Saturday, October 9, 2010

Pater Familia: Tales of Dukinfield: Trains

Train with Guard's VanImage via Wikipedia


I don’t like playing trains. I never vote for trains, but I usually lose and today is no different. So we walk over to the siding and pick a train. One of the big kids bricks the padlock on the guard’s van door, the other kids pile on to the running boards and me and Mike go inside. The inside of a guard’s van is like a mobile den. There’s four walls with windows, a little stove for making your tea, a telephone kind of thing for talking to the engineer and pictures of women showing their breasts and a sort of blank area where their privates should be. A guard’s van’s the kind of place where I feel like I should light a pipe and brew a pot of tea.

Towards the back of the van is the brake. It stands on its own column, like a ship’s wheel, only the brake wheel on a train is flat, like a round table-top with spokes. There’s a handle on the wheel that sticks straight up from the rim. It’s a bit like an upside-down toilet chain handle, really and it spins if you flick it.. Because it’s built for grown-ups, the rim of the wheel is about level with my armpits and Mike’s shoulders. That makes it hard to turn, because you have to reach up to grab the handle.

I put the loop of my grappling-iron rope over the handle and we both start to pull. There’s something very friendly about the way a rope stretches and pulls back when you lean into it. It feels like the rope’s playing with you, like it understands what you’re up to and wants to share in the fun. It’s the same when you’re dragging the canal and you hook something heavy. The rope rocks you gently and teases “guess what I’ve got” and you wonder if it’s something really valuable, if it’s a pram, or if it’s just stuck.

So we rock with the rhythm of the rope and, when we feel that it’s ready to pull, we lean back and lend it our body weight. The wheel begins to turn slightly, then it picks up the rhythm of the rope and we just help it around.

Then we wait while the train makes up its mind to move. It’s always this way. The rhythm of a resting train is very slow, because it takes a while for idea of movement to travel from the guard’s van to the front. Eventually, we feel a gentle warning tug, then gradually we begin to roll. That first thrilling, secret hint of motion is always my favorite part.

As the train gets underway, it rattles and clanks and the littler kids start to jump off. I want to jump with them, but that would be embarrassing. The kids my age stay aboard as the utility poles start to whiz by, faster and faster. They stay until they get almost too scared to jump. I’m already a long way beyond that point, nearing panic and wanting to put the brake back on. I don’t even look at the things rushing past. By the time the train begins to sing out its rhythm, “da-da-da-dum, da-da-da-dum” there’s just me, Mike and the big kids left.

Mike’s brave, because he’s deliberately testing himself, seeing how fast he can go before jumping. I’m just a coward, too scared to jump, but nobody knows it. Mike reaches the point where he’s worried about hurting himself when he lands, so he yells, ”Geronimo” and bails out. Mike jumps to safety, but I must jump from it. For me, safety is in the train. Yet I have to jump sometime and the longer I leave it, the more scared I am of hurting myself when I jump. The big kids jump and now I’m alone on the hurtling train. Eventually, my fear of staying overwhelms my fear of jumping. I go to the door and the noise of the train is suddenly much louder. The wind buffets my ears and the ground beckons me, like looking into the canal at the reflection of a tall mill, it just seems to suck you down and you can’t fight it. I start to rock forward without wanting to. Before I lose my balance, I try to bend my knees to cushion my fall, but they wobble and with a pathetic whimper I jump off the train, hit the ground and roll. I sit shaking in the dirt, trying to catch my breath while the other kids pace out the distance of the ride. My eyes follow the train as it picks up speed down the slope, then begins to slow down as the track turns upward by the wagon repair shop in the distance. That’s where I see the other train.

We all watch dumbstruck as our train plows into the unsuspecting wagons waiting quietly in line for repairs. At first, there’s no sound as the wagons heap and hug, like breaching whales, then part and turn away from one another, to splash down again into the track bed. As broken wheels and axles, splintered doors and floors, and twisted roofs all begin to settle back down, the sound reaches us, a low rumble at first, then a clattering and clanking and screeching that speak of great weight and force. Almost immediately, a light so intense it hurts my eyes comes out of one of the wagons. The wagon is vaporized in an instant.

Aliens!” yells Kenny Hodgin. Everybody ignores him.

