungry I didn't care. Mushroom and tomato turnovers I think it was, with stuffed peppers, or aubergines, or something similar. It's all the same to me. And bean sprouts. There are always bean sprouts. Whole jars of them wherever you go. And some hacked raw green stuff. If you're really famished it'll go down I suppose.

We'd moved on to the fruit salad when he came out with it. “How would you like to spend the summer down on the Kent coast?” he said. Some people he knew with a big house overlooking the sea were going away for a few months and wanted him to look after it. Didn't sound very exciting. Worth a one-week visit maybe. Definitely not more. Place was miles from anywhere, but took passing bed-and-breakfast­ers and the owners didn't want to lose the trade.

Bit of a joke that was eh? Fancy asking Dad of all people! Or did they imagine the guests would appreciate bean sprouts for breakfast? With herb tea to wash 'em down! Those people would have been better off closing up for the season and opening again next year, without having their name dragged in the Vegemite. No. It didn't sound like anything for me. He'd have to sort it out with Mum. I'd have to stay with her from the end of May anyway if he was going to get down there early enough. Right until fairly late in July.

Then I remembered a promise he'd made. We were going to North Wales in the summer holiday on our Family Railcard, to visit the little railways. He couldn't run off somewhere else! A promise is a promise.

“But there's a railway right there in Kent,” he said. “A little railway. Runs right along the coast. They say it's the longest little railway in the world.”

“How far away is it?”

“From Folkestone, about ten miles.”

“From the house?”

“Walking distance.”

“A day's march?”

“Roughly ten minutes' stroll up the road.”

“When do we leave?”

Bart Two

His teeth came late, whatever significance that might have, and he went on consuming mashed and crushed and liquid fodder. The strained pears were a particular favourite of mine, though he all too seldom left any. I remember once on a picnic we took with three jars. One each. He knocked his back with scarcely a dribble down his chin, a sinister sign. What fools we were! This was to be but a small additional snack for him. We should have known better and lined his stomach with a double ration of mashed potato laced with porridge.

The instant he caught sight of the second jar, off he went – fire, police, ambulance, air-raid warning, burglar alarm and abandon ship all in one, arms stretching hard towards it. Heads were turned for miles around. To refuse would have been to run the risk of arrest on suspicion of baby bashing. Spoon by spoon he slurped it up. The lot.

Oh no! He didn't get the third jar. Then neither did I. It stayed hidden. I could have smuggled it into my pocket, of course, and gone off somewhere. But his mother liked the stuff too, damn it.

He knocked it back the next day. Or so I was informed.

                                                  * * *

Just like Dad to keep the most important bit to last! Arrangements were soon made. I was given permission to take almost two months off school, provided I did extra work while I was away to make up for it. The situation was unavoidable. Dad simply had to go for business reasons and family circumstances being what they were, he couldn’t do so unless I went with.

                                                  * * *

He didn't crawl on hands and knees like other babies, but had a peculiar method of sliding rapidly on his well-padded posterior, one leg somehow tucked in. I suppose there are more efficient methods of polishing the floor, but this one wasn’t to be scoffed at. We could have leased him out on an hourly basis, as long as a means could be devised of keeping him moving, which wouldn't have been very difficult. A jar of strained pears on the end of a stick would have done nicely – although a silencer would have been necessary, unless there was a limitless supply of the stuff.

Sweets and chocolates he knew nothing of until he was nearly three years old. Any brought into the home by members of his gushing, misguided fan club, the chair­person, president and cheerleader of which were all rolled into the one shapeless form of his maternal grandmother, now re-transported to the land of her late husband’s ancestors, were ‘put away’ for him. And he must have been the only infant within a radius of many miles to have his regular dollop of carrot juice. Which he loved. Then. How times have changed!

                                                  * * *

To get to where we were going, you had to travel to Folkestone. And to get to Folkestone, you had to go to London. Now there are at least ten main line terminuses in London, plus an untold number of smaller stations, to say nothing of the train-spotter’s delight, the super-fab Clapham Junction. You could spend weeks on end going from one of them to another and never getting tired of it. Yet if I go to London for as much as half a day with my Dad, you know what he goes on about? He’ll say to me, “Why don’t we go and look at the area where I grew up, where I went to school.”

He always wants to show me where he lived, where he did this and that, as though he came from Mecca. Or is it Medina? (Atlas would know, our geography master. He's been to both.)

