He was young. To Barry, they all looked young now. Twenty? Thirty?
He was wearing a tattered leather jacket, black jeans and a pair of Doc Martin leather boots which had seen better days as well. But hey, almost everybody has seen better days since the collapse, he thought. The kid’s hair had been dyed blue, not very well, but his distinguishing feature was a large stick shoved through a hole in the side of his nose. It didn’t look too hygienic.
“I want some change,” said the kid.
Barry took a sip from his mug of tea and turned the radio down.
Jess looked up from her laptop, annoyed. “What you think you’re doing, Old School?”
“What? Oh sorry Jess, is that all right?”
“I was listening to that, Barry.”
The kid snorted. “I want me some change.”
Jess was another one. Young. She was helping out at the railway museum as a part of a community service order, the only help the Museum got now.
“Should I turn it back up for you?”
Barry dutifully turned the radio back up to where he couldn’t hear the kid properly.
“I’m sorry,” Barry raised his voice over the music. “We don’t keep change here. If you want to get some parking money…”
“I want me some change,” repeated the kid. His nose was running puss where the bit of wood had been shoved into what looked like a roughly cut hole and his pupils were huge. He made a punk look like a puritan, thought Barry. Years ago he would’ve been shocked by the proudly unhygenic visage, but now kids like this were all too common. He leaned in close and Barry could smell his rank breath. Barry stepped back, and the kid put a hand inside the cash box.
“Steady on,” said Barry. “That’s for the Railway Historical Society…” but the Kid just snorted again and grabbed a handful of notes out of the till. He leered at Barry like a badly behaved five year old.
“What the fuck you think you’re doing?” A black boot came down on the kid’s hand, making him yelp and drop the notes back into the drawer.
“What the fuck?” The kid nursed his hand, suddenly deflated of his bravado. Jess brandished her other chunky boot at head height, ready to throw it.
“Didn’t your mum teach you any manners, dick-wad?” Jess said.
“Shut up about my…” The kid got the other boot direct to the face. Then Jess was over the counter, stocking feet striped purple and black. The kid said, “Gimmee some cash or I’m gonna…”
Jess jumped off the counter. The kid took a step back. “I’ll give you this,” Jess dashed in two steps and kicked him between the legs with her brightly striped foot. The kid collapsed onto the floor, holding his sweetmeats.
“Fuckin’ get you, bitch!”
“Yeah, save it short-bus. Get out.”
The kid rolled himself off the floor and hobbled out of the ticket office. Jess sat on the counter, swung her feet over it and back onto the floor. She turned to Barry. “You okay, Old School?”
Barry laughed nervously. “I think so.” His heart was hammering inside his chest. “That’s our first customer for the week. Could we turn that music down?”
Jess reached across and switched the radio off. “Not so hot in the museum business right now, huh?”
“No. I think people don’t have the thirty five dollars to get in.” Barry patted down his thinning white hair and picked up the mug of tea. “My God. Thirty five dollars. A carton of milk is twenty three. Twenty three dollars! The economy is not what it was.” His hand was shaking, bringing rivulets of tea down the cup’s side and onto the counter. “My heart’s not what it was either, I’m afraid.”
Jess smiled and put a steadying hand under his forearm. “Come on, Old School, let’s have a break.”
Trains had dominated Barry’s life since he was a newborn nestled in the wooden cot on the porch of his parents house in Subiaco, a comfortable suburb of Perth. At first, they were a terrifying, alien collection of noise that penetrated the brick walls of his bedroom and vibrated the cot and the wooden floorboards it rested on. The hollow blast of the whistle in the distance, the cuff, cuff, cuff of steam exiting the valves and the ca-chack, ca-chack of the carriages as they followed by made him scream. But they laid the foundation for his passion: the raw power of steam locomotives.
The Railway Historical Society worked out of an old switching yard, under a large shed which protected the collection, situated beside a busy highway. There was a rusty old section of track leading in from the suburban railway line, and the proud collection of West Australian Railway Memorabilia rested inside.
There were old signals, crockery, a large collection of commemorative teaspoons and of course the trains. They sat parked on rails set close together under the shelter of the shed.
