Long skies and the glowing sun, and that forlorn search for a seat. Those with a table to themselves dread the latecomer like me. ‘Is this seat free?’ I ask a man in a waxy coat and bulky wool jumper. He pivots his head, which carries skin not unlike corned beef, and says ‘I suppose.’
As the train guard ping-pongs and announces that one day we will land in Inverness, Corned Beef begins talking with the three blokes opposite. As far as I can tell, for they speak from a different dictionary to me, they are on their way to a shareholders’ meeting. One of the men speaks as if he is sucking on a golf ball. They are all wearing suit jackets with trousers which don’t match. It is not class war to say that men of this ilk always do. It is as if coordination is giving in to proletarian values; these are men of ramshackle country piles, not neat council houses with a ‘good room’ at the front.
Their faces are very satisfied. The furthest from me has a cloud of white hair which jumps towards the ceiling when he gets excited, usually about share prices or restaurants that serve seagull. It is the kind of hair that has never worried about paying a bill, the kind of hair that thinks all youngsters should be made to join the army. They discuss FTSE like it is alive and a world contentedly turned by oil prices. Worst of all, they flicker not a jot as the train clacks over the Forth Bridge. This is like walking past Audrey Hepburn in 1961 and not turning your head, like humming the national anthem over the Beatles.
They don’t see the hills and the water, the greens and the silvers. They don’t see Lothian skies across from us, or clouds lurking over the Pentlands like the end of time. They don’t see the men in wigs having a crafty last fag in Inverkeithing, or the two girls snogging like their lives depend on it at Markinch. Who is rich afterall?
They alight at Perth and the train seems to speed up. Even so, it always feels as though we are climbing uphill, the diesel engine going into battle with the terrain. We cut and jag through forests and above streams in landscape to make you blush. There are lumpy great hills tickled by mist, and sheep sucking on heather. At Inverness I change trains for Wick, just 25 stations away.
The train is almost empty by Muir of Ord, no-one gets on at Conon Bridge but Dingwall brings Belgian backpackers (two). At Alness, two more people get off and no-one gets on. I realise I have become Dr Beeching, ticking off passenger numbers, and give my reflection the evil eye, as if I’ve looked in the bathroom mirror and found I look like Hitler. A rig means we’re at Invergordon. Isolated churches and graveyards mean we’re definitely in Scotland’s north; grief is not grief without a 17-mile walk added.
The station at Fearn is someone’s house, and ‘Tain’ has 16 letters in Gaelic. The train makes lovely noises like one of Reverend Awdry’s, and I realise I haven’t looked at my watch for a long time. I have accepted that my fate is a day on the train. At Ardgay, a boy sits on a bench in the station. It is one of three things to do here, I imagine, the other two being: go to the shop and find it closed or sit on the swings for a bit. Invershin is a request stop which no-one requests, Lairg is ‘Lairg’ in Gaelic (I like the ones where the signwriter couldn’t be arsed).
Outside Rogart an unidentified (by me) bird of prey claws at something I can’t see, at Golspie the line narrows so much I think the carriage walls are coming in. Dunrobin Castle, Brora and Helmsdale go by, the train picking its way between knobbly hills on the left and a twitching sea to the right. The only real revelation comes when one of the Belgians announces to her impressed Scottish table-mate that she is a train driver and a qualified welder. After Kinbrace the landscape grows huge and almost ridiculous, like some overgrown other planet. Forsinard ‘has been awarded Bronze Tidy Station Standard’ says a sign. Bronze?! It is bleeding spotless. Presumably you actually have to serve meals on the platform surface to achieve Gold.
Altnabreac is an unrequested stop like an unrequited love, and the Belgian talks about the orchestra she plays cello in, and Spanish dialects. Scotscalder, Thurso, Georgemas Junction; the names become functional and every now and again civilisation flickers through the window. The train speeds up, the driver wants his tea, and we arrive in Wick, where the people are wise enough to not give a hoot about share prices.