Now Dad is no prophet. So why keep harping on the pilgrimage business? I doubt whether there’s a plaque on any wall saying ‘Dad lived here’. And if there is, so what?

I once studied a large-scale map of London and the place he pointed out is as far from a main line station as it’s possible to get. You could go for miles in whatever direction you care to take and you still wouldn’t find anything but one of the most boring type stops on the shortest and dullest of suburban lines.

“We always travelled by bus,” Dad says. “And if we were going farther afield, we took the bus to the underground station.”

My only comment is that if there are people in this world who think that is living, let them go ahead and live like that. I feel very sorry for them, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

Just don't expect me to take after them.

                                                   * * *

“Look! There's a fire engine. And it's in a hurry!”

“Why?”

“It must be going to fight a fire.”

“Why?”

“It has to be put out. You can't just let fires burn. They spread and get bigger and bigger. There must be a blaze somewhere.”

“Why?”

“An accident, I suppose.”

“Why?”

“Someone probably wasn’t very careful.”

“Why?”

“Carelessness, no doubt. Someone not thinking. Or being silly. Accidents happen all too easily. My goodness, you should know that.”

“Why?”

“Because...”

There was a period when the name Bart almost fell into disuse at home, replaced by ‘Why-why’. Curiosity may not be commendable in cats, but is definitely to be encouraged in kids. So I stoutly maintained. Before the “Why's?” had reached double figures, however, I’d be running out of answers that sounded the least bit plausible. Why does fire spread? Why does air make fire burn? Why do some things burn more readily than others? Why? Why? Why? Nobody had ever let me into the secret that being an informed and informing parent meant having academic degrees in dozens of different subjects, plus the ability to pass on the knowledge in words of one syllable. Why is a fire hot? Why?

“Why?”

“Oh for Chris’sake put your plug in your mouth and belt up!”

                                                   * * *

For me, there’s been something sacred about Waterloo Station ever since I discovered you’d need an area the size of a tennis court to build it on the same scale as my model railway. If we knocked down all the inside walls at home, we could have begun to think about it. “Then we'd have to eat and sleep elsewhere,” said Dad, who has a habit of pointing out irrelevant things like that. More importantly, there still wouldn’t be anywhere for the trains to run to. So we had to work on a more modest layout.

Charing Cross, on the other hand, is the poor relation on the other side of the water. London terminus it may be, with an interesting perch almost on top of the Thames, but for a main line station it is small, swamped by suburban commuters and steered well clear of by the more exciting trains. I’m not trying to rubbish it. Charing Cross is consecrated ground and has been since the first set of bogies ever bowled in there, but if you’ve got a choice between that and the holy cathedral across the river, there is only one living being on this planet who would hesitate for more than half a second. My father. He was all for getting the Folkestone train from Charing Cross! So what if it started from there? You could pick it up just as well on the other side of the bridge!

He has an outsize obstinate streak in him, my Dad, but I always say reason will win in the end and we got to London – and Waterloo – in plenty of time for me to have a good nose round. I’m a great believer in patience with parents. Schoolteachers are much, much worse and you have to think a bit more about what tactics to use.

Anyway, I left Dad with a large cup of tea and a cheese bap – one of those outsize, flat rolls made of the roughest sweepings you’ll ever find outside the floor of a sawmill and that he thinks are so good for you (yuck!). With his nose inside a newspaper only he and one or two of the teachers pretend to understand, he was as happy as any lark that refuses to eat worms and has discovered the joys of feeding its face with shredded bark. Mixed with gravel.

If there’s one drawback to Waterloo, it’s that not only can’t you get onto the platforms without a ticket, but instead of normal barriers they’ve got sliding doors which are shut tight until they’re ready to let anyone in or out. So you have to get up close when the time’s right, which is soon after a train has pulled in. The trick is to be near enough without getting bowled over by the streams of passengers flooding in or out. Unfortunately, the railway world is full of people who’re as blind as a bamboozled bat, haven’t a clue where they are going, or never raise an eye from the printed word in front of them unless and until they’ve crashed through three brick walls, four tea trolleys, half-a-dozen luggage vans and a whole herd of other passengers, at which stage they might glance up for a second before turning over the page. As they are watched over by Old Nick in person, they do the maximum harm to others while never suffering a scratch themselves, whether they’re the frailest creatures ever to crawl out of bed, or a moving mountain like Birdie. Nothing could be more certain than that he is one of them, a human steamroller bulldozing his way through station concour­ses while mumbling prehistoric, black-magic spells from his book of verse.

