Happy New Year!
The following is a short story I wrote late last year. It was nominated for an award in several categories in the Spectrum Short Story 2017 competition and placed 2nd in 'Best Setting', was a runner up in 'Best Plot', and a runner up in 'Best of Show'.
The story is currently out on submission but in the meantime, I thought I would open it for review on my own blog. I would love to get your comments on it. I hope you enjoy it.
Boilerhand - Synopsis
Liz couldn't care less about 'The Help' who have been living on earth since the end of the Second World War. Her job as a boilerhand on the TransAtlantic Express is all she knows. She dreams of becoming a driver, but has never been given the chance for promotion. With most of her family long gone and her Grandfather's dementia advancing, Liz believes nothing will ever change. Then an unexpected situation with a passenger on the latest crossing gives Liz an opportunity she didn't expect. But when does any opportunity not come without a price?
10th May 1941. The day everyone died according to Grandpa. Churchill called it ‘the darkest hour’, but Grandpa often calls Churchill a fool.
“Ye have to understand, Lizzie, we were on the brink. Whole countries buried as NAZIs marched like ants over our picnic. No matter how many we tried to squash, the wee buggers just kept on coming. They say the devil walked the earth back then. Maybe if we’d held on a bit longer we’d never have needed The Help.”
The Help don’t understand dementia. They don’t like illness. Grandpa wouldn’t join them anyway even if by some miracle he was drawn from the yearly ballot.
“I’ve got work,” I say, noting the time on my watch.
“Aye, I know. I’m old, not senile.”
The care home is modern and smells of new carpet mixed with disinfectant. My Grandpa shifts in his chair by the window as a carer walks by with the tea trolley. Her name is Liz too, and I know Grandpa sometimes gets us confused. Liz 2 (that’s what I call her) understands, but she always smiles and slips Grandpa a dram of Scotch in a mug.
“Will we be seeing you on the telly this weekend, Lizzie?” Liz 2 says.
“Don’t think so,” I shake my head. “I don’t get to drive. I just keep the boiler hot. Most passengers ignore me and the cameras never find their way to the engine. No one wants to see a boilerhand in overalls.”
“Ah that’s a shame,” Liz 2 says as she moves her trolley away. “I was telling my Mama all about you.”
Grandpa coughs through his mug and for a moment his old brown eyes are young and full of pride as they follow Liz 2.
“That’s my granddaughter ye know?” he says to me.
“I’d been all around the world before she were even a glint in her Papa’s eye. Loves her trains. Wants to be a driver.”
“You must be proud.”
I move over to give him a kiss on top of his balding head, but just as I move to leave he grabs my arm and pulls my ear close to his mouth.
“It wasn’t worth all this,” he hisses desperately and in a shocked moment I realize my Grandpa is shaking softly. “None of this was worth it.”
“Worth what Grandpa?”
“The Help ye stupid gal! We’d be better off by ourselves. Will ye tell Lizzie?”
I lean out gently removing Grandpa’s hand from my arm and placing it carefully on his lap.
“I’ll tell her.”
“Should’e been a driver,” Grandpa sighed, lost in another memory. “She were the best I ever saw. Should’e been a driver. Could’e. We all could’e been more. Were it not for The Help, maybe your Mama and Papa would still be here. I’m sorry we gave up on ye.”
Grandpa starts crying and I look up to see another carer moving toward us to help. I withdraw my hands as the carer’s take over comforting the only member of my family still alive.
# # #
I saw my first steam engine when I was very small. Papa and Grandpa took me to West Ruislip station in the south of England. It wasn’t a very grand place. Just a small thing at the edge of the great pit you southern folk call a city. Papa carried me on his shoulders so I could see better as the great engine pulled into the platform opposite us. An A4 Pacific class locomotive painted a rich turquoise blue. Sir Nigel Gresley her name was. Beautiful.
She glided into the station amid steam and whistle, covering us in a sheen of water from her funnel and pistons. I had never smelt anything so happy in my entire life. Steam engines are life. Powered by new water. She was unlike a lot of the other steam engines you see on the telly now. They all have round cylindrical boilers stretching towards a clock face front. Sir Nigel’s boiler was sleek. Grandpa called it sexy. It curved gently up over the driving wheels and sloped down smoothly to the front bogies. Her face was long and elegant unlike the latest beasts you see chugging up and down the lines today.
