The inside of the car was nice and toasty after having had the heating on during the fifteen minute drive to the train station. It had been harder than he expected to find a parking space in the usually empty parking lot of the station, but Tom had finally found a spot and was now mentally preparing himself for the upcoming shock of the crisp Autumn air waiting for him outside.
As expected, a rush of cold air surrounded him as he climbed out of the car, and a wave of goosebumps began to wash over his whole body. He shivered, but as he did his nose caught the scent of something familiar. Something he hadn’t smelled for a long, long time…
Tommy jumped at the sound of his name. How long had he been daydreaming for? How long had she been talking for? His eyes had been mesmerised by the hundreds of droplets that were latching onto the car window, swishing and swirling, revealing hidden tales of knights fighting dragons and adventurers facing unknown creatures deep in the jungle, but now they focused on what was outside.
Oh dear. They were at the train station. The last time he’d been listening to what she was saying was as they were passing the library, at least a five minute drive away. Had she been talking the entire time? Had he been replying to her unconsciously? It wouldn’t be the first time he’d agreed to something he wholeheartedly disagreed with because of his distractedness.
He turned to look at his mother, who was staring back at him from the driver’s seat.
“Well?” she asked.
He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say, didn’t want to reply without knowing what had been asked, so just smiled at her questioningly, hoping it would elicit a repeat of the question from her.
“Thomas Robert Gardner, have you been paying attention to any of the words I said?”
Technically he had, just not the latest parts, the ones she was probably referring to. However, he didn’t trust his voice under this kind of duress, so he just nodded.
She narrowed her eyes at him, emphasising the crow’s feet on the corners of her eyes, but the expression disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared, and he thought he saw the slightest of curls on her lips as she turned her back to him. It reminded him of the smiles he struggled to contain just as he prepared for something mischievously fun. He didn’t like it, not one bit.
“Let’s not tarry, then. Out we go.”
They unbuckled their seat belts and climbed out of the car simultaneously, so the smell reached them both at the same time. To Tommy, it was a new smell, perhaps with a vague familiarity in it that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Not a good one, in any case. His mother, though, reacted with an apparent joy and excitement he didn’t often see in her.
“Ooooh! I’d forgotten that was today! Gosh, it’s been at least ten years since I last saw it!”
“What’s that smell?” asked Tommy, his nose wrinkled up in distaste.
“The Whizzing Welshman is here!” she exclaimed, as if that were enough of an explanation.
“Who’s this Welshman and why is he peeing?”
“Oh, don’t you start. It’s not who, dear. What. The Whizzing Welshman is a train. One of the oldest ones in the country, in fact. It used to service this town daily over a hundred years ago, during the heyday of rail travel. Seven carriages,” she began to recite in a sing-song tone, “two special class, three for second class, two for goods. Over two hundred tons in total, averaging a speed of forty-five miles an hour.”
“Since when do you like trains?” sniggered Tommy.
“Oh, don’t you laugh at me, mister. We used to learn about this at school when I was your age, it was still the pride of the town. The locomotive and the goods carriages were built here, right in this town, you know? Of course, it can’t compete with modern trains, so it no longer operates on a daily basis, but they still bring it out once a year, on the fourteenth of July. Today!”
“But why does it stink like that?”
“Now, now, dear, it doesn’t stink. It’s just the smell of burning coal – they must be starting up the engine. Come on, then, let’s hurry and watch it as it leaves!”
Tom checked the digital display on his phone. 14th July. How could he have forgotten?
He locked the car behind him and headed towards the station. As the cold air tightened around him, he rubbed his hands together for several seconds to keeps his blood running before sticking them deep into his coat pockets, nestled in with the bunch of discarded pamphlets and crumpled up shopping tickets that had taken semi-permanent shelter at the bottom for the last several months.
The ground squelched as he passed under the trees that lined the outside of the station’s main building. A patchwork of soggy leaves, lush greens, fading ochres, fiery reds and yellows, practically covered the entire pavement as they wrestled with the thick mud that was beginning to permeate everything, as it was wont to do at this time of the year. Mixed in with the mud and the leaves Tom could see the occasional cigarette butt slowly disintegrating, as well as the paper white of discarded train tickets, most of the ink on them long run off in the rain.