Well, to cut a long story short, the one who knocked me flat wasn’t Birdie. But it could well have been!

                                                   * * *

He wasn’t permanently unplugged until the age of five. Every kind of wheeze and dodge and argument, every firm resolve, had hitherto failed. He was hooked, as incorrigible an addict as any nicotinist. He never went anywhere without at least two rubber and plastic dummies. The only place he didn’t use them, I discovered, was play school. Indeed, they were surprised there when I raised the subject. But the moment he got home, one would go in. Sometimes two. And even three! One in the middle, one each side, his face beaming.

At times I thought he did it just to spite Spock. According to the oracle, he should have given them up when three or four months old, or at the latest when he was one or two. Huh! But at times I credited him with ambitions inspired by another volume on the shelves, The Guinness Book of Records, and had visions of him eventually swapping dummies with his own children. The doctor told him to throw them away, the dentist warned he’d ruin his teeth, even the fan club stopped crowing – occasionally – to add its censure, albeit with sugar and spice (plus a few garbled and totally irrelevant misquotes from the gospel), but nothing helped until in an inspired instant I offered to strike a bargain: give them up and we'd go steam-train travelling the following summer. He held out just a little longer, until the day he started school proper when, without a word, at a cataclysmic moment in his life, he handed over the entire supply. For the very first time, I felt deeply and unreservedly sorry for him.

                                                   * * *

At first I thought the station roof had fallen in. Then the ground leapt up to clobber me. After that I’m not sure. The world spun round. Eyes stared down from on high. There were feet. And voices. And hands. They carted me off somewhere to be patched and plastered. A few grazes and cuts, and bumps and bruises, and things like that. Plus a splitting headache. But what did that matter? That great homicidal Herbert had knocked my train-spotter’s guide flying and not one of those so-and-so’s picked it up. Or even noticed it lying on the ground, doubtless being trodden on by dozens of filthy, sacrilegious feet. The Master Controller may have mercy upon them, but for my part, I’d shove the lot into the furnaces of you-know-where without hesitation! And roast their soles.

                                                   * * *

There was a pacifier more effective than any number of dummies. Motion. Put him in or on anything that moved, be it pram, pushchair, car, bus, plane or train, and he was transported in more ways than one. Every sense was concentrated on the means of conveyance, and whenever possible, the person at the controls. Nothing and no one else existed.

But all were not equal. Cars were low on the list. Buses were much to be preferred, but trains were not of this earth, their drivers a saintly breed apart. If I really wanted him to treat me with awe and respect, I should have announced one day that henceforth I would earn our bread in the driver's cab of a locomotive, or at least at the wheel of a bus. But I did no such thing.

He was extraordinarily observant. From a very early age he noticed details that entirely escaped me. Never did I feel more inadequate than when faced with his transport queries, put when he was stationary again. Often long afterwards. Soon he only asked questions he knew the answers to, to test me. He needn’t have bothered. I was sure to fail. Bus and carriage registration numbers, the meaning of signs and signals, details of front and back and sides, doors and windows, always eluded me. I normally wasn’t even aware there were differences between them and was always amazed to discover how much he had taken in.

                                                   * * *

When Dad wanted us to return home and put off going to the coast until I’d had ‘a proper check-up’ and ‘time to recover’, I’m willing to accept he was only thinking in his misguided way of what was best for me. Of course, we’d missed the train we were going to get, but so what? There are plenty of trains to Folkestone. Whole heaps of them.

Fortunately, the message finally got through to him that even if there was something wrong with me, the only medicine that was going to have any effect ran on wheels along steel tracks with bars between. Without that, my condition could only have got worse. So we took a later train.

Don't run away with the idea that the problems stopped there, however. Dad wasn’t aware of it, but I'd done my homework and knew jolly well the little railway ran from Hythe to within a stone’s throw of where we were going. To get from Folkestone to Hythe you have to take a bus. OK, I admit it’s unavoidable. But what d'you think he wanted to do? He wanted to stay on it all the way to Littlestone! A miserable old stop-and-starting, diesel-farting, double-decker bus! When there was a dazzling, real McCoy, built-to-scale, fifteen-inch gauge, sparkler of a steam passenger train running almost alongside!

Words fail me at times...

                                                   * * *

Bill Tillinger was a good journalist. Is, I should say. Too good. Could have become one of the paper's leading lights if he'd been willing to play along with the management, stomach their views, pandy to their attitudes, cut his copy to their tune. He took it for so long, then got out. About the same time I did.

