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BY THE BOILER'S HAND
by John Allen
In the world according to Grandpa, we all died on the 10th May 1941. Churchill and Roosevelt called it ‘the darkest hours’. Grandpa agrees. Though, he calls Churchill a fat old fool.
“Ye have to understand, Lizzie, we were on the brink. Whole countries buried. Nazis marching all over. Like ants they were. No matter how many we tried to squash, the wee buggers just kept on coming. They say the devil walked the earth back then. Hah! The devil’s smarter than us. He waited till we were desperate. If we’d just held on a bit longer we’d never have needed the Helps.”
The Helps don’t understand dementia. They don’t like illness or germs. Grandpa wouldn’t join them anyway even if by some miracle he were drawn from the yearly ballot.
“I’ve got work,” I say, noting the time on my watch.
“Aye, I know. I’m old, not senile.”
The care home is modern and smells of new carpet mixed with disinfectant. My Grandpa shifts in his chair by the window as a lady approaches with the tea trolley. Her name is Liz too, and I know Grandpa sometimes gets us confused. Liz 2 (that’s what I call her) understands, but she always smiles and slips Grandpa a dram of scotch in a mug.
“Will we be seeing you on the telly this weekend, Lizzie?” Liz 2 says.
“Don’t think so,” I shake my head. “I don’t get to drive. I just keep the boiler going. Passengers ignore me and the cameras never find their way to the engine. No one wants to see a boilerhand in overalls.”
“Ah that’s a shame,” Liz 2 says as she moves her trolley away. “I was telling my mother all about you.”
Grandpa coughs through his mug and for a moment his old brown eyes are young and full of pride as they follow Liz 2.
“That’s my granddaughter ye know?” he says to me.
“I’d been all around the world before she were even a glint in her father’s eye. Loves her trains. Wants to be a driver.”
“You must be proud.”
I move over to give him a kiss on top of his balding head, but just as I move to leave, he grabs my arm and pulls my ear close to his mouth.
“It wasn’t worth all this,” he hisses desperately and in a shocked moment, I realize my Grandpa is shaking. “None of this was worth it.”
“Worth what, Grandpa?”
“Helps, ye daft gal! We’d be better off by ourselves. Will ye tell Lizzie?”
I lean out, gently removing Grandpa’s hand from my arm and placing it carefully on his lap.
“I’ll tell her.”
“Should’ve been a driver,” Grandpa sighed, lost in another memory. “She were the best I ever saw. Should’ve been a driver. Could’ve. We all could’ve been more. Were it not for the Helps, maybe her mother and father might still be here. I’m sorry we gave up on ye.”
Grandpa starts crying and I look up to see another carer moving forward to rescue me. I withdraw my hands. The carers take over, comforting the only member of my family still alive.
I saw my first steam engine when I was very small. My dad and grandpa took me to West Ruislip station in the south of England. It wasn’t a very grand place. Just a small thing at the edge of the great pit you southern lot call a city. Dad carried me on his shoulders so I could see more as the great engine pulled into the platform opposite us. An A4 Pacific class locomotive painted a rich turquoise blue. Sir Nigel Gresley her name was. Beautiful.
She slid into the station amid steam and whistle, covering us in a sheen of water from her funnel and pistons. I had never smelt anything so happy in my entire life. Steam engines are life. Powered by new water. She was unlike a lot of the other engines you see on the telly now. They all have round cylindrical boilers stretching towards a clock face front. Sir Nigel’s boiler was sleek. Grandpa called it sexy. It curved gently up over the driving wheels and sloped down smoothly to the front bogies. Her face was long and elegant, unlike the latest beasts you see chugging across the seas today.
As the vapour hit my face that day, I knew I wanted to be a train driver. What could be greater?
“A family, Liz,” Dad said when I asked. “There aren’t many these days. Everyone’s busy trying to win the ballot and join the Helps.”
“Families are boring,” I said, and that caused Grandpa to chuckle underneath his peaked cap.
My dad smiled and pulled me off his shoulders before bending down to face me on the platform. Sir Nigel hissed and hushed opposite.
“Families might not seem as impressive as that engine over there, but do you know what?”
“Families built engines like that. Families drive engines like that.”
“But the Helps give us the new water right?”