As the water hit my face that day, I knew I wanted to be a train driver. What could be greater?
“A family, Liz,” Papa said when I asked him. “There aren’t many of us left these days. Everyone’s busy trying to win the ballot and join The Help.”
“Families are boring,” I said, and that caused Grandpa to chuckle underneath his peaked cap.
My father smiled and pulled me off his shoulders before bending down to face me on the platform. Sir Nigel hissed and hushed opposite.
“Families might not seem quite as impressive as that engine over there, but do you know what?”
“Families built engines like that. Families drive engines like that.”
“But The Help give us the new water right?”
Papa’s eyes darkened and his face became stiff and pale. Grandpa stepped closer and put a hand on Papa’s shoulder and Papa smiled again.
“Let’s go see if the driver will let us up on the footplate.”
I was so excited that I forgot.
Papa never did answer my question.
# # #
Grandpa’s tears are on my mind as I park my bike in the small sheds next to platform 17. I can see Bessie already steaming up over on platform 15, dropping her own tears on the concrete and tracks around her. She’s no Sir Nigel but she has her charms. Why do they always put us on 15 whenever we make these trips cross water? I know it is the longest platform but it takes us ages to pull onto the main lines as we have to cross about a dozen sets of points. Bessie’s wheels don’t take kindly to that and she often wheezes along for at least 10 miles before we can pick up any kind of speed. The extra load of our passengers on these trips never helps.
I lock my bike up and walk quickly over the footbridge. I can already see my driver holding a clipboard and talking to the station master next to Bessie’s tender.
“Hi, Faye,” I call out before moving quickly to climb the footplate.
“You’re late,” Faye says making a point of scribbling something on her clipboard.
“My Grandpa was-”
“Like I care,” she says dismissing me. “Just keep the boiler hot whilst I finish these passenger checks.”
I nod and smile. I’m not late. I never am. But I know my place and hop into the cab, and above Bessie’s steam I hear the excited chatter of the 600 passengers we have filling the 12 carriages behind us. Faye joins me a few moments later and shakes her head in disgust.
“Can’t believe they get to go,” she mutters whilst moving levers and checking the dials and pressure gauges.
Faye doesn’t like our passengers because Faye wants to be one of them.
Fine by me; maybe I could drive Bessie if Faye wasn’t here.
# # #
Bessie perks up as we move into the West Country and we reach the Land’s End terminus ahead of schedule. Faye shuts off steam and we both wait for the gates to rise that will allow us onto the bridge that takes us over the Atlantic. A breeze blows off the sea and I can smell the trace of iron in the air. Grandpa says the oceans used to smell different before the war, but Grandpa has dementia.
“So what do you think?”
My gaze has been so focused on the grey waters ahead of us that I haven’t noticed Faye has been speaking to me.
“My chances in the next ballot. God why did I get landed with you on these crossings?!”
“I was thinking about something my Grandpa told me.”
“Was it about how everyone lies about the ballot being fair?”
“Was it about how I could join The Help?”
“Then why do I care what your Grandpa told you?”
“He said the oceans used to smell of salt.”
Faye opens her mouth to respond but a loud bell rings out throughout the terminus. The signal turns green and the gates in front of the bridge slide up with a shriek of metal.
“We better get going,” I say checking the temperature of the boiler. “And I think Bessie needs more fuel.”
# # #
Fifty miles out over the sea and the sun is sinking below the horizon. Bessie gathers speed. The wind feels soft and the sea calm as we glide along the crosswater bridge. Papa told me it was built at the end of the war to help the Allies get to and from The Help. They don’t like coming onto the land. I suppose it’s why they settled their collectives in the middle of the ocean. There’s another four around the world. Faye thinks the one in the Pacific sounds the best to live in, but strict rules from world government means restrictions on where you can enter the ballot. Being from Britain means we have to make do with the Atlantic.
“Have you ever seen one?” Faye suddenly asks.
I look up from the firebox, my eyes stinging from the steam and smoke. She has one hand on the drive lever and a bottle of something in the other. Is that beer? I must look confused because Faye rolls her eyes.
“It’s lemonade, brown nose. A Helper. Have you ever seen a helper?”
“Only on the television.”
