“What a lovely engine!” The boy ran down the platform, pointing excitedly.
“Come back here!” his mother shouted. “Timmy, you just come back here!” She hurried after the boy and caught up with him as he was standing beside the old steam engine, staring up open-mouthed at the boiler and the cabin. “Why don’t you ever listen to me?”
“But, mum, it’s such a lovely engine,” Timmy said. “I’ve only seen these steam ones in pictures before. Isn’t it wonderful?”
The woman looked up at the engine with no pleasure in her face. “They aren’t wonderful,” she said. “They’re noisy and dirty.”
“No, mum,” Timmy said, shocked. “They’re not!”
“I remember travelling in trains pulled by them when I was a little girl,” his mother told him. “If you looked out of the window you’d get ash in your eyes, and my nice new pink dress had a hole burned in it from a cinder. They’re just piles of junk.”
“They aren’t,” the boy said loyally. “Just look at this one. He should have a name. I’ll call him...Sammy. Sammy the Steam Engine, just like I’m Timmy. Hear, that, engine? You’re Sammy from now on.”
“That’s fine,” his mother said impatiently. “But you come along now. Our train’s almost due.” Taking the protesting child by the hand, she dragged him down the platform. Little by little the sound of their voices faded to silence.
Sammy the Steam Engine sat in his place, savouring the idea that he now had a name and that someone actually liked him. Sammy was quite used to being mocked at as ugly and dirty and obsolete – he hardly noticed that any longer, But nobody had admired him in longer than he could remember.
Even the other engines, which ran on diesel and electricity, mocked him. “You’re past it, old fellow,” the diesel engines would say, as they got ready to rush off on their journeys. “You just sit there and rust, and once in a long while you pull some ceremonial train. One day they’ll put you out to pasture.”
“Yes,” the electric engines, which otherwise agreed with the diesels about nothing whatever, would put in. “They’ll put you in a museum, where you’ll gather dust and never, ever, move again.”
“Oh, no they won’t,” the diesels would demur. “The museums are far too full of steam engines already. They’ll just scrap him and turn him into saucepans.” And they would whistle mockingly.
Sammy the Steam Engine had listened to all this for so long that he had got used to the idea that he was a useless burden. But when he heard the pleasure and wonder in little Timmy’s voice, he felt a thrill go through him right down to his wheels, like he had never felt before. “I’m not a useless piece of junk,” he thought. “Someone likes me. I have a name now. Sammy,” he repeated. “Sammy the steam engine.”
And though he didn’t ever respond to the taunts of the other engines, he would think to himself, “But I have a name, and all you have is a number. I have that to warm myself, when my firebox grows cold.” And he would listen to the rails throb and hum, wishing that he were rolling down them, pulling trains to stations far away, as in the old days. But nowadays he hardly ever moved at all.
Then one evening mechanics came and began oiling his bearings, cleaning out his boiler tubes, and polishing the railings at the sides of his cab. When they were done, they even filled his tender with coal and his boiler with water. My, he looked grand.
“They must be planning for me to pull some very important train,” Sammy said to himself. He didn’t know he’d said this aloud at first.
“Don’t be silly,” a diesel engine idling at the next platform, at the head of a goods train, said. “They’re planning to decommission you, give you a final drive. I heard the mechanics talking as they were walking back past me. And then it’s the scrapyard for you.” It laughed. “The next time I haul a goods train, some of the wagons will probably be made out of you.”
Poor Sammy was extremely disturbed at the thought, and even more so when an engineer and fireman came to check that everything was in order. “First thing tomorrow,” the engineer said, “we decorate it, and then the station master makes a speech, we drive out, and that’s it. Three hours and we’ll be at the marshalling yard, and after that it’s over.”
“It’s the end of an era,” the fireman said. “I’ll miss it.”
“Why?” the engineer asked. “You’ll be able to retrain on diesels. No more burns from hot shovels, no more coal dust in your mouth or ash in your eyes. Why on earth would you miss it?”
