I suggested last week that I may write more about how Bob Sparrow had arrived in my head. Revisiting Bob has made me consider how very long it is since I’ve been anywhere! I know I’m not the only one whose life has become somewhat sheltered over the last 18 months or so. I’ve only left my village a handful of times since I arrived home from England after a visit to my aunt in February 2020, just at the same time that Covid first begun to creep across our world. I don’t usually mind it much -this lockdown thing – we are lucky here in that we have plenty of outside space and the freedom to walk the country lanes and breathe fresh air. Many of my students had none of that, and spent several months in highrise apartments, many of the children not even allowed to go outside. (That, in turn, has recently triggered another story, but I can’t share that one here as I will be submitting it somewhere in hope of publication.)
So, back to dear old Bob. He turned up on a train journey, not unlike the one he is on in the story. In part. Bob’s journey doesn’t go as smoothly as my own did, and he ends up in a very different place than he’d imagined. I, meanwhile, was travelling home with my daughter in the summer of… er… 2017, maybe? (Can it really be that long ago? Pops off to check.) Yes, 2017. We travelled home at the end of May, just after the Manchester arena bombing. We’d been in England for a blissful and hot three weeks, spending time with family and helping my parents with a madcap idea they’d had. It was fun.
My dad and my grandpa are railway fans. As a child, we spent hours using our own RailRiders passes and flitting around the country. We, like Bob, slept on overhead luggage racks, and occasionally spent uncomfortable but exciting overnights in station waiting rooms, woken in the morning by a staionmaster carrying mugs of steaming tea. Once, we travelled part of our journey on the mail train. I don’t think any of those things would be allowed anymore. I wonder if my parents realise just what they gave us, with these Blyton-esque train escapades. I doubt we realised it ourselves at the time. My parents weren’t well off; four children, low income, my father made redundant at some vague point of my childhood. We made do, handed-down, and complained that we didn’t have the latest toys that our friends had, but overall, my childhood was mostly rose-tinted, fun, and full of adventure and freedom.
Into adulthood, I still love travelling on trains. In Ireland, this is not easy – we don’t have many! But when I go home to England, my preferred mode of travel is to take the ferry across the Irish Sea, as a foot passenger, and then rattle across the north coast of Wales and onwards to my English-dwelling relations. It is no coincidence that Bob’s journey begins on that same line I’ve travelled so often. I love looking out over the Welsh coast, the railway hugging the mountains on one side and swathes of sand stretching to the sea on the other. I love it even on rainy days. As coast gives way to inland, as we hurtle towards Chester, there are stretches where the train and the canals run parallel, a hare and tortoise race as the narrowboats rush into sight then creep backwards out of sight as the train clatters by. This is the scenery that Bob notices as he carries his sandwiches and his fruit pastilles towards the nostalgia of his own childhood.
That’s not all of it though: excluded from the snippet I shared last week was Bob’s home. Like my father and my grandfather, Bob has a model railway. It’s not in his house, but runs around his garden, just like my father’s garden railway. You didn’t get the whole story last week. The whole story is what I hope is a magical mix of the two – the miniature railway and the life size railway. Both those, and Bob’s love of them. As I chugged along on my own journey, Bob left the little railway of my father’s garden where the story initially began to form, and strolled into the shuddering real-life carriage with me. I like to write on trains. I also like to eavesdrop. Trains, I believe, are an amaizing and prolific source of stories. And new friends, but that, too, is another part of the story.
So, I long for the borders to open again and travel restrictions to lift, so I can settle into a window seat on a dusty, rickety train, and be lulled into that half-sleepy, half-dreaming state where stories come unbidden and characters arrive fully-formed and ready to share their adventures. Maybe, just maybe, Bob himself will be waiting on the foggy platform as the train slows into Rhyl, and he’ll shuffle down the carriage, settle into the seat across from me, and share his next installment.
Until then, I’ll be polishing my lockdown story ready for submission.