After a short pause at a busy station in a cheerful tourist town, the train swung through a mile or two of tame green farmland and then shot into a dark wooded pass with the suddenness of going into a tunnel. A peat-dark river foamed on the right as the train threaded the green gloom until, after a couple of minutes, the pass opened out and we were in the Highlands.
It didn’t seem real; more like a movie special effect. Great hills rose on either side in their summer green fuzziness and a dazzlingly blue loch spread out on the right. The gradient must have eased, for the growling of the diesel locomotive faded and the only sounds were the clatter of wheels on metal and the occasional whoosh as a large burn surged beneath the line and sought out the loch.
Just twenty minutes after leaving the busy tripper town we arrived at the next station. My mother opened the door of the carriage, urged me out on to the platform and propelled the luggage after me. With a snort like a pawing thoroughbred, the locomotive jolted into life again and drew away. The train became a receding murmur and my mother and I stood, like refugees, among the scattered luggage. Across the line, on the southbound platform, was a neat station building and a small garden centred on a brightly-painted statue of a heron. Its beak pointed skyward and its wings stretched out. But, I thought, it would never fly.
To both west and east, wooded hills rose and greater peaks soared grey and gaunt beyond. A figure appeared on the southbound platform, my grandfather, waving and shouting for us to stay until he came across to help with the luggage. He was a strong, cheerful man with a red face and a white beard, like Father Christmas would have looked if he’d been a forestry worker.
“Let’s get you two to the house, eh?” he said after giving Mum a hug, “Yer grandmother’s been baking, Fraser,” he smiled to me, ruffling my hair. The train was still pulsing faintly in the distance. We crossed the footbridge and walked through the village.
I’m back there now, in that same Highland village, studying a photograph a friend, a railway enthusiast, has given me. It shows a train, drawn by a diesel locomotive like the one I remember, pulling away from the village station on a bright morning in summer. It could easily be our train, but there’s no sign of Mum or me or Grandad. The wrong figures inhabit the landscape, but the station looks the same as I remember it and such is the clarity of the print, so bright are the colours, that the picture could have been taken yesterday. But it’s nearly fifty years old, that picture, and everything has changed.
This sudden flight north could have been difficult for an eight-year-old to cope with, but after the train journey, through the magical pass into a land of hills and lochs and forests, it felt like a holiday. After Grandma and Grandad had plied me with tea and cakes I was sent outside so the adults could talk. I crossed the quiet main road and explored the village. I went back into the station and stood by the heron to watch a steam-hauled goods train puff by, explored the broad, rippling river that bordered the village and threw stones into its cola-coloured depths. I saw my first red squirrel, which disappeared into a tall pine tree. When I arrived back in the house, the mood had changed. Grandad was out in the garden shed, trying to summon the football results on a transistor radio (it was the first day of the new season) and Grandma had her arm round my tearful mother. I fled upstairs to the bedroom Mum and I were to share.
I’m now standing where the entrance to the station must have been. There is a constant hum of traffic on the road, cars and white vans and timber lorries whizz past, ignoring the speed limit. There is no railway now. A sheltered housing complex stands where the station did. I cross the road – taking my life in my hands – and walk towards the row of forestry houses. Number 1 had been my grandparents’ house. I unlock the front door and open it, setting off clattering echoes in the empty and cleared rooms. Some odd bits of furniture remain, things too old or damaged to sell. I sit in a fusty armchair and wait.
Grandad promised me a treat on Saturday, a week to the day after Mum and I arrived. On the Friday night he disappeared back into his shed and rummaged noisily for a while, finally emerging with his own fishing tackle and some ancient-looking equipment for me.
“This was my first rod,’ he explained, “and yer Grandma aye said should chuck it out but I said it would come in handy.”
Early on Saturday morning we went to the station. Grandad sent me over to the northbound platform with the fishing tackle while he bought tickets and chatted to the stationmaster. I stood looking across the line at the heron, thinking about its dreams of flight. Two local women were seated on a bench waiting for the train. They lowered their voices after my arrival but I could still hear some of their whispers;
“Aye, left her man… bad to her… hit the wean as well…”
A car draws up outside the empty house. I hear its doors open and close and I look out of the window; it’s a sporty white Toyota, spotlessly clean. The occupants are already heading for the front door; a shaven-headed young man in an expensive dark suit and a pair of dark sunglasses and a young blonde woman in a navy business suit with a short skirt and teeteringly high heels. She wears dark glasses too; it’s actually quite dull today. I let them in and soon they’re following me through the house, making scribbled notes on their clipboards and occasionally pausing to check messages on their iPhones.
“Signal’s a bit weak here,” says the young woman, disapprovingly.
“Built council houses to last back then,” says the shaven-headed man, tapping a window-frame. “The location couldn’t be better except it’s a bit close to the main road. It was in your family, you said?”
“Yes, my grandparents. Grandad worked for the Forestry Commission. He bought it in the late eighties after he retired. Then my Mum moved here, but she died…”
“Shall we have a look upstairs?” the woman breaks in.
