BY KEITH NEWTON
Copyright is held by the author.
GLOOMY, GRIMY, gritty, smelly. Flecks of soot, specks of ash. Clanging steel, hissing steam. Clattering carts. Brawny porters. The train station! I loved it immediately.
My small hand in Poppy’s huge paw. A day at the seaside. Poppy’s treat. He grins. Me too. Bit of a crowd. Excited chatter. Subsides as the iron monster chuffs in. Elegant carriages slide by, slowing. Crowd breaks into little knots of ones and twos. Jostling for an empty compartment.
Poppy leads me straight ahead. We climb in. Suited, bespectacled gent. Looks up from the Times. Smiles greeting. Poppy nods and we smile too. Poppy adjusts a broad leather belt that opens the window. I lean out. The engine waits impatiently. Let’s get this gang to the coast. (It seems to say.) Whistles, flags. Puff. We’re off. Pick up speed. Rhythm. Clickety clack. I love it.
I glance up. Twine-netted luggage racks. Raincoat, carefully folded. Hat, brolly. Neat gent. Tie pin. Breast pocket hanky. Shiny shoes. Poppy whispers, “‘E’s not going there to build sandcastles.”
We pass farms with trees, cows, sheep. Brief stop at small station. It’s pouring. I don’t mind at all.
“Where are we Poppy?”
“You’re in another county now.”
Another country, for all I care.
Arrival. We alight, emerge from the station. Gale force wind off the North Sea. Dark scudding clouds, slanting rain. We are undaunted. Off to the beach. Wet sand, choppy waves. Murky mist, no horizon.
Poppy pulls his tweed cap lower. Turns up the collar of his raincoat. I secure my little oilskin sou’wester against the gale.
“What first?” asks Poppy.
“Do they have donkey rides?”
We stroll along the prom. A small hut. Four miserable looking donkeys. A shilling from Poppy. I climb aboard. Nothing. Beast won’t budge. Donkey man tries encouragement. Bamboo cane. Animal shuffles reluctantly. Slowly. Wet donkey. Bad smell. Oh well, what next?
“You want to try a horse instead?”
“Oh, yes please,” I say.
“Okay, there’s a carousel down there.” (Pointing into the gloom.)
“What’s a carousel, Poppy?”
“It’s a merry-go-round with horses.” This cheers me.
Soon we can hear it. Scratchy music. Loudly defying the elements. Another shilling buys me a steed. Little girl the only other rider. Bedraggled parents look on. Encouraging, if slightly forced, smiles.
“What now? Candy floss; ice cream?”
“Right. We’ll find a caff.”
“What’s a caff?”
“Fancy French name for a little restaurant. That’s a French word too.”
Exciting. I love it.
World’s Best Fish and Chips says the sign. (Poppy reads it out to me.) Cosy enough. Big windows. Great view of the crashing waves and driving rain. We sit side by side. I check out the other diners. Two families, remarkably similar: bored dads, harassed mums, fractious little girls, self-conscious teenage boys. Mums smiling bravely. Haughty-looking woman in the corner. Total, permanent disapproval of the world. Strange but kindly looking old man. Pince-nez and a large leather bound book. Rumpled, mis-shaven. (“Didn’t stand close enough to the razor,” whispers Poppy.)
Fish and chips. Super! We dig in. Plenty of salt and malt vinegar. Tea for Poppy. Lemonade for me. We munch happily. I love it.
Poppy leans towards me. Conspiratorially, I think. Our shoulders touch. Heads too. I expect a comment about the other diners. Rude, perhaps. Funny, likely. But no! What comes out of Poppy is not a whispered aside. It’s a thunderous fart. Huge; a real beauty. My reactions are mixed. Embarrassment and admiration.
Cautiously I glanced around the room. A little girl is rolling on the floor. Giggling helplessly. Dad smiles approvingly. The other dad grins broadly. Holds his fist aloft with the thumb upright. His wife has her hands over her face. Shoulders heaving. Haughty-looking woman is horrified. Old gent looks up from his book. Bemused little smile. The two boys exchange glances, nods. They rise in unison. Solemnly they applaud.
Calmness is restored. Poppy munches on unconcernedly. After a while, me too. Poppy pats his stomach. Orders apple pie and more tea. Other diners start to drift out. A couple of nervous smiles. Goodbye wave from a little girl. Warm nods from the men. Handshakes for Poppy from the teenage boys. I am very impressed: how grown-up!
Poppy pays. Reluctantly we don our rain gear. Step out into the lashing gale.
“Poppy, doesn’t the sun ever shine here?”
“Don’t know, son. I’ve only been here five times.”