The Song of the Butcher Bird | 8 Chiddington Halt
The Cheltenham Flyer was widely regarded as the fastest train in the world, capable of speeds of more than seventy miles an hour. It normally travelled through Chiddington Halt at something close to that speed, shattering the rural calm and leaving behind it a rumbling memory of enormous industrial power, a satanic aftertaste of hot iron, and a light shower of smuts falling like black snow gently to the ground.
As far as the Chiddington Halt stationmaster was concerned, the local trains bumbling daily in and out of his tiny station were of no consequence at all compared to the Flyer. The milk train with its metal churns clanking and clonking to Didcot before dawn. The Oxford train shuffling wheezily to and fro at ten and four o’clock. Humdrum conveyances for country folk on their slow travels.
The Flyer he regarded with something close to religious awe, and he made sure he was present when it passed through the Halt, standing formally on the platform with one hand behind his back and his other hand raised to his peaked hat, partly in salute and partly to prevent his precious hat from being blown off his head by the backdraft. The Flyer stopped at Chiddington only by very special arrangement and only for exceptionally important guests at the Park.
Lord Saltwood owned the station, most of the village and all the land for a mile or more around it and, even more importantly from the stationmaster’s point of view, he was a director of the Great Western Railway and so owned at least a share of the Cheltenham Flyer itself.
So on this red-letter day when the Flyer was due to interrupt its impatient progress and disembark visitors to the Park, the stationmaster gave the brass buttons on his frock coat an extra polish with his handkerchief when he had finished his mid-morning tea. He spent more than the usual amount of time in front of the mirror in the tiny hallway, setting his hat straight with fussy care and jutting out his chin to check his beard for biscuit crumbs, before making his way at a stately pace onto the platform in plenty of time to greet the holy Express.
The Stationmaster at Chiddington Halt was a short man with a large waistband, on the lowest rung of the GWR stationmaster’s pay scale, commanding just one half-witted porter and half of one platelayer he shared with the next station along the line. There had been a time when he had dreamed of promotion, but one visit to the whirlwind of Paddington station had sent him scuttling back to the sanctuary of Chiddington, content to be a biggish fish in a very small, safe pond. He reminded himself every day that he had risen entirely on his merits to the trusted position of stationmaster in God’s Wonderful Railway company, and he was acutely aware of the dignity embodied in his uniform.
Heralded by a rising humming along the rails and a distant, whooping blast from its whistle, the enormous Brunswick-green Flyer and its train of GWR-liveried brown and cream carriages arrived dead on time at Chiddington. It eased alongside the platform, snorting and hissing, brakes squealing, with the suppressed violence of a bad-tempered bull being led down Chiddington Village mainstreet.
When it had come to a complete standstill, the stationmaster hurried across the platform to open the compartment door of the first class carriage that the driver had brought to rest precisely opposite the modest station building. Five passengers descended. Three grown girls shepherded by a small, slightly portly woman, and a tall man wearing an unusual broad-brimmed hat with a large dent in one side of the crown.
He could tell at a glance, of course, the stationmaster told his wife ad nauseam during the following weeks, that these were visitors from foreign parts. Not exotics like the Maharajah from India in Jubilee year, with his army of turbanned lackeys bowing and scraping. The one that offered to buy Mrs Talbot, Lord Saltwood’s housekeeper. Or that Austrian hussy who came for the hunting in ‘98, with her hoity-toity maids talking gibberish, and a special freight carriage just for her luggage – seventeen tons of it! The baggage. No, these were clearly colonials, but important enough to warrant the full attention of the Park, and therefore Very Important Persons indeed as far as the stationmaster was concerned.
At the east end of the station platform, the Flyer’s assistant guard helped the Chiddington porter to manhandle three steamer trunks, four large suitcases and a hatbox out of the baggage car and onto his trolley.
As the baggage car’s sliding door slammed shut, the stationmaster looked both ways to check that all was well with the Flyer’s high priest in the driver’s cab and his acolyte guard. Opportunities to minister to the Flyer were rare, and he was going to make the most of this one. Conscious of an audience of passengers watching him through the carriage windows, the stationmaster made a conspicuous show of assuring himself that the compartment door was correctly fastened and that no-one on the platform was too close to the train. Then he raised his green flag and the huge locomotive began to move again, gathering speed with great, deep exhalations as the huge pistons drove it forwards in a cloud of steam, accelerating westwards, leaving Chiddington Halt to settle back into the drowsy peace of a sunny Edwardian autumn morning.
The Park party stood for a few moments watching the departing train. On a bench nearby the station cat regarded them impassively, then closed its eyes and returned to sleep. Birds stunned into silence by the thundering express began to sing again, and the porter bustled along the platform towards the passengers, his trolley’s metal wheels rattling and squeaking as he came.
Not sure where they were supposed to go, the passengers stayed where they stood and watched the porter approaching. The man – the father of the family, the stationmaster told his wife with that mutton-headed, worldly-wise nodding that made her want to stick a carving knife into the broad expanse of his GWR-issue waistcoat – the man definitely had something about him if you knew something about people. He had dark, deepset eyes, and a sort of easy confidence that told the stationmaster that this was a man of considerable standing. Oh yes. I knew at once that he was a gentleman of considerable standing, the stationmaster told his wife, tapping his nose meaningfully.
The deepset eyes scrutinised the stationmaster as he moved forward to take charge of the visitors. The three young women remained close to their mother, and the gentleman nodded. “Good morning, sir,” said the stationmaster, his Berkshire burr making a soft bee’s zurr of the last word.