There were differences between us, however. His marriage was still intact, for one. We both fled from the maddening maelstrom of the metropolis, but he moved farther away. Yet he maintained closer ties with the profession than my regular weekend subbing stint and highly irregular assignments, keeping very active as a freelance in an area where there was not much competition. Or anything to report. So it seemed.

But he dug some good stories out of that part of the Kent coast and managed to make a living, while his wife got a part-time job with the local tourist people. And a section of that tall, over-large dark-brick house they bought, staring out to sea from every storey but the basement, they turned over to bed-and-breakfasters who happened to chance upon them in the season, plus a number of regulars, who always returned. If you head for the coast from New Romney, you reach the sea front a couple of hundred yards from their place.

All the traffic turns right, however, through Greatstone and on past the Pilot towards Dungeness or the airport at Lydd. To the left, where they are, there is no through road. So only the dedicated accommodation hunters find them. The hotel a few doors away was burnt down years ago and remains a gaping hole, the charred foundation brickwork a monument to the calamities that can result from... From what? I do believe the insurance people are uncertain to this day.

But it wasn’t Bart! It happened before he knew the place existed. Or had existed. So they can’t blame him for that.

Bart Three

I suppose you could say Romney Marsh has always been at or near the front line of English history. It is flat and low, below sea-level in parts, broad, open and about as close to the Continent as you can get, a perfect invitation to anyone wanting to land in these isles. The Romans were there, the Saxons and the Danes too, the Normans not far afield. Had Napoleon or Schicklgruber made it, they could well have come this way. And what was there to stop them? A row of little concrete roundhouse Martello Towers? A pathetically narrow canal cut across the periphery as a line of defence or inadequate means of inundation? Barbed wire entanglements and a toy-sized armoured train running up and down the tiny-gauge railway? Hitler would have hee-hawed had he known.

So if they stayed away, you can safely assume it was for other reasons. The ones who did come in post-Norman times have been less notorious, less renowned, their doubtful intentions less well-known or even condemned, their arrival unannounced, their business presumably in almost all cases successful, importers or exporters seeking no publicity, wishing to attract no attention, in as good an area for smuggling as any.

Of course, the Marsh is bigger now than in days gone by. The tireless currents that built the bars that silted and blocked the river mouths that once were navigable, have done their work well. Like Hythe on the edge of the area, Old Romney was one of the original Cinque ports, licensed for piracy and other such privileges provided it gave the monarch ships and men whenever he felt the urge or need to attack or defend. It hasn’t seen a floating hull since the Middle Ages, when it was superseded by New Romney, a couple of miles farther on, itself now stranded far from the receding shore.

Sparsely populated through the ages by fishermen, innkeepers, sheep- and cattle-breeders, amateur and professional dealers in contraband, the more momentous events of recent times include the coming of the world’s smallest public railway in the third decade of the present century, the siting in the nuclear age of those forbidding power stations at Dungeness and, some might add, the arrival of my son.

                                                  * * *

I remember when Atlas told us about typhoons. You’ve got to hand it to him, he can make things come alive when he wants to, as long as he keeps away from those geography textbooks and talks about what he’s seen and done himself. He’s actually been in a typhoon, more than once. But then he spent several years at sea, visiting the strangest places.

“The first thing to remember about a typhoon,” he said, “is that it can pick up a ten-ton truck and toss it about as though it were a dinky toy. So just think what it could do to you Silver! A toothpick would stand more chance! So what would you do Silver?”

“Get out of the way double-quick Sir,”

“Out of the way where, Silver? And how?”

“As soon as I heard there was one approaching I'd leap into the nearest taxi Sir, and tell the driver to get me to the railway station. Fast.”

“And what makes you think you'd be within a hundred miles of the nearest railway station? Assuming there were any at all. And even if there were, you wouldn’t be safe in a train either, not in open country. Those winds can whip up to a hundred-and-fifty miles or more an hour. Imagine that hitting you amidships! The coaches would be bowled off the line in a flash and rolling over with their bellies in the air, wheels still spinning. So what would you do? What about you Barton? I’ll tell you one thing Barton, it would shake your ideas up. Turn you into Batman, Barton! You wouldn’t sit around for long in that stupor I tell you. Listen, you can hear the horrible din already, the blasts are almost on you, trees are bending double, trunks snapping like matchsticks, huts being blown inside out. What are you going to do?”

