The Signalman's Son
By Jack Dowd
What happens on the eventful night when Simon's son Harry comes visiting him?
Simon planted his feet on the wooden plank, wrapped the hand cloth around the handle and pulled the lever. It fell into its bracket with a clunk, and in unison, the orb of light suspended outside the window switched from scarlet to emerald. A shrill steam whistle answered. Moments later, the mechanical goliath slunk past, its black paint glistening like sealskin under the station lights.
“Do you want to wave at them?’’
The light of the engine’s firebox illuminated the ballast in a golden glow while rendering the footplate crew as mere silhouettes. The rhythmic pump of the cylinders sounded like a mechanical heartbeat. When the carriages drew level with his window, Simon saw that most passengers were already wearing their paper hats while the onboard kitchen staff delivered Christmas dinners. Only the guard in the rear coach returned his wave.
“They probably can’t see us in the dark,” Simon explained as the steam engine disappeared from view.
Harry grunted. His head was angled towards his phone, his face bathed in its artificial light.
“That’s a Black Five locomotive, that is. It’s called The Duchess of Peterborough. Used to run on the West Coast Main Line back in the day. It went all the way up to Scotland and back,” Simon explained, the tail lamp of the last carriage disappeared around the curve.
Harry failed to show interest. His yellow puffer jacket, silver noise cancelling headphones and neon sneakers, flecked with soot, could not have looked more out of place against the interior of the nineteen forties' signal box. Simon had a vague recollection of a children’s book he used to read to Harry at bedtime, featuring a multicoloured elephant.
“One more train,’’ Simon said, pushing the lever back into place. “Then we can head home.” The signal arm bounced back into its horizontal position and the red light returned. “Where do you reckon your Mum is?”
“Dunno. It says here that the M25 is gridlocked. An upturned lorry somewhere. She’s not texted me.”
Simon allowed himself a smile. He could imagine Linda’s rage, trapped within her car loaded with last minute shopping, forced to listen to endless Christmas songs on the radio. His Christmas shopping had long since been completed but that wasn’t surprising. Since the break-up he had far less people to buy for.
“What’s your plan for Christmas day?” Simon asked.
“Open the presents, watch telly, have dinner and then play on the PlayStation when everyone else is asleep. It’ll be a complete noob wave.”
Simon had no idea what the phrase ‘complete noob wave’ meant, but was already aware that Linda had invited her extended family over for Christmas this year. He thought she had done this to fill the house in his absence, but perhaps to also prove a point. That she had more friends than he did.
“What about you?” Harry asked.
Simon, whose thoughts had turned to regret over the model train he had brought his son, snapped back to attention. “Quiet one for me, I think. Are you cold? Most signal boxes had fires. This one doesn’t though.”
“I have a steam kettle; do you want a drink? Puffing Billies, we used to call them. The kettles, I mean.”
“I don’t drink tea or coffee, Dad.”
Simon, who had picked up the kettle, lowered it again. “Are you going to tell your friends at school about working on a heritage railway at Christmas? For show and tell?”
“Secondary schools don’t do show and tell.”
“Don’t they? When do you go back?”
“The sixth. I’m spending that weekend at Mum’s and then the next at yours.”
Before Simon could reply, a bell positioned on the wall above the levers, chimed. Harry jumped, his headphones tumbling to the floor.
“‘What’s that?” he asked as the bell rang again.
“The signal boxes use bells to communicate with each other. Each bell and the number of rings have a different meaning. That one means the next train is on the way. Do you see those points outside? I’m going to change them, watch.”
“Is it like… morse code?” Harry asked, standing at the window.
Simon paused, his hands on the lever. “Similar. How’d you know about morse code?”
“It’s in a game I play online.”
“With your mates?”
Harry didn’t answer and Simon spared a glance at his own phone. The screen, displaying a picture of himself, Linda and a younger Harry at Legoland, bore no notifications from any of the dating apps he had downloaded.
“There would always be a signalman in the box to allow trains to pass, twenty-four seven. They would sometimes spend nights here, no matter the weather. It was quite a lonely job when you think about it…”
Although the signal box was only manned when the heritage line had an open day, Simon could sympathise with the loneliness of the signalmen. Although he participated in the banter in the station’s staff room, he only exchanged several words with passing crewmen while on duty.
“Isolating,” Harry said, “like a prison cell.’’
“Yeah, but they had a fire to keep them warm and the kettle.”
Harry’s phone chirped. “It’s Mum. She says she’ll be here in five minutes.”
“Righty-ho,” Simon said as a second whistle sounded in the distance. On the horizon he spotted a plume of steam and smoke charging towards the signal box.
“Do you want to change the signal for this train?”
“Yeah, alright then,” Harry took the offered hand cloth. “Which lever? The green one?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“Just pull, yeah?”
“Squeeze and pull. Pull with your legs otherwise you’ll put your back out.”
Harry heaved. The lever began to move.
“Good, that’s it. Keep going.’’
Harry strained as the lever reached the middle of its frame before falling with a clunk into its slot.
“Good job.” Simon lowered the window and peered down the platform at the approaching train. “That’s a Class A1 Pacific, like The Flying Scotsman. Have you heard of that one? This engine is called Blizzard. Quite an apt name, actually. It isn’t a stopping service, though, so it'll go straight through.”
The train burst out of the shadows at the end of the station in a cloud of soot and steam. Simon watched Blizzard thunder down the platform, its headlights swaying and twinkling in the dark. As the locomotive raced past, its side rods a blur, Simon caught a glimpse of the footplate crew. They were too busy operating the controls to return his wave.
“How fast do you think it’s going?” Harry asked as the train disappeared behind a veil of steam.
“About fifty miles per hour. Maybe more. Depends on who’s at the controls.” Simon spotted a flash of colour in the station car park. “There’s your Mum.”
“Alright. Thanks for having me, Dad.”
“No worries. Have a good Christmas, yeah? Practise that morse code with your friends.”
Simon watched as Harry ran across the car park, waited for his mother to finish struggling with a three-point turn and then clambered inside.
Chuckling, Simon watched them leave before he returned his attention to the railway.
From somewhere far away, Blizzard sounded its whistle.
The Duchess of Peterborough answered.
Simon frowned and examined his controls.
The points were still connected to the main line.
In the distance, Simon heard the screech of brakes, followed by a metallic crash.