Sunday, December 11

A Curious Whistle

In the buildings scattered about the railway station-cum-museum there were scenes arranged with props and mannequins to illustrate various positions within the profession. At the press of a button, voices would sound, mannequins talking without moving their lips; the voice actors shifting in their enthusiasm. I peered at them most curiously. Some of them looked so forlorn. They were, of course, poorly acquired and most likely discounted. Regardless, I pressed the buttons and heard what the mannequins had to say (without moving their lips). I studied all the props about the room. One figure was leaning back at his desk, his arms disproportionately short, his face contorted, his posture somewhat stunted. He addressed a porter who stood in the corner, and it was the porter who looked forlorn; his gaze set upon the floor, his moustache twisted, tears glazed solid in his eyes. After I had heard their duties, I pressed the button again and left the room, the two of them talking me out. In the shed next door were a number of locomotives and carriages in differing states of disrepair and restoration. A large man skulked in the dimness. He greeted us and enthused about each, discussing its history and how they worked. It was interesting and his passion infectious. Also infectious was the overwhelming smell of rust and grease, wood shavings and rain.
Yes, outside it had begun to rain heavily, each drop grazing the night sky through a blister of scant streetlights. All day it had drizzled incessantly. It was not altogether unpleasant, but the drizzle fell a precious sensation upon the skin. The grimmest nuisance was the darkness. How dark it was! Even at noon there had been so little light. But that added only to the gloom that I found quite appealing. When the steam engines passed us, its great chokes of smoke bellowed into the air and moments later a scattering of soot would land on us. My niece stood and waved at the people on the passing train. Children waving at passengers on passing trains warmed my heart as it has always done. The trains went back & forth; still, she waved.
Santa’s grotto was in an old hall. It was empty when we arrived, as it was late in the day. Santa was tired and having a twenty-minute rest. My niece was admitted into the repurposed train in which Santa was sat. There was also a young man on his own. He was perhaps no older than twenty. Across his skull was a bare strip of flesh that split his thick hair in two. He titled his head and spittle clung to his lips. His voice drawled. He told us how excited he was to see Santa. Earlier on I had overheard one of the station employees talking to another, asking if there were any train presents left. ‘We have cars for the boys.’ ‘No, it can’t be a car, he doesn’t love cars, he loves trains.’ ‘I’ll have a look.’ The young man told my mum how Christmas was his favourite time of the year; my mum said it was hers, too. He wanted videos of Thomas the Tank Engine for Christmas. Carefully tilting his head and shaping his lips, he made a perfect train whistle sound with his mouth. It was extraordinary. He was very proud of this sound and kept doing it. When Santa emerged from behind a curtain, he performed his train whistle for Santa as well. He told Santa what he wanted for Christmas. After he received his presented, he thanked Santa profusely and left. My niece regarded Santa suspiciously, and instead of thanking him, simply said—‘See you,’ hopped off her mother’s lap and ran outside to open it.
It was getting late now and becoming dark. The trains had stopped running. The smell of smoke lingered. I breathed it in deeply. We crossed the bridge over the tracks and got into the car home. The rain had ceased but the drizzle resumed. Windows in the distant houses chimed gold and magnificently tender in the night. My dad turned the heating up in the car and I soon fell asleep.

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