Might be welding rods” says my brother Derek.

Could be fireworks” argues Kenny, just for the sake of staying in the discussion. Everybody ignores him.

It’s magnesium”. I know I’m right, I’ve learned about it in science, but I know better than to press the point. So I just sit there and watch the trains burn. Soon, the firemen arrive and watch the trains burn, too. Last summer, I used to sit on the fence and read, up there where the firemen are now, in their dark blue uniforms and shiny brass helmets. One day, blue, two guards came up to me from the siding and told me to bugger off. Just like that, for no reason.

I live here”, I said.

Not here, you don’t, you cheeky young sod. Now bugger off before I put my toecap up your arse.”

I haven’t said anything cheeky and I’m not doing anybody any harm”

Can you read that sign? It says ‘NO TRESPASSING’”

Yes, and the dictionary says trespassing is to do something wrong, and I’m not doing anything wrong”.

Yes, you are, you’re sitting on that fence”

If the sign meant that, it would say ‘no fence-sitting’. Do you think that’s what the Lord’s Prayer means, ‘forgive us our fence-sitting, as we forgive those who fence-sit against us’?”

You cocky young bastard, what’s your name?”

Jack Robinson, what’s yours?”

I noticed the quiet one of the pair sidling up alongside me, so I swung my leg up and over the fence and dropped to safety. I set off up the cinder track and had almost reached Grandma’s when I began to wonder why the two guards cared about me one way or another. What was going on? I went back.

The guards slid open the door of a goods wagon and murmured as they removed two cardboard boxes. They closed the door and padlocked it. Then they padlocked it again. With a big lock, one that couldn’t be bricked. Then, each carrying a box, they walked off, chattering in a sort of self-satisfied way.

While I was eating my tea, I reckoned that the wagon must contain something good; and that the guards had each stolen a box of whatever it was. They wouldn’t have chased me off just to avoid being seen stealing, since usually, guards would ask me to keep a lookout for them and then give me a box, too. So giving me a box must be the problem. The boxes must be full of stuff I wasn’t supposed to have, like dirty pictures! Our gang is on a never-ending quest for the source of British Rail’s Bare Breasts. They are our Holy Grail. After tea, I ran around the village, mustering the troops.

I’ve found them! British Rail’s dirty pictures!”

We all went home to get our tools, then met up again at oh-something-hundred-hours, the number chosen at random, but translated as seven o’clock, at the Wagon Repairs entrance. We crawled on our bellies, lugging our equipment behind us. Then we got tired of it, so we stood up and walked to the train.

It’s this door. Don’t try bricking it” I said. Mike whaled away with his brick, which split in two and cut his hand. He didn’t cry, because he’s tough. Where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling.

Steven had dragged our dad’s fourteen-pound sledge hammer with him. We all took turns swinging it. We inflicted massive damage on the door trim and the gravel of the track bed and we raised sparks from the rail, but the heavy-duty padlock was untouched. Now, I reasoned, was the time to apply science. I wedged a crowbar between the lock and staple, then handed the sledge hammer to Mike. He swung a mighty blow, which glanced off the crowbar, sending it moaning and somersaulting into the air, while the hammer narrowly missed his toes.

One of the little kids came asking for help with a tool he’d found. We sent the other little kids to give him help and they came back with a shunting bar: about six feet of tempered steel and perfectly designed to pop padlocks right off the doors of railway wagons.

With a loud crack that surprised us, the padlock and staple came off. We heaved at the heavy door. It slid open slightly, enough for Derek to squeeze in and begin to unload The Secret Of The Universe.

It’s chocolate” He said. The more sophisticated among us disapproved of this characterization of colored women.

No. It’s Cadbury’s”. He threw down a box of one hundred and forty-four Cadbury’s Chocolate Flakes. Pandemonium.

Now, one hundred and forty-four Cadbury’s Flakes, divided by eight kids who’ve just eaten their tea, is eighteen-and-a-half Flakes each, so there was no sense in trying to restore order until at least ten minutes had passed. Then we sent for the prams and methodically began to loot the train.

