Fiction | Engaged therein by Declan O’Driscoll

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Declan O’Driscoll


Engaged therein

Every Station master, Inspector, Engine-driver, Fireman, Guard, Signalman, Policeman, Ganger, Foreman, Shunter, Yardman, and Gateman, and also every Clerk and Porter, connected with the working of the Railway, must be supplied with, and have with him when on duty, and produce when required, a copy of these Rules and Regulations, the current Working Time Table book, or section of the book, and the Appendix thereto where issued; and every man engaged on the Permanent-way and Works affecting the Running Lines must be supplied with a copy of these Rules and Regulations.

I would prefer to be in the shaded corner of a walled garden. The idea of resting in the grounds of a vicarage has always appealed to me, without my knowing why. I imagine the vicar’s daughter looking at me, her eyes upwards in a face that is angled towards the ground. She has been disappointed by men’s reaction to her ambitions and is reluctant to say too much about her wishes now. So let us enjoy this day as it presents itself. Do we know why dappled shade is so appealing? The play of light and shadow as a slight breeze shakes the nearby birch’s branches and the broom’s flowering stems, rich with yellow; brighter, then less so, throwing odd shapes on our heads and clothes as we sit in this corner of the garden, selectively hidden from all other lives.

But that’s not where I am, or will ever be. I can’t hide from my own life here on the line.

Instead of the careful perfection of a life lived in the shadow of trees, my life is darkened by shame. Every thought is adulterated by regret, drenched in the mistakes of my misplaced mindlessness.

Beyond the one, before the other.

I’d rather be quiet. So many words are wasted every day. All the conversations happening just now. All the meanings being lost because of carelessness. I’d rather be quiet and just stand here feeling the warm wind on my face, my eyes closed, my mouth closed. The uninhibited wind running over every exposed part of me. All the other days that were imperfect, with too much wind or rain or that were too cold or too hot were like trial runs to become this day. This perfect day, here in the shade with the wind on my face. But it isn’t possible to remain like this and it isn’t possible to not think. Step, step, into the sun, the insistent glare, the insistent, overbearing heat.

The Pilot Guard will be distinguished by a special dress or badge; and no Train or Engine must, under any circumstances, be allowed to run on the Line unless it is either accompanied or personally started by the Pilot Guard wearing such dress or badge.

Better to be a tree. Secure and steady except for when wind ruffled. “Do trees cause the wind?”, asked the child. How else to see it. A beech tree. Fagus sylvatica. Provider of shade on a day like this. Beneficent in every way. Nest in me. Rest in me. Lay against me. Stay against me. Cause of no harm. Admired if noticed. Then in autumn my leaves changing colour from green assumptions to gold doubts before letting go in resignation. Where are we now my blackbird, my thrush, my robin, singing still, into the wind? Rain-speckled, wind-bothered, snow-bedecked. Sway but stay. Unanswering. Mute in telling all. If only that was a choice for me now. But I am no tree and must tell all.

If only this. If only that. All dreams and wishes.

I started working here after leaving school, though school left me long before then. It was a place of continuous misery for me. Bullied by my fellow pupils. Bullied by the staff. The latter had specially made leather straps for hitting us. The width measured to fit perfectly in the hand with a length calculated to inflict the maximum amount of pain on the pupil. “Suck it up, mister”, said the Christian Brother when I flinched, on the verge of tears. Tears that in turn became material for the ridicule of the other bullies. It was a great day, a day of joy when my father said I need never go there again. He had spoken to his friend the Station Master and a course of action had been put in place involving an apprenticeship and eventual employment at the lowest level. Never once, since that day or the fifteen years after, was I subjected to bullying. Joking, yes and a few practical jokes. Being sent to the storeroom for tools that don’t exist. But never again was I belittled or humiliated. These are good men, my comrades, but I let them down and I wish they might never see me again.

Single Line working should be confined to points at which there are fixed Signals with a cross-over road, and at all times the shortest length possible; but in the event of a cross-over road not protected by Fixed Signals being used for Single Line working, a competent man, with the necessary signals, must be placed at least 1,200 yards beyond the cross-over road to signal in place of the Distant Signal, and another man (similarly provided) at the points to signal, in place of the Home Signal. Should the distance of 1,200 yards fall within a tunnel, or close to the mouth of a tunnel nearest to the obstruction, or in any other position where, owing to the formation of the line or to some other circumstances, the Engine-driver of an approaching train or engine would be unable to obtain a distinct and distant view of the Signal, then the Signal must be exhibited at the end of the tunnel farthest from the cross-over road, or at such a distance over and above the prescribed distance of 1,200 yards as may be necessary to ensure the Engine-driver obtaining a good and distant view of such Signal.

I leave the light to others now. The brim of darkness is always here, even when I’m nowhere near a tree or wall or the sun isn’t shining. It’s more than my shadow. The shade of the shadow’s shadow. The brief intention to accede to joy swatted by memory. The sand in the gears. The stone between the brakes. I walk on the sleepers, attempting to create my own rhythm and avoid the ballast. Gaining instability and uncertainty as I move. Though as action. Action as response. Response as correction.

