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 you can read the opening here. If you like what you read and want to know more, do feel free to get in touch via the contact page on the website.
By the Boiler's Hand - 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?
By the Boiler's Hand
According to Grandpa, everyone died on the 10th May 1941. Churchill called it ‘the darkest hour’ and Grandpa agrees, even when he calls Churchill a fat old 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.
# # #
If you are interested in reading more, you can get in touch via the contact form here.
© Copyright John Allen 2018