PACIFIC 4-6-0 BY ALAN EDWARD
The following short story by Scottish writer Alan Edward was published in the nineteenth issue, July 1984, pp. 12-15, of Pan, a magazine about boy-love, published by Spartacus in Amsterdam.
It must be all of a quarter of a century since steam ran from St. Pancras to Bedford, and probably a good deal more - though I was never quite certain about details like that, and I'm no different now. What I do know is that yesterday was the exact anniversary of the day when the last Pacific-whatever pulled the 3.15 on the old branch line to Hoddeston, and you and I went to see it. You were altogether train-mad, as were most thirteen-year-olds in those days, so when you assured me that we simply, absolutely had to observe this puffing marvel I didn’t question you, I just got my bike out -- though I was a pretty wobbly cyclist even then.
Before I go on, incidentally, a slight correction is necessary in the interests of strict accuracy. I said that we went to watch the train; in fact, you went to watch the train. I went, as on all those jaunts, to watch you. To see, observe, note and mentally record every tiniest aspect of the miracle that was you, Richard, to scrutinise, and to remember. I don’t imagine you guessed all that even for a moment, not during those long afternoons on Platform 5 at King’s Cross, nor during all the endless expeditions to goods yards, local suburban lines, disused and snoozing country stations, or wherever your enthusiasm took you. But now, all these years later, it has to be time for a little honesty and, sitting yesterday in the field by the now deeply overgrown cutting, I decided that I simply had to put on paper for you, and for you alone, my memory of that extraordinary July day when the old-style semaphore signal dropped with a clatter and the 3.15 came puffing out of the tunnel and then up the long incline into rural Hertfordshire, leaving behind two spectators for whom trains, railways, and a number of other things would - well, never have quite the same associations again.
I always wondered how much you truly believed my phony eagerness as you rattled on about gauges, cylinders, boghies and the like - but my excitement, the absolute, shimmering joy that I must always have radiated when we were together were real enough, and probably made me an immensely cheerful companion, and I suppose that was why you tolerated me on all those trips of yours though, come to think of it, we must have looked a fairly ill-assorted pair. I mean, we weren’t exactly contemporaries, were we? And at least to a young boy an age difference can loom pretty large where friendships are concerned. But there you invariably were in my front doorstep, after school or on Saturday mornings, jumping from one foot to the other in your eagerness to be off, and pulling at me with one hand, your train-spotter’s notebook in the other. And then we would be away, on foot or on bicycle, you in a great hurry as always, chattering ceaselessly, looking back over your shoulder and laughing at me, telling me to get a move on, while I panted and struggled in your wake, doing my best to keep up.
That summer holiday was your first from your boarding-school; you had started after Easter and I had, of course, been devastated. But with both your parents in Africa, there had been nothing else for it. And there were, as you said, always the holidays; it was the thought of the summer months that had kept me going. I used to do little sums; soon I would have six whole weeks with you, over a thousand hours, sixty thousand minutes ...
And this was our first day out, the hottest day of the summer so far; we left our bikes in the lane (no-one seemed to steal bikes then) and walked over the brow of the hill, down through the long grass to where we could see a glint of sunlight on the curve of the line; the signal was still up. In fact, we had at least half an hour till the train came; you were as always far too early, Richard. I lay on my back in the sun but you, for heaven’s sake, took out your notebook right away and started drawing lines and ticking squares. I remember asking wearily, “Don’t you ever give up”, but I also remembered that today I was indulging my own latest hobby; I had brought my Box Brownie. What was more, I wasn’t even going to waste one shot on your precious Pacific. You see, I had experienced an odd but considerable bump of excitement somewhere inside (and had gone back for my new camera) when you appeared at my door that morning in the brief linen shorts that you hadn’t worn since last summer, and which in fact you had outgrown a little. Probably it was simply that you felt cool and comfortable in the shorts and your small white ankle socks, but I remember once I’d said how much I liked you dressed (or half-dressed) that way and - well, you were quite tolerant of my various little likes and dislikes, and were quite willing to humour me at times. At any rate, it brought me out in goose-pimples of delight now, looking at you seated on the grass hugging your knees, the sunlight on your cool bare thighs, as you frowned at your notebook, then went on ticking and scribbling. Then, all at once, you closed the book and put it down, then rolled over and cupped your chin in your hands.
