A Proper Charlie


by GJ Hart


 

PART ONE: ON TIME

The rain fell hard and fast as Charlie hurried beneath the station’s propylaeum and ducked into the staff canteen. The place was empty except for Joe, the station manager and Charlie nodded his way. Joe raised a hand and kicked out a chair but Charlie knew better than to join him: especially in the mornings and especially since his wife had passed. Turning his attentions back to breakfast, Charlie piled his plate high, handed over his employee coupon and headed off to a table in the far corner.

After dabbing his mouth with the emerald handkerchief he carried solely for this purpose, Charlie tilted back his head and sighed. He still found it difficult to accept that everything ended today and tomorrow, both he and his train would begin retirement: one in a warden assisted semi in Richmond, the other in an underfunded and barely patronised transport museum in Bognor.

Charlie pushed his plate forward and turned his chair. Why now – when it was too late – did he notice everything: The ceiling festooned with fly paper and slick with tobacco sweat. The broken tables and mean chairs that, although resigned to bear their burden silently, did it with the maximum discomfort in mind. Why was he here, always here and not in a little cafe on the high-street enjoying its civility and soft furnishings?

Charlie’s eyes moistened and he watched as his tears pooled on the dirty Formica table.

“Need a hand there, friend?” Said Joe, standing and walking over.

Charlie had heard the rumours many times: how Joe spent his nights, drinking hard and abusing strangers till he found one willing to beat him senseless. As he approached, Charlie saw his battered face and guessed they were true.

“All good, all good, and how are you?” Said Charlie, and before Joe could answer, he’d scuttered through a side door and into the changing room.

When he was certain Joe hadn’t followed, Charlie climbed into new overalls and checking himself in the mirror, was pleased with what he saw. Next, he pulled on new work boots and heading out, was barely able to stifle his squeals as their fresh tread sucked at the platform’s flagstones. In his hand, he carried a small blue box containing his greased cap, which although not new, had been meticulously and expensively restored especially for today. Reaching the engine, he lifted it out and held it a moment like an adoring owner might an aged pet. Then, setting it gently atop his head, he took one last look around and climbed aboard his train.

Time to go

And so the pistons fired and the great wheels turned and accompanied by a scattering of hand claps, the vast bulk of the Benevolent Flew – the last operating steam locomotive in England – moved out from beneath the station’s canopy and on to open track for the final time.

Once under way, Charlie had hoped to relax and enjoy his time aboard the train he loved and would soon lose forever. However, on seeing his colleague, he realised this would not be possible – despite the many hints dropped over preceding weeks, he looked more disheveled than ever.

Charlie’s opinion of his colleague had not mellowed over time, it remained a heavy weight, swinging dependably between total insouciance and absolute hatred. He’d had never shown the slightest interest – because he had none – in any aspect of his life and worse, had never even asked his real name, instead christening him ‘Shovler’, (because he shovelled coal), with all the compassion of a farmer who names his dog ‘dog’. Charlie deemed this sufficient for a man he considered unfit to lick his boots and yet had been forced to work with for over fifteen years. In truth, Charlie hardly perceived a human at his side – more an animated repository of social transgressions. As he stood back, taking in the dirty fingernails and green teeth; the matted hair and face tanned with filth, his thoughts synced with the rhythms below: kill the fucker, kill the fucker, kill the fucker……

Normally Charlie, if pushed, could convince himself his colleague did not exist at all, but not today. Today, when they arrived at Waterloo, there would be people waiting, important people: Duncan Stuffer, the mayor, Trimstan Prid, the local MP, and of course Juliet Dewinter, editor at the City Herald. Charlie wanted to roll in on the second and looking good. But he knew there was no looking good with Shovler at his side.

Conversely, Shovler still cared for Charlie and had been tempted many times to suggest he seek professional help. Of course, he knew Charlie despised him, but this hadn’t stopped him attempting to establish a relationship, even, and despite the irony – of which he was fully aware – that cynical rapport formed between people united only by mutual hatred for their work.

As Shovler stood before the grate, watching the flames rise for the last time, he was suddenly overcome with a tremendous and bewildering sense of regret. One last try, he thought and turning to Charlie, held out his hand and smiled. Seeing him, Charlie smiled a very different smile and slowly folded his arms. Holding his gaze, Shovler spat down, swung up his shovel and with new strength in his broken hands, slammed it hard into the coal stack’s unforgiving face.

