Above the long narrow platform, the large dusty clock swung gently. Its rusting chains squeaked mouse-like in the light summer breeze that caressed the silent Scottish countryside. The long black hand monotonously clunked away the minutes.
A forlorn whistle in the distance startled a handful of sparrows into a flurry of twittering excitement. Moments later a small dark green steam engine puffed lethargically into view, heaving its burden of two complaining ancient brown and cream wooden carriages.
The train was just under an hour late when it arrived at the remote Inverness-shire station. It had been held up on the outskirts of Fort William for some unknown reason, but an hour late in 1942 was quite acceptable and understandable.
It squealed to a stop, engulfed in steam as if rising from Hades. The billowing sooty smoke from the tall stack drifted under the canopy, curling smutty vortices along the platform. The tired engine panted amid the crackle of hot metal, clammy oily steam and pungent sulphurous coal fumes.
‘Morar!’ The word boomed out along the empty platform. ‘Passengers for Morar only!’
Sarah Porter climbed down from her compartment and slammed the door behind her. She stood on the stark platform with her small brown suitcase in her hand. As the only passenger to alight, she made a stunning contrast to the surroundings; resplendent in her blue-grey uniform which, unusually in these times, fitted her to perfection.
The platform was deserted with the exception of the Station Master, a small round man with a weathered face and large hands. The buttons of his red-piped black uniform jacket strained against the efforts of his internal bulk trying to escape. Legs apart, he stood facing the steam enveloped engine, raised his green flag above his head, put the whistle to his lips and blew a long shrill blast, which trailed off to an exhausted ‘peep’ as he ran out of breath.
The shrill sound cut through the engine’s grumbling impatience, once again scattering the sparrows that had resumed their pecking, at nothing in particular, further down the platform.
Steam spurted from around the wheels. A miasma of black tarry smoke shot vertically from the chimney. Greasy couplings strained and crashed, steel wheels spun, sparking on the ancient rusting rails as the overburdened train lurched forward slowly evaporating into its own grey cloud. And the diminishing clickety-clack was swallowed by the heather covered hills.
‘Miss Porter isn’t it?
‘Jolly good. Take your case Miss?’ He led her into the tiny, echoing waiting room and placed her case on a brown painted wooden, pew-like bench. He unbuttoned his jacket.
‘Won’t be a moment Miss’, he said as he peeled off not only his jacket, but a large portion of his bodily bulk. The man was actually about half the size that first impressions would have you believe. Sarah looked on with wide eyes.
‘I’m Sgt Hodge miss. Welcome to the Special Operations Executive Training School 25c or Traigh House as it’s usually known.