At Barrhead, a lady in fingerless gloves gestures towards the train driver and convinces him to wait for her. She has bright red hair and milk-bottle glasses. “Ach, she’s no’ quite right” says the man in the seat behind me, before breathlessly moving to “Oh hello Sheila, hen” when she enters the carriage and he realises he knows her. “What you up to, darlin’?”
The train sounds ill. It is just after Christmas and everything has taken its toll. As it pulls into Dunlop it seems to let out a scream. Perhaps it is possessed by the Dunlop Warlock, Tam Giffen. In the 1860s Tam, say stories passed through air and time, did evil things, often with comical elements. Once, he tried to blow a roofer from the top of a house, but could blow only his wig off. In the end, Tam was killed by fairies for giving away their secrets. Shit happens, as they say. Or maybe not.
We trickle into Stewarton and I watch the breath clouds of cold people on the platform. They bellow in sequence as if rehearsing for a brass band. As the train stops an old lady appears suddenly at the window, startling me. She has lines and sadness on her face. She looks for someone or something in the carriage, her hand up against her forehead, and then walks away.
The train all but empties at Kilmarnock, spilling out lives and errands. Here is a neglected town speckled with old buildings worth caring about and thick prim houses on leafy hills.
On the spluttering train, there is no-one else around me and the Ayrshire day has decided to be beautiful. The sun does not climb beyond the blue sky’s knees, but it strains away and licks things golden. It lights bobbly countryside and low white cottages. Just as you expect to see Rabbie Burns himself emerging from such a cottage while pulling up his trousers, the 21st century slaps your chops: a road caked in lorries full of logistics; the noise of silver and bronze clinking and chinking in the pockets of the bored and fidgety train guard.
Neat, proud council estates half-mask the purging of Auchinleck, robbed blind when its mines shut. Maybe nothing seems so bad when you are but a stroll from air that smashes you in the face with its freshness. As if reacting in opposition, a man gets on with his roll-up still lit. The smell fills the carriage and feels foreign, exotic, historic even. I want him to light another.
New Cumnock and Kirkconnel are similar, though I imagine residents would not agree, and fair enough too. Stopped coal has changed lives. Two old ladies in purple get on at the former, spend their short journey talking about Eastenders, and alight at the latter. And all the while out of the window, the countryside gladdens me. It is still and spacious, an open palm as opposed to the clenched fists of the Highlands. The hills are not dramatic, but pleasing. Their outline resembles a dangerously slow heartbeat on a hospital bedside monitor.
The train heaves itself into Sanquhar. Two women with rhythmic accents which seem to jolt in places sit opposite me. One is in her twenties, the other, her Mum, in her fifties. Both have tiny tattoos of tea pots on their wrists. Mum opens a Fry’s Orange Cream and daughter takes the piece offered, which is also a tablet of permission for Mum to speak almost nonstop until Dumfries. “Ah said the wrong thing. I know I did. You cannae say anything to him. He’s obsessed with Aldi. Won’t even go in Lidl anymore.” There is brief respite when her phone rings: “Is that you Dougie? Aye, I knew `cos the wee screen said ‘Dougie’.” Then she continues. “You should see the size of the hoose. It’s too much for her. It’s even got a dining room! Ah’d love a dining room, I would.”
Dumfries station is as close as I have seen in Scotland to that of a model railway. On each side steady Victorian redbrick buildings wear white brass shelters. I expect to see a porter clumsily rolling about a laden wooden luggage carrier with a lady in a fur coat walking ahead of him. The toots and fizzes of a steam train would fit more than the panting train I have stepped off. It seems to look onwards to Gretna and then Carlisle with dread.
An entire class of schoolchildren squeezes into the small station café. They queue in as orderly a manner as their hormones and personalities will allow them. Chips, chips and more chips are ordered. I join in. Four workmen in bright coats wedge themselves through the door and up the chip count further. I sit for an hour and watch the café empty. At 2 o’clock an ancient man shuffles in with great effort. “Portion of chips please, son” he croaks. “We’ve none left, I’m afraid,” replies the man behind the counter. The old man looks like he could cry, but he orders a toastie instead.