Dad’s eyes darkened and his face became stiff and pale. Grandpa stepped closer and put a hand on Dad’s shoulder until his smile returned.
“Let’s go see if the driver will let us up on the footplate.”
I was so excited that I forgot.
Dad never did answer my question.
Grandpa’s tears are on my mind as I park my bike in the sheds next to platform 17. I can see Bessie steaming up over on 15, dropping her own sweat on the concrete and tracks around her. She’s no Sir Nigel but she has her charms. Why do they always put us on 15 whenever we make these trips cross water? 15 is the longest platform but it takes ages to pull onto the main lines as we have to cross a dozen switches. Bessie’s wheels don’t take kindly to that and she often wheezes along for at least 10 miles before we can pick up any kind of speed. The extra load of our passengers never helps.
I lock my bike up and walk quickly over the footbridge. I can already see my driver. She’s holding a clipboard and talking to the stationmaster by Bessie’s tender.
“Hi, Faye,” I call out before moving quickly to climb the footplate.
“You’re late,” Faye says making a point of scribbling something on her clipboard.
“My grandpa was-”
“I really don't care,” she says, dismissing me. “Just keep the boiler hot whilst I finish these passenger checks.”
I nod and smile. I’m not late. I never am. Nevertheless, I know my place and hop into the cab, and above Bessie’s steam, I hear the excited chatter of the 600 passengers boarding the 12 carriages behind us. Faye joins me a few moments later and shakes her head in disgust.
“Can’t believe they get to go,” she mutters whilst moving levers and checking the dials and pressure gauges.
Faye doesn’t like our passengers because Faye wants to be one of them. Fine by me; if Faye left I could drive Bessie.
Bessie perks up as we move into the West Country, her pistons and wheels shaking off fatigue and rust. We reach the Land’s End terminus ahead of schedule. Faye shuts off steam and we both wait for the sea gates to rise. Very soon, we will be on the bridge that crosses the Atlantic. A breeze blows off the sea and I can smell the bitter trace of iron in the air. Grandpa says the oceans used to smell different before the war, but Grandpa has dementia.
“So what do you think?”
My gaze has been so focused on the grey waters ahead of us that I haven’t noticed Faye talking.
“My chances in the next ballot. God, why did I get landed with you on these crossings?!”
“I was thinking about something my grandpa told me.”
“Was it about how everyone lies about the ballot being fair?”
“Was it about how I could join the Helps?”
“Then why do I care what your grandpa told you?”
“He said the oceans used to smell of salt.”
Faye opens her mouth to respond but a loud bell chimes throughout the terminus. The signal turns green and the gates in front of the bridge slide apart with a shriek of metal.
“We better get going,” I say, checking the temperature of the boiler. “And I think Bessie needs more fuel.”
Fifty miles out over the sea and the sun is sinking below the horizon. Bessie gathers speed. The wind feels soft and the sea calm as we glide along the Atlantic bridge. Dad told me it was built at the end of the war to help the Allies get to and from the Helps. They don’t like coming onto the land. I suppose it’s why they settled in the middle of the oceans. There’s four collectives around the world. Faye thinks the one in the Pacific sounds the best to live in, but strict rules from world government means restrictions on where you can enter the ballot. Being from Britain means we have to make do with the Atlantic.
“Have you ever seen one?” Faye suddenly asks.
I look up from the firebox, my eyes stinging from the steam and smoke. She has one hand on the drive lever and a bottle of something in the other. Is that beer? I must look confused because Faye rolls her eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that, it’s lemonade. A Helper. Have you ever seen one?”
“Only on the television.”
“I nearly met one,” Faye says. “Missed it by a minute according to the official, but I remember the smell. Roses and summer.”
I smile but only see Grandpa’s tears in my head again.
“Did you try and go after it?” I ask.
Faye shakes her head.
“You know only ballot winners can meet them, outside of government of course.”
She raises her hands and waggles her fingers as she says ‘government’. She probably saw the gesture on TV.
“At school I read that Churchill spoke to them a lot.”
“Well yeah, he had to didn’t he? Can’t win a war if you can’t talk to your friends.”
“My grandpa,” I start, and already I can see Faye rolling her eyes. I carry on anyway. “My grandpa worked in British Intelligence during the war. He says he spoke to them a bit when they first appeared.”
