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A Shout From The Attic: The Rack

"If I had known when I took the Queen’s Oath about weekend travel back to camp, I might have joined the Royal Navy!'' writes ex-soldier Ronnie Bray, recalling the night he submitted his body to The Rack.

To read earlier episodes of Ronnie's wonderfully entertaining autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

Travelling back to camp was always done at a bad time. Leaving home to take a ride on a motor coach or a steam train when the rest of the world was turning into bed seemed unjust, but I was a soldier, one of the Nation’s fighting men. I was under oath to Queen Elizabeth II to defend her interests and render loyal service. If I had known when I took the Queen’s Oath about weekend travel back to camp, I might have joined the Royal Navy!

When I was stationed at Sudbury in Staffordshire, the coaches back to camp left Leeds Railway Station on the stroke of the midnight hour when only vampires, soldiers going back to camp, and revellers who couldn’t find their way home and needed showing were up and about.

Everyone on the coach was a stranger, but as the fumy beasts rumbled off into the darkness of ancient serpentine roadways in the pre-motorway era, great-coated khaki strangers shuffled close together and with their head on each others shoulders slept fitfully for most of the journey.

Train journeys were usually quicker and more comfortable, apart, that is, for the time I caught the Dreaded Milk Train to Ellesmere and it stood standing outside Whitchurch in Shropshire for several uncomfortable and deathly cold hours.

Heat in steam trains was provided by the railway engine’s boiler running pipes under the seats of the carriages, so when they let the boiler fire burn low to save fuel during long waits for branch lines to be cleared of other traffic, or for dairy farmers to deliver the metal churns of milk to all the little stations and halts on the route, there could be delays of significant duration.

On this Night To Remember we had been waiting for a long time, running into several hours. The squaddies in my compartment were tired out. It was the middle of the night, and even when they stood guard duty all night they found it hard to stay awake.

They lolled across the seats, turning this way and that to get into less uncomfortable positions, but the straight up backs of the benches, lushly padded as they were, discouraged sleeping, and made resting in any shape or form extremely difficult. Fortunately, I had a brainwave. Above each bench seat was a luggage rack. They projected from the walls on moulded cast iron brackets, had a front rail of stout polished wood, and were hung with stout knotted cord netting to support suitcases and the like.

As we only took laundry home at weekends, and didn’t always do that, the racks were empty. Hoisting myself onto one with a dexterity and nimbleness that have abandoned me some time ago, I stretched out my length and went to sleep.

Perhaps an hour or so later, I woke up with several pains, each one corresponding to the location of an iron bracket. The netting had sagged nicely and permitted various parts of my body to nestle down during sleep. The whole rack was no more than twelve inches wide, and seeking comfort when in the arms of Morpheus, I had become wedged in the paraphernalia of the Art Deco shelf. Extrication was tortuous, painful, and prolonged, as I struggled with the peculiar form of agonising paralysis that is attendant on uncomfortable bedding.

When finally freed from captivity, I sat back on the seat and underwent the near-death experience of waking from a difficult sleep when it is too early to do anything but impossible to return to slumber. There I hung between the two worlds of wakefulness and sleep, feeling to belong to neither.

My mind clawed through layers of midnight blue and black, struggling to remember what it was supposed to do. My body had abandoned all hope of working properly, and the tension between the two was as brittle as a bowl of wet sludge and just as highly motivated.

Like a Zombie I sat as the milky gray fingers of dawn pushed back the blackness and chilled the morning air. My body moved inside my clothes. I was cold and miserable. I managed to focus my eyes on my sleeping companions who grimaced and twitched like tormented men. Nessan dorma! Well, if they did dorma, they didn’t dorma very well.

In the still cold silence broken only by an occasional snore I sat and waited as a dying man waits for his fate. I was not functioning. I waited as I watched through a wiped spot of the steamed-up window where the breath of seven young men evaporated on the frosty glass. It was as if all nature slept and I would not have been surprised if dawn had never come again.

A sudden loud noise from down the track and seconds later the carriage shook as the coupling rattled and the old train moved slowly from where it must surely have taken root. We were underway.

A mile or maybe two and the familiar clunking of the steam pipes under the seats warming up, followed by enough gentle heat to take the chill from the air and make life seem a little better. But still sleep clutched at me and we were not at journey’s end, so I addressed myself to sleep again, and slid down the corner holding my hand against the chilly glass to use as a pillow for my drooping head.

The wheels quickening their pace beat out the rhythm of the Prince’s aria, converting it to my situation, breathing soft promises, lulling, gently lulling as we hissed slowly through the pastoral calm of morning. With gathering speed the wheels sang comfort to my tired soul:

Dilegua, o notte! tramontate, stelle!
Tramontate, stelle! All'alba dormo!
Dormo! Dormo!

And I did!

That was my first and last intimate acquaintance with a London Midland and Scottish Railway luggage rack. Some things have to be experienced to be understood. Other things can be more than adequately comprehended by being described. The rack on the opposite wall remained invitingly empty. Such was the set of my mind that had I been warned about submitting my body to The Rack, I would have had to try it for myself, and, as Robert Frost wrote about something entirely different, “That has made all the difference!”

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