Having navigated the layer of mulch without falling over – but not without a threatening slip or two –, Tom discretely stamped his feet a few times on the hard cement before brushing off any remains on the large and worn-out doormat that marked the entrance to the station building.
Inside, he found himself instinctively following the familiar smell that had brought back his memories. He found it funny how something that had once caused him to recoil in disgust would now bring him the same joy and excitement he’d then seen in his mother. As he rounded the corner that led to Platform 3, his eyes bulged with an exhilaration and eagerness he had not realised he had inside. At the sight of the train, a smile appeared on his face that he would have struggled to suppress even if he’d wished to.
The Whizzing Welshman stood before him, closer to a piece of art than a vehicle. Sixty tonnes of metal had been beautifully sculpted into the greatest locomotive he had ever laid eyes on. The engine was contained in a large cylinder that ended in a shelter that could only comfortably fit two men, three if you really needed to, all of it supported by five pairs of wheels arranged in three different sizes, the foremost two protected by the an imposing set of buffers. On top of the large cylinder, only a foot or two behind its nose, a chimney no taller than four inches but at least twice as wide was spewing a steady trickle of dark grey smoke, the smell of which had attracted Tom to the platform in the first place. Further back along the spine of the engine and on its sides were a set of valves from which escaped sleek wisps of white steam. As they slithered out, they danced between the array of connecting rods, tubes and other valves that made the Whizzing Welshman the engineering feat it had been back when it was first built more than a century earlier.
As he admired the beauty, a shrill whistle was sounded and the rods connecting the wheels began to move, slowly at first, but gradually picking up more and more speed, the ends moving counter-clockwise in unison, the rods always horizontal. With this came a blast of steam that hissed out of the largest of the exhaust vents at the top, the white gas, thick as cotton, blending in with the almost solid mass of smoke that was now gushing out of the chimney. A chug began, lazy it first, like an exhausted whale stranded on a beach, but increasing its rhythm quickly until it sounded closer to a panting wolf in full pursuit.
The locomotive rumbled past Tom, followed by its tender, the special carriage where its fuel was carried in, painted in the same dark green with bright yellow lines as the locomotive. A mountain of coal protruded over the top of it, a jet black hump composed of many small lumps with which to feed the hungry fires of the engine. But Tom had learned long ago that most of the tender’s load was hidden from view: despite the locomotive’s seemingly endless craving for coal, its thirst was even greater, so large amounts of water had to be carried to produce the steam that powered the vehicle.
Behind the tender came the passenger carriages, seven in total. The original goods carriages had been replaced by passenger ones to accommodate more tourists keen to experience ye olde methods of transport. Every seat in the beautifully designed maroon coaches was occupied – blissful elderly people reliving their earliest memories, parents trying to stop their overexcited children from standing on the carefully restored seats, partners trying to contain their even more overexcited other halves demonstrating their enthusiasm and passion for trains by launching into not-so-impromptu lessons on the history of the local railways. As they slid by, Tom waved at them cheerfully, a grin still plastered to his face.
Only when the back of the last carriage had become a smudge in the distance did Tommy stop waving at the train.
“Since when do you like trains?” smirked his mother, ruffling his dark brown head of hair. He tried to hide the smile she had obviously already seen, but only succeeded in turning it into a grimace, and before he could come up with a retort she was already ushering him away from the platform and back into the main building. “Come on, dear, we’re going to be late. We don’t want poor Jo to get off the train and find nobody’s there to greet her, now, do we?”
With these last words, Tommy planted his feet square on one of the many time-worn stone slabs that covered the entire floor of the building.
“What do you mean her?” he asked, a frown of concerned suspicion on his face.
“Her, Jo, we don’t want her to find she’s alone when she gets off the train! What are you doing now? Why. Aren’t. You. Moving?” she grunted, pulling at his arm.
“No, you mean him, Joe is a boy’s name, it’s short for Joseph. I agreed to have Joe over even though I’ve never met him because I thought it would be good to have a friend to go on adventures with. Why are you saying her?”