As the train pulled into Tyndall Station, the sky sagged and split and rain swirled through the open windows, compounding the chaos already entrenched within the cab. Yet, however abhorrent these conditions were, they were not entirely unwelcome: Ironically, by placing them in segregation – since one man could barely see the other – it afforded them space. Shovler, no longer compelled to lighten the mood, could dream of dinner and Charlie, no longer compelled to darken it, had time to plan. Of course, Charlie realised the obvious solution was to push Shovler from the train, but even today, he couldn’t bring himself to actually slaughter him.

As the train hit top speed, it swept between a narrow corridor of pine trees and emerged lifted high on a viaduct skirting Lefthorn Lake. Checking his watch, Charlie realised he’d pushed things too hard. He calculated he had ten minutes to spare and began to wonder.

Without warning, he jumped on the brake and smiling his widest smile, offered Shovler his hand. Shovler – enraptured by this sudden change in relations – offered his willingly in return. As he did, Charlie dipped down, drew out a wrench and rammed it hard into his stomach. Seeing him fall, Charlie leapt on his shoulders and twisting sideways, sent them both plummeting from the train and down the embankment.

As Shovler hit the ground, Charlie whipped off his belt and lassoed his neck. Shovler roared as the buckle bit, but Charlie kept it tight. He wound the leather around his fist, hauled it over his shoulded and dragged him through rushes and wild berries into the water. On he trudged, deeper and deeper, until the bed fell away and he began to swim, towing Shovler out to the centre of the lake’s blank stare.

So enthralled by his mission, Charlie paid no attention to the perils that encroached from all sides. He worked on Shovler like dirty laundry, scratched at his teeth and ducked him beneath the stoney drink until Shovler – suffering some fundamental breach – collapsed in his arms like a punctured beach toy. Only when satisfied he was absolutely spotless, did Charlie take firm hold of the belt and pull him back to the bank.

Once at the engine, Charlie lay Shovler in front of the furnace, unwound the break and, shaking with adrenaline and relief, moved the beast forward.

Shovler opened his eyes. He knew where he was – somewhere far away he was lying on the engine floor. He lifted his head and was stunned by the transformation. He wanted to savour it, but knew there wasn’t time. He forced in fingers, hooking at the muck and the mullock, but found nothing. He wished he had a wire brush, then he could scrub and scrub till his insides squeaked. But he was weak, far too weak to do a proper job and starting to lose consciousness again. As his vision dimmed, he pulled himself closer to the furnace, concentrating on the frigid pain shut through him like spine. He fixed on it because he knew its cure: he had to get warm.

At Grinton Chase crowds of football fans, office workers and college kids forced themselves through the doors and into sweltering carriages. Shovler was now back on his feet and despite feeling restored, the sense that something vital had permanently altered or been lost entirely, haunted him. Before the watery execration, he’d possessed a keen sense of humour, but now this attribute had become so exaggerated, he had only to glance at any object, no matter how mundane – the branch of a tree or a brick – and he would start to giggle uncontrollably.

Charlie, noting his friend’s good spirits, found himself laughing along. Perhaps everything would be alright, after all, he thought: his colleague was clean and appeared to have forgiven him and the train was still on time

“We’re coming me’ lovelies, we’re coming!” He cried and yanking the steam trumpet’s pull cord, swooned as his train serenaded the sky with music more exquisite to his ears than the Tristan cord, the Souvenir de Florence, even the final movement of Le Concombre et le Papillon.

As they passed Mudford Station, Charlie noticed a woman in a yellow sundress waiting for the 2.34 to Tunter and felt elated. He began to whistle and, for the first time in fifteen years, turned to Shovler and engaged him in a conversation consisting of more than one syllable:

“You alright, Son?”

Hearing him, Shovler’s legs gave and he hit the floor, riven by such violent paroxysms of laughter, he grabbed at his stomach, fearing it might tear clean in half.

*

Everything was going well until, as they approached Hinton, a stop sign flashed red. Charlie heaved on the brake and jumped down from the cab. The signal was unscheduled and Charlie knew it spelt trouble: if they got caught in a backlog or missed their slot, they would never make Waterloo on time.

“Do you want to know my name?” Shouted Shovler, but Charlie never heard him. He was too busy attacking the sign with a beer bottle he’d snatched from a tramp sleeping at the track side.

“It’s Sebastian.”

