Train Spotters

The railway station had been closed for years, but there was always something going on there. Mack had seen it operating as a Greyhound terminal, FedEx office, coffee shop, massage parlour, deli, toy shop, beauty salon, and art studio, and whatever the business, it was always called The Station. The only thing it didn’t do was operate as a railway station. How stupid, he thought.

The funniest thing was that the same small man always worked there. Regardless of the business, there he was. Mack wondered whether he was the owner trying different ways to make money, or a long-suffering employee being made to change jobs annually. Mack hadn’t much need to courier documents, have a Fairtrade Shiatsu massage, or buy crazy sculptures, but if he ever went in there for something the man was super friendly. He felt a kind of kinship.

Mack also noticed that however hot the day, the small man never wore short-sleeves. This was kind of strange. Ok he was indoors mostly, but even there it got sweaty. He didn’t even roll up his long-sleeves.

Mack was small for his age and got bullied at school. He hated being there, so spent his free time hanging around town by himself, often near the railway tracks counting trains. Though passenger service was no longer operational, there were still regular freight trains, and occasional tourist trains. The freight trains had dirty diesel locomotives and up to a hundred container-cars. The tourist trains had shiny engines and a handful of glassy cars, plus one with a clear plastic bubble filled with grinning idiots waving.

He loved hearing the warning bells at the level-crossing, seeing flashing lights, and watching barriers go down. That meant five more minutes away from school. While drivers dozed, sent texts, or made calls, Mack watched the rail cars fly by – each a daring colour, a mysterious container on a great adventure. Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum.

One day at the crossing, waiting for a freight train to pass, Mack did a double-take. Was that a passenger car in amongst the freight cars? A regular passenger car, not a glassy tourist one? He hadn’t been paying attention and it was too late now. Maybe it was just a fancy-painted freight car, or had clever graffiti.

The next day he looked more closely. It was hard to stay focussed with so many cars going by. Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum. They sort of dazed you.

Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum. Mixed colours overwhelmed.  Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum. Fifty blue cars together entranced. Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum. Either way they affected your attention, delving into your imagination. Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum.

Mack remained alert though. He stared straight ahead and didn’t miss a car.

Yes! There it was! A passenger car with passengers in it! They didn’t grin or wave though; they were busy working and talking, and looked like regular commuters – how was this possible? Mack went to find the small guy, but he was busy polishing a red steel sculpture, sort of like an alien. He decided to ask him next time.

Mack watched the trains very carefully every day after that. Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum-Dum-da-rum. He counted the cars, and checked and matched them, noting their size, markings, speed, and direction. He felt less desire to go to school than ever.

Then one day, Mack felt a shadow fall across him. Uh-oh! Was it his Principal? “I see you like trains,” said the small man from The Station.

“Em, yes I do,” said Mack. He was suddenly nervous.

“I grew up here when they still ran passenger trains. I was totally obsessed by them. I thought I’d leave Lucerne as soon as I grew up, and imagined all the places I’d travel to. But they shut down the service, and I never went anywhere.”

But there’s still passenger cars!” said Mack. “I’ve seen them! There’s one in the middle of each train. I don’t know where they come from or where they’re going, but there’s passengers in them – I’ve seen them!”

“How do you know that?” said the small man with mock surprise. “Have you been train spotting? You know that’s not a cool thing to do. What would your friends say?”

Mack suddenly felt like crying. He turned away and said, “I don’t have any friends.”

“Don’t worry, kid. You’ll soon be making some new ones. I was a loner like you when I was young, and still am, but I am part of one of the world’s greatest communities.”

Mack was scared. He blurted out, “I’ve seen how you never wear half-sleeves. You must have tattoos. Are you a gangster or a Hell’s Angel?”

The small man was amused, and not angry at all. “My community is much older, and much greater than those. Look.” He rolled up his right sleeve. Running along it were tattooed railways tracks – endless rails and regular sleepers, his muscles providing ballast, his fingers tracing rolling stock. “I am a member of the Occidental Rail Brotherhood, ORB, founded by Periander. Have you heard of him?” Mack shook his head. “Periander built the Diolkos, the world’s first public railway, in Ancient Greece. It was a limestone trackway running from the stormy Aegean Sea to the sheltered Ionian Sea. A hundred men hauled ships on wheeled vehicles along parallel grooves. The Diolkos saved much precious cargo and thousands of lives. By running The Station, I proudly serve Periander.”

“The passenger cars among the freight trains, who rides on those?”

“We do. Our Brotherhood has branches worldwide. We’re always travelling on business. As well as the Greek systems, there were Egyptian systems – how do you think the Pyramids were built? And the Indian Chakra system, and Chinese chi meridians are railway systems internalized.”

Mack said, “But you want to travel, so why don’t you? You can.”

“Someone must run The Station. I can’t abandon it.”

Mack felt a jolt in his heart, and said, “I could do it.”

The small man said, “Do you mean that?” Mack nodded. The true work of the Occidental Rail Brotherhood was accomplished by spiritual passion, which provided the rhythms of their lives, and the means by which their journeys to distant destinations were fuelled. “Then you must be initiated. It will mean one year of much pain.”

“What do I have to do?”

“I will change this place into a tattoo parlour and we will begin immediately.” The crossing points of this world must be left open. He was pleased to have found The Station’s next keeper. He would ink him, and then be free to go.

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