Devil's Bridge and Back

by Pedro

A Boys on Trains Story

Seated in the corner of the carriage, the man with the silver hair looked out of the window at the valley below. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and made to blow his nose and surreptitiously wipe his eyes, but a single sad tear had escaped and tracked down his left cheek.

In his younger days, the man had often spent his holidays in one of the remoter parts of the country in a particular small town between the mountains and the sea. Not that it was a place that would suit everyone. Far from it. But it had its attractions for the man. However, thirty years ago, a change in his circumstances and career had meant that he was no longer free in the choice of timing or destination of his breaks.

Now that he had retired — at least until his money ran out — he had the freedom to go wherever he wanted. A chance meeting with an acquaintance from back in the day had led him to book a few days at a B&B in the little town with the intention of touring the area.

Today was his day for visiting a narrow gauge railway, one that had been built over a hundred years ago ostensibly for the haulage of minerals extracted from the mountains. With its dramatic scenery and twisting route, the line had quickly been become a tourist attraction and, as such, had survived the closure of the uneconomic mining operations. Although not far from where he was staying, it was not an easy journey. The man had only visited the line once before and had not been on holiday in the area at the time. Instead, it had been by means of a rail tour that he and a friend had been able to join as it passed through the city where they were students at university.

Between concentrating on his driving and taking in the unfamiliar scenery on his way to join the train, the man had given little thought to the circumstances of his previous visit to the line. Neither had he thought about it as he stood on the platform watching the chunky little steam engine bustle about the yard getting ready for the journey into the hills. Nor did he think about his earlier trip once he had found a seat and the little train had got underway. For on the first part of the trip, where the train hustled along the nearly level valley floor, he was distracted by buildings at the lineside, both old and new, by the traffic waiting at several crossings and by thinking it folly to cover what had been flood plain in new buildings. Of course, the man had raised a wry smile when he noticed one of those new buildings, the one that seemed to be surrounded by acres of pernicious Japanese knotweed, belonged to the Department of the Environment.

However, as the train left the valley floor and started its steady climb across the wooded hillside, the trees obscured the man's view and severed the immediacy of his connection with the unremembered landscape below. Instead, the sedate progress of the train allowed the man to relax and forget the cares of his daily life and enjoy the snapshots of the valley glimpsed through gaps in the trees.

It was through one of the longer breaks in the trees that the man was able to see the large pipes on the opposite hillside that brought water to the hydro-electric station in the valley bottom. It was not a surprise. In fact, he had been looking out for the landmark. What caught him unexpectedly was his emotional response. For the sight of the power station reminded him of his previous visit to the line with his friend from university. On that occasion he had also been watching for the structures and had been able to explain their significance to his friend.

What the passage of time had dulled, and which had now caught him unprepared, was the significance the man had invested in that previous visit. For it was that day he marked as the day he understood he wanted something more intimate with this particular friend.

On that occasion, when the train had reached the end on the line, the two young men had opted to avoid the queues at the station café and eschewed the offerings of tourist memorabilia at the gift shop. Instead, they had crossed the bridge over the gorge — a scenic attraction in itself — and had followed one of the footpaths through the oak woodland on the other side. Still having some time before they had to return to the station for their train home, they found a dry area in the woods and lay down to relax. The man's younger self had taken the opportunity to observe and admire his friend who had fallen asleep. He had been sorely tempted to lean in and steal a kiss, but those were less enlightened times and he feared a hostile rejection or at the very least a long, awkward journey back to college. He chided himself just to enjoy the company of his friend but to watch for any indication that his feelings might be reciprocated. So, with nothing said or done, they had crossed back over the bridge and boarded the little train to begin their journey home.

Over their remaining months at university and indeed for a period of about three years during which they had kept in contact, the man continued to hope that they might make a life together. The few times he had thought the feeling might be mutual were probably wishful thinking. Finally the man had resolved to broach the subject directly the next time they met but that became unfinished business when he received a call announcing an impending marriage. However, in spite of being lost to a wife, an ember always glowed for his friend in the man's heart.

Wiping the errant tear away, the man regained his composure. Although he continued to look at the scenery through the window of the carriage, reminiscences of that day, so many years ago, filled his thoughts for the remainder of the journey up the valley.

On reaching the terminus, the man, once again ignored the offerings of the café and gift shop, and instead set about exploring the area. He thought it would be interesting to see if he could find the place where he and his friend had rested and passed the time on that last visit. Alas, his search was in vain, for although he found two areas he thought were in the right direction and at about the right distance from the station, he didn't recognize either. In one place the woods appeared to have been clear-felled to make an area of poor-looking grazing. The other place was now a large car park for a restaurant that he couldn't remember seeing before.

While he had been disappointed not to have found their special place before he had to re-join the train for the return journey, by the time he saw the power station again he was feeling a lightness of heart. It was as though he had received some sense of closure of the unfinished business between his friend and himself. He would never forget his friend but being unable to find the place seemed to have salved him of thoughts of what might have been.

Perhaps it also confirmed what he already knew — life moves on.

© Pedro April 2019

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