 

PART TWO: TRAIN DELAYED

Finally, after thirty-five minutes, the signal changed and Charlie rushed to the engine, released the break and checked his watch.

“We’re gonna be late, we’re gonna be late!” He wailed, tearing at his hair and slapping himself around the face as Shovler knelt in the corner, barely able to conceal his hysteria. His shivering mania provoked in equal parts by Charlie’s infantile behaviour and a decision reached – he’d been thinking of ways to resolve the situation and had just decided on the solution that made him laugh most.

“It’s going to be ok, Charlie,” he whispered and after bowing low and slow, removed a length of rope from the supply locker and climbed out the cab’s rear window. Charlie, assuming his colleague was performing a duty particular to his position, shrugged and returned to his post.

Shovler stumbled across coal, jumped over rushing track and landed flat on the carriage roof. After gaining his balance, he tied one end of the rope to the ventilation funnel and looped the other around his waist. After testing both ends, he crossed himself, filled up his lungs and pushed off. For a moment he swung free, flapping helplessly in mid-air until gravity snapped on and propelled him straight through a carriage window. He landed squarely on his feet and dusted himself down.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Good Morning,’ he began.

“Who is that horrid man?” Whispered a child to her father.

“Yes, who are you, sir?” Asked her father in a booming voice.

“I’m your driver,” said Shovler kneeling and ruffling the child’s hair.

“But Please, don’t be alarmed. My colleague is still at his post.”

Sighs of relief spread through the carriage

“Firstly, I would like to apologise for the delay. I assure you it’s only temporary”

“Bloody ridiculous,” snarled the girl’s father, folding his legs and turning to look out the window.

“By way of an apology,” continued Shovler, “I would like to offer anyone interested a tour of the engine. You won’t get another chance, as this, I’m afraid to say, is the Benevolent Flew’s last ever journey”

“But ….” Began the father.

He didn’t have time to finish, Shovler punched him on the nose, grabbed his waist and ran him out the carriage door. He was heavy – heavier than Shovler expected – but inch by inch he hauled him to the roof. Finally aloft, Shovler planted his feet wide, threw him across his shoulders and started back toward the engine. Once there, he untied himself and threw the man – now ossified with fear, down into the cab.

Feeling a tremor, Charlie turned and was confronted with images so inexplicable, they jammed in his cornea, unable to find any route through to his brain.

“Come on Charlie, give us a hand,” said Shovler, ripping off the passenger’s clothes and pushing them into the flames.

Too terrified to refuse, Charlie moved closer.

“We need more power, more speed!” Shouted Shovler, “and believe me these fuckers burn!”

Charlie felt himself nodding.

Shovler was now laughing so hard he could hardly stand. He pushed Charlie aside and using his full weight, folded the passenger into the furnace.

*

“For fuck’s sake, stop crying Charlie. They’re glad of the space back there!” Joked Shovler, throwing a training shoe into the flames.

The air swirled with burning fabrics and flesh and Charlie lost count of the times Shovler appeared with another passenger strung across his shoulders. His choices appeared indiscriminate: He brought the old and the young, the rich and the poor and without pause, pitched them all into the flames. Then, after a quick tap on the temperature gauge, he set off once again.

A particular smoke now packed the cab – thick as caramel and smelling like every loathsome word, every vicious deed, every violent act Charlie had ever spoken or meted out. These fumes – eventually so concentrated – seemed to acquire form and as Charlie bent and heaved, he felt their encouragement at his back and knew there was nowhere left to go.

“That’s the lot,” said Shovler, appearing from above.

“The lot?” Whispered Charlie.

“There’s no one left.”

Charlie crawled to the cab door and looking up the track, saw a flash of colours in the distance. As the train roared forth, these colours coalesced into a solid shape and the shape into a banner strung across the entrance to Waterloo Station.

Welcome. The Benevolent Flew

Charlie rolled over to find Shovler standing above him.

‘I think it’s time,’ he said, smiling down.

‘Time?’

“Goodbye Charlie,” said Shovler and a second later was gone, tumbling from the cab into a kingdom of knot weeds and wild buddleia.

Charlie struggled to his feet, feeling for his cap, but his cap was gone.

No matter, he thought and straightening his overalls, took his place – as every good driver should – at the head of his train.

As a weak sun appeared above the steal and stained glass of Waterloo Station, he checked his watch – two minutes early.

Then he heard the band start up.