Cast in a new role
I AM going to become a theatrical landlady. The family exult that I will have to call myself Ma Ashworth, wear a floral pinny, and smoke a lot, but — having been around actors for most of my working life, and having spare rooms in a house I have lived in for more than 40 years — it seems like a good plan.
Reconfiguring the space is leading me to reflect on “stuff”, and what we do with it. Seven years after the sudden death of my husband, Ted, we are only now in a fit state to consider what we should do with his railway room, commandeered after the last child left home and housing all things locomotive. I have managed to find good homes for some of it: the books were seized on by the modeller I commissioned to finish the etched brass coach that was a work in progress, and proceeds from small sales are helping to fund a sewing school in Bangalore.
BUT now we ponder on the railway itself, the product of years of detailed work. There is no more poignant sight because, until awakened by the operator, a model railway is already something frozen in time. This one is Chalbourne, a fictitious station on the GWR (God’s Wonderful Railway).
My input was in choosing the diminutive figures that people the platforms: the three hikers on the bridge; the chatting passengers; the mysterious lady in red slacks, with her jaunty shoulder bag and flamboyantly tied scarf; the dog on the packing case; the signalman’s bike; the cattle in the pens.
He indulged me with Cynthia, a Pullman coach that really didn’t belong, and for which he had to create a special event on the timetable, but I loved the way the shaded lamps on the tables lit up when the train was running. He painted a back scene of misty hills and swaths of woodland, so that the Squire and the Vicar seemed, as they exited the station, to be walking into the very heart of the countryside.
Running two working timetables — one for 1937 and one for 1957 — cunningly allowed him to run two sets of stock, from the early-morning train (Railcar, carries milk and papers) to the last of the day (Corridor, parcels). It is all just as he left it, and that is what wrenches the heart. His friend and fellow enthusiast, Pete, has identified and catalogued all the rolling stock in the fiddle yard (how easily these terms still roll off my tongue), and the names are familiar: Cardiff Castle 4075, Collett Goods 3205, Flying Banana.
The railway has not run for seven years, and stands encased against the dust in plastic sheeting. It is a Havisham experience. We find ourselves torn between wanting to keep it, and thinking that somebody, somewhere, should be running it and enjoying it. In Japan, apparently, if you haven’t touched something for six months, it means that you probably don’t need it.
It is a question for our times. Is it right to hang on to things? Is it enough just to have the memories and the pictures? Answers on a postcard, please.
Oiling the wheels
NOT being remotely knowledgeable about things vehicular (that was his province) is especially disadvantageous when it comes to dealing with garages. My brakes have been squealing for three weeks, to the point at which people have started looking oddly at me as I pull up at traffic lights. I affect a Pooh-like attitude and hum. I can no longer directly ring the service desk at the place where our cars have always been bought and serviced, and I learn from the smooth-talking and remote operator that it will be £72 to look at the car, and they can’t do it for another week. It will, however, come with a complimentary valet. Huh.
A friend recommends a well-known garage franchise a couple of miles away. I ring them up and they say yes, bring it in now, and they’ll have a look. It is an entirely no-frills place, and it smells reassuringly of engine oil and hard graft. A man in overalls drives the car up and down the forecourt, reckons that it’s the back brake on the passenger side, and takes the car off to put it on the ramp. He comes back, tells me he thinks it’s a film on the brake shoe that he can rub with an emery cloth, and it will take about 45 minutes.
It does. He sorts it. When I prepare to pay, he wipes his hands on a rag and says, “On, no. We don’t charge for that.”
Tools for life
THESE are the people who restore your faith in goodness and human nature. I think back over the past seven years, and reflect that I have encountered a great deal of it in that time. And I think a bit more, and with pleasure, about where some of Ted’s stuff has ended up. All his tools, together with those of his father (who was a joiner), and my father (an engineer), have gone to the charity Men in Sheds. They’re older men — mostly on their own — who gather in workshops and make and mend things, using their existing skills and learning new ones.
I think he would have approved of that. And it is quite cathartic, getting rid of things. It’s part of a letting-go that takes more time than we could have imagined, but which, in its way, is oddly comforting.
Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.