Jess closed the front gates and they walked through the museum. “Thanks for that, Jess,” Barry said as they walked amongst the collection, between the wooden carriage stock with sashed windows, and the big black steam locomotives, each named, each with shiny pistons exposed, locomotive roofs painted bright red or green. “I’ve never been much of a fighter.”
“Damn punkers,” said Jess. “Like fucking piranhas. In a group they’ll eat you alive, but one by himself is just a little fish.”
Barry stopped to catch his breath. “A little fish with teeth. It’s getting to be anarchy out there, Jess. I’m scared to go out and lock the gates at night. Two more police were killed last night in the city.”
He heaved himself heavily onto the steps of a carriage, and used the keys on his belt to open the door. “The government raises taxes again and again.” He fumbled with the keys and almost slipped from the carriage step. Jess manoeuvred to catch him in case he took a tumble. “Money’s going crazy,” he continued. “I’ve doubled the price of entry twice in the last six months just so I can pay the power bill. And the power keeps going off. Try finding a petrol station that’s open and try paying two hundred dollars a litre when you do. Even the electric trains have stopped now.”
“World’s going to shit, Old School. Just need eyes to see that. All we can do is sit back an’ watch it burn. Wow. Never seen this before.”
Barry turned on the lights. They were in a dining car from the sixties with formica tables and white and blue striped vinyl seating. Jess carried Barry’s tea in for him.
“Is that what you want? To watch it burn? That kid, Jess. That kid was sky high on something from a back yard chemistry lab. Are you siding with him?” Barry sat down in one of the booth seats. “Because to me you’re better than that. Despite your terrible music taste.”
Jess sat down with him. She slid his tea across the table. “That guy’s a dick, Old School. They all are. Poking holes in themselves an’ smashing shit. Crazy on ice and violence. Fucking punkers.”
“Punkers, Old School, punkers. An’ there’s more an’ more of them. I mean I can see the world is on fire Barry, but the punkers? They want to burn it down.”
“And you? What do you want?”
“I dunno, Old School. I dunno. maybe I just want to warm my hands.”
They drank quietly.
By the time he was seven years old, Barry would be waiting for them on the footbridge at Subiaco Station. The train would appear as a black smudge in the distance if the weather was good. It would resolve itself into a column of smoke and steam spreading from a little toy locomotive in the distance. Then the train would come closer and closer, growing from a miniature toy that chuffed in the distance to a roaring, belching, matte black and shiny steel monster trailing a pillar of smoke of biblical significance. Sleek, streamlined, smoking like a volcano. Then came a contradictory family of cheery green carriages.
He’d hold his breath and squeeze shut his eyes when the sooty smoke enveloped the foot bridge, opening them only when the ca-chack, ca-chack, ca-chack of the carriages on the track could be heard. Then he would be on his feet, wiping the soot out of his eyes and running to the other side of the foot bridge, watching the locomotive roar off with the ca-chack, ca-chack of the wheels fading through the tracks.
After tea, Barry and Jess resumed the work painting the interior of a carriage. Barry watched her slapping paint on the wall with the big brush.
“Careful not to spot the seats, Jess. The Australiand is a one in a kind train. Don’t ruin our restoration with carelessness.”
“All the same to me, Old School”
“You really do make me feel old when you call me that, you know. My name is Barry.”
“Sorry, Baz. Guess I kinda kinda feel you’re at home with these old wrecks.”
“They’re not wrecks. Not any more. We did a lot of work to restore them. This one is called the Australiand. Used to go back and forth from the Goldfields in the sixties. Travelled a hundred thousand miles in her day. I reckon she could go a hundred thousand more now we’ve done her up.”
“You did all that yourself?”
Barry laughed. “Gosh, no. I just ran the museum. Started it, as a matter of fact. At one time we had fifteen people working here. Restoring the trains, running tours, children’s birthday parties in here. It was quite an operation.”
“Well, we lost our funding, you see. Lots of places did, in the last economic downturn. I suppose nursing homes and meals on wheels were a higher priority. Of course now they’re not funded either. We lost our volunteers when petrol prices got silly and people lost their jobs. Lost our patrons. Now there’s just me and a lot of rusting iron… and you. So be careful with the paint brush.”
“’Till I finish my community service.”
“Quite. ‘Till you finish your community service.”
“What is it about trains? Why trains? Why not stamps or coins like all the other collector geeks?”