“Well, that’s it; we’ll just have to wait. What a bore, though.”
I squirmed a little closer. I would have loved to slide my hand over yours, but didn’t dare. I simply traced little lines on the back of it with my fingers, and you didn’t seem to mind that, or didn’t move away. I blew gently into the hair just behind your ears. I had completed my sums; over three million seconds ...
You picked your time, Richard. You said then, “By the way, Joe, I’m leaving tomorrow.”
I stopped everything I was doing and stared; I didn’t follow. “What?”
“Just that. I got this invitation to stay with a chap from school I’ve been trying to decide whether to go or not; I was to phone him tonight. I’ll tell him that I’ll catch the 8.15 from Paddington. That’s a pretty decent train, Great Western of course, Coronation Class probably, maybe one I haven’t got. He said his Dad would pick me up from the station.”
“Who – who’s this?” I asked foolishly.
“The chap’s called Smithers. A bit of a weed in some ways. He keeps gerbils and collects birds’ eggs and sings alto in the choir; he’s pretty putrid, really.”
“Then why - why ..?”
“I don’t know,” you said carelessly. “But I’ve decided I’ll go. Just like that.”
I turned and shoved my face into the long grass. Above all, I would have hated you to see me cry, but successive waves of desolation rose then and swelled in me till I knew it would all burst from me no matter what I did; I clamped my teeth together, dug my nails into my palms, but I was quite helpless. Then, in a moment, I was aware that you were tugging at a wisp of hair at the nape of my neck. “What’s the matter, Joe?”
At least, now, you sounded just a trace disconcerted. I gulped and shook my head. Then I started to say, “I’d been looking forward so much to - to –“ I had to stop again. Then you took away your hand, I heard you laugh, and I looked up. You were sitting back again, rocking gently on your heels, and you said teasingly, “I know what’s the matter with you. It’s the sort of thing they tell you about, when you start at boarding-school usually.”
You became a little earnest, joined your finger-tips and looked at me over the top, like a doctor. “You’ve got a crush.”
I sat up. You said, “I’m right, aren’t I? Go on, admit it.”
Off guard, I almost nodded my head, then quickly shook it.
“I don’t mind, really. I’ve had crushes on me before - often,” you said shamelessly. “At school, you know.”
Oddly, the possibility of competition hadn’t occurred to me before, though I certainly didn’t doubt you. At the same time, I felt a fresh stab of misery at the thought. But I simply said grumpily, “Not bad for one term, I suppose.”
“Oh, not very often. You can’t tell for certain. But sometimes you get ... notes and so on.”
“Is Smithers a ... crush?” I asked.
“Of course not,” you said scornfully. “You’d get some dreaded disease from Smithers. I expect you’d die horribly.”
“Then why go there?”
"Just. Well, I might tell you sometime, but not now."
“Notes and what else?” I asked after a few moments, reluctantly curious. “I mean, what happens after that?”
“Nothing,” you said with emphasis. You pulled up a dandelion clock and started blowing the tiny seeds off. “I never let anyone do anything to me,” you said with great severity. “Nor will I.”
So was I expected to nominate you for some kind of award? But I didn’t feel too much like being ironic, so I kept quiet.
You had picked up another clock and were pulling the seeds out by hand, one by one. “That is,” you said, giving microscopic attention to the task, “with one possible exception.” You pulled out the last seed; I was looking at it closely as well, not at you. “And,” you added, “that’s only because he won’t be seeing me again after tomorrow - not for a while, at least.”
Richard, now that I’m a lot older and a little wiser, people sometimes come to me for advice about this and that. And there was a man who’d squandered just about all his money on a trip to Morocco where (they say, and he believed them) the boys are more beautiful and willing than anywhere else. As it happens he was lucky, but when the moment came - the moment actually to do what he’d dreamed about and fantasied about for years - he simply was so overwhelmed that he couldn’t ... well, perform. And that was what I felt then, the bewilderment of the kid suddenly given the freedom of the candy store - and you misunderstood and got up.
“Come on, let’s get our bikes,” you said. “I don’t want to wait for this mouldy train any longer.”