For the only time since I’ve known her, Faye looks less irritated with me than normal. In fact, I see her eyes widening a little. Maybe she thinks Grandpa has some pull with the ballot authorities.
“What did your grandpa think?” Faye asks, trying to sound casual. I’ve heard her do it before so I know what it sounds like.
“He thought they smelt like footballers’ armpits after a match.”
Faye actually laughs and it is so real that I laugh too.
We both become lost in the moment. They are so unusual for me these days that I forget to feel bad about laughing with someone who makes fun of me. But the moment fades with the sunlight and I look out over the sea from my side of the footplate. Ocean water laps at the bridge supports below, not caring who we are or where we’re going. I envy that peace as Bessie steams us into the night.
History should have been more interesting, but our teachers were obsessed with the Helps. How far they had advanced our culture. How our alliance ended a war that could have lasted for years. How oil was obsolete. How new water became our primary energy source. The Helps supply it every year when new passengers go to join them. New water brought us the first Transocean train journeys in the 1960s. It stopped starvation and grew crops in places where water was scarce. By the 1980s, most of Europe and the Middle East had been turned into rich farming country. All the old cities exist only in the fading memory of people like Grandpa. Many say new water will enable us to build our own spaceships, perhaps even leave the planet. The Helps have been advisors on the space program for decades but technical difficulties always seem to crop up.
So history became dull.
“Why do I have to study this stuff?” I often asked my dad.
“So that you remember.”
He would blink and smile his warmth at me.
“Not to make the same mistakes we did.”
“But we didn’t make mistakes. In history Mr. Daniels said we had to beat the Nazis.”
“Yes,” Dad sighed, looking away. “Desperation makes fools of even the smartest people.”
Bessie has her second wind. The temperature has dropped with the night and both Faye and I have put on our heavy jackets. Mine is blue like how Grandpa thinks the sea used to look. I don’t know what colour Faye’s is because it’s too dark. We are getting closer now and I begin thinking of what’s waiting at the end of the line. We bring another 600 to join the Helps. 600 seems small, but only 600 are allowed to join each collective once a year. It became part of the treaty signed after the war. A condition that Churchill “fought for” according to Grandpa. I remember seeing old broadcasts in school of Churchill coming back by boat from the first collective that had appeared in the North Sea. People say he looks grumpy and surly looking in the films. I just thought that’s how he looked. When Grandpa’s dementia got worse I went back to watch those old films. If you look hard, I think you can see something different in Churchill’s face. Sort of how Mum said I used to look when I’d eaten too many sweets.
Nevertheless, Churchill got his treaty and every Prime Minister and President since has said how lucky the people who have been selected are. They get to live a life of “luxury” and “enlightenment”. Faye thinks people spend all their time doing whatever they want in the collectives. When I see the ads on the TV, it is hard to argue. Hundreds of happy faces all smiling and waving at the cameras. Footage taken from inside each collective. Apparently. Behind the people, you can see trees and grass with paths crisscrossing them. Nice if you like that sort of thing.
A shudder from Bessie brings me back.
“Pay attention!” Faye snaps as I turn and see her feverishly working the dials and controls that litter the cab. “She’s running low on water.”
My body moves automatically to the hose connected to Bessie’s tender. A minute later the shuddering stops as the boiler laps up the new water needed to keep us steaming along.
“That’s why you’ll never be a driver,” Faye says once I’ve disconnected the hose. “Always day dreaming. Probably why you’ve never been drawn from the ballot.”
I think about saying that Faye has never been drawn either, but I don’t want to spend the last few hours of the journey with her being rude to me. Faye thinks she’s better because her family originally came from London. Not that it matters. Faye was in the same school as me, she just doesn’t like to admit it. It’s true that over the years more people from the old cities seem to be selected. London, Paris, New York… but that’s where many people gravitated to at the end of the war.
We travel in silence except for the sound of the waves and the steady chug of Bessie’s pistons and valves. A few minutes pass. Then an hour. Maybe two. The moon appears as if the clouds are just curtains it uses to hide behind. All at once I can see the Atlantic water tipped in white as we speed along. I lose track of how much time passes but concentrate on keeping Bessie’s boiler fed. The smell of iron is getting stronger.