Barry put the little paint brush back in the paint pot. “When I look at a train, I mean a real train, a coal burner, I see gods of steel and coal. They are a force of nature put to work for the good of all. For me they’re a lifelong addiction.”
“Well, Old School,” said Jess. “Since the suburban trains got turned off, they’re a bit of a museum piece. Your order, your glorious nature put to work for the people, all a bit of a disappointment.”
“Well, yes,” said Barry. “Yes I suppose it must be to you lot.”
“Let me show you something, Jess,” said Barry. He led Jess out of the restaurant car, grunting as he stepped down onto the ground from the carriage steps. He walked her through the public museum, between the carriages build specifically for Prince Alfred’s visit in 1867 and around the back to the sheds invisible from the public part of the museum.
“This is where we used to make money for the museum by doing maintenance for other railway heritage organisations,” he said.
Jess drew in a breath. What she saw was no black, clumsy steam locomotive. The machine was sleek and beautiful and streamlined, a great deco feat of design. It had not been fully restored but you could tell it had been deep red. The thing was grand. Huge. It looked like something from a 1930’s fantasy film, but in bold colour.
“What,” she said breathlessly, “is this?”
“This? This is my baby. They’re actually called streamline locomotives. Sometime in the nineteen thirties it occurred to someone that a big fat cylinder doesn’t push through the air too well. Same water tank and chimney under the bonnet of course, but what a lovely bit of design she is.” Barry climbed slowly up into the engineers’ cab and rested a hand on the wall. “Thousands of horsepower in her, designed to pull passenger cars at seventy miles per hour. Isn’t she a beauty? We’ve been working on this old girl for eight years. Or we had been, until the funding for the museum was cut. I still come out here to spend time with her. She still hasn’t made any journeys yet, but she runs. Pity, I would’ve liked to see her shiny and painted again. I’ve grown rather attached to her.”
“She’s beautiful,” said Jess, without sarcasm.
Barry looked up at the steam behemoth. He ran a hand along the partly restored exterior, feeling the smooth metal. “We can be great again, Jess. Anyone who can make something like this, can put things right. You’ll see.”
“You sure about that, Old School?”
“You know, as I have got older, Jess, all the other things I thought I was sure of have melted away. Family, decency, health, order. But of this I am sure.”
Their days became more than a quiet battle waged over the radio’s volume knob. Barry stopped opening the gates. Nobody was coming in.
They would paint and oil and grease. Barry would march around his kingdom, explaining the origin of this railway company coat of arms, the workings of that signal. Single and dual valve locomotives, vacuum breaks, a whole world of obsessive knowledge.
Jess put her foot up on the Formica table. “Did you ever become interested in women, or anything that didn’t have wheels?”
“Oh, I was married,” said Barry. “For fifteen years.”
“Oh, she left.”
“Crowded out by the trains?”
Barry pushed a sparse bit of hair back up onto his comb over. “No, no we had a daughter and… well, she died.”
“Oh. Sorry, Barry.”
“Yes. Yes. And, well, not everybody is strong when tragedies come down, and my wife, well, I suppose she couldn’t handle it. She went off to India to find herself. That was a whole thing back then.” He pushed his plastic glasses back up onto his face. “Are you all right Jess?”
Jess sighed. She ran a hand down her face. “It’s shit that bad things happen to good people, Barry. That’s all.”
Jess pulled a hip flask out from one of her sock.
“Here, have a hit,” she said, and upended the flask, pouring something cheap and colourful into his cup without asking.
“Um thanks, I suppose,” said Barry, and sipped his enhanced tea.
She put her phone down in front of him. The web page headline said, “Petrol and diesel restrictions in high gear.”
“Have you seen this?” she said.
Barry picked the phone up and looked at the story. “Yes, I read about it,” he said. “Luckily I live over in the first class sleeping car, so it doesn’t effect me too much.”
“You don’t understand, Old School, this is going to send the price of food up, it’s going to make it impossible for people to get around. The rolling blackouts will get worse. And that’s only the start.”
“The start of what?”
“The start of the military crackdown. Come on, Barry. It happened in Britain, in the USA. We’re same as them, we’ve got the punkers, the students, those vigilante groups, plus the gangs, all versus the police. Well, it’s not the start, it’s the end really. The end of… well, everything as we know it. The punkers are going to have a field day.”
