I was lounging in a cane chair and nursing a glass of stout in my paws when the subject of railway tunnels came up. It was Monday night and we bellringers were gathered at our usual watering place, a kind of faux Raffles opposite the Cathedral. On the gramophone Vera Lynn was promising that we would meet again but I knew I wouldn’t be there the following week. I was heading off for a ten-day retreat.
One of our number had been traveling English waterways and was showing us photographs. Dead straight canals in the Fen country might have been lifted straight from Dorothy Sayer’s Nine Tailors, and the morning-mistiness of a lush river in Bedfordshire would have made Uncle Ratty weep, and me too, on his behalf. I don’t know whether it was the stout, or Vera Lynn, but when the very last photograph came to the fore and showed not a boat or a canal but the entrance to a disused railway tunnel, I was suddenly transported back to my youth and an outing with Great Uncle Mole.
I had rather been hoping to accompany Uncle Ratty who was sailing off somewhere with a chum to salvage bells and lamps (and treasure, I thought) from a village that had long been lost to the sea. Walking along a disused railway line with Great Uncle Mole seemed a very thin second prize, and I have to admit I was more than a little disgruntled.
We had been strolling for a couple of hours. It was hot and I was eying the old gas mask case he was carrying. It contained lemonade and madeira cake. I knew because I had seen Uncle Ratty pack it along with his own. Because I had already asked Great Uncle Mole once whether we mightn’t stop for elevenses, even though it was now well past noon I didn’t dare ask again. He droned on and on about the merits, or otherwise, of different gauges and the stability, or otherwise, of rolling stock. ‘One track mind’, I muttered. At that time puns seemed to me the finest form of wit.
Suddenly he stopped dead and poked about in the long grass with his walking stick. …’Aha’, he shouted with the enthusiasm of Archimedes. ‘Look, Moley, Look!’ What I could see was a rusty pipe like thing.
It was a switch, he said.
Oh, I thought.
But then as he told me what it was for and showed me how to throw the lever, I was no longer looking at bits of metal and difficult sums. I was on a train, travelling through the countryside. How would it be, I wondered, to be sitting with your bucket and spade and all geared up for a holiday in West Wittering and, unbeknownst to you, some trickster threw the points and had you hurtling towards Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum? Or, for that matter, how would it be if you were handcuffed between two guards and suddenly found yourself building sandcastles or collecting shells?
Oh to be that trickster.
How old was I then? Fourteen or fifteen perhaps. In those days the gleeful impulse to throw the switch would have far outweighed any thought of the consequences. Now that I am edging perilously close to Great Uncle Mole in years, I would have said my default position was avoiding decisions and sticking to the route I was already on; that I would not dream of throwing the switch on my track or anyone else’s. And were someone else to throw a switch on my track, I might have imagined myself clasping the plush seat with both paws, eyes fixed on the wrong landscape hurtling past the window, and worrying myself into ghee about all the implications, real or imagined, that this turn of events might have in store for me.
So I might have thought, but I find that I have greater equanimity than I expected. I had long been preparing myself for my retreat. I was anticipating with every hair on my pelt its silence, its attic room with a window overlooking the gardens, its beach, its all-meals-provided. I had well nigh packed, created a roster for watering, emptied the fridge, and organised a lift.
It was cancelled.
I didn’t collapse into a little mole-heap.
Instead, new vistas appeared before my eyes. My burrow transformed itself into a retreat. Coloured pens slipped out of their cases and wrote lists of small pleasures. The hands of clocks removed themselves so as not to be held to account. Cancelled appointments were firmly turned away from re-entering themselves into the diary. Knocklofty awaits longer walks at stranger times. At midnight tonight my contraptions will switch themselves off for the duration. Not even a murmur will be transmitted next week.
The switch was painless.