Which makes Christmas 1957 stand out all the more in my memory today. I was desperate for a train set, an expensive toy. My brother didn’t like me playing with his, so I wanted one of my own.
Christmas was much less of a deal in 1950s Scotland than it is today. Many of the shops were open until lunchtime, and there was a mail delivery in the morning. My dad worked briefly on Christmas Morning, too, so we kids had to wait to open our presents until he came home.
There were only two. My brother found a second-hand bicycle hidden in the garden shed, while I was handed a beautifully-wrapped rectangular box. Ripping the paper off, I was thrilled to discover… a Tri-ang model railway set. It had a black steam engine with a tender, two passenger carriages, and enough track for a small oval circuit. It was operated by a small battery-operated controller.
But something was missing: batteries. The controller required three strange, chunky things with screw fittings at the top. And the shops were closing. I was distraught.
But Dad didn’t give up. We made for the nearest newsagent, hoping to get lucky. We arrived as the shopkeeper was just closing, but he listened, concerned, as Dad told him our story. He looked on the ‘battery’ shelves, but, no, he didn’t have any. But he asked us to wait while he disappeared upstairs to see if he had anything in the loft above the shop itself.
A few minutes later, something miraculous occurred. Instead of the newsagent, an elderly man with a white beard appeared, wearing a red cloak trimmed with white fur. In his hands he held not batteries, but a proper mains-powered controller. Santa explained to my dad that his own train set was upstairs, but he’d be too busy delivering presents that day to have time to play with it. I could borrow the controller meantime. I swear that my dad blew his nose for a full minute. Certainly, we both grinned all the way back home.
I played with that electric train all Christmas Day and beyond. I loved it, even although the engine kept falling off the rails on the bends. By 1960, my dad’s business had finally folded, we lost our house to pay off the debts and were homeless for a few years, but that train set followed me wherever I went, now with my very own mains controller. Sixty-six years later, I still have it – I even have the battery controller. Funny thing is, I never yet found any batteries for it.