In one week they raised the price of entry from thirty five to fifty to eighty dollars to reflect the spiralling cost of food and electricity. It hardly made difference: nobody came to the museum, nobody called about a tour, there were few hits on the website.
Fewer and fewer people passed by the museum, and when they did, it was cause to look out gingerly through the barred front gates, hoping it was a police patrol, not looters or crazed punkers come back to harass them.
“Lucky we’re not selling wide screen TV’s,” joked Barry. “Nobody’s going to carry a locomotive away.”
Slowly, Perth and its suburbs became like a fenced prison. Only those with an electric car and some way to charge it could move around. Even if you had one, you’d better be careful when you came back to where you’d parked it.
Even the cops were so short on petrol that most of them took to bikes. Forget calling a police car, forget calling an ambulance. Phone service became intermittent. People kept to their homes, but Jess kept coming to see Barry, even when a two o’clock curfew was called in response to a huge punker attack on the power station. Barry took comfort in the unlikely friendship with Jess as the order of the world came crashing down so violently. At night he sat in his bed in the first class carriage of the Indian Pacific, reading his books on railway history and thinking about the young, fiesty woman who had wandered across his path.
Jess sat alone at her apartment window, looking out into the street and thinking about Barry. She had been worried that the rent would escalate to ridiculous levels with the currency weirdness, but she hadn’t heard from the landlord for two months now which was lucky, because if she was tossed out she had nowhere else to go. She tried not to think about it.
She was sure she could smell smoke. Several men armed with sticks and machetes had surrounded an old woman. The old lady gave over her bag and sat down on the curb, crying as the men ran off. Jess would’ve liked to go out and help her, but she was scared to leave the house. Such scenes were playing out all across the city. Jess rubbed her eyes and wished she could sleep.
She’d just read an article about the police strike; the cops were pulling back services until they got the military weaponry that they were demanding. That would mean an escalation of violence. As it was, the punkers and criminals were getting the message that he cops were frightened of them. That they had free rein.
The lights flickered and Jess realised her street was about to lose power again. The lights went out, leaving absolute black. Only the light of her cellphone shone in the dark.
Something drew her attention outside in the sky, now that the lights were off. She looked up, out over the weeping old lady, and saw a profusion of billowing orange stars. They were blowing over her apartment block. A few scattered down to her street, even into her window. They were little luminous gossamer webs, glowing and flitting in the air. Embers.
Her phone gave a little kick and she flipped it over. There was footage of punkers rioting, burning, throwing bottles filled with anything that would burn. Looters going for almost anything, taking what they could. She saw a man rip a necklace off a mannequin. A cop getting beaten by three girls with cricket bats. An aerial view of a great, sweeping sickle of flame eating through suburbia. People trying to douse flames with garden hoses and buckets. Refugees streaming down streets where pitched battles between police and rioters were raging. What a mess. A city on fire… her city.
A military officer gave an interview. “The situation is still fluid. We are sending rescue teams into the Claremont/Dalkeith area and commandos are preparing for insertion around the Casino. Residents are strongly advised to stay indoors. Anyone out after curfew could be mistaken for a rioter or looter. There are shoot-on-sight orders against agitators and vandals. I repeat, shoot on sight. The situation is fluid, but controlled. Stay in your homes.”
It didn’t look controlled. Military vehicles were parked across entry and exit roads to Joondalup and Great Eastern Highway. It looked as if they ware preparing to fight everything except the fire. Maybe there wasn’t enough fuel, maybe they’d just decided to let the fire burn up the punkers and rioters, she wasn’t certain.
The door bell rang. That was more frightening than anything else that she had seen that night, since she was alone. Through the spy hole she could see a woman in a hard hat and a high viz vest. A similarly dressed man was knocking at the door on the other side of the hallway. The woman banged on the door.
“Please open up, Ma’am” she shouted through the door.
Jess chained the door and opened it a crack. “What you want?”
“Ma’am, we are evacuating civilians. The walking bus leaves outside in ten minutes. We have military protection. Please be outside in ten minutes. At ten fifty, we leave.”
The woman shoved a pamphlet in through the crack in the door and went on to the next apartment door.