And even old Sleepy-Eye Barton roused himself as though a fearful squall was about to shatter every window in the building, rip off the roof and bring the walls crashing down around his protruding ears. Yes, a typhoon could take your breath away. Little did I know then how soon I was to be overcome by the typhoon to end all typhoons, king of the whirlwinds, the most stunning, stupendous, biggest knockout of all time, sparking on all cylinders, panting fire and water.

And to find it in Hythe of all places!

                                                   * * *

Of course, I knew Bart was not going to be content to stand and stare at trains and railway staff as they came and went. He had to travel and explore every inch of the nearly fourteen-mile line from Hythe to New Romney and on to Dungeness.

He would need to know the exact location of each of the seven viaducts and three bridges, what the six stations were like, inside and out, where stations had been before but no longer existed, where there were level crossings and lights and warning signals and signs and signal boxes, what the procedure was for travelling on the lengthy single-track section from New Romney via Romney Sands to the Dungeness loop that passed the platform and circled back on itself, obviating the need for a third hand-operated turntable to add to the ones at Hythe and the railway’s headquarters. He would have to record not only which locomotives he'd seen, but which he'd travelled behind and over what distance and direction, up-line or down, even carriage types and numbers and a host of details only he would think of. What was the spacing between the sleepers? And what kind of ballast did they use?

So it didn't take long to realise the best favour I could do myself was to get him a weekly run-around ticket offering unlimited journeying for seven days. The mound of separate tickets he would otherwise have accumulated – or nagged his way to – would have made an outsize hole in my pocket, even at a third of the adult price. Oh yes, I also knew I was only buying time, but my conscience would be easier in trying to lay down strict subsequent limits. He would fight no matter where I tried to put up some kind of barrier.

In the event, I reckoned without Guest Number Four. Plus other happenings.

                                                   * * *

The difference between Atlas's terrifying tropical storm and this Typhoon is that one you'd do anything to get away from, while the other you'd give your eye teeth to get as close to as possible, if you’ve got any marbles left at all, that is. Seeing it for the first time was the most heart-stopping moment of my whole life, a religious experience. If it had wings, I could not have been more joyously jiggered. Never, ever, have I been closer to clapping my hands, stamping my feet and yelling “Hallelujah!”

                                                   * * *

In the world Bart entered and grew up in, there were no kiddywinks or bow-wows or pussies and moo cows, he never had a pain in his tum-tum, or raised or waved a handy-pandy, or aimed a tootsie-wootsie at anything or anybody, or sucked a dum-dum, or went to bye-byes. He knew nothing of potties and poo-poos, nor yet of puffers, and even after the age of three, sweeties were never nagged for or indeed mentioned. Baby talk was out.

Things had their proper names and we resolved to use them, one of the few decisions taken from the start that we actually stuck to. A road grader was a road grader, a vacuum cleaner a vacuum cleaner and a didgeridoo a didgeridoo. There was one hanging on the wall in the living room. BM had brought it with her from the land of her birth. OK, it was a “digidoo” for quite a while, according to him, but he got it straightened out eventually.

A few little horrors that he came into contact with during his most tender years made him familiar with some silly expressions, but though he copied much from other children, he never followed their example in this respect. And certainly not the way he picked up various other words and expressions at only a slightly greater age. With lightning speed. And in great number. Neither was he influenced by the occasional aberration from the fan club, or any other gushing adult.

I remember a well-meaning elderly gentleman pointing something out to him in the street one day. Bart was barely four years old. “Mind that 'nana' skin now. Put your foot on that and you'll be on your botty before you know it.”

Bart looked up at me as if to say, “What's this nut case on about?”

But the old boy was of the type that doesn't give up easily and continued babbling, while I looked on with a stupid grin wondering how it was all going to end and whether it would be too impolite just to take Bart's hand and march off, mumbling that we had to get a move on or we'd be late for something or other.

The man was now going on about a small child's bicycle with little support wheels in a shop window close by. “I expect you’ve got one of those,” he said. “Get the old leggies moving, eh?”

Bart shook his head. “Mine's different,” he answered. “It's got a combustion engine.” (In his imagination it had.) The man gaped. “But I think I’ll have to change it,” Bart went on. “It pollutes the atmosphere.”

Right. Now's the time to go, I thought. The old boy was making little choking sounds, so it would be the only humane thing to do. But having got the lad started, it wasn’t so easy to stop him. However, when he finally called his new-found friend 'cobber', I felt it was now or never. For all I knew the man might have had a weak heart.