Grandad joined me on the northbound platform and nodded to the two gossips. The train swept in and we climbed aboard. It was busy with tourists and trippers and walkers and a few other anglers but we eventually found seats in a cheery, noisy carriage near the middle. Soon I was gripped by the view to our right as the train climbed high up the western side of a rocky glen and an alarming drop developed. A shining loch, blue as a St Johnstone jersey, shimmered in the sun far below us.
“That’s Loch Earn,” said Grandad. “Used to be good fishing there but there are too many eejits in boats now. We’ll get peace where we’re going.”
Half an hour later we pulled into an abandoned-looking station; the signboards read ‘Tyndrum Lower’ – the name on our tickets – so I grabbed my fishing tackle and prepared to clamber off, but Grandad put his hand on my arm.
“It’s all right. I’ve had a word with the guard.” he said.
The locomotive’s klaxon parped and it chugged forward, the carriages jerking into life behind it. A few minutes later a calm, blue lochan, green-fringed with reeds, appeared on our left. The guard appeared at the end of the coach and waved to Grandad as the train shuddered to a stop.The guard opened the door and a terrifying drop loomed down to the ground. Grandad jumped carefully onto the ballast and then caught me when the guard lowered me by the shoulders. Finally, the guard handed down our rods and packs, shouted good wishes and slammed the door closed again. We watched the train clatter off and soon we were left with just the sounds of lapping water and skylark song.
“Good lads on that train,” said Grandad, “saves us the walk and gives us an extra half-hour of fishing.”
We set our rods, Grandad lit a pipe and we listened to the chiming of water birds and the occasional car on the Oban road. Now and then a train chugged past and the earth seemed to shake.
“Are ye all right, Fraser?” said Grandad. “Ye’re no missing yer Dad or anything?”
“Only sometimes,” I said. “Not really. Do you think we’ll catch anything?”
I stand by the estate agents’ Toyota.
“It needs a good bit of redecoration and brightening up, yeah?” says the shaven-headed man.
“Updating, yeah. It’s a bit nineteen-fifties,” says the young woman.
“Yeah. But it’s a solid build and in a fantastic area. Should be no problem selling it. Market it down south as a ‘Highland Holiday Home’ and we’re laughing. That’s where the big money is.”
I say I’ll be in touch with them and watch as the Toyota revs away in a spray of gravel. They can hardly wait to get away, back to the city.
About a week remained until the end of the school holidays. I woke up to find that Mum wasn’t at home. She had a waitressing job in the village’s big hotel but didn’t usually start until lunchtime. As we ate toast and Sugar Puffs, Grandma explained that Mum had gone into Glasgow on the early train but would be back later on. Why didn’t the two of us get a train to the busy tourist town and have a wee treat?
As we waited on the southbound platform I looked around me at the soaring forested hills; Grandad was working somewhere in there. I ran my hand over the cold painted stone of the heron’s upraised bill.
“Lovely thing, isn’t it?” said Grandma.
The train rumbled through the dark wooded pass and then we shot out into the green fields and it felt like God had switched on the lights again.
“We’re in the Lowlands, now,” explained Grandma, “We’ve just crossed the Highland Line.”
We arrived at the resort town’s busy, sprawling station and Grandma took me to the shows and watched as I went on the waltzers and the chair-o-planes and the dodgems. Then we went back to the wee cafe in the corner of the main station building.
“They do ice creams here and I can have tea and a scone,” said Grandma.
I had some vanilla ice cream with flakes of chocolate on top and a glass of ginger. Grandma seemed happy and cheerful but when I had finished my ice cream she looked more serious and wiped the ice cream from round my mouth with a paper hanky.
“Now, Fraser – yer mother’s gone to Glasgow to see about a job.” she said.
I sooked ginger through a straw and said, “But she’s working in the hotel here! She disnae need another job!”
“Aye, and she’s right good at what she does. They’re already letting her do other things because she’s so handy. There’s a job in Glasgow, at the North British, where she’ll be working behind a desk and get a uniform to wear. She’s a bright lassie, your mother.”
“But where will she stay? She cannae stay with… Dad…”
“She’s going to stay with her pal – her ye call yer Auntie Jessie? Until she can get a place of her own.”
I didn’t say anything.
“But you’ll have to stay with us for a while. Go tae the school here in the village. Ye’ve made lots of pals here already, eh? Just till yer mother gets a place.”
I thought of Mum and the house we’d lived in with Dad and our hurried journey on the train to the village and Grandma and Grandad’s house. And then I thought of the still, silent heron.
“Drink yer ginger,” said Grandma.
I lock the door of the house and shoulder my bag. There’s a bus to Edinburgh in ten minutes. On the way to the stop I pause at a garden gate; a long green lawn spreads out in front of an austere Victorian villa in grey stone. There’s a small formal garden in the middle of the lawn and its centrepiece is that painted stone heron, wings still outstretched and bill reaching yearningly for the sky. It’s had a few licks of paint since 1965 and it has flown a few hundred yards from the vanished station. It’s always possible to escape, but sometimes it doesn’t get you very far.
The bus, a smoothly-thrumming express coach, arrives. I prepare to board it for the journey back across the Highland Line.