Although it was less then a quarter of a mile to our dens, and even though we had two prams, it took us hours. It got dark and our mums and dads came out looking for us. We could hear them calling us and decided to pretend we didn’t hear, promising to be each other’s witnesses. It was about eleven o’clock by the time we finished, but before anyone was allowed to leave, we bound ourselves by a terrible oath not to tell anyone, grown-up or kid.

As we walked back over the bridge to the village, we could see all the mums and dads standing in a little knot on the corner. This was not good. When parents herd like that, it means they will soon show each other what good parents they are by thrashing the living daylights out of their kids. Me and my two brothers were lucky, because dad had to hit all three of us once before anybody got hit twice, and with three of us dancing and yelping around him, he’d get confused about just how much punishment he’d meted out. After a while, it seemed like all the dads were just waiting for one of them to break, so they could all stop. This one was usually the dad of an only child, who had received three times the thrashing that me and my brothers got. I felt sorry for only children.

Nobody betrayed our secret. For the next few days, there seemed to be an outbreak of sickness in the village. After little Brian threw up in our den, we all agreed that we should try to throw up into a toilet, so grown-ups wouldn’t see the dark brown slime. If we couldn’t make it to a toilet, we were to throw up on a dog, so it would get eaten up again quickly. When kids at school heard us talking about how many times we had thrown up, some of them started to throw up, hoping it would get them into the gang. Pretty soon, most of the boys at Globe Lane County Primary School could be seen throwing up on the playground for no good reason whatsoever.

In the meantime, British Rail took a dim view of this non-union crime. Men in uniform stamped all over our neighborhood. So we laid low in the dens during the day, till five o’clock, when they all clocked off and went home. Then we’d come out to play.

Our dens are really quite cozy. We have heat and light from kerosine lamps that my Grandma uses for the pigs when they are farrying. The dens are set in bomb craters at the bottom of a canal embankment opposite Grandma’s. We use railway sleepers to support the roofs, which are made of doors bricked from cotton mills and abandoned houses. We’re really good at bricking doors. Bricking doors is similar in principle to bricking padlocks. With a padlock, you twist the lock on to its side, so the side which opens faces up. Then you slam a brick down on it, hard and at an angle, so that the locking bar pops off its restraining bar inside the lock. To brick a door, you place a brick against the wall behind the door, at the hinge side, then you run across the room and throw yourself at the door and the brick pops it right off its hinges. Dave Combs once told us about bricking a camel to make it go. You stand behind it and bring two bricks together smartly on its balls.

Ooh, doesn’t that hurt?”

Only if you get your thumbs trapped”.

Other gangs paint their dens. Our gang doesn’t. We have no colors. We have no secret handshakes or signs. And people think we have no den, when in fact, we have a warren. Since our dens are below ground, they’re hard to spot. We make it harder by putting reeds on top of the roofs, and then dirt, in which we plant grass and rosebay willowherb, a tall, purple plant imported from America as a cotton substitute. It didn’t work as cotton, but it colonized railway sidings and embankments everywhere and grows well on our roofs. Since they see it everywhere, railway police are blind to anything covered in willowherb; it sings to them soothingly that all is well.

A railway wagon can hold an unbelievable amount of chocolate. The weather turned cold before we finished it. The toffee shop owner knew something was up, though, and he was not pleased about it. The whole village was suspicious, but of what, they couldn’t say. After years of telling us to save up our pocket money and not eat so many sweets, our mums and dads got very uncomfortable when, at the same time, we all seemed to be doing just that.

About half-way through the first term, we started to use the chocolate as money at school, then we just gave it away, being careful to do it gradually, so as not to arouse suspicion.

By Guy Fawkes Night, things were back to normal. Every evening, we would sit in the dens, air guns pointed across the canal as we lay in wait for unsuspecting passers-by. Even better than unsuspecting passers-by were suspecting passers-by. They would get all edgy as they came into range. One bloke showed up with a pair of binoculars, but we just kept still and looked right back at him through our Panzer Corps periscopes. We shot him in the arse when he started to walk away.

For some reason, none of us ever shot our own dads, even though they hit us frequently. So for a while, we shot each other’s dads. One night we talked about this and all confessed to being scared that our dads might disgrace themselves by some act of cowardice. It really troubled us. So we stopped shooting each other’s dads, at least in the presence of their own kids. After Alan Biddle’s dad got squashed at work, we stopped shooting dads altogether.

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