It was the first time I had heard you speak disparagingly of steam in any shape or form. I grabbed hold of your sandal, the nearest part to me and, for the want of something to do with it, started to unfasten the strap. Then I took off your sandal and your sock and, as you had sat down by now, started on the other foot and ... well, went on from there. And - I laugh a little about it now - I remember how a moment or two later you said, “wait”, and ran quite naked across the grass for a few yards and jumped up on a little hillock to look down at the signal, shading your eyes against the low afternoon sun. Christ, even then you were thinking about your bloody trains. Yet for a little while I sat where I was, entranced, mesmerised, and just about everything else. Richard, to think that people travel halfway round the world, that they even pay, as I did, to look at those impossibly mesomorphic tag-wrestlers on Pope Clement’s ceiling, when this - this on a sunlit English hill was not only incomparable for grace and proportion but actually quite free - with no extra charge, either, for being three-dimensional and live. Though, come to think of it, it was the only sensible thing for them to do; on the same scale of charges, nobody would have that much money.
Then I was determined, for once, to make you forget all about the Midland Railway and the branch lines thereof. We rolled down the slope in a tangle of clothed and bare limbs. And soon, surprisingly soon, I had succeeded; in fact, you just about took over. Maybe I was inexperienced, which I admit, because I couldn’t get it quite where you said (were you really so innocent?) but near enough and, with you assisting me with the most vigorous and delightful squirmings, quite suddenly I was thinking - of all things - of the train, thumping and thumping closer until suddenly the while world went bang and I was left clinging to you half-lifeless and sobbing - but then you had flipped over in an instant and put both hands behind my head, pulling. “Please, Joe, please” - and I came right back to life and was again the engine-driver until all at once you stopped breathing, gasped, then rocketed up from the grass and yelled at the top of your voice before falling with a thud again and making quite a lot more noise, and then I remember you holding my head tightly where it was, you still wildly restless from top to toe, rolling and wriggling, running your hands up and down through the hair on the back of my head and then all round it, saying to me over and over, quietly and breathlessly, things I never would have believed or hoped - not till then, not till that afternoon.
I can’t quite remember what happened in the next few minutes - or perhaps it was much longer. I was perfectly content to remain where I was indefinitely. But the sun was much lower now and it was cool.
“Shouldn’t you be getting your clothes on now?” I said reluctantly. “We really ought to be going.”
“I suppose so,” you said, but didn’t get up. Then you asked, “Where shall we go tomorrow?”
“Well, you’ll be birds-egging with Smithers about now,” I said, a trace of the original acrimony returning. “You'll be all right.”
You rolled over on your back and looked reflectively at the sky.
“Actually, I’m not going to stay with Smithers. Come to that, he didn’t invite me; I made it up.”
I rose to my knees.
“You made it up? You’re not going?”
I made it up and I’m not going.”
Wonderful, blissful news. But ...
“But why, Ricky? It was - it was –“ I wanted to say it had been cruel, but didn’t. I stopped.
You said, “I’m a bit sorry now. I didn’t think you’d be quite so upset.”
“But why do it at all?”
You considered a very small passing cloud above us and said hesitantly, “Well, if you hadn’t thought I was leaving ... I mean - well, it worked, didn’t it?”
I was thrilled and outraged - and at least you had the decency to blush; you put your arms over your face but I could see even your ears turning bright pink.
“So it was all - all a story,” I said soon, rather stupidly, still not quite sure that I had got it right. “There was no invitation - none at all?”
You shook your head; you had regained some of you usual nonchalance. You put a long blade of grass in a corner of your mouth and cradled your head in your hands, watching the cloud again. “Come to that, there’s no Smithers either. A pity in a way. I was beginning quite to believe in him, with his gerbils and his birds-egging. Actually, I’d grown quite fond of Smithers, in a way.”
It was too much. I rolled you over on your tummy and brought my palm down on those pale exquisite cheeks of yours about half a dozen times, then I buried my face in the warm soft skin and said back to you some of the things you’d said to me a few minutes earlier. And more.
Well, even then we didn’t miss the train, but saw it coming back. It had to, come to think of it; the British Rail network didn’t exist in those days. And then we got our bikes and went home. So that was it, Richard; that was how we became and remained, shall I say, “best friends”. True, our ages were quite a bit different, but I didn’t think much about that at the time. One doesn’t think about anything very much, at eleven. And I suppose I was a pretty average kid, really.
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