“I nearly met one,” Faye says. “Missed it by a minute according to the official, but I remember the smell. Roses and summer.”
I smile but only see Grandpa’s tears in my head again.
“Did you try and go after it?” I ask.
Faye shakes her head.
“Get real dumbass. You know only ballot winners can meet them, outside of government of course.”
She raises her hands and waggles her fingers as she says ‘government’. It’s a gesture she probably saw on the TV.
“At school I read that Churchill spoke to them a lot.”
“Well yeah, he had to didn’t he? Can’t win a war if you can’t talk to your friends.”
“My Grandpa,” I start, and already I can see Faye rolling her eyes. I carry on anyway. “My Grandpa worked in British Intelligence during the war. He says he spoke to them a bit when they first appeared.”
For the only time since I’ve known her, Faye looks less irritated with me than normal. In fact I see her eyes widening a little. Maybe she thinks Grandpa has some pull with the ballot authorities.
“What did your Grandpa think?” Faye asks trying to sound casual. I’ve heard her do it before so I know what it sounds like.
“He thought they smelt like footballers’ armpits after a match.”
Faye actually laughs and it is so real that I laugh too.
We both become lost in the moment. They are so unusual for me these days that I forget to feel bad about laughing with someone who makes fun of me. But the moment fades with the sunlight and I look out over the sea from my side of the footplate. Ocean water laps at the bridge supports below, not caring who we are or where we’re going. I envy that peace as Bessie steams us into the night.
# # #
History should have been more interesting, but our teachers were obsessed with The Help. How far they had advanced our culture. How them joining the Allies ended a war that could have lasted for years. How oil was old. How new water became our primary energy source. The Help supply it every year when new passengers go to join them. New water brought us the first Transocean train journeys in the 1960s. It stopped starvation and grew crops in places where there was no water. By the 1980s most of Europe and the Middle East was rich farming country. All the old cities exist only in the fading memory of people like Grandpa. Many say new water will enable us to build our own spaceships and maybe even leave the planet. The Help have been advisors on the space program for decades but technical difficulties always seem to crop up.
So history became dull.
“Why do I have to study this stuff?” I often asked Papa.
“So that you remember.”
Papa would blink and smile his warmth at me.
“To learn from our mistakes.”
“But we didn’t make mistakes. The NAZIS did.”
Papa never answered.
# # #
Bessie has her second wind. The temperature has dropped with the night and both Faye and I have put on our heavy jackets. Mine is blue like how Grandpa thinks the sea used to look. I don’t know what color Faye’s is because it’s too dark. We are getting closer now and I begin thinking of what’s waiting at the end of the line. We bring another 600 to join The Help. 600 seems small, but only 600 are allowed to join each year. It was part of the treaty signed after the war. A condition that Churchill “bravely fought for” according to Grandpa. I remember seeing old broadcasts in school of Churchill coming back by boat from the collective that had first appeared in the North Sea. People say he looks grumpy and surly looking in the films. I just thought that was how Churchill was. Since Grandpa’s dementia got worse I went back to watch those old films. If you look hard you can see something different in Churchill’s face. Sort of how Mama said I used to look when I’d eaten too many sweets.
But Churchill got his treaty and every Prime Minister since has said how lucky the people who have been selected are. They get to live a life of “luxury” and “enlightenment”. Faye thinks people spend all their time doing whatever they want in the collective, and when I see the ads on the TV, it is hard to argue. Hundreds of happy faces all smiling and waving at the cameras taken from inside the collective. Behind the people you can see trees and grass with paths crisscrossing them. It’s nice if you like that sort of thing.
A shudder from Bessie brings me back.
“Pay attention!” Faye snaps as I turn and see her feverishly working the dials and controls that litter the cab. “She’s running low on water.”
My body moves automatically to the hose connected to Bessie’s tender. A minute later the shuddering stops as the boiler laps up the new water needed to keep us steaming along.
“That’s why you’ll never be a driver,” Faye says once I’ve disconnected the hose. “You’re always day dreaming. Probably why you’ve never been drawn from the ballot.”
I think about saying that Faye has never been drawn either, but I don’t want to spend the last few hours of the journey with her being rude to me. Faye thinks she’s better because her family originally came from London. Not that it matters. Faye was in the same school as me, she just doesn’t like to admit it. It’s true that over the years more people from the old cities seem to be selected. London, Paris, New York…all gradually emptied of laughter and noise since the end of the war.