“Really, dear, don’t be silly. I’m saying her because Jo is a girl. Jo is also short for Josephine, which happens to be her name. I’m sure you can still go on adventures with her, it’s all the same.”
She tried pulling him along again, but he yanked his armed away and let out a sharp grunt.
“No! It’s not the same! She won’t want to go out on adventures, she’ll want to play princes and princesses or doctors and nurses or one of those stupid girl games. It’s. Not. The. Same!” he shouted, stamping his foot with each word.
“I’m sure it will be, dear. Besides, it’s too late for that now. Are you the one who’s going to tell her to get back on the train and go back home? Would you like it if someone did that to you just because you were a boy?”
Tommy stopped to think about this, crossing his arms as he’d seen his father do when we was considering something important. “No,” he concluded, staring down at the flagstones. “I guess not.”
“I’m glad you’ve come to your senses. Now, let’s hurry along.”
Reluctantly, he followed his mother to one of the platforms across the main hall, preparing himself mentally for what he expected were going to be the worst two weeks of summer of his entire life. When they arrived at the platform, however, the train there – a boring regular one, nothing like the Whizzing Welshman – was just leaving and there was nobody on the platform other than a tired employee leaning against a wall and fanning his beetroot-coloured face with a battered old cap.
“I wonder where–” began Tommy’s mother, before being interrupted by a voice behind them.
“Stop right there!” They did as the voice commanded and turned around to face its owner, a girl around Tommy’s height with long, wavy hair as blonde as he’d ever seen, piercing green eyes and a host of freckles spattered over her cheeks. She was wearing a brown tattered fedora, a coiled up whip on one hip and an empty gun holster on the other, the weapon in question in her hand. “You have entered the Ancient Temple of Anubis, home to hideous monsters and ancient terrors! Stay with me if you want to–” she said, but before she could finish Tommy’s mother was wrapping her up in her customary suffocating embrace and smothering her with kisses.
“Hello, dear! It’s so good to see you! Oh, I was worried that you might get lost on the way.”
“Hello, Mrs. Gardner,” she managed to squeeze out of her constricted voice box,” it’s good to see you too. You shouldn’t have worried, it’s quite hard to get lost when your mother takes you right up to the train steps and there are no transfers you need to make.”
“Nevertheless, I was–”
“Aha!” exclaimed the girl, squirming out of the woman’s tenacious arms and approaching Tommy. “And you must be her son. I’ve heard plenty about you. What I don’t remember hearing is your name.”
“My–? Uhm, I’m… I’m Tommy.”
“Tommy? That doesn’t sound terribly adventurous. Hmmmmm… I’ve got it! From now on, you shall be Dr. Thomas Gardner, professor in geology and part-time adventurer, also known as… Professor Quartz!”
Tommy couldn’t help but chuckle, impressed by her theatricals.
“Here, this one’s for you,” she said, removing the hat from her head and deftly producing an identical one from under it.
“Off we go then, dears,” called out Tommy’s mother as she grabbed the suitcase Jo had dumped to one side.
“Yes! To adventure! Come on, Professor Quartz!”
Tom arrived at the platform to find it full of people walking in every direction, making it impossible for him to look for anyone in the crowd. He waited patiently for the throng to thin out, but soon he was the only one left on the platform. He frowned, wondering if he’d got his times mixed up, and had started to take out his phone when he heard a young voice behind him.
“Stop right there!”
He turned around to find a girl the spitting image of the one he’d met thirty years earlier on this same platform – or almost: her hair was dark brown, but it had the same waviness to it, and her eyes and freckles were almost identical the the girl from his childhood. With a very battered fedora slumped on her head, a familiar whip coiled up on one hip and an empty holster on the other, she was pointing a toy gun at him with a steady hand.
“Don’t hurt me, please!” he cried.
“Daddy!” she giggled and dived into his arms.
As he hugged her, a blonde woman emerged from behind the column the girl had been standing next to only seconds earlier and walked up to him with a smile. “Hey, Professor Quartz,” she said, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.