“Excuse us,” I said as cheerfully as I could. “We have to dash off to see a man about a dingo.”

                                                   * * *

We'd just gone past the little ticket barrier, lugging our luggage, Dad and I, et voilà! I knew we were moving onto hallowed territory, otherwise we wouldn’t have been there, but who'd realised we were entering the very gates of Heaven? There it was! Coming straight at us, breathing gently, but firmly, in short, crisp puffs. It had just been unhitched and passed through the points onto the release road, stopping right in front of our noses before chuffing back up the line.

I ran as far as you can go along the platform to our left and saw it move onto a turntable worked manually by a mere earthly being, then off again to take on coal and water, before returning to be attached once more to the row of coaches that had followed it into the terminus, but this time at the other end and facing the other way.

Of course, I scooted straight back down the platform, past a perfect picture of the grizzly grumps (my Dad), round to the other side and right up to the front of the train, almost within inches of the miracle machine, which stood there gleaming and steaming in its Southern-Railway-green livery, softly hissing, the word TYPHOON standing out clearly on its nameplate.

                                                   * * *

The day he started school we had to hold his hand, his mother on one side and me on the other. We'd moved, and he didn't know any of the children from his play-school days. He told us time and again we were not to budge, but wait. Initially, he even insisted on our going into the classroom with him.

“What would happen if all the children's Mums and Dads went into the classroom with them?” I queried. “Think of the crush! Twice as many hulking great adults as children! Where would they sit? The chairs and tables are made for people your age. Can you imagine us sitting on those chairs. They might break! And where would we put our legs? What would happen if we bent our knees? The tables would fly into the air! It would be dangerous! But not only that. There wouldn’t be any room for you lot! You'd have to wait outside while we had lessons with the teacher!”

The idea delighted him. He'd take a toy train or two to play with. No problem.

“But we’ve been to school. For years and years. We’ve learnt our lessons.” All right, it was a lie, but a parent must be allowed some moral leeway in such circumstances. If I'd said we'd learnt only some of our lessons, he would have insisted we go straight back to learn the rest. At worst, he'd sit beside us.

“No one knows everything,” he stated. And followed it with another of my oft-made (un)wise remarks: “You're never too old to learn.”

Yes, he had undoubtedly learnt a great deal before he ever came into contact with the school system proper.

Then he tried to get rid of the other parents. It wasn’t necessary for all of them to be there. I countered by pointing out how unreasonable it was for him to get special treatment. “Everyone should be treated alike,” I said, realising as I did so that here were more words to be turned against me at an opportune moment. Even at that age he had that anything-you-say-will-be-taken-down-and-may-be-thrown-back-in-your-face look about him. But for the time being, the line of argument seemed successful. We couldn't ask the teacher to regard him as a special case. Besides, think of the other children. Even if some of them knew each other already, it was an exciting day for them too. He would soon get to know them and have a lot of new friends to play with. “Going to school is fun!” (Moral licence again. It should be fun.)

When the morning came he was very quiet and earnest and put up only token resistance. The decisive move was handing over the dummies. After that, he spoke not a word. Inside the school gates he tried to hide behind us, while we showered reassuring words upon him. But when the teacher called out “Come along now boys and girls,” and he saw the others move towards her, he marched off without a murmur. Or a glance behind.

                                                   * * *

Dad is also a bit of a birdie at times, though not like Birdie at school, thank God. I mean he can do, and say, the daftest things. He is without a doubt the world's greatest hand-washer. Forever wetting, scrubbing and wiping his paws. I’m surprised he doesn’t wash the skin right off.

Always uses soap, of course. Lashings of it. If he wants to save money, he could cut the hand-cleaning sessions by half and still have the cleanest mitts in the country. At the same time, he could stop going on at other people about it. Thinks everyone should be like him and stand with their hands in the sink all day.

Better to be like Mum. She never uses soap. Says she's allergic to it. But then she has about fifteen baths or showers a week! No. Better to be like me – equally allergic to soap and water.

                                                   * * *

Guest Number One arrived shortly before we did.

The bus driver dropped us at the corner before he turned in the other direction along the front, and we struggled from there with our cases and bags. (That we could have arrived at least an hour-and-a-half earlier without feeling quite so hassled, hustled and hot under the collar by taking the bus all the way, is another story.) The final hurdle was to climb the steps up to the front door, but before we could do so a man called out to us. From the top.