We travel in silence except for the sound of the waves and the steady chug of Bessie’s pistons and valves. A few minutes pass. Then an hour. Maybe two. The moon appears as if the clouds are just curtains it uses to hide behind. All at once I can see the Atlantic water tipped in white as we speed along. I lose track of how much time passes but concentrate on keeping Bessie’s boiler fed. The smell of iron is getting stronger.
“What would you do if you were selected?” Faye suddenly asks as I close the firebox. “No, don’t tell me, you’d probably ask if you could bring your Grandpa before saying yes.”
“I don’t think Grandpa would go,” I say wiping my hands with the cloth we keep hanging near the boiler.
“Right, dementia. I get it.”
Faye says this as if it explains everything. I nod and choose not to correct her. I continue to wipe my hands on the cloth. The new water Bessie needs always makes my hands sticky. I would wear gloves but it’s hard to use the hose with them.
“So would you leave your Grandpa behind if your name came up?”
Faye is looking ahead. I can’t see her face so don’t know if she’s being nice or nasty. Shadows of moonlight filter in around the open sections of the cab between the engine and the tender. Faye has one hand on the drive lever and one still holding the lemonade bottle from earlier. Surely she must have finished that hours ago? Or is it a new one?
“Family is important,” I begin, thinking of Papa.
“I think whether or not you get selected depends solely on where your Mum came from and which well-connected asshole got off with her.”
“That’s not what the ballot is based on.”
“Of course they say it’s all ‘fair’,” Faye says waving her hand with the bottle. “But we both know that’s a lie. Can you even remember the last time someone from the north got selected?”
I think, but actually I can’t.
“Exactly,” Faye says, triumph in her voice. “But you still haven’t really answered my question. Would you try and get your Grandpa to come too?”
A deep vibration of noise saves me from answering.
I look ahead on my right and there shadowed against the moonlight in the distance is The Help’s collective.
# # #
I have worked with 6 drivers and taken 7,200 passengers to the center of the Atlantic. I have been commended by the Allied Train Service for being one of only 3 boilerhands to have passed the 5,000 passenger milestone. Yet the promotion still never comes. After my last driver left I thought maybe, just maybe they might let me drive this time. But then I arrived the next day to find Faye with arms folded standing by Bessie and tapping her foot impatiently against the platform as if I were late.
This is our third trip across the Atlantic.
“I swear to God if I’m not selected on the next ballot I’ll quit,” Faye murmurs.
She has reduced Bessie’s steam and we are running at a wobbly 60 miles per hour. Bessie runs best at 50 if you need her to go slow. I say nothing to this and look instead at the mountainous bulk shadowed in the moonlight ahead. The Help’s collective looks like a rocky island in the middle of the ocean. The noise grows and I see the ripples in the water that have nothing to do with wind or current as we get close. Deep and thumping like a bass drum crossed with a church bell ring that doesn’t stop. It fills our heads making it hard to hear Bessie as she steams us nearer. I still wonder how Churchill was able to concentrate when first going to meet them.
Faye grabs hold of the microphone we keep in the cab. It connects to all the carriages of the train. Then she speaks with a voice she never uses on me.
“We are now on our final approach to the Atlantic collective and should arrive at the terminus in approximately twenty minutes. Once the train has come to a complete stop, all passengers are requested to exit only when they hear their coach called. Allied officials will be on hand to greet and guide you into the collective.”
Faye pauses, taking a deep breath before she says the next bit.
“Both the boilerhand and I would like to congratulate you all for being selected and we wish you a long life and happiness for your future with The Help.”
Faye replaces the microphone and stares ahead in silence, no doubt wondering why she isn’t sitting back there with the others. Already I can sense the excitement from the carriages. I bet some of our passengers are finding it hard to sit still. Such a lot of fuss just to live in the middle of the ocean and do whatever you want. Grandpa says no one should be able to do what they want. It’s not how the world is supposed to work.