“What would you do if you were selected?” Faye suddenly asks as I close the firebox. “No, don’t tell me, you’d probably ask if you could bring your grandpa.”
“I don’t think Grandpa would go,” I say, wiping my hands with the cloth we keep hanging near the boiler.
“Right, dementia. I get it.”
Faye says this as if it explains everything. I nod and choose not to correct her. I continue to wipe my hands on the cloth. The new water Bessie needs always makes my hands sticky. I would wear gloves but it’s hard to use the hose with them.
“So would you leave your grandpa behind if your name came up?”
Faye is looking ahead. I can’t see her face so don’t know if she’s being nice or nasty. Shadows of moonlight filter in around the open sections of the cab between the engine and the tender. Faye has one hand on the drive lever; the other still holds the lemonade bottle from earlier. Surely she must have finished that hours ago? Or is it a new one?
“Family is important,” I begin, thinking of Dad.
“I think whether or not you get selected depends solely on where your mum came from and which well-connected dickhead got off with her.”
“That’s not what the ballot is based on.”
“Of course they say the process is ‘fair’.” Faye waves her hand with the bottle. “But we both know that’s a lie. Can you even remember the last time someone from the north got selected?”
I think, but actually I can’t.
“Exactly,” Faye says, triumph in her voice. “But you still haven’t really answered my question. Would you try and get your grandpa to come too?”
A deep vibration of noise saves me from answering. I look ahead on my right and there shadowed against the moonlight in the distance is the Helps’ Atlantic collective.
I have worked with 3 drivers and taken 2,400 passengers to the centre of the Atlantic. I have been commended by the Allied Train Service for being one of only five boilerhands to have passed the 2,000 passenger milestone. Yet the promotion never comes. After my last driver left, I thought it was my turn; I had a lot of experience. Then I arrived the next day to find Faye with arms folded, standing by Bessie and tapping her foot impatiently against the platform as if I were late.
This is our third trip across the Atlantic.
“I swear to God if I’m not selected on the next ballot I’ll quit,” Faye murmurs.
She has reduced Bessie’s steam and we are running at a wobbly 60 miles per hour. Bessie runs best at 50 if you need her to go slow. I say nothing and look instead at the mountainous bulk shadowed in the moonlight ahead. The Helps’ collective looks like a rocky island in the middle of the ocean. The noise grows and I see the ripples in the water that have nothing to do with wind or current as we get close. Deep and thumping like a bass drum crossed with a church bell that doesn’t stop. It fills our heads making it hard to hear Bessie as she steams us nearer. I still wonder how Churchill was able to concentrate when first going to meet them.
Faye grabs hold of the microphone we keep in the cab. It connects to all the cars behind. Then she speaks with a voice she never uses on me.
“We are now on our final approach to the Atlantic collective and should arrive at the terminus in approximately twenty minutes. Once the train has come to a complete stop, all passengers are requested to exit only when they hear their car number called. Allied officials will be on hand to greet and guide you into the collective.”
Faye pauses, taking a deep breath before she says the next bit.
“Both the boilerhand and I would like to congratulate you all for being selected and wish you a pleasant stay with the Helps.”
Faye replaces the microphone and stares ahead in silence, no doubt wondering why she isn’t sitting back there with the others. Already I can sense the excitement from the carriages. I bet some of our passengers are finding it hard to sit still. Such a lot of fuss just to live in the middle of the ocean and pursue whatever interest you wanted. Grandpa says no one should be able to do what they want. It’s not how the world is supposed to work.
Twenty minutes pass. Faye shuts off steam as Bessie comes creaking to a halt beside the single platform outside. The collective towers above. We can still hear the drumming bell noise, but as always, we get used to it now that we’re here. A dull blue light washes across the platform. Just enough to see and not fall into the ocean. I dampen the firebox and look ahead to where the tracks end and the collective begins. Just darkness with a vague shape to it. I have to crane my neck up to see beyond and check that the sky is still there. Why do we always have to come at night? It creeps me out.
“Here come the officials,” Faye says as four human-shaped shadows emerge from the dark.
They are all wearing heavy jackets and gloves on their hands. One carries a camera strapped to his waist. Here to film and provide official photographs of this year’s event. The men come level to us in the cab before looking up and nodding once at Faye. She grabs the microphone and begins speaking once more.