Sammy didn’t hear what the fireman replied. If he could have wept, he would have. If it had only been a few days earlier, he would have accepted his fate with resignation. But now that he had a name, the admiration of a little boy, and the return of his self-esteem, it seemed a terrible thing to happen.
The station had almost fallen asleep for the night; the only trains that came and went on the far platforms, when Sammy heard footsteps coming down the concrete towards him. It was the fireman, and he was very drunk.
“It’s such a shame, old friend,” he mumbled as he climbed into the cab. “It’s such a shame that they’ll be putting you away. The end of an era, a glorious era.” Lurching about the cab, he pulled open the firebox and shovelled in some coal. “I’ll just give you a taste of a final spin,” he said. “Just you and me. Won’t that be nice, old fellow?”
Sammy didn’t have a chance to say anything because the fireman, after pulling on a few levers, began stretching and yawning, “I’ll just sleep a little,” he mumbled. “Fifteen minutes, then we’re all set. Fifteen minutes, that’s all right, isn’t it? You don’t mind waiting, do you?” Stumbling drunkenly out of the cab, he wandered off to a bench on the platform and lay down on it. Within seconds, he was snoring loudly.
Meanwhile the flames in Sammy’s firebox licked at the coal and set the water in his boiler to bubbling. “Come on,” the steam in his boiler tubes whistled. “Let’s go, let’s go,” the flames crackled. “Let’s go, go, go on the way.”
“But there’s nobody to drive me,” Sammy said. “I have never driven by myself before.”
“What difference does it make?” the chunks of coal rubbing against each other in the tender said in their dusty voices. “Tomorrow, they’ll take you to the scrapyard, or to the museum, and you’ll never drive anywhere ever again.”
“Let’s go,” the flames said. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”
So Sammy released his brakes, powered up his regulator, and slowly the wheels began to move and he started to pull away from the platform. The lights of the deserted railways station dropped away, and the sleeping fireman continued snoring on the bench, so nobody saw him go.
“Faster,” urged the steam in the tubes. “Don’t you want to feel the wind?”
“Faster,” the flames agreed. “We have only a little while in the world. Faster, so that we may live a little before we cool down and die.”
So Sammy turned the regulator up, and began rushing through the night. He turned on his headlamp, and it sent a river of yellow light along the rails, lighting his way. The line he was on was seldom used, these days, so the way was clear.
“Do you feel the joy in your heart?” the coal said, “Do you?”
And, indeed, as he rushed along the rails, Sammy began to feel the uprushing happiness inside him, as he had never felt it before. The night roared by in a torrent of darkness, and he was a spark of light, blazing a way through. “Yes, yes, I do,” he said. “I do.”
“Then lift yourself up,” the steam sang. “Lift yourself up, into the air, away from the rails. Lift up and set yourself free, and us too, and we will never have to be imprisoned by the earth again.”
So Sammy lifted himself up, and the rails fell away below into darkness. And he soared through the air, up into the night, towards the heavens, where he could be free.
“Timmy,” his mother said, frowning. “What’s wrong with you today? What are you daydreaming about?”
The little boy looked up from his hands on the table. “I had such a lovely dream, mum,” he said. “I dreamt that I was with Sammy, and we were flying through the air, and the world below was like a carpet with jewels. I dreamt that we flew so high that I could see the sun rise, and the moon set, and I could almost touch the stars.”
“Sammy?” his mother said. “Oh, you mean that ridiculous name you gave that dirty old steam engine. I heard it’s been scrapped, anyway, and good riddance to it. Now get ready for school.”
But Timmy hardly heard her. His mind was on the dream, and he remembered leaning out of the side of the cabin, feeling the wind in his face and watching the land float past far below. He saw again the red glow of the firebox and the yellow beam of the light, and he heard the steam sing and the fore crackle, and the coal talk in its thousand dusty voices. And he remembered one thing more.
He remembered Sammy’s promise to him, that, tonight and every night, the engine would come for him again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014