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Late Train to the Stars

THE first time I became aware of the ticket collector I was struck by the mournful cast of his long, gray face. It had a bleak hopelessness about it. There was even something dreary in the clinking and jingling of his collecting box.

He was very often on duty on the train that took me from the country to Central Station in town for evening classes, then on the last train home. He passed through the compartments with a slow, shuffling step, standing stiffly beside each passenger, handing out tickets and giving back change in grim silence. There was no joking with him as with other collectors, no remarks on the fearful weather or sarcastic complaints about the shortcomings of British Rail.

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He was sometimes jolted out of his melancholy to rebuke a passenger, pointing sternly to a notice: Do Not Put Your Feet on the Seat, or reprimanding school-children for unruly behavior.

I certainly never expected to have any conversation with this servant of the railways.

One night, for the last seven stations, I was the only traveler. The collector punched my ticket and was going to vanish off to the far end of the compartment where he usually sat in austere isolation, counting his cash and writing notes in a black notebook.

Instead he gave a curious sidelong glance at my books and papers, paused, then turned back. "What's that you're learning?" he asked. I told him that I went to classes at one of the local universities to learn Russian.

"Russian! I've always had a notion of taking classes myself one day," he said. "Why don't you?" I asked. At the question his face clouded over. "I'm too weary - life on the railways is not straight sailing. There's trouble with rowdy passengers and fare dodgers. The school children are always up to something, cheeking me, smoking. They'll go and set the train on fire, they're so destructive, but they won't listen to me. I'd like more than anything to go to a class."

He stopped abruptly and retreated to his remote seat, as if embarrassed that he had said too much and that there was something laughable in a more-than-middle-aged ticket collector talking about evening classes.

It marked the beginning of our acquaintance, however, and set me wondering what it was that he wanted to study. What could his special interest in life be?

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Some weeks later he was again on duty on the last train. He hesitated beside me as he took my ticket. "You must enjoy that Russian class of yours," he said, adding in a sudden awkward rush, "It's astronomy I'd want to study."

"Astronomy!" I tried not to sound surprised. "That should be interesting."

"When I was a boy I used to go out walking with my father at night - he loved to see the stars. He'd point out to me the different constellations and the Milky Way. I'd repeat them over and over under my breath - the Pleiades, the Plough, Orion's Belt, the Great Bear - I dreamed of them. Sometimes we saw a shooting star. `Wish a wish,' my father always said. He'd a lot of wishes for me, hoping I'd not end up as a railways worker like himself. I'd my own wishes! I'd own a huge telescope for the night sky;

I'd discover a new planet."

HE broke off, half-sheepishly. He wasn't going to give anything else away, at least not this time, but a kind of trust had been established between us.

Sometimes the train was so crowded that talk was impossible - he could only fling an envious look at my books as he passed along. There he goes, I thought, the star-struck collector. No one else knew of the aspirations hidden behind that sad exterior.

One night in late autumn, my class went on longer than usual, and I had to run fast for the train. I caught it by the skin of my teeth just as it was leaving the Central. As I sat drawing breath I heard the familiar clinking sound and there stood the collector. "That was a near miss!" he exclaimed. "It's very dangerous to loup on or off a moving train." Then, with some memory stirring, "Did you ever hear of a sailor jumping ship?" he asked. Yes, I had heard of such acts. "Well, I once jumped train," he s aid almost triumphantly. He hesitated as if something momentous was coming.

"It was an autumn night like tonight," he began. "We were waiting for the last train to run back to town - it goes without stopping right into the Central.

"All at once, one of those queer impulses that overpower you seized hold of me. I nipped out on to the platform as the train started, slammed the door shut. The driver in his closed cabin took it for granted that I was aboard and off he went, his one thought to get home - it wouldn't ever occur to him that a dull fellow like me would jump train!"

He brought out the tale of the exploit of that night with long pauses and at first uneasy glances: Was I really listening? Was I interested? Then he became too immersed in the recollection to consider anything else.

"I put a good distance between me and the station, walking fast and striking off across the fields, climbing up and up. I hadn't been in the country for years - the fresh air made me almost giddy - and with every step I took, I minded more and more clearly things I'd pushed to the back of my mind. In town with all the lighting you never see stars and almost forget they exist. There they were now as if they'd been waiting for me."

"Did you remember their names?" I asked.

"Oh yes, they all came back and the sound of my father's voice - Orion's Belt, the Pleiades, the Plough. `Do you feel the earth birling and whirling around us?' he'd ask. `What are we, specks in the universe? When did it begin and will it ever end? It's all a mystery.'

"But it's our last night together that comes back to me. We stood there, hoping for a shooting star, ready with our wishes, nearly frozen to the bone - it was a keen frost, far too cold for my father. Just as we were turning away, disappointed, the miracle happened."

He conveyed a rising excitement.

"What was the miracle?" I asked.

"It wasn't just one star but a mass of them, we lost all count. They came sliding and slithering and tumbling down over us, as if the Milky Way, the whole sky, would land on our heads.

"We stood gaping, hanging on to each other, awed, too amazed to speak. `It must be a shower of Leonids,' my father said at last. A shower of Leonids! I repeated over and over. `I don't suppose we'll ever see the like again,' he said. `You'll mind it all your days.' I'll never forget it. It was like a solemn promise made to him. I'll mind it all my days."

The ticket collector was silent and stared out of the window for so long that I thought he had come to the end of his story or was too moved to speak.

Presently, he began again. "The night when I jumped train and found the stars again I came to a decision - it had been brewing in my mind for years. I'd begin a new life. My father had told me to mind our vision and I'd let it become blurred - I mustn't disappoint his wishes for me any longer. I'd often heard of people disappearing off the face of the earth and starting again somewhere else."

"Why didn't you?" I asked him. "What stopped you?"

"What stopped me! A sound nothing more than that. A jingling, clinking, this!" He tapped his collecting box and rattled the coins in it. "I'd been wearing it all the time and only heard it then. I couldn't go off with all this money - it was my responsibility. My father would have been the first to agree. How could I set up a new existence on railway money? I must return it. Later I'd escape, I said to myself, but I expect I knew in my heart that I never would. I didn't have the courage - it takes a lot to shake yourself out of a rut. I'm not what you'd call a hero."

He was not. He stood there in his frayed uniform and ridiculous peaked cap, the fateful collecting box slung round his shoulders. He was no longer, if he ever had been, young and smart and efficient, with hopes of promotion.

The melancholy ticket collector may not have been fashioned out of heroic clay, but he had been so absorbed in the recall of that last walk with his father and the miraculous shower of Leonids that words had poured from him, transforming him, not to a hero but to almost a poet.

Just then the train stopped and a crowd of noisy football supporters thronged abroad, waving banners, singing, and shouting - their team had won. The revelation of his vision was over but he had shared it with me and I was grateful for an insight into our human condition.

He moved away down the train, punching tickets and chinking cash. I saw him several times after that when he gave a funny smile to the sharer of his secret. Then he disappeared, and however much I looked out for him I never saw him again.

Had he perhaps retired and started classes in astronomy? Perhaps he had jumped train for the last time. I like to imagine him standing under the night sky, gazing up till his head whirled, waiting for a second coming, another shower of Leonids.

Whatever happened to him, however drear and insignificant his life might be, he had had, like the "tattered outlaw of the earth," G. K. Chesteron's Donkey, his hour of glory: "Fools! for I also had my hour, One fierce hour and sweet, There was a shout about my ears and palms before my feet...."

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