“Cars 12 and 11, you may now disembark. Please proceed carefully to the front where you will receive further instructions.”
We hear doors being flung open from the rear of the platform and dozens of excitable shouts and giggles as the passengers all get off and begin making their way towards us.
“No running!” one of the officials shouts into the gloom.
Dad read me stories at bedtime. Mum said it explained why my first words were ‘Read me!’ He told me tales about things that had nothing to do with the Helps or their collectives. He knew I didn’t really care about space stories. I loved stories about steam trains though. Any book that had a steam train in it and Dad would read it to me. Thomas the Tank Engine, The Railway Children, even Murder on the Orient Express was a favourite, though I think it should have had less murder and more train.
Grandpa always says it was because of Dad that I fell in love with steam engines so much. He always seems sad when he talks about it. What’s sad about liking trains?
All the passengers are on the platform and are being lined up in orderly fashion by three of the men. The fourth is busy taking a few still shots of happy faces and smiles, to send home to the families of course. The flash is like lightning every time it goes and we get a brief look at some of this year’s lucky selectees.
“This is so unfair. Look at him! He’s my age I’m telling you,” Faye mutters pointing as the flash goes off.
I say nothing. I can’t remember how old Faye is.
A few of the passengers wave at us. They are like shadows in the gloom but I wave back. They giggle and titter. Faye acts cool and looks away. She is still cross.
“600 all present and accounted for,” one of the men says before handing Faye a book for her to sign. It is the driver’s responsibility to ensure all passengers make it to the collective every year.
And that’s when it happens. A small voice, but we all hear it.
“I want to go home.”
A boy, or is it a girl? Hard to tell in the gloom as they all sound the same.
“Please. I want my mum.”
It’s coming from near the front. One of the men walks to where I can now hear the snuffles and tears of a passenger crying.
“I don’t like it here. I’ve changed my mind. Someone else can go instead. I want my mum.”
The man bends down and begins whispering to the passenger. At the same time the rest of the crowd start tutting and calling out.
Someone starts to make clucking noises and every passenger around sniggers.
“That’s enough!” the official at the front barks.
Instantly they are quiet.
No one wants to be sent home. No one wants to miss this opportunity. The chance to do whatever you want whenever you want to. No one around to order you about. Just the Helps and their amazing facilities. It doesn’t stop the boy crying though.
I turn to look at Faye, about to ask her if we should do something. Faye is still holding the book, the pen used to sign her initials forgotten in her hand. Her arms are tense, her face still, eyes sparkling in the moonlight, Bessie’s controls forgotten. I look between the boy and Faye. And just like that, an idea plants itself in my brain.
“You should go,” I whisper.
Faye glares at me as if I’m insane.
“Seriously, you could take his place. He’s not going anywhere except back home to his family.”
We both look as the boy scrabbles against the jacket of one of the officials.
“Please. I don’t care about the Helps. I just want to go home!”
Faye glances at me one last time before she jumps down off the footplate and charges across the platform. The official has now pulled the boy to one side, trying with urgent whispers to calm him down. The other passengers are getting fidgety and I can hear some near the back calling out to ask what’s happening. A huge rumble of noise above and beyond what I have ever heard from the collective fills the air around us. The Helps are waiting. If the officials don’t do something soon, maybe they won’t take anyone this year.
That would be bad. Everyone knows we need the new water.
Faye is suddenly hurrying back to the cab, a huge grin plastered across her face that even I can see in the gloom.
“Maybe you’re not as slow as I thought,” she laughs.
“They said yes?” I ask, but am distracted by the crying boy being led back to the first carriage before being put on board.
“I offered to switch places with that wimp. Not my fault he’s too much of a sissy to enjoy an easy life.”
Before I can even think of a response, Faye grabs my hands and slaps her driving gloves and cap into them. She hops down onto the platform and is running eagerly to fill the gap in the crowd left by the boy.
It takes me a moment to realize a man is talking to me. One of the officials is standing in the cab.
“Your driver has certified you fully qualified to take us back to Land’s End after we’ve filled up on new water. She has also recommended you take her position permanently, but we can talk about that later.”
