Every Sunday morning, Dad drove twenty-six miles to join his fellow steam enthusiasts at the Cansley Light Railway. They worked all day, taking engines apart and putting them together again while the rest of the world cut their grass, watched the telly or went to church. Some brave souls attempted all three, though rarely simultaneously.
Then he drove twenty-six miles home again.
Grandma said he must have been born with engine oil running through his veins, although he didn’t get it from her.
He cut and bruised himself regularly during these outings. It was, he said, an occupational hazard, though Mum called it something else. One day, he arrived home with a beauty. His face was white as Santa’s beard. Goodness only knows how he got back. My sister and I stood outside the bathroom door while Mum cleaned up his wounds.
Goodness me, where did you get this old rag? It’s disgusting. Good job your tetanus is up to date. Heavens, that’s deep. Didn’t you clean it first? You’ll give yourself blood poisoning. Hold still, will you? I’m being gentle! I’m not surprised it hurts. There. All done.
As with everything else in life, she was ruthlessly efficient in dealing with minor injuries. She carried the remains of Dad’s makeshift bandage at arms’ length to the outside bin, so none of us needed to set eyes on it again. Della and I crept out when she wasn’t looking to see if Grandma was right.
The next time we went to her house, Della asked if engine oil was bright red. Grandma said it wasn’t, so we told her she was wrong about Dad's blood, describing his injury as thoroughly as our juvenile vocabularies could muster. Grandma barely touched the rest of her tea, though rallied when the time arrived for cake. It was a shop-bought sponge, covered in chocolate, with three layers of white cream holding it together inside.
Sometimes, when I was very young, Dad took me to the trains with him. He sat me on the edge of the platform and told me not to move. I watched them for hours, longing for the day to end. I begged Mum to tell him how miserable it made me. She did, and he never took me again, even when I was old enough to have changed my mind. As a teen, I had occasional aspirations to become a mechanic myself. Harry, my friend down the road, acquired an old motorbike one day. He probably found it on the wasteland where we spent any waking hours when our parents didn’t make us do something else. We ordered the Haynes manual from the bookshop in town and waited a fortnight for it to arrive. Its cover was green and shiny, but didn’t stay that way for long.
We spent Saturday afternoon and evening poring over it, planning our campaign, and sneaking his big brother’s tools out of the garage. On Sunday morning, we set to work. That afternoon, we stripped away everything we could unscrew or prise apart, cleaned everything up, and tried to rebuild it. It was, however, trickier than the manual suggested, and we spent the next few weekends making the situation worse.
Eventually, his Mum caught us in the act and insisted we load it into his brother’s trailer. We waved our sad goodbyes as he and his mate took it back to the breakers’ yard.
Harry didn’t say a word, but I sensed his disappointment. He never admitted it, but I think that was when he decided he should become an accountant. He wanted to earn enough to pay people who knew what they were doing to mend motorbikes for him.
As for me, I drifted in and out of jobs without knowing what I wanted to do. Careers advice at our school focused entirely on packing the clever boys off to Oxford and letting the forces tidy up the rest. They washed their hands of those of us who didn’t fancy either, expecting nothing further from us. Many duly obliged, except for Harry and a few others who were strong-willed enough not to let the system beat them. The two of us lost touch, but somebody told me recently he’d seen him. My old friend and his family, he said, were doing well.
That cheered me up a lot and helped take my mind off things for a while.
I wasn’t doing well. Not well at all. My school friends called me Lucky, and I’ve certainly enjoyed more than my share of good fortune. After what felt like a lot of tough breaks during the last few years, I wondered if I’d used it all up. We had our health, thank goodness, but the car went months ago and the roof over our head looked tenuous. We cut out all we could live without long ago, and more besides.
Ever since I was old enough to have a bit of cash from the Saturday job burning a hole in my pocket, I’d jump on a train whenever I needed time out. As a self-conscious and typically moody teenager, that was often. I wonder if I, too, have some residual engine oil running through my veins.
We lived in a town at the end of the line. Most of the time, it felt like it. Sometimes I’d set out early and go up to London. More often, I’d head off in the other direction. At sixty-eight pence for a single ticket, I could usually afford to travel the last two stops, then walk about fifty minutes home again. The train left at seventeen past the hour for most of the day. If there was nobody on the barrier, and I got a move on, I could easily make it back to the first station by quarter-past. Then I’d go round again to ensure I got my money’s worth. It was a lot cheaper than going to the pictures. Once, I did it four times. I admit, by then, the return of the ticket collector was a welcome sight.
When I left school, the factory owners promised us jobs for life. They either lied or expected a stark and alarming upsurge in the already terrifying levels of industrial injuries. Most of my contemporaries got out and learned how to use computers before the work dried up. I hung on, but jobs grew harder to find each year and the contracts shorter.
Shortly before Christmas last year, I started at a new place, expecting to be there well into the summer. Coming up to lunchtime on whatever the day before Good Friday’s called, the supervisor’s boss summoned me to his office. I knew what to expect before even stepping away from the bench.
Trains used to have a lot more room on board. When I was young enough to stand without my body complaining, seats were abundant on all services apart from the seventeen-fifty-seven out of Victoria, which, fortunately, I needed to catch only rarely.
It was one of those April days in England which begins with a hard frost, turns warm enough by ten to dry laundry outside, and cools in an instant come teatime.
On that day, the last time I caught the sixteen-forty-six, it was as busy as I ever saw it. Judging by the rank odour from his armpits, I surmised the man standing next to me had spent his day working a lot harder than me.
I enjoyed his company for almost half of the journey, then the first passengers disembarked and freed up some seats. A shabby-looking man in, perhaps, his late-twenties raced towards the train as though his life depended on it. The whistle blew. He jumped on board, narrowly avoiding getting caught in the doors. He looked unused to exercise and was sweating even more than the other guy. He sat down opposite me and clutched his bag to his chest as though it was part of him.
