A brief encounter with the art of the possible


The original refreshments room at Carnforth Station, reproduced in the film “Brief Encounter” and used, on location, for fifteen minutes of theoriginal film.

One of the questions that engages students of the spiritual, and that we often discuss in the Silent Eye School is, “How much control do I actually have over my life . . . and is there really such a thing as free will?” The answer, if there is one, is quite complex . . . and requires an understanding of the levels of our existence – and on the very nature of the word ‘our’, itself.

Its 1945. The two stars of the David Lean film, Brief Encounter, have just finished filming for the day at Carnforth Station. The location has been selected because of its comparative safety, over two hundred miles north of London. In truth, all around them, the skies are filled with the threat of German V2 missiles, and the huge steam trains that thunder past the platforms are very real. This is a very real place, and has a tremendous history.

Celia Johnston and a very young Trevor Howard,

stars of Brief Encounter

The two are relaxing with a cup of coffee in the Refreshment Room on the main platform – though the station boasts six platforms, courtesy of its location as the northern nexus for the lines between London and Glasgow, Leeds, Lancaster and the vital military area of Barrow-in-Furness.

The coffee has come out of a flask. The Refreshment Room has been taken over for filming. They are looking out a the gathering gloom of a wartime late afternoon. The film will launch its little-known stars to international acclaim and gain its Director a name for tackling difficult subjects with delicate skill.  For a film that actually speaks very little, it says a lot . . .

“You know, Trevor,” says Celia Johnson. “This place will become an example of what you can do with enough focus and will . . .” She breathes out the last word over the lip of her cup, in a gesture that made her so famous in the film.

“I don’t quite understand you, Celia?” says her co-star, the little-known Trevor Howard.

Celia looks back at him, mischievously. They have become good friends during the filming and share an ironic sense of humour. “Take a look out of that window and see what the future holds . . .”

Trevor Howard does so, turning his head to the right. For long moments, he struggles to take in the abandoned platforms, the dismantled signs and the sheer neglect of the view outside the refreshment room’s smoke-stained glass. Returning to look at his co-star, he gazes at her, incredulously.

“Is this an effect for the film, Celia?” he asks, amazed.

“No. Trevor,” answers his leading lady. “It’s just looking into the future . . .”

She lights a cigarette, blows out the smoke towards the other side of the room, and beckons him to follow its flow.

He does so, turning his head to the right. His face lights up as the Carnforth Station he knows and loves emerges, in all its substance, from beneath the pale Victorian lamps; and normality is returned. “What did you do?” he asks, smiling back at her.

“Just showed us both the future,” she answers, softly.

“But there are two different worlds out there!” he replies, with that vocally expressed certainty that he will bring so well to his roles.

“Yes,” she says. “two different futures . . .”

“And what separates them?” His smile shows he’s beginning to catch on. If she can do this, so can he.

“I have no way of knowing – perhaps one man’s will?” she says.

“David?” he asks, meaning the film’s director, David Lean.

“No, silly,” she scoffs. “You weren’t looking at a film out there . . . you were looking at reality.”

“Then who?” he asks, eyes widening.

“A man in the future, of course . . .”

He strides through the streets of Carnforth, each one so familiar, he could walk them blindfold . . . he smiles at the idea, imagining the reaction of his patients at the potential headline: local doctor/engine preserver in pavement collision. He laughs to himself,  at his own off-beat sense of humour – I’m going to need that, he thinks, clutching the fistful of papers even tighter. Never get your big red engine unless you have that, my boy . . . 

He thinks of Morecambe, where his doctor’s practice is based, then slides backwards in time to his days at medical school in Leeds; and the stolen weekends at the engine sheds in Tebay, on the line to Barnard Castle, near Durham. His determined smile widens as he thinks back to being allowed to clean and fire up the heavy engines that pulled the big trains over the Shap summit, one of the most forbidding places in Britain.

Back, further, his mind goes, to his days as a boy in Kendal, where the family dwelling was close enough to the main line allow him to fall asleep to the sounds of the passing Royal Scot engines, those huge red monsters that became the living dragons of his once and future dreams . . .

Celia has nearly finished her coffee. Neither of them has spoken for a while.

“Do you ever feel like you’re a character in someone else’s play?” she asks Trevor.

He looks at her thoughtfully, the Howard smile lighting his features.

“But we can look out of the windows and see that we’re not.” He is warming to this game of consciousness, though seeing into the future has him a little spooked.

“We could do that, anyway,” she teases, “But the window to see both sides of the future is a rare thing . . .” she pauses, “I think . . .”
“What can we do to help him?” asks Trevor.

Celia responds without hesitation. “We can send him the solidity of this vision, even though it may fade before he can get here to save it . . .”

The man from the future, Dr Peter Beet, pushes open the old and now rotted wooden gate and gains entrance to the station where he is not supposed to be. His tough boots grind patterns in the dirt of neglect as he marches along the deserted platform and walks along the old underpass. Above him, like an omen, an express thunders over the line, bound for Glasgow. Shikerty-shack, shikerty-shack, go the old adverts for rail excursions from Carnforth, now faded images on wooden panels walls that were once glorious.He strides up the ramp to platform one, and forces open the door of the place where, once, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard drank coffee. The floor is dusty and most of the hanging lamps are broken. In the exact centre of the room, for no good reason, a single bulb burns.Carefully, he lays out the papers he has clutched in his hand in a pattern on the dirty floor. When he has finished, he stands back and stares at the circle of ‘no’ they create – the British Rail letters, the local planning office, the developers of other uses . . . He lets their combined might settle like the ancient dust mites in the feeble, but present light.He breathes in the fetid and damp air, then lets out the creative breath in a single stream.“Yes,” he says to the room, the heart of his dreams and his plans. “Bloody yes . . . “

He leaves the once cafe, closing the door gently. Then he goes back the way he came, leaving only his tracks in the dirt and dust, and the ever-present word ‘Yes’ in the old air, transforming its very essence, even as he leaves.

Just before he leaves through the old gate, he looks across at the derelict engine sheds. The future ghost of a huge red engine shimmers into life in his vision. “Oh yes,” he whispers into the night.

“Just like that . . .”


Dr Peter Beet, obituary. http://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/dec/07/obituaries.mainsection

Carnforth Steam Town: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnforth_MPD

disused station: http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/p/preston_west_lancashire/index18.shtml

7 thoughts on “A brief encounter with the art of the possible

  1. I was thinking about this recently. That sense I had even as a young child (perhaps because we remember still) that I was living almost as though I were a character or puppet in a much larger play called life that I couldn’t really comprehend. There were those moments of deja vu when I would know what was going to happen next, or feel as though I were watching myself play out a scene I had already seen before. Of course those things kept happening as I grew. It’s a funny thing – we agree to roles, yet we can change them, tweak them and the outcome does not always come out as once planned. Well you’ve got me thinking again this Sunday morning. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Alethea. From a Silent Eye point of view we would say that the sensation of a “role” is part of the recognition that the part we play in the world is a “garment” beneath which lives the real us. The garment is very powerful because we have worn it for a very long time – but it hides our true self, which must be nurtured into its true place in our lives. The Life will remain, our world will remain; but we will see it through different eyes . . . Steve

    Liked by 1 person

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