It isn’t as if I’ve never known happiness but our inability to stay as we ever are brought that to an end. We three – my mother, father and me – gave each other everything needed to feel the fit of nature in our barely noticed drift through days, gathering wood, watching birds, throwing sticks across the frozen lake. Three by the fire, my head tilted at a body as I drifted away. Only then was I bolstered enough to pocket the fortitude I’d need later and always. It doesn’t end, that need to be aware of all that pushes against you and your need to locate a memory that allows you to summon up the scraped clouds seen from long grass in summer and the burning, golden mist only you saw on a morning when you were first to wake and walk outside. Fix it in the mind. You’ll need it later. If I’d known at the time. But I did. Melancholy even then, despite us three. Ring a bell. The bell that failed to ring. It’s ringing now. It won’t stop ringing. The father who left. The mother who left. Mother first, then the father leaving and gone. “What do you remember of her?”, he had asked. As if I could answer, using words. We changed, my father and I, there being no option. I walked the wide road to school, so often windswept, my shoes letting in the rain. A child no longer fitting his clothes, with so many other changes set in motion. Irrefutable proof of unwanted progressions. Then school came to an end. As did the father, some years later, on a narrow path near the blackberry bushes. His breath expelled into the air that I too must breathe.

No servant is allowed, under any circumstances, to absent himself from duty, or alter his appointed hours of attendance, or exchange duty with any other servant, without the special permission of his superior officer. In case of illness he must immediately report the circumstance to his superior oficer.

Not all silence is the same. The silence that follows loud, incessant noise is more present than any other. Light too is constantly altering its reach and effect. Within the sheds, there are days when the pure, clear light comes through the holes and gaps in walls and roofs at perfect, unmeasured angles, illuminating all the particles of dust we don’t know are there. Is that what we breathe? I could never resist stirring more dust with my boot to see the particles rise into the beams and become something that managed, for reasons I cannot understand, to make me feel elated to be there, watching and smiling. Another silence. Yet so much movement. My reluctance, always, to leave one spot, remaining there to see the slow transformations of living light until a cloud passing against our portion of the sky returned me to my surroundings. The ordinary order of those well-maintained sheds with their spanners in ascending sizes held between wooden pegs on a wall, oil cans ready for use, rags smelling of their many services. The essentials of our daily work. The unseen and noticed work. Unseen and unnoticed until an error is made. An unintended mistake. Then all is seen. All is noticed. The light finds the culprit and no cloud will make it go away.

The name and address of each servant employed in the working of the Railway must be registered at the Station to which he is attached, or at which he is paid, and the names and addresses of all persons connected with the Traffic Department (including Fog Signalmen) must be posted in the Station Master’s office, so that, if required in cases of emergency the men must be readily found. Any change of address must be at once notified, in order that the record may be kept perfect.

We do what we are requested to do. Or ordered to do. I’ve worked with several station masters and some were kinder than others, more indulgent with their patience. In the end, it didn’t much matter. We are here to work and work we must. We work because it tells us and everyone else who we were. We are a name and our work. We know what we are. For me and the other men who work these lines and man the station, Friday is the day we like the most because that’s when we get the small, brown envelope with notes and coins in it. That, above all, is why we work. I pay what must be paid for and put aside whatever’s left. With that, I’ll buy a book from time to time. Poetry mostly, because it speaks directly to me, freeing my thoughts and letting them wander towards yearnings I can start to understand. I’ve never said a word about this to the others. I’m not sure what they’d say if I ever told them. An odd thing to be doing, I suppose, writing to a shop in Dublin for a catalogue. Reading through it to learn about all the books I could get if I had the money and then, after a couple of weeks, deciding on just one and sending a postal order to get that particular book. The anticipation then of waiting for the book to arrive. A feeling of pleasure I didn’t think I could share with anyone. Feelings are unstable You never knew where they might bring you or how others might see them. Now, though, it’s obvious how I feel and obvious to me how they feel too.

The work is . . . there’s all sorts to be done. I worked as a signalman. That day, I was sent out. Tracks and then . . . you see. . . You do what you’re told but sometimes . . . the mind goes somewhere else. “You think too much”, a boy at school once told me. How would you stop it? Walking the line to a spot, a mile or so outside the station. A good day too, frosty with beautiful clear light burning it off as the shadow moved with the day.

When from any cause Points, Crossings, Check Rails, Locking Bars, or any other apparatus are damaged, the circumstances must be at once reported to the nearest Station Master and Inspector of Permanent Way or Ganger, and all trains must be stopped or allowed to pass the spot slowly, as may be necessary, until the damage is repaired.

Slowly stopped to allow all Points from any Station Master when damaged. The circumstances must be necessary when the Inspector of Permanent Way is repaired. Any Ganger and all Locking Bars must be allowed to pass the spot once reported.

Lingering in the day, thinking and dreaming and living and working all inside me all of the time, turning over and wanting to have primacy. But they aren’t always where they should be at the time they’re needed. So much to remember and so many ways to be wrong. I got it wrong. Wrong because I was where I was supposed to be but not doing what I was supposed to be doing. Thinking and dreaming and noticing a wasp or a fox or a tree. Not thinking. Not remembering when the train was on its way sent along the track that is its guide, its only possible route until a mistake is made and then a horrible new way is found for it to travel and become something else and those within are also forced to change. All change. And the noise is so loud. The noise that says there is no return. All time is changed into before and after. But time travels in only one direction and the time when everything was okay has passed.

The signalman must frequently examine and try the working of his Distant and other Signals and Points to see that they work well and are kept clean. Great care must be used in putting on a Distant Signal; it is not sufficient merely to move the lever, but the Signalman must at the same time watch the Signal, or its repeater, so as to ascertain that it obeys the lever, and goes fully to Danger. He must keep the Signal Wires at the proper length by means of the regulating screws or links, so as to compensate for the lengthening or shortening caused by heat or cold. This is especially necessary during the night-time, and in frosty weather.

 

Declan O’Driscoll regularly reviews translated fiction for The Irish Times. He has also written for the TLS, Dublin Review of Books, Music & Literature and several other publications.


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