I noticed it was the same make as mine, then remembered a conversation which changed my life twenty-four years ago, almost to the day.
I was on the train then, too. My work-places changed regularly, but the means of getting there and back never did. I sat down among a group of people who looked relatively normal and took out my book. I didn’t notice, but the young lady opposite was reading the same one. It wasn’t even a bestseller.
When I looked up, she asked if I was enjoying it. It took me a moment to work out what she was talking about.
I said no, not really.
She laughed and said she wasn’t either, so we put our books away and carried on talking until the train arrived at her station. I pretended it was mine too, and we walked together to the corner of her road. Once she was out of sight, I turned and carried on for another hour until reaching mine.
I don’t remember what the book was now. One day I’ll ask her to remind me. We’ve been together ever since.
As for this fellow, however, I had no intention of engaging him in conversation. He looked like he’d sooner put a knife in someone than do anything to change their life for the better.
The ticket inspector arrived, and the man put his bag next to mine on the floor while he found his wallet. A lady came through the carriage, looking for a seat. I pushed my bag aside so she could sit beside me if she wanted. She carried on past.
At the next station, the shifty guy grabbed his stuff and darted away. I watched him disappear into the crowd, merging into their slow shuffle along the platform in the evening gloom. Then his face reappeared at the window, looking more agitated than before.
This time, though, he was too late. He looked like he intended to come with us by holding onto the outside of the train. He jumped back as it started moving.
I used to gamble. A lot. Even though I usually came out with a small profit, and always at least broke even, Jan never approved. I stopped when money became tight, as it was wrecking her nerves. I place a small bet occasionally to test whether my lucky streak is still active. Usually, I can take it or leave it.
Walking out of the factory for the last time until they started hiring again, I paused for a flutter on the way home. After losing my regular stake three times, I put the rest of my bank balance on a sure-fire certainty to recoup my losses. That didn’t go well, either.
I took the contents of my wallet to the pub by the station and drank until I had nothing left. The longer I stayed, the less eager I felt to get home. A couple of hours later, the last drop disappeared, and I had nowhere else to go.
Before I started drinking, I popped into the supermarket on Foundry Way to buy Jan an Easter egg. They didn’t have many left, but I knew she’d enjoy it. Fairtrade, vegan chocolate, with fruity bits. Perhaps I should give it to her before breaking my news.
Soon after we met, Jan told me she wanted three things from life, and I resolved to do everything I could to provide.
The first was a loving family of her own. I like to think I’ve done my best in that regard, with the finest brace of children a couple of oddities like us could hope for. The second was to live somewhere sunny all year round, away from the Godforsaken English weather.
From the outset, number three looked, on paper anyway, the most likely to come to pass. All we needed was enough money at the end of the month to buy something nice, and a small amount left over to put away for later.
“Are you drunk? You’re swaying”.
I shook my head and immediately wished I hadn't.
“You are swaying. And I can smell it from here”.
I moved the bag on the table towards her. “I got you something”.
“Don’t tell me. They fired you again”.
“They said I could go back when the work picks up”.
I wished she wouldn’t look at me like that. She never used to.
“We’ll manage”, I said. “We always do. Open it, Love. It won’t bite you”.
She drew it towards her and unzipped the main compartment. “What the hell?”
That wasn’t, I admit, the reaction I expected.
“Have you been gambling?”
I often suspected she possessed psychic powers, but how did she get there from looking at a chocolate egg?
I decided to come clean. She’d find out eventually, anyway.
She pulled something out of the bag. It wasn’t chocolate. Nor was it anything I’d seen before.
It’s winter at home now. Here, it’s always summer.
From our porch, we can see the ocean, while out the back is the best view of a couple of mountains nobody ever heard of you could imagine. Jan comes out and listens to the birds singing their last tunes of the day and watches me pack up my tools after another session spent trying to put the orange Yamaha FS1-E I had shipped over back together again. Apart from it working before I got to it, the bike is identical to the one Harry brought home. The same year, too.
The manual arrived covered with oil straight out of the seventies. It took months of talking to booksellers to find one in that condition. I wanted it to look authentic. One day, my beauty, you'll be buzzing like a swarm of wasps again all around the island.
Then I walk with Jan along the beach until the insects get too much. We ask one another what we’d like to do tomorrow, then decide to do it just the same, all over again. I hear it rains sometimes. We haven’t seen any yet.
Jan was right. When I came in, I was, ever so slightly, drunk. Drunk enough not to notice that the scuffed corner on my bag had fixed itself in transit. Oh, and the zips were a different colour.
“How much did you win?”
I had to think quickly. “Count it and see”.
She tipped it all out onto the floor and started piling up the bundles. I left her to it. She was always better with money than me.
The sight of the man’s face as he clamoured to get back onto the train haunts me day and night. The local paper said they picked up someone matching his description for whatever the collective noun for robberies might be, although the whereabouts of the loot remained a mystery.
When they let him go, he’ll be as eager as the police to find it.
Jan said there was no hurry to sell up and race over here, surely?
But why wait, I asked?
We’ve got enough to keep us going for a few years. Quite a good number, as long as we don’t go crazy. I’ve bought one of those new home computers, which we’ve set up in the room I claimed for my office. It’s got a modem built into it to plug into the wall and connect to something called the Internet.
The sea never looked so blue, or the sky so big, in the town where I grew up, while the stars look like every set of Christmas lights I ever saw strung together across the heavens.
Sometimes I don’t sleep too well, but it seems a low price to pay for all this. I can manage it during the day, but my subconscious hasn’t caught up yet. Perhaps it will, in time.
Jan’s going to like it here. And so am I.
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