The man nodded again. “Good-day,’ he said. To the stationmaster and the porter, who now stood waiting with ill-disguised curiosity to see what the Flyer had brought in the way of novelty and possible remuneration, both the accent and the terminology were unfamiliar, but it was a relief to find that the language was intelligible, though mangled.
The stationmaster was not entirely sure what the colonial gentleman had said to him, but it sounded like a civil greeting, and he inclined his head, more in deference to the Park than to the visitors themselves. “You must be for the Park, sir,” he said.
“That’s right,” said the tall passenger cheerfully. “I was told there would be someone here to meet us.”
“Yes indeed, sir,” said the stationmaster in his best official voice. “Mr Lightowler, his Lordship’s butler, sent a message yesterday afternoon to inform myself there would be visitors arriving today, this morning. There should rightly be a motorcar awaiting for you in the lane, sir.”
The stationmaster was still holding his green flag in his right hand, so he held out his left hand to usher the passengers towards a gate that led out of the station, but instead of moving, the tall man held out his own right hand. “Kidman,” he said.
The stationmaster stared at the outstretched hand for a second or two, then hurriedly clamped his flag under his left armpit and shook the offered hand tentatively. “Er… Wagstaff, sir. Stationmaster. How do you do, sir.”
Railway officials of his own lowly status and local farmers might offer to shake hands with the stationmaster of an insignificant country halt like Chiddington, but no visitor to the Park would normally dream of doing such a thing. The stationmaster looked doubtfully at this visitor, but met only a straight and friendly gaze. The delighted porter filed every moment of the scene to be repeated in minute detail at the village inn that evening.
At that moment the gate opened in the hedge that separated the station from the lane beyond, and a young man in a dark suit hurried towards the group, apologising as he came. “Mr Kidman. Mrs Kidman. Miss Kidman. Misses Kidman. I do hope we haven’t kept you waiting?” He smiled at the three young women and bowed slightly to Mrs Kidman. “My name is Charlton. Lord Saltwood’s private secretary. You won’t remember me, sir. We met briefly in London with Lord Saltwood last month. I do apologise for being late to meet you. We were detained by a flock of sheep in our way. I am so sorry…”
The colonial visitor smiled at the young man and shook his hand too. “Hello, son. Of course I remember you. Don’t get yourself in a lather. Where I come from, running into a mob of sheep can hold you up for half a day. We’ve just arrived this minute.” He nodded towards the stationmaster. “My friend Wagstaff here has been looking after us.”
At least once a week for a year after he had discovered who the visitor was, the stationmaster managed to find a reason to repeat the story of how Sidney Kidman – the very man from the front page of The Times of London – had called him his friend and shaken him by the hand. ‘This very hand!’ And his wife would mouth his words in silent mockery behind his unsuspecting back as she stirred his porridge or made his afternoon tea.
Shackled by his salary and pension to a man she despised, it was her only recourse against his humourless pomposity in a childless marriage that had lost the last vestiges of respect or affection on the day of his promotion from deputy assistant stationmaster of the nearby market town fourteen years earlier. Standing in front of the range in their tiny cottage with his letter of appointment clutched reverentially to his chest, her husband had informed her that they would be moving into the Chiddington Halt station house without delay, and from then on she must refer to him at all times, even to close friends and relatives, not simply as ‘Wagstaff,’ but as ‘Mr Wagstaff,’ or better still, ‘The Stationmaster’.
The stationmaster remained oblivious to his wife’s contempt on this sunny morning and indeed every morning until the day he died, and he paced importantly behind the visitors and ahead of the porter as they all followed Lord Saltwood’s secretary out of the station and into the lane.
The visitors rose several more notches in the stationmaster’s estimation when it became apparent that Lord Saltwood had sent his brand new, personal Rolls-Royce motorcar to meet the visitors, and he drew himself up to his full height as he followed the party out into the lane, beckoning the much taller porter officiously and unnecessarily to hurry along after them with his heavily loaded trolley.
Behind the Rolls-Royce stood a pair of horses and a carriage painted in the same estate dark blue as the Rolls-Royce, a top-hatted coachman seated at attention on the driving seat and a groom standing respectfully by the horses’ heads. When Charlton offered Mrs Kidman her choice of conveyance, she chose the gleaming novelty of the Rolls-Royce, and the porter and the groom loaded the trunks and the cases into the carriage while the secretary ushered the family into the cavernous luxury of the motorcar’s enclosed passenger compartment. Kidman asked jokingly if they were sure the motor was really large enough for all his big girls, and the girls laughed loudly, with just enough nervous hilarity to make their mother frown slightly at their father.
“I’ll ride in the front,” he said, unabashed. He opened the nearside door of the unroofed driver’s compartment before the secretary could protest, and slid onto the banquette seat beside the startled chauffeur. “Thanks, Wagstaff,” he said as the stationmaster shut the door. “I reckon you get a better look at the country from here, eh?”
The stationmaster stood watching the Rolls-Royce lead the way along the lane, rapidly increasing the gap between itself and the smartly trotting carriage carrying the luggage. The porter stood behind him gazing at the coin the tall man had pushed into his discreetly positioned open hand. He and the stationmaster pooled any tips they received, and the stationmaster took the lion’s share.
‘A whole blasted lovely sovereign! Glory be to the angel Gabriel,’ he said as he showed it gleefully to the landlord of the inn that evening. ‘Don’t ‘ee tell the missus, Jem. This is just atween thee and I.’
As the stationmaster began to turn towards him in the late morning sunlight, the porter stuffed the sovereign deep into his pocket, pulled out a tarnished sixpence in its place, and held it out on his palm. He shook his head in weary disgust.
“Richer they are, meaner they be, eh stationmaster?”
9. The Country House