Jess poked her head out of the window again. There was a glow in the sky behind the buildings to the south, the direction of the wind and embers. The direction of the city, the rail museum, and Barry.
The pamphlet showed that only people north of Loftus Street were being evacuated. That meant that the inner city was abandoned. Nobody was coming for Barry.
She tried calling the land line at the museum. After several failures to connect, she heard his stilted answering machine message. That was the closest she got to speaking with Barry. She knew he wouldn’t leave his precious locomotives. At first it had been only the terms of her parole that kept her going there, but now…
“Silly old bastard.” She shrugged out of her bed clothes, dressed in her darkest, long sleeved clothes, picked up a large torch sitting on her bedside table and went out into the night.
The light from the torches and glow sticks handed out by State Emergency Services personnel revealed quite a crowd gathered in the street. Two hundred or more people held shopping bags and backpacks hastily stuffed with food and documents. Children clutched at ragged toys and their parents. Everyone there had the same glazed expression in their eyes, the same anxious aura. They all had the same docile dependence on the cops which made Jess wary and distressed.
“Listen up!” said the State Emergency Service officer who seemed to be in charge. “We’re going to the river. There’s a barge waiting there to evacuate civilians. We’re going to have to walk. We have weapons, we have water, just stay with us. Please proceed in an orderly fashion. This way. The situation is fluid but under control…”
Yeah, you just keep saying that, guys, thought Jess.
The group shuffled off slowly. She watched until they inched around a turn and she could not longer see them. Jess silently slipped into a lane way, toward the menacing, orange glow.
She tried not to think about the possibility of getting shot by some military sniper. A more pressing problem was the looters and punkers out in force tonight, stalking the black streets and looking for anything or anyone worth robbing and destroying. She had a few close calls, hiding in a dumpster, then behind a burnt out car as groups of them yelled and whooped their way down streets, carrying flaming sticks and bottle bombs, leaving a wake of burning ruins.
She passed a police van that was going up nicely, which gave her a little kick of satisfaction. But not the houses burnt out and smoking, not the shops that had sheets of flames sliding up out of the smashed glass with distraught owners milling about out the front, or desperately trying to save some stock as the store burned. Not the blackened bodies which were thinly scattered in the lane ways. She kept her head down, trying to find the cracks between the two warring sides.
The main fire was an orange cliff of dense smoke that rained embers down like snow and spat out constellations of loose orange stars. They drifted to earth down wind, starting new fires. One wing of the paper factory was burning fiercely, contributing to the embers and smoke blackening out the stars. A few people stood around as if wanting to do something, united in their impotent and aimless wandering. Jess was not aimless.
Across the road, Jess saw the rail museum still standing. She could hear the yelling and smashing coming from the streets behind the museum, but couldn’t see much because it was behind the building.
Despite the din of screaming and smashing, she silenced the keys by pressing them together before quietly bringing them out of her pocket and unlocking the chain link gate topped with the razor wire. She closed the gate and re-locked the padlock.
The place was dark. No Barry in the office, no Barry on the Museum floor. Just the dark, looming shapes of the locomotives and carriages. “Barry,” Jess gave a whisper that wanted to be a shout. No response. “Barry,” she moved silent and warily through the hulking locomotives, smelling grease, and the ashy old fire from the engines mixed with the solvent smells of new fire from the raging inferno across the road.
Jess was starting to wonder if she had put herself through a lot of needless danger when she saw the flicker of flames from the workshop door. She carefully padded toward the din of human voices and smashing glass. She took a breath and peaked around big metal sliding door.
The sounds of rioting and police megaphones filled the workshop, but it was coming from the other side of the wall. The workshop was still except for the flickering fires in oil drums which Barry used to warm the shop at night. Then Jess saw Barry standing in the tray of a banged up old trailer, atop a huge pile of firewood bags. He was breaking the bags open and throwing the big bits of wood into the fuel box of the locomotive.
“Barry!” The screaming and megaphones drowned her out. “Hey Barry!” He still hadn’t heard her.
“Hey! Old school! Cleaned the neighbourhood out of fire wood or what?” Jess started to climb the pile of fuel in the trailer. “Hey!”
Barry turned around suddenly, his hand on his chest.
“What are you doing here Jess? I thought you’d be evacuating.”
