For Elise Oliver
A Facebook acquaintance once shared a story
about her maternal great-uncle, George,
who, for thirty nine years, drove a steam engine
– a Hunslet standard gauge made in Leeds –
pulling goods wagons of coal and clay
from the marshalling yards in Stoke-on-Trent
to the pot banks in Burslem, Tunstall, Longton,
Fenton, Hanley, and brought back finished pots.
His father had left labouring on a farm
in Rugeley to labour at a bottle kiln.
The family of nine lived in poverty.
George never married, and shared,
with his surviving sister’s family,
a red brick railwaymen’s terraced house
somewhere in Shelton behind Stoke station.
“It’s a stop and start sort of job,” he would say,
“waiting in sidings for the main line trains
to pass, and shunters to fettle the wagons”.
His favourite haul was to ‘Etruria’ –
“not the place in Italy!”, he would joke,
but Josiah Wedgewood’s estate outside
the Six Towns, to where he had moved both
his works and his family to escape
the sulphurous smog. By the siding
mountain ash trees grew on an embankment.
George would set the fireman/trainee driver
to brew the tea, lend him his Daily Mirror,
step down, and peg a likely sapling
to the ground with twine. In time he would harvest
the bespoke canes and give the primitive
but sturdy walking sticks to needy neighbours
in the narrow, cobbled streets of Shelton.
Travelling back from London by train
in a carriage full of masked strangers,
a wild, darkening autumn afternoon
flinging leaves at the windows, I fell asleep,
dreaming of two old bald men fighting
over a comb, of a couple of giants
clubbing each other to death in quicksand,
of billionaires rocketing into space
the better to see the forests burning.
I woke to an unfamiliar landscape,
and feared I was on the wrong journey.
We came to a deserted station.
The train slowed. I read the sign – ‘Etruria’,
and was transported briefly to a world
of china blue, and elegant white figures
in Attic poses – then realised
we had bypassed Stafford, its castle ruins,
and closed factories. I thought of one man’s
enterprise, and kindness.