Twenty minutes pass. Faye shuts off steam as Bessie comes resting to a halt beside the single platform outside. The collective towers above us. We can still hear the drumming bell noise, but as always we get used to it now that we’re here. A dull blue light washes across the platform. Just enough to see and not fall into the ocean. I shut the firebox down and look ahead to where the tracks end and the collective begins. Just darkness with a vague shape to it. I have to crane my neck up to see beyond and check that the sky is still there. Why do we always have to come at night? It creeps me out.
“Here come the officials,” Faye says as four men shaped shadows walk slowly towards us from the dark.
They are all wearing heavy jackets and gloves on their hands. One carries a camera strapped to his waist. Here to film and provide official photographs of this year’s event. The men come level to us in the cab before looking up and nodding once at Faye. She grabs the microphone and begins speaking once more.
“Coaches 12 and 11, you may now leave the train. Please proceed carefully to the front where you will receive further instructions.”
We hear carriage doors being flung open from the rear of the platform and dozens of excitable shouts and giggles as the passengers all get off and begin making their way towards us.
“No running!” one of the officials shouts into the gloom.
# # #
Papa read me stories at bedtime. Mama said it explained why my first words were ‘Read me!’ Papa told me stories about things that had nothing to do with The Help or their collectives. He knew I didn’t really care about monster stories or space stories. I loved stories about steam trains though. Any book that had a steam train in it and Papa would read it to me. Thomas the Tank Engine, The Railway Children, even Murder on the Orient Express was a favorite, though I think it should have had less murder and more train.
Grandpa always says it was because of Papa that I fell in love with steam trains so much. He always seems sad when he talks about it. What’s sad about liking trains?
# # #
All the passengers are on the platform and are being lined up in orderly fashion by three of the men. The fourth is busy taking a few still shots of happy faces and smiles, to send home to the families of course. The flash is like lightning every time it goes and we get a brief look at some of this year’s lucky selectees.
“This is so unfair. Look at him! He’s my age I’m telling you,” Faye mutters pointing as the flash goes off.
I say nothing. I can’t remember how old Faye is.
A few of the passengers wave at us. They are like shadows in the gloom but I wave back. They giggle and titter. Faye acts cool and looks away. She is still cross.
“600 all present and accounted for,” one of the men says before handing Faye a book for her to sign. It is the driver’s responsibility to ensure all passengers make it to the collective every year.
And that’s when it happens. A small voice, but we all hear it.
“I want to go home.”
A boy, or is it a girl? Hard to tell in the gloom as they all sound the same.
“Please. I want my Mum!”
It’s coming from near the front. One of the men walks to where I can now hear the snuffles and tears of a passenger crying.
“I don’t like it here. I’ve changed my mind. Someone else can go instead. I want my Mum.”
The man bends down and begins whispering to the passenger. At the same time the rest of the crowd start tutting and calling out.
Someone starts to make clucking noises and every passenger around sniggers.
“That’s enough!” the official at the front barks.
Instantly they are quiet.
No one wants to be sent home. No one wants to miss this opportunity. The chance to do whatever you want whenever you want to. No grownups around to order you about. Just The Help and their amazing life.
It doesn’t stop the boy crying though. I turn to look at Faye, about to ask her if we should do something. Faye is still holding the book, the pen where she was going to sign forgotten in her hand. Her arms are tense, her face still, her eyes sparkling in the moonlight. She is excited.
“Please. I don’t care about The Help. I just want to go home!”
Faye jumps down off the footplate and charges over to where the official has now pulled the boy to one side and is trying with urgent whispers to calm him down. The other passengers are getting fidgety and I can hear the ones near the back calling out to ask what’s happening. A huge rumble of noise above and beyond what I have ever heard from the collective fills the air around us. The Help are waiting. If the officials don’t do something soon maybe they won’t take anyone this year.
That would be bad. The men want the new water.
Faye is suddenly hurrying back to the cab, a huge grin plastered across her face that even I can see in the gloom.
“Nice working with you Lizzie, but I guess some of us are just luckier than others.”
“What’s happened?” I ask, but am distracted by the crying boy being led back to the first carriage before being put on board.
“I offered to switch places with that wimp. Not my fault he’s too much of a sissy to enjoy an easy life.”
Before I can even think of a response, Faye grabs my hands and slaps her driving gloves and cap into them. She hops down onto the platform and is running eagerly to fill the gap in the crowd left by the boy.
