“This is the dead man’s handle…”
Leroy nodded politely. He’d been a high-speed train driver; now he sat in the secondman’s seat, learning the route of the ponderous train carrying coal to the docks.
“If my hand slips off, the emergency brakes lock on.”
Daley, the old driver, would be retiring when he’d completed Leroy’s training.
“You know this stuff, Leroy. What are you doing here?”
“Old locos appreciate a human touch; like a beautiful draught horse.”
Daley’s face softened, “I hope you’re not calling her an old nag.”
Leroy breathed out, relieved that he’d deflected the old man’s questions.
The truth was that he’d taken this job, far from the career-driven city, because of his teenage son. Aaron had got into bad company; got involved in stealing and thuggery. Leroy’s wife had flayed him with the futility of working all hours to pay for a poky urban apartment when their son might die young, like his best friend, stabbed in a gang squabble.
They had sold up and moved to a dilapidated frontier town. There they had enough money for Leroy to abandon his skilled job to play at driving this twice-weekly train. They’d bribed Aaron to accept the move with games tech, fast wi-fi and a new bike.
Leroy had hoped to spend more time with his son, but he recalled last night’s conversation…
“How you doin’?”
Aaron had kept playing his game…
Leroy had persisted, “I hear you’re friendly with the pastor’s son, that’s respectable company…”
“Yeah, right!” Aaron had scoffed, “Phil’s so full of it. I’ll take this stupid town from him.”
“Hey, there are no gangs here.”
“Duh!” His son had replied, “That’s what you think. You gotta be on top in in this dump, ‘cause if you ain’t on top, you’re nobody, like you.”
“We moved here so you could grow up safe. Make the best of it!”
Aaron’s silence sucked his father’s words into the black hole of his teenage contempt.
Leroy realized his attention had wandered.
“They’ll surely be killed one day.” said Daley dolefully.
Leroy saw a dozen teenagers on the road parallel to the track. They were playing chicken, weaving their bikes through the oncoming traffic. He prayed Aaron wasn’t involved.
“They get up to mischief on this railway too.” added Daley. “At least the local boys know when we’re due through. Just as well, this old carthorse might be slow to get going, but you don’t want to be in her way when she’s galloping down that valley.”
Daley patted the control panel fondly as he applied the brake.
“We wait here for clearance.” Daley said, reaching for a flask of coffee.
Leroy opened the cab window; trees rustled, pigeons flapped and cooed. Then he heard raised voices on the wind…
“Bring it on!”
“You first, Monkey!”
“Eat my dust…”
The boys’ raucous laughter faded away…
Ten minutes later, the diesel engine roared, taking the strain of the heavy wagons.
“There’s a long bend then we pick up a bit of speed for the downhill to the docks.” said Daley.
As the train rounded the bend, Daley shouted “What the hell?”
There were two boys on the track, balancing their bikes on the metal rails, eyes locked as they pedaled furiously for dominance. Leroy saw a flash of Phil’s face, spiteful and triumphant, as he yanked his bike off the track through a narrow tear in the adjacent fencing. Aaron froze as the locomotive bore down on him.
Leroy knocked Daley’s hand off the dead man’s handle, the brakes screeched…