“Don't want to disappoint you,” he cried, “but there's no one in. If I were you I'd have knocked first before I unloaded all that stuff.” He obviously hadn’t seen our means of conveyance. “Don't think there's another place around here. You’ll have to drive on.”

I wished he would take himself and his single, slim suitcase across the road, over the grass verge and the parapet, and jump into the sea. Preferably with the case tied round his throat, and properly weighted. I even turned to look in that direction, as though it might help fulfil my wishes. The tide was out. About half a mile.

“Someone will soon be in,” I informed him, staggering up the steps. “But there's no point in your waiting.” I fumbled in my pocket.

“Oh they’ve given you the key, have they? You must know them,” he said, ignoring my remark. “Looks as though I'm in luck.”

I wished Bart would kick him, but the boy came silently up behind me, still lost in a haze of Puffing Billies. And before I could say another word, the intruder was inside the door, ahead of me and helping to pile our luggage into the hall. No amount of explanation about our just taking over for the season and not wanting any guests until settled and in command, helped. In the end, he not only offered to make his own bed and his breakfast, but drove up the road to buy supplies. There were other places around, if not along that stretch of the front, but he had stayed in the house before and was determined to stay again. He even pointed out his room.

                                                    * * *

Seven has always been my lucky number. And the moment I moved farther forward to gaze on Typhoon from the front, I saw the figure printed on its base plate. All the locos are numbered, from one to twelve. There's even a seven in the year Typhoon was built, nineteen-twenty-seven. Who would have guessed it? It looks as though it has just this minute rolled out of the workshops of Wonderland. So do the others, but Typhoon was my first love. One-third as big as the Flying Scot and the great locos of old, it has more than the magic of steam, it has the magic of size, a Lilliput engine which is nevertheless the real thing, seven tons of controlled double-dynamite. Yes, seven tons. But only one mortal man normally enters it, feeds it, tends to its every want and need, anoints it with oil, sticks with it through thick and thin.

He must have been born at seven minutes past seven on the seventh day of the seventh month in – well it couldn't have been seventeen-seventy-seven, could it? He can't be that old. Though you never know.

                                                   * * *

Guest Number One stayed two nights, and was the only guest until the end of the week. I made sure of that. A NO VACANCY sign went into the window before our luggage had left the hall that first evening. There wasn’t much that needed to be done in the house. Bill and his wife left everything spick and span and had also arranged with someone to come in twice a week to do the worst of the housework. But I wanted to meet and make myself known to the contacts whose names and telephone numbers Bill had left, people who knew what possible stories might break and where, even if he did warn that the chances of landing anything of interest to anyone but the locals were slim, unless there was a major disaster at one of the caravan camps, or one of the nuclear reactors blew up. In which case you had to move fast before the hordes hustled in from afar. (I would most certainly move fast, but probably in the opposite direction.)

One of his informants was Tom Sherwood, the station master at New Romney, a large and hearty man whose sideburns reached to the jawbone and who had steam coursing in his veins after years of serving on coal-fired railways in southern Africa. When he returned to Britain there was only one place where he could think of working. So here he was, larger than life, still with a strong trace of his native north country accent.

There was little that went on within reach of the railway he didn't know about. He may have spent most of his days at the New Romney station, meeting trains, whistling and waving them away, checking the couplings between each pair of coaches as they rolled past, making announcements over the loud-speaker system, chiding the children and joking with other members of the staff with dead-pan face and glinting eye, but he also maintained radio contact with the drivers, was on the phone to Hythe, Dymchurch and Dungeness several times a day and was acquainted with almost everyone for many miles around.

He was also the chief electrician, erected automatic flashing lights at level crossings and could manage all the other railway jobs from track-laying to boiler repairs, except for one – he had yet to drive a locomotive. So he was never short of things to do, even in the worst of the winter. But to cap it all he was also the local photographer, making him potentially doubly useful, and ran a little shop round the corner from the station. Even with the help of his wife, it was difficult to see how he managed it all once the low season had started, let alone later on.

                                                   * * *

I'm not sure why, but it took more than two days before I discovered there were a whole lot more people born on the seventh of the month, and not just those who work on the railway. And around my age!

I suppose I was fooled by the printed timetable into thinking nothing much went on early in the morning and for a couple of days I didn't get to the station until the first up-train was getting ready for the run to Hythe. There wouldn’t be a down-train bound for Dungeness until that one got back. This must be one of the few railways ever built where everything starts and finishes in the middle! But I certainly had no objections to that. I was staying only ten-to-fifteen minutes' walk away from the hub, less if I was in a hurry. Little did I know there had been a great whirl of activity well before I arrived.