It takes me a moment to realize a man is talking to me. One of the officials is standing in the cab.
“Are you okay to drive this train back to Land’s End after we’ve filled up on new water?”
I blink slowly and look down at the gloves and cap in my hands. I look back up and nod. The official pats me on the head before heading back down onto the platform. I am so excited that my hands begin to shake as I put on the drivers gloves and cap. If Grandpa could see me now.
Another roar of that drum bell fills the air accompanied by the patter of heavy rain on concrete. Huge droplets begin to splat onto the passengers and Bessie. I duck under the cab roof near the front. Our passengers begin to squeal and a few laugh. This always happens just before the collective opens and welcomes new arrivals. Next comes the embarrassing part.
“As your parents would have mentioned we now need you to undress. The Help requires that you enter their collective free of your old life and ready for your new one.”
Lots of giggles and nervous shouts as 600 children peel their clothes off. The rain intensifies. Shirts and pants are discarded as our passengers stand wincing against the water. It falls thickly and runs down their skin like oil. I once got some on myself the first time I came here; took me weeks to clean my clothes.
“Congratulations to all of you,” one of the men says. “A life of discovery and peace awaits you. Your families will come and visit once you’re settled.”
All the officials step to one side as another roar fills the air. They gesture to the end of the platform beyond where Bessie stands and the dull blue light ends. Ahead a white vertical slit appears in the darkness like two curtains rippling apart. The sound of children laughing and playing echoes back to us. I squint closely and I think I can see the green fields and paths that you see on the TV ads.
“It smells like flowers!” a girl yells excitedly.
I sniff the air. All I smell is sweat and bad breath.
“Have a lovely time,” the men say as the passengers file past. They look a little nervous now. I know why. Anything new is exciting but scary at the same time. Like being a train driver.
The children disappear through the white slit two by two. I watch Faye march past and she blows a smug kiss at me before laughing and running to join the others. As the passengers slip through to their new lives with The Help, I begin preparing the firebox and steaming up Bessie. I have no boilerhand of my own yet but it doesn’t matter as I can handle both. The noise The Help make, rises and falls as each passenger goes through.
Bessie is fueled and ready to leave by the time the last 10 passengers are passing the cab. I stand up and watch as the final one pauses at the slit and looks back. It is a boy, maybe no older than 8 or 9. This happens a lot. Being the last one is always hard. He looks at the officials and then at me. I join the officials and nod at him, encouraging him to go through. But still he pauses. And that’s when I see them.
It is just for a second.
Maybe half a second at most.
But I’m sure I see them.
A tongue that coils itself around the uncertain boy.
The boy being dragged through that white slit that isn’t a white slit at all.
I blink and it’s dark again. The noise lessens. The rain stops, leaving slimy pools all along the platform.
The white slit has gone. All that’s left is me and the four officials who begin patting me on the arm in turn before boarding the train to fetch the containers. I look at the darkness beyond the platform where I know the collective lies. Where I know The Help live. I see Grandpa’s tears. I remember Papa’s words about learning from our mistakes. But then I shake my head, knowing that I must be imagining things in all the excitement. Grandpa has dementia and Papa disappeared years ago. I look down at my hands. I am wearing drivers’ gloves. I am wearing a driver’s cap.
Another few hours pass before The Help spray out the new water. It always takes a few hours for some reason, even though it’s just water. The officials are ready with their containers. Soon we will have a full load ready to take back to land. I don’t see where the water comes from. I don’t care. I’m too busy checking and re-checking Bessie’s controls. My hands are shaking with nerves.
Once the last containers are aboard I pull the drive lever for the first time. Bessie shudders and her pistons turn as steam is fed to them from the boiler. It is well stoked and I know it will be a good journey back to Land’s End. I’m so happy I pull the chain that sounds the whistle three times. Bessie shouts out my joy towards the ocean. The Help remain silent behind us. Grandpa says it was because of Papa that I fell in love with trains. Maybe Papa thought life on the trains is better than life with The Help. Maybe Faye was right to swap with that boy. Maybe the ballot isn’t fair and does favor children. Maybe I don’t care.
Let Faye have The Help. Let Grandpa enjoy whatever memories left to him. I hope Papa would be proud of me.
I am 12 years old and for tonight at least, I am a train driver.
© Copyright John Allen 2018