There is a puff of smoke in the distance, I hear a rumble along the tracks, then the whistle - a warning that a train is approaching. At the bend in the track I see the outline of the approaching steam train. She is beautiful and majestic and her driver is proudly leaning out the window. A smile on his face.
Along the platform the passengers chat about the trip at hand. It will be a week of chugging through the forests, up into the mountains. Stopping at villages and admiring breathtaking scenery. Everyone wants to remember this historic occasion and cameras and cellphones are out taking photos. This will be the last trip that this steam locomotive will make before being preserved for future generations in the National Museum.
Slowly the steam train hisses to a stop. We will be boarding soon.
To my right is a family with tween boys. Their faces alight with excitement. Next to them an elderly couple standing hand in hand, they look at each other and smile. I lean forward and way down the platform I see a young couple with their backpacks.
I am on my own. My mission on this journey is not only to experience my first steam locomotive trip but also to document this 'Grand Old Lady's' last trip into the mountains. It is my first assignment as a journalist for 'Everyday Rail News'. Very excited to be entrusted with this historic event, I am also nervous about doing justice to such an important article.
The guard steps onto the platform and turns toward us. With an open palm and extended arm he gestures in an elegant manner for us to board the train. Checking our compartment numbers and helping each other with the luggage we slowly get settled in. The arrangement is for passengers to gather in the dining car for departure. I snatch a window seat at one of the tables to get a clear view of the departing platform where a crowd has now gathered to see us off. An Oompah Band strikes up a tune. The elderly couple take the seats opposite me and introduce themselves.
"Good afternoon young man," he extends a hand. "I am William Henderson and this is my wife May."
"Hi Mr and Mrs Henderson. my name is Hank," I shake his hand and smile at his wife May. "Is this your first trip on the 'Old Lady?'" I ask.
They smile at each other then Mr Henderson says, "Hank, I used to be the engineer on the 'Old Lady'. A very fancy name for the train driver. We have come to enjoy her one last time."
What a bonus I think to myself I will get so much information from Mr Henderson for my article.
The 'Old Lady' chugs out of the station and we head for the mountains. I sit back in the plush seat and wonder about the people who have occupied this very seat in all the years of the old steam train. The forests we pass through are lush and green and life slows down a bit as we climb into the mountains. It is not the rush that we are used to in our every day lives. This is a time to take in the beauty and enjoy something really special.
Later that evening I return to the dining car, to the same dining table that I occupied with the Hendersons. I have made a few notes about the 'Old Lady' but I have been caught up in this time warp of yesteryear. I haven't written anything of great importance for my article.
Mrs Henderson touches my shoulder and asks if they may join me again.
"Absolutely, I reply. Mrs Henderson has dressed elegantly for dinner and Mr Henderson in his suit and tie sees that she is seated comfortably before he slips into the seat next to her.
"On my first trip on the 'Old Lady', Mrs Henderson tells me, "We had only been in the country for two weeks. We had left London and our belongings had not yet arrived. I sat in this dining car on my own because William, as the engineer, had to be upfront. Seeing that everything ran smoothly. I only saw him when we stopped in the villages and would walk up the platform toward the locomotive until I could see him and give him a wave."
They laughed at the memory and Mr Henderson covered her hand on the table with his.
"We have a few sad memories that we left behind in London, but we have very good memories since we have been here." Mr Henderson added.
Throughout the meal we chit chatted mainly about the 'Old Lady' and the new life the Hendersons had here. They had a new language to learn. There were lonely times for Mrs Henderson when Mr Henderson was away on the 'Old Lady'. They spoke very little about their life in London.
We sat through a three course meal, fit for a king. Each course was served by waiters with a starched napkin draped over their arm. We ate with heavy silver cutlery. Our wine was poured into sparkling crystal glasses. I was enjoying every moment and lapping up every story the Hendersons had to tell about their lives since they arrived here many years ago.
Next morning we pulled into the first of the villages on route. We stretched our legs along the platform and took in the laborious effort and love it took to get the 'Old Lady" ready for the next leg of the trip.
My article was suffering. This trip was a surreal experience to me. Here I was traveling in a bygone era. I had the Hendersons with their stories. I was eating like a king and being served on hand and foot. I did not want to write now - I wanted to savour every minute.
The days passed and I would make a point of exploring the other carriages and try and meet up with passengers. After all, I had to make an attempt to have some material to take back home and complete my work for the magazine.
One afternoon I met the family with the tweens in the games carriage. What used to be a gambling carriage was now an elegant lounge where you could park yourself off with a good book, join a scrabble game or find a chess partner. The family was at a table building a wooden train model. The Allaman family were locals and the boys Liam and Noah were steam train enthusiasts. Where they lived they had watched the train go by week after week and this was a real special treat for them to be part of the 'Old Lady's" last trip.
"We have a room full of railways tracks and trains with carriages," Noah beams as he gestures with arms wide open, showing me the vastness of their collection. "And we love building the models from scratch. Specially the locomotives!" adds Noah with pieces of the model, that they are building, in his hands.
I admire the intricate work of the two boys as they get back to their task.
Each day I venture to another carriage. We have two more days for the 'Old Lady' to complete the loop she travels to take us back to the start or in this instance the end.
I make my way to the end of the train, moving through a noisy gangway between each carriage. The last carriage of the train is the caboose and it is here you will find the crew that has kept the 'Old Lady' chugging. I peer through the window of the door to the caboose and wave to a crew member. He smiles back and I wonder if he has another job on another caboose when he gets back from this journey.
I turn to make my way back to my carriage walking slowly along the narrow passage, admiring the woodwork and the finishes of the 'Old Lady". Each compartment with a number in highly polished brass. Each compartment with a tale to tell.
Further up the passage, I recognise the back packer couple from the platform. They close their compartment and the young man nods at me.
"Walter and this is my wife Lilly," he puts his arm around her.
"Pleased to meet you. I am so sad we are nearing the end of our journey. May I make a suggestion? I've made arrangements to have a few farewell drinks in the main lounge tonight, seeing that it is our last night. Would you two like to join us?"
We chat about some of the countries they have backpacked through. Lilly is a blogger and has detailed their last few years of wandering through Europe. Walter just loves steam locomotives and this trip was part of his bucket list. And yes they would definitely come and have a drink in the main lounge.
We have all dressed according to the occasion and it feels like I have flipped a switch and was thrown back fifty years.
I sip my scotch on the rocks. The Hendersons each have a sherry on the table in front of them. Walter and Lilly walk towards us and I stand to introduce everyone.
Mr and Mrs Henderson this is Walter and his wife Lilly. I'm afraid I didn't ask their last name when I met them," I turn to Walter to help me out with that.
"No need for that," Mrs Henderson says as she gets up and walks toward Walter. "This is Walter Henderson and he is my grandson whom I have been wanting to meet for twenty five years."
There is silence in our little circle as we look at Mrs Henderson. Her eyes filling with tears.
I sit at my editors desk.
"Do you have my article ready?" she asks.
I do have an article ready about the 'Old Lady' and her last trip through the mountains.
I also have another story to tell about another 'Grand Old Lady' and her trip back home to her family.
Lastly I have a story to tell my grandchildren about a trip into the mountains.
But those are for another day.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
I love the story and the nostalgia it evokes. I just wish the ending weren't quite so abrupt.
Thank you for reading. My problem was the deadline. Not an excuse though. Appreciate the input.