THE MODEL RAILWAY
"It's a hobby that'll keep you interested for years, you'll never finish the layout you know, it'll keep growing with you"
My father's words contained both enthusiasm and disappointment in unbearable combination. I detected the tone, and wondered whether to answer him with honesty, or with more of the fake enthusiasm that I'd perfected over the last couple of years. I decided to continue with the pretence, it was easier to deal with the undefined guilt than to disappoint him. And I had plenty more time to deny my indifference and perfect a sense of excitement.
The garage was even colder than it had been on the previous weekend. There was a vague smell of engine oil and rotting wood in the damp air, my breath puffed little clouds of steam as I breathed. If I'd had a vivid imagination I could have attributed the atmosphere to the workings of the model railway that stretched itself around the inside walls of the building. I could have pretended the steamy air was from the funnels of the little locomotives that rattled their way around the loop of the track. I could have imagined that the oily smell was coming from the engine drivers dirty overalls, and the musty aroma of decaying wood from the miniature forest that spread itself upwards from the patchwork of hedge-lined fields that had been carefully painted on to the crumpled cardboard.
But my imagination, although perfectly capable of creating vivid images of many things, remained dormant. I stared at the model railway with its meandering tracks, it's ballast bins and gas lamps, it's telephone boxes and bus stops, and it's platforms with passengers, suitcases and benches. But I felt nothing. My mind remained as inactive as the tiny family that waited beside the sacks and barrels that had been lovingly glued to the granite shingle of their driveway.
The fluorescent light tube flickered and a gentle gust of wind blew some crispy, autumn leaves under the garage door. I heard my father's steps on the stairs and I quickly picked up a little paintbrush I'd been using to colour the thin timbers of a post and rail fence.
"I'm glad you noticed the fence needed painting" he said as he took a locomotive from its box and carefully placed it on the track by the station.
"Yes" I replied.
I wanted to talk railway with him, but I couldn't find the words, at least not the right ones. I knew it would be quite a simple thing for me to enthuse about the new railway station he'd built from a kit he'd bought for three pounds in a charity shop. I could easily have talked about the way the narrow flagstone paths made elaborate curves around the lush green lawns, how the little flower beds had been brilliantly painted with tiny marigolds, or how amazing it was that the stream flowed sleekly downhill, it's white-tipped waves splashing tiny flashes of glitter that had been glued on to the rocky outcrops of the mountainside.
But what had formed our conversations bore little resemblance to the words that had tripped and faltered through my mind since the little railway had grown from nothing into the replica world that stretched out in front of us now. I desperately wanted to feel excited by the train whizzing around the track, under bridges, through tunnels and over viaducts. I envied the pure, identifiable sense of delight that my father clearly felt as the train slowed to a faltering halt by the station platform, waited for exactly ninety seconds and then took off again past thatched cottages, alongside rose gardens and past the village post office.
But the whole thing looked, and felt like a sham. I couldn't understand why the train stuttered and wobbled as it slowed down at the station platform, I questioned the way it jolted and clanked over the points and it troubled me that the gap between the carriages and the platform was too wide for passengers to step safely from the train. Details that my father undoubtedly regarded as inconsequential.
"If you're bored you only have to say so" he said.
I hadn't realised that he'd been watching me as I stared into the middle distance, paint brush in hand, post and rail fence barely half painted.
"I'm not, I'm thinking about the layout of the track," I answered, knowing the answer would be lengthy and tedious.
I'm sure he knew. I sensed he'd suspected my indifference for a while but the silence, the uneasy, clumsy hush convinced me of his understanding. By ignoring my statement he'd spoken, and I felt awful about it.
"I like the water tower you've built in the sidings, it looks great," I said, hoping it sounded genuine, wanting the mutual silence to be recaptured.
But I think the damage had been done. I knew now that I'd been caught, found out, exposed for what I was. A fraud.
I stood completely still and looked at my father's expressionless face as he fumbled around under the plywood frame that supported the layout. It was then that the idea sprung to me.
The narrow road that ran through the gaps between the houses and over a level crossing needed some traffic. A toy car maybe.
"Shall I go and get a model car from my room to put on the road?"
My father began to whistle a tune cheerfully between his teeth, probably a piece by Glen Miller or something obscure by Stan Kenton, I recognised it from somewhere. His gaze lifted clear of the bench and for an immeasurable moment met my own. I pointed a finger at the road and looked back at his face needing to see a sense of understanding in his expression. The whistling stopped for a short moment and I observed a barely perceptible nod of the head which I took to be a kind of acknowledgement.
I placed the car carefully on the road at a point approaching the level crossing, it's front wheels banked slightly upwards on the slope leading to the gates. We both quickly stood upright, him with his mouth faintly agape, me with my mouth wide open. The model car had been my idea, my conception. But my sole contribution to the evolution of the miniature world that laid between us displayed an obvious and fundamental flaw. A group of three little people stood by a pedestrian gate adjacent to the railway tracks, all pointing accusingly at the car, my idea, my conception.
My model car was evidently completely out of scale with everything else that had been constructed to exact dimensions. The one thing that had been my saving grace had failed. It was the only donation I'd made to the minimalist kingdom, my only involvement in the development of the project which had grown from a single piece of plywood. From a mind so much more resourceful, and so much more inventive, than my own.
The small car parked on the road, by the gates, unassuming and yet more conspicuous than if it had been a model of the Starship Enterprise, was too big. And there was nothing more to be said.
I watched my Father's face crumple and strain with the effort it took to lift the table slightly so he could move one of the trestles. I gripped the edges of the plywood as if to suggest an intention to help, but it was nothing more than a gesture. The railway world skewed slightly as it lifted and the car rolled backwards and slid off the table on to the floor.
"Could you just hold the table up while I fix this wire" said father, looking away.
I lifted the model railway, held it high above the trestle, and let it drop down slowly when he'd finished. Father carried on working, running the locomotive slowly around the track, moving pieces of scenery, tinkering with the electronic components that he'd so deftly constructed over the years.
I watched his narrowed eyes, furrowed brow and the little smile that formed as he worked. But the uncomfortable silence between us indicated how disappointed he was with my contribution and I remained motionless, conscious of how useless I'd been.
The layout grew in size over the next few months, but I couldn't muster even the smallest amount of enthusiasm for it. I knew it wasn't just the incident with the model car but something more intrinsic, a fundamental indifference to the whole process of painting, gluing, and fiddling about with electronics and scenery.
For a while I worried about my lack of interest in my father's hobby but we never talked. It troubled me for the rest of the summer until the whole thing had been finished. Eventually the trains ran seamlessly around the track, on time of course, and the fields and mountains became a masterpiece of my father's imagination. Which is how it remained.
The model railway was consigned to the basement after my father passed away, we leant it against a wall and covered it with a heavy tablecloth. The station, little people, post and rail fences and locomotives were carefully stored away in boxes and it was forgotten about.
My parents house was sold years later and the railway moved into the loft above mother's new house, still protected by the cloth, accessories stored in a drawer in the lounge. Mother passed away twelve years later and we began the process of removing her possessions ready to sell her house.
We rediscovered the model railway last year, my ten year old son spotted a section of track that had worked its way loose from the plywood base and asked me what was behind the old cloth. We uncovered it and stood and stared at the beautifully crafted hills and fields. The paint was faded and cracked, small holes punctured the road and parts of the track had come undone. But still, it looked magnificent.
And now it stands on new trestles in our garage, resplendent once again. The rocky mountains, tipped white with snow, roll down to the verdant green fields and the windows in the little houses shine with lights. The trains run on time again, and a little car waits for the gates to open at the level crossing.