I blink slowly and look down at the gloves and cap in my hands. I look back up and nod. The official pats me on the arm before heading back down onto the platform. I am so excited that my hands begin to shake as I put on the drivers' gloves and cap. If Grandpa could see me now.
Another roar of that drum bell fills the air accompanied by the patter of heavy rain on concrete. Huge droplets begin to splat onto the passengers and Bessie. I duck under the cab roof near the front. Our passengers begin to squeal and a few laugh. This always happens just before the collective welcomes new arrivals. Next comes the embarrassing part.
“Undress!” shouts the official.
Lots of giggles and nervous shouts as 600 children nervously peel their clothes off. Part of the process. Each naked passenger steps forward to be rubbed down in disinfectant. The Helps are allergic to many things, so every person lucky enough to live with them has to go through this.
The rain intensifies. Shirts and pants are discarded slowly as passengers stand shivering on the platform. The rain falls harder still, mixing with the disinfectant on their skin. Under the light everyone looks shiny. I keep myself shielded. I once got some rain on myself the first time I came here; took me weeks to clean my clothes.
“Congratulations to all of you,” one of the men says. “We hope you enjoy your time with the Helps. And not to worry as your families will visit in the next month or so.”
All the officials step to one side as another roar fills the air. They gesture to the end of the platform beyond where Bessie stands and the dull blue light ends. A thread of brightness appears in the darkness, like curtains rippling apart at the theatre. The sound of children laughing and playing echoes back to us. I squint. I think I see the fields and paths from the TV ads.
“It smells like summer,” a passenger breathes excitedly.
I sniff the air. All I smell is sweat, disinfectant and bad breath.
“No running,” the men say as the passengers file past. They look a little nervous now. I know why. Anything new is exciting but scary at the same time. Like being a train driver.
The passengers disappear through the light two by two. I watch Faye march past and she blows a kiss at me before laughing and running to join the others. As the passengers slip through to their new lives with the Helps, I begin preparing the firebox and steaming up Bessie. I have no boilerhand of my own yet but it doesn’t matter; I can handle both jobs for now. The noise of the Helps rises and falls as each passenger goes through.
Bessie is fuelled and ready to leave by the time the last ten passengers are passing my cab. I stand up and watch as the final one pauses in front of the light and looks back. It is a boy, maybe no older than eight or nine. This happens a lot. Being the last one is always hard. He looks at the officials and then at me. I join the officials and nod at him, encouraging him to go through. Still he pauses. I follow his gaze ahead. And that’s when I see something.
It is just for a second.
Maybe half a second at most.
But I’m sure I see them.
A pink-grey thing that coils itself around the uncertain boy. The boy being dragged through that bright light. A light that covers something else.
I blink and it’s dark again. The noise lessens. The rain stops, leaving slimy pools all along the platform. The light has gone. All that’s left is me and the four officials who pat me on the arm in turn before boarding the train. Time for them to place the containers out. I look at the darkness beyond the platform where I know the collective lies, where I know the Helps live. I see Grandpa’s tears. I remember Dad’s words about desperation. But then I shake my head, knowing that I must be imagining things in all the excitement. Grandpa has dementia and Dad died years ago. I look down at my hands. I am wearing drivers’ gloves. I am wearing a driver’s cap.
Another few hours pass before the Helps release the new water. It always takes a few hours for some reason, even though it’s just water. The officials are ready with their containers. Soon we will have a full haul of new water ready to take back to land. I don’t see where the water comes from, but we never do and I don’t care. I’m too busy checking and re-checking Bessie’s controls. My hands are shaking with nerves.
Once the last containers are aboard, I pull the drive lever for the first time. Bessie shudders. Her great pistons turn as steam is fed to them from the boiler. It is well stoked and I know it will be a good journey back to Land’s End. I’m so happy I pull the chain that sounds the whistle three times. Bessie shouts out my joy towards the ocean. The Helps remain silent behind us. Grandpa says it was because of Dad that I fell in love with trains. Maybe Dad thought life on the trains is better than life with the Helps. Maybe the ballot isn’t fair and does favour children. Maybe I don’t care.
Let Faye have the Helps. Let Grandpa enjoy whatever memories left to him. I hope Dad would be proud of me. I am twelve years old and for tonight at least, I am a train driver.
Copyright (c) John Allen 2020