Next door used to live a train driver, and sure enough the curious neighbour peering over the fence turned out to be no other than the son of said driver. I remembered his father because he was a driver of the famous ‘Master Cutler’ express train from London to Sheffield which went past the house at a million miles an hour. To me he was the driver of the fastest steam train ever which at the time was the ‘Mallard’, and as a treat at Christmas he would take us down to the huge engine sheds by the canal. We had to get up before dawn for this treat. The stone hot water bottles Nana always put in our beds were still warm from the night before and we would pull on as many layers of clothes as we could find before meeting up at the front of the house as planned. There, our magical driver would lead us in a little train of boys like the pied piper, following his oil lamp down to the engine sheds where at that time of the morning, monsters lived.
There would be at least twenty locomotives being got into steam for the day ahead; black leviathans with red fiery bellies, gushing smoke from their funnels and steam from their shiny wheels and pistons. We had to be careful how we crossed the tracks, quite steep for small feet and little legs and thick with oil, tar, coal, and black ooze. Despite the cold and the wind blowing sleet into your face, the occasional waft of heat from an engine would warm you to the marrow and send a thrilling shiver through your small frame. The noise was all around and the fantastic never to be forgotten smells all pervading. Once I remember being right by the side of a track and seeing a ghostly mist approach soundlessly towards me, only to become a small shunter engine pulling some coal trucks, towering monstrously over me but too slow and too quiet to make an impression against the wider cacophony of its larger sister engines. It was like something out of a fairytale.
Then our magical driver would lift us into the cab of his enormous black locomotive where the fireman would already be undressed to his shirt and sweating profusely as he shovelled endless amounts of coal from the tender into the gaping jaws of the giant furnace. Then the shovelling would stop, we would all crouch down and the fireman would put his shovel upside down into the fire to heat it up so it glowed a deep winter sunset red. Then on the back of the black shovel he would put on some streaky bacon and crack open some eggs, and within seconds we would tuck into the most fantastic breakfast imaginable. Sitting inside a warm and cosy engine cab, knowing we shouldn’t by rights be there and knowing we had to hide in the tender if the driver’s boss (the Fat Controller) should come along (he never did), looking out at the Sun coming slowly up over a snowy winter horizon, listening to the engine come alive as the brass gauges moved towards full steam, smelling that wonderful hot breakfast smell coupled with all the engine smells and the cold piercing winter smell, being with your little pals on a Christmas morn - massive ear to ear smiles on our faces dimpling our cheeks; and looking back at it, because we were such little boys - without a single care in the World. And on top of all that, when we got home the family would only just be stirring, we had already had the most fantastic adventure imaginable, and it was Christmas!
Perhaps it’s because I no longer drink I get nostalgic for those times before I discovered alcohol and when life was so innocent. Perhaps I look back with sorrow on a life so much of which was wasted because of drink. But at least I suppose I can now look forward, knowing I will never waste a single day ever again.