“Yeah, well I knew you wouldn’t, train man.”
She looked out through a hole in the wall of the shed. Jess had no love of the police, and loved the idea of seeing cops burn, but the reality was frightening. With little support from vehicles which demanded precious fuel, the police had it tough. The rioters surged again and again at the police lines and without vehicle support, the cops had no advantage. Police horses wandered through the flames, some of them riderless. There were dead from both sides on the ground. Jess began to understand the severity of the situation.
“Listen, Old School, I’m smart enough to know that you’re dumb enough not to leave your old trains. Come on, you’re too old for this. You’ve go to evacuate. There’s a barge on the river. We can make it together.”
He was spent, pale and tired. For a moment she thought he’d listen to her. He slouched, ragged and pale.
“I’m not going, Jess. I can’t leave her.”
“What you gonna do, Old School? Can’t you hear them, they’re coming. If the cops can’t stop them, who can?”
Through the adrenaline and shock, Barry kept this backbone. “No. They can’t have her. They can have the sixties, they can burn down Prince bloody Alfred, Jess, but the golden era of steam is mine. They can’t have my lady.”
He looked so weak and broken and old that she wrapped her arms around him. “Okay, okay, Old school. What’s the plan? You do have a plan, right? What’s with the wood?”
Barry was sweating freely and his thin white hair clung across his forehead. But now he grinned in the fire light. “Anarchy,” he said.
Jess was grinning too. “You’re taking her out, aren’t you? But how? The rail network’s out. Nothing’s running!”
“Precisely. I have the road, as they say.”
”Where will you go?”
“I do not know. But I do know what will happen to the lady if those bastards come through here. I’ll try to get down south, where there’s plenty of wood. I’ll take as many carriages as I can. Maybe I can be useful in your new world, Jess. People will still need to get around.”
Jess pulled the heavy bag of firewood from Barry’s grip. “You crazy old…”
“Jess, I’m not leaving. Not without this train…”
Jess hurled the bag into the fuel box. “So let’s go.”
“You really want to come? It’ll be dangerous.”
“I love a fight, Old School. You know that.”
There was a crash, and a bottle flew in through one of the high windows. It smashed on the ground between a couple of locos and immediately an orange fire sprung up, smoking heavily.”
“Molotov cocktail,” said Barry.
“Petrol bomb, you nonce. Makes you wonder where they’d get the petrol for something like that at a time like this.”
“Damn punkers, Old School. What did I tell you? They just want to tear things down. If it burns and it scares people, They’ll go for it.”
“It’s not safe here. I just want to save the loco, Jess. There’s no need for you to come. I’m one old bugger with a misplaced sense of loyalty to a girl he fell in love with a long time ago. Anyone with half a brain would be long gone.” Barry held his left arm as if it was cramping. He was very pale.
“What can I say. You said there would be anarchy. Can I blow the horn?”
“It’s a bloody whistle, you upstart. The fire takes a while to get started. If you can load up the fuel, I’ll keep it going.” Get me some small sticks form the bags to start the fire with.”
Barry tore up charts, maps and paper models from the display cabinets as kindling. He opened the blower to give the fire some air, and stuffed them into the fire box, chasing them with heavy cardboard from phone books and smashed rulers and pencils. Soon the fire was lit and he was showing Jess how to pile on the bigger pieces.
“It’s not like an electric car, Jess. It’s got a real, living heart. You’ve got to start it and lovingly feed it. Ten good sized bits of wood per minute should do it.”
“You don’t look so good, Old School. D’ya want to take a break?”
“Don’t have to worry about me and this train,” said Barry. He patted the floor next to the fire box, the golden light playing across the wrinkles of his hands. “I’m going to set her free, put her back in her natural environment. Remember, If the smoke is black, you haven’t got enough air. You want pale grey smoke. Burn hot and clean.”
“I worry about you an’ trains, Barry, I really do. I just feel like I’m interrupting something intimate.” She went back to loading the wood into the fuel box from the ute.
More petrol bombs fell on the roof with a series of loud bangs, and a long clatter as they rolled down the steel. Faint tinkles as they smashed somewhere outside, caused screams and cheers. A few of them sailed in through the high windows of the train shed and set fires among the steel locos. A couple of times Jess had to stop loading the bags of wood off the trailer and act quickly to put them out. But eventually the whole lot was piled in the locomotive’s fuel box.
