staying present on Tarka Rail


The sun was out. A gibbous moon was out also. It was cold outside the train, of course, and the horses in the meadows had coats draped over their backs. Sheep sat together in some pens and in some others they stood united and grazed. Some sheep had black faces and the rest were white all over but black soil had rubbed off on each one’s coat. Sometimes they were near the rail, and when the train approached them they ran, bobbing their rumps as they went, showing red or blue stamps on their backsides. Happy sheep. They didn’t have a care. Their big decisions had been made for them. 

The horses were ponies, perhaps. The middle-age lady across the aisle would’ve known. She knew many things, which she shared with her husband and he nodded to everything she told him, and they looked out the window the entire journey, and smiled, staying warm and not taking off their beige coats. The woman wore also a burgundy-red bag which had a thin strap and a long stitch. Her smile lines were the same depth as her husband’s. 

They missed nothing in the 39-mile ride from Exeter to Barnstaple, the length of Tarka Rail, named after the otter in Henry Williamson’s book. I attempted the present-mindedness of the couple and tried to take pictures of the Taw river valley that ran alongside us, but I had trouble composing the photographs. Things intruded. The lamps overhead showed as bright parallelograms on the glass of the windows, claiming space in the view of straight hedgerows, strict channels, upright transmission towers supporting miles of straight-running cable with optimal slack, and the angles and arches of bridges. After a while I put away my camera to admire instead the perfect works of man.

It has been more than one hundred years since great Britons like Brunel showed what can be achieved by reducing gradients and curves, and in Brunel’s case with this very Great Western that I was riding on, but nature hasn’t begun to heed such men one bit. It was not possible to say, for instance, whether the stream that curved away would come back, which here it did, after vagrant tortuous runs, and then after a time it went away from under the train and when I began to miss it, it returned from under, grown somewhat, and went far out and away. Just when I thought it was gone for good, it was back, glancing again and again at the rails.

I tried to anticipate where the next moor might fall after this one. I looked for a pattern in every clutch of hills that came up, and as I did the futile exercise I envied the occasional single house on top of quite-high hills. I checked for similarity in geometry among the flats and the many lovely pools. Birds that foraged with sheep rose when our train came by and within moments did an about-turn.

“Sit down, Corrie!”

Corrie (and her mother) were two rows fore of me. Unlike the senior couple across, Corrie didn’t care to look out the window. Sitting down, for her, was to rest her tummy on the headrest, dangle her limbs in the air, and squeeze for occasional relief into the narrow between seat and window. Comfortable so, she was in battle with her brother in the row just ahead of me. “Stop it Corrie,” her mother cried, “it’s not funny.” But to Corrie it was most funny. She laughed gaily as she fought.

Then she fell. And began to wail. And recovered in seconds to soft cooing and went up the seat to rock on her belly again. “Get down, Corrie,” her mother ordered. “Corrie,” she cried again, and again, and once again, drawing the last syllable in a raga with many inflections. But Corrie had a fight on hand that she had to finish.

I shouldn’t have paid so much attention to the little girl. I missed the otters I’d been told I might see if I was lucky.