ek_johnston: (wonder)
[personal profile] ek_johnston
It dawns on me that this one's probably going to need a bit of background information.

At the end of my MSc, Amy and I went on a round UK trip that ended up in a haunted castle in Culrain, Scotland with a dozen other fans of the Lord of the Rings. I was without internet for a month, and I didn't post anything about the trip when I got home. I don't know why. I kept extensive notes. I've just never got around to typing them up.

So there's quite a bit of truth in this story, like there is in A Coffee Runs Through It. Not everything happened to me, but all of it is a reflection of how that portion of the trip made me feel.

And also, I love trains. And I love train stations. My grandfather started out as a ticket puncher and ended up head of what was at the time the largest union in Canada. Trains are in my family, but I didn't really experience them until I moved to England, and they became like taking the bus. And even though they were like taking the bus, there are still all those little stations that make it interesting.

I have repeatedly referred to the Culrain station as the second most ridiculous train station in Scotland. Maybe someday I'll tell you about the first. :)

Station Keeping

E.K. Johnston

There’s a train station in Scotland that’s barely a station at all.

It’s the sort of place where you think you might wait forever, and the train would never come at all. It’s the sort of place where you think that even if the train did come, it would miss the station amidst the trees and pass you right by. It’s the sort of place where you wouldn’t mind either of these things happening, except you have to get to Inverness.

They call Inverness the Gateway to the Highlands, even though it’s well over the border.

You can’t imagine how the city forgets that, standing as it does on the shores of the most famous lake in the world. You can’t imagine that the people who live there forget it, all they have to do is look up to see the mountains. You can’t imagine ever forgetting it yourself.

Inverness is civilized now, holding the mountains back, and the gateway moved when no one was looking.

You look up from Culloden and wonder how the sky doesn’t weep all the time. You look up from the cobblestones outside the Marks and Spencer and wonder what the ground was like beneath them. You look up from the windows of the train as it takes you up into the mountains, and you remember.

It’s strange how you can remember a place so clearly when it’s a place you’ve never been.

You can feel it, the change in the air, the moment you pass the football stadium. You can feel it, the change in the ground, as the trees hem in around the train windows and the mountains block the view. You can feel it, the change in pitch, as the train begins to climb towards the edge of the world.

The world doesn’t have enough edges anymore, but this is why you came here.

You came to see rocks and trees, even though there are both aplenty at home. You came to see the wind turn the sweeps of the giant windmills, even though there are wind farms all up and down the coast. You came to see the sunset, even though it will be blotted out by the hills. You came all this way to see nothing but the ordinary.

The villages are ordinary, plunked down in dales and glens along the tracks for reasons long forgotten.

The people stay here because Inverness is closer, now that it’s the Gateway, and it’s got groceries. The people stay here because Virgin found a way to bounce the satellite signal through the trees to reach their cell phones and modems. The people stay here because it’s home, and because they willed it so long that now they can.

When the train stops, everyone hurries home and leaves you standing there, alone and in love with everything.

You love the way the commuters stared at you and your back pack all the way up through the mountains. You love the way that none of them asked where you were going, because they already knew. You loved that none of them asked why you were going there because they knew they’d get a complicated answer.

There’s only one place to go, on that train up from Inverness.

You arrive at the Castle on foot and pretend you don’t know it was built in 1905. You drop your backpack in one of the chairs at the reception desk and pretend you don’t know that it’s a Youth Hostel now, and you’re just another tourist. You walk up a dozen different staircases to get to your room and for a moment you don’t have to pretend anything at all.

Nothing in the Castle is authentic, especially the ghosts, but the moments you can pretend you’re not pretending are real.

You meet the first ghost by accident in the toilets at three o’clock in the morning. Afterwards, it’s hard to get back to sleep thanks to the prickles on your skin and the way the light flickers in the hallway and dances across the bottom of your door. You meet the second ghost on purpose in the nursery just like the guide book said. She laughs at you, but you don’t mind because it’s sunny and you deserve it. You never meet the third ghost, the piper, at all, but it’s not from lack of trying.

The train station is barely there because it’s old; the Castle is barely there because it’s new.

There’s a door that screams like a monster from a movie if you close it slowly. There’s a stuffed deer in the billiards room that follows you with its eyes while you stalk the eight ball. There’s a symphony orchestra that practices in the ballroom all afternoon and you can hear them in every corner of the building. There’s a dance at night that goes on so long you’re pretty sure it would even have exhausted a fairy.

It wasn’t your favourite place in the world when you were staying there, but it is now.

You don’t wait forever on the train platform for the train that’s taking you to your plane in Inverness. You don’t talk to the other passengers because you are on vacation and they are on their way to work. You don’t look back as the train makes its way down because you know it would break your heart.

You only go any place once, but you think you might be able to return here someday.

The station’s made it this far, after all.


Special thanks to Opal, who edited.

Dedicated to Amy, for whom the train did not come, and for whom the dream of Scotland will always be very close to my heart.
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October 2011

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