The firebox was burning hot now. Barry climbed up into the cab, painfully slowly. Jess scaled the steel rungs up the sheer side of the loco after him. She could feel the firebox radiating out onto her legs. She looked down to Barry, leaning up against the back wall of the engine, pale and weak.
“What do I do?”
“Valve. Go to first valve. Lift the regulator. The big red one.” Jess yanked the big red lever, the whole loco shuddered and there was a horrible squealing sound.
“Hey! HEY! Slowly! Ease it on. Easy. Go very slow. You’re spinning the wheels.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I thought you’d know. I’ve told you all this stuff. Weren’t you listening?”
“Of course I wasn’t listening, you skinny old goat, you’re the one with the bloody train fetish.” Another bottle sailed in, breaking glass in the shed window. It landed on a wood and cardboard display and flame spread like a blanket of squirming spirits. They could hear the police shouting through megaphones, they could her the animalistic yelling of the punkers. The odour of burning petrol drifted in through the engine’s cab.
“Let the regulator… let it out slowly. Very slowly, you rash young thing.”
“Bazza! Thought you was a gentleman.”
“Treat my girl right.” Barry was sweating but shivering, despite the heat from the firebox. He looked drawn and scared and elated all at once.
“Alright, alright. Slowly. Jess vibrated the big red handle slowly up, up, up until she heard the engine steam a a cufffff.
The locomotive gave off a deep bass rumble, punctuated with a violent hiss of steam being released. Jess felt the mighty engine jerk and come to life. The carriages behind them thudded and rattled into motion on the seldom used tracks.
“That’s the valve opening. Good, we’re moving.”
“She’s breathing! She’s aliiiiive.”
Barry grinned through the sweat. “That’s my girl. Open the regulator Jess, let her out.”
The train began moving faster. It rolled over a couple of mannequins wearing old conductor’s uniforms. A ticket machine exploded into springs and metal pieces under the wheels. They moved past the prince Albert train, past the sixties dining car with the carriages clustered in the public part of the museum. They were leaving it all behind.
The valve was opening and closing with a regular cufffff, cuffffff, cuffffff. They were moving out of the building now.
“Jess, switch the blower off. The chimney is drawing the fire now.” Barry was pointing to the small switching lever. Jess turned it to the down position. The engine was gaining speed. They pulled out of the old shed and seemingly gently, pushed the heavy iron gate down and ground it into waste under the wheels of the engine. Jess pulled the chain to blow the whistle, with a grin.
“Thought you didn’t like trains.”
“What’s not to like?” Jess stuck her head out of the door, watching the riots between the police and the punkers, at full tilt. Bottle bombs flew. She saw a police horse running wild, its riderless saddle slipping to the side. It kept pace with them for a while, cutting a path through the mess. A bottle bomb smashed over the front of the locomotive, coating the side of the machine with flame.
“Jess, the break is the slotted handle with the black hand hold. There.” He pointed with a slumped arm.
“This one?” You want me to stop? Here?”
“No. No. When you do stop, do it… do it… slow…ly.”
Jess checked the pressure gauge and squatted down next to Barry, putting a hand on his forehead.
“Wrong spot I’m afraid Jess, it’s my… heart. Remember to stop her gently. Look at your GPS.”
Old School stayed slumped against the rear wall of the engine, staring into the fire. His breaths were more and more laboured.
Jess saw him take the hand off his heart and put it on the vibrating floor if the engine, as the cuff, cuff, cuff of the engine, his girl, the old school loco he’d watched as a boy, grew stronger. Jess could imagine him perched on that bridge, dreaming of being right where he was now, driving the engine forward, the flames heating his shins, the rails ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk under the wheels. He looked upward through the cab door to the galaxy of sparks left in their wake.
Jess tended the locomotive, eyeing the dials and the pressure valves. She looked down and saw him staring at her, at the way she monitored the pressure, the way she threw fresh wood into the fire box. He smiled thinly, his head vibrating with the power of the locomotive. Jess shouted to him as they continued to gather speed. “Barry, we’ve got to get you to a hospital. Barry? Old School?”
The train charged on through the night, a breathing, surging, living thing.