Friday, June 15, 2012

Waiting for a Train

An invalid's bedroom overlooked by the railway, so near, so far, so hopeless.

by Victor Sullivan
© Victor Sullivan 1970

The rattle of the approaching bicycle at last; the squeal of that gate-hinge followed by the gate-latch snapping shut again.  Agnes lay helpless in her still-clean bed and mentally followed her aging sister Kitty's progress to the bicycle shed, then the characteristic sounds of the back door opening — closing and finally other faint, familiar sounds from downstairs.  How long to wait before Kitty took it into her head to climb those stairs and deliver her thirty seconds of local news summary or whatever condensed gossip she had picked up in the course of her morning visit to the shops... or was it the Post Office...  Whatever it might be, it was from Outside and that was all that mattered. Were it not for Kitty who else would be there to care for her in her utter helplessness. Kitty had no life of her own other than caring relentlessly for her bed-bound sister and Agnes sensed her sister's resentment of the situation with each grunt as Kitty climbed the stairs. Kitty was her only link with Outside. Ever since poor old Breda Kelly died nobody else from Outside ever came to the house apart from the doctor. Breda, Babbling Breda... how she could spread gossip!  Oh God how she missed Breda... Breda from Outside...  seven years without Babbling Breda from Outside. Seven years without keeping up with everything going on Outside. Oh Kitty brought her the newspapers, but they never reported what went on just down the road. Ever since Breda died any news about Outside was always filtered dry and abbreviated into dust by Kitty. Kitty had a way of never speaking a sentence if a syllable would suffice. 

The house was right beside the metal railway bridge that spanned the main road leading to the town. As each train growled its way to or from the town's train station, its wheels, running past just a little higher than her bedroom window, created a hollow rumble as they crossed over the roadway. Every week-day the driver of the 11:35 goods train, dressed in his coal-smudged pale blue overalls, leaned from the side of his black steam locomotive number 241 and seemed to stare straight towards her window and wave a greasy hand. Could he see her in her bed? Could he really? She hoped he could. Agnes always waved back, even on her bad days. He was Outside. He was her independent connection with Outside. Kitty had said he was only waving at children on the road below the bridge... perhaps he was... But every day? During school-time? The alarm clock on her bedside table was set to go off at 11:30 in case she might fall asleep and miss the morning wave from Outside. 

The stairs creaked once, twice, then the landing floor-board creaked to the accompaniment of one final grunt and the bedroom door opened. Kitty stood just inside the large bedroom, breathing heavily.
     "Any news in town?"
     "None as makes any difference, not to us anyway."
     "Anyone dead?"
     "None that I heard of."
     "The town is quiet so?"
     "Very quiet.  I brought you these. They were new in the shop."
Kitty held up a brown paper bag and took a step towards her invalid sister, Agnes, who managed to find the strength to raise one hand towards the offered surprise.
     "That was nice of you, Kitty. What___KITTY!! What's the matter Kitty?" Agnes's weak voice croaked a scream as her elderly sister suddenly yelped with pain, dropped the bag and seemed to hug herself violently.  Helpless, Agnes watched her sister sway about crazily, her gasping mouth open and eyes staring like those of some demented beast. Then and with a horrible choking gurgle, Kitty crashed onto the floor beside the bed  writhing in her agony, her hideous noises being finally drowned by the rumble of the long, slow, 11:35 freight train passing over the bridge outside the bedroom window.
     "KITTY___KITTY!! Oh my God Kitty! What's happened to you, Kitty.  Oh Kitteeeee!"
Then there was silence in the room. Silence, broken only by a few plaintive calls of, "Kitty?" until the next train passed, after which the silence came back and with it came the fear and the increasing awareness of everything horrible until the next train passed and the silence and the fear and the awareness and the tears and the terror began again and continued until the next train, and the next... and the next ... it grew dark, a few trains passed in the night, a night of hunger and no bed-pan no matter how loudly she called Kitty. When it grew light again she thought of tea... and food... and the bed-pan but that didn't matter anymore... then the early morning trains passed... soon it would be time to wave at the 11:35  goods train, her only Outside hope but it would require more than a wave this morning. When the alarm clock on the bedside table indicated 11:30 Agnes reached out a feeble hand and grasped it. She knew she had only five minutes more to wait before HIS train would pass. The knuckles of her scrawny hand whitened as she gripped the ticking alarm clock. It would have to work. Her life, such as it was, depended on it. The rumble of the train...  Agnes drew her arm back... God! She was hungry!

James Manley drove locomotive 241 and its train of goods wagons over the bridge and for once he neglected to wave at the shadowy person in the bed who could always be seen dimly through the window.  He had been waving at whoever it was for many years, never quite certain if the bedridden figure was male or female, not that it mattered. Whenever he waved, the wave was weakly reciprocated. The waving had become a habit, like his shouting at the dog that chased his locomotive at the other side of town. Today, waving had been overlooked as he had much on his mind. Happy thoughts, worrying thoughts, planning, trying to remember things he felt sure might have been overlooked. James was getting married on Saturday and as soon as he reached the terminus old 241 would have to find another driver for two weeks.

Thanks to a round of holiday relief duties on other routes, James Manley was not reunited with 241 for another three weeks in addition to his honeymoon break. When eventually reunited, the locomotive was just the same, same troubles, same noises, same smell, same fireman, same route, same dog chasing 241, same bridge over the main road, same waving hand... or was it? Perhaps not today, he hadn't been really concentrating.
On the following day as 241 approached the bridge he picked up a cleaning rag to wave with but received no response. He could barely make out something white lying at an angle inside the room. Later that day he began to question what he had seen. He would look more carefully.
The next time he approached the bridge his hand reached for the regulator and slowed 241 to a crawl. There was nothing to see. Just the house. No wave, just the faintest shadowy image of something grey inside the window, something lying at an angle. Some instinct told him all was not well. While stopped at the nearby train station he telephoned the local police and persuaded them to investigate.

The policeman cycled to the house by the railway bridge and knocked on the front door. Receiving no reply he peered through the downstairs windows. No sign of life apart from bluebottles swarming against the glass. Wisely, he decided he needed assistance and went to fetch it. 

Two decomposing bodies were found in an upstairs bedroom. One in a foetal position on the floor the other half in and half out of the bed. They had been visited by rats. Also on the floor was a paper bag containing some shriveled plums. Near the window lay hundreds of dead flies and an alarm clock that had stopped at 11:35. Agnes did not have enough strength to smash the window with the clock as 241 passed by.

Over sixty years later that house became the headquarters of an industrial computer enterprise. From the window of my comfortable office I could watch trains rumble over the bridge and sometimes I exchanged a wave with the train-driver. Yes, it really was the same room.
© Victor Sullivan, 2012

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