When I did find out, it was in the afternoon and not the morning, as that miserable mob of mutton-face morons were pouring into the station and I suddenly realised why there was a double-ration of coaches lined up behind number twelve, a modern and extra-powerful distant relation of the other locos, the only passenger-pulling diesel. The ratpack were going to climb aboard. They did so every school day. Twice. Once in each direction.

I turned a deep Southern-Railway green on the spot.

                                                   * * *

Guests Number Two and Three arrived the day the NO VACANCY sign came out of the window. They were a soft-spoken middle-aged couple from New Zealand who'd been treading the roots trail. Having traced ancestors here and there and met an untold number of previously known and unknown relatives, they were now touring the country in a fifth-or-sixth-hand Morris Minor acquired in the Earls Court Road, to where it would soon return with many more miles on its well-worn clock, but added at a far gentler rate than in the past.

These two good people carried with them a store of new experiences and impressions which, however, they were in little hurry to take back home with them, understandably so as winter was waxing in the southern hemisphere. They would just stay the night, they said when they arrived, but changed their minds at breakfast next morning when sitting at the table in the front window, they saw the whole sweep of the bay right out to the new lighthouse at Dungeness, bathed in brilliant and exceptionally clear light. It evidently reminded them of a stretch of coast where they had a ‘bach’ to stay at weekends or summer holidays, though no amount of sunshine and clear sky was going to make the water in the Channel shed its grey complexion for the brilliant blue-green hues of the southern seas.

They stayed several nights more until souring weather and/or the antics of Guest Number Four, finally spurred them on their way.

                                                   * * *

To think, there are people on this planet who travel to and from school EVERY DAY by the gods' own means of transport, while that rotten old place I go to can only be reached by road. I hereby issue a proclamation to all the secondary school students of the world who have the slightest feeling in their souls: lay down your pens, burn your books, pack your bags, enrol at the John Southland School in New Romney and move to Jefferstone Lane, Dymchurch, or Burmarsh Road, from where you will qualify for bliss, not everlasting, but for the rest of your natural schooldays. To that I would add only one thing. Come armed! And prepared to remove the present pack of impostors. A detailed study of world maps (that would make Atlas proud) has convinced me the ideal spot for them is located exactly half-way between the Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.

And I think I know how to get them there!

                                                   * * *

Guest Number Four came laden with gear, though I didn't know it when he knocked at the door. “Got much luggage?” I asked him.

“A little,” he replied, and went to get it. Back and forth, back and forth he trundled, time and again. There were packing cases large and small, bulging, zippered bags with and without shoulder straps, cartons, boxes and numerous non-packed items, like a huge tripod and multiple coils of neatly knotted wire. Never can one person travelling alone for any purpose have transported so much paraphernalia, or managed to cram so much into a non-commercial four-wheeled vehicle. I later discovered he'd removed the back seats and had the passenger one in front piled high.My eyes bulged, but his whole manner and appearance was of doing something as natural as going to the bathroom, sponge bag in hand, though he repeated the action every few minutes and often wilted under the weight of his toiletries. You might have thought he was about to set up shop in perhaps the mail order business, rather than stay bed and breakfast for a few nights.

He was tallish, had fair hair and a pasty-pale complexion, a Swede – not one of those bearded Scandinavian bean poles you sometimes see around, but quite sturdy-looking, clean-shaven and very serious. Have to work damned hard to make him see a joke, I remember thinking. Without the aid of a bottle, that is. And with one, you'd have an even tougher time trying to stop him seeing the raucous side of anything at all. However, I judged him not to be out on a binge. People don't travel with half his impedimenta unless they mean business. But I bet most bed-and-breakfast wallahs would have told him to sling his hookah long before the last packing case had been carted into the back room downstairs and piled around the walls. It was, after all, still a private home. I can just imagine some of the horrified remarks, concealed cryptic, or caustic comments others would have made. He'd never have understood, however, even if he knew the meaning of most of the words used. One of his troubles was he understood more of what people said than was good for him, for he could only glean a superficial sense.

Well, what, you might ask, was he doing in that neck of the nation with all the trappings of a travelling warehouse in the electronics business? I’ll give you one guess. He'd come to video record the railway, which he'd somehow or other heard about in his remote northern habitat.

So now I had two puffer-nutters in the house!

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