Traction

By Edoardo Albert

Hef first turned up at one of our meetings looking, and smelling, the worse for wear.

“Wife problems,” he said. “Can I come in?”

I was secretary of the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club. I looked at the huge, squint-eyed bloke swaying at the door, his overalls stained with oil and the smell of alcohol layering over a sulphurous reek, and decided he’d fit right in.

“Are you interested in trains?”

“Anything mechanical.”

“Come in. We’re always looking for new members.”

“Can’t say I’m much of the joining kind.” But he signed the guest book where I indicated in a black scrawl, then held out his hand.

“Hef,” he said, crushing my fingers and half burning them too – he had the hottest hand I’ve ever grasped.

“My name’s Colin,” I said, “and I’m club secretary.”

“Good to meet you.” Hef looked over my shoulder at the assembled members of the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club. “No women. Good.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’d be happy to have some female members, it’s just that none have ever applied.”

“Make sure they don’t.”

“I can hardly stop…”

Hef left me bleating about equality legislation and fairness, and stomped into the clubhouse, over to where Barry was inspecting the skeleton of our new layout. He held out his hand, crushed Barry’s proffered reply, and slipped a pair of glasses over his nose.

“Now, what have you got here?”

I left them to discussing the finer points of the plan and set about arranging the chairs and putting out the agenda. Tonight was our annual general meeting and since we’d completed the move from our previous club house – which actually was in Hoddesdon, unlike our new premises down the line in Broxbourne – and had settled in nicely, I didn’t anticipate any problems.

“I move, under article 3, clause 4 of our constitution, that Colin is asked to step down as club secretary and I nominate Hef in his place.”

Sitting at the table that served as the focus for our meeting, I fear I must have appeared about as witless as an unexpectedly stranded fish, mouth opening and closing more in surprise than for breath.

Barry sat down.

“Seconded.” That was Simon. I’d never heard him express interest in anything other than trains before. To hear him call for my removal was like your own mother telling you that you were a complete disappointment to her – and mine did, so I know what that’s like.

Another hand rose, and another voice, and another, and another. I would have probably continued my stranded fish impersonation indefinitely if Hef, from where he was sitting in the front row, hadn’t stood and raised a hand.

The seconders and thirders and fourthers immediately fell silent, which was odd, because trying to get that lot to be quiet was like asking a cage full of budgies to stop tweeting.

“Thank you for your faith, but I fear I can’t accept…”

Chorus of “Nos” and boos. This time Hef simply raised a finger and they fell silent. I remember thinking I ought to try that next time.

“No, I cannot. Colin has held the position for many, many years and it would be grossly unfair to cast him aside now. If, however, he were to admit that the job has grown taxing, and were to resign and the position fall vacant, I would be happy to put myself forward for election.”

As he spoke my name, Hef turned to look at me and it was that more than anything else which prompted my next words.

“If you want me out, you’ll have to kick me out.”

If Hef had just left it with all the blokes I thought were my friends calling for me to go, I’d have stepped down without a murmur. But not only was he trying to sack me, he wanted me to do the dirty work for him.

I stood up.

“Come on then. If you want this to be a vote of no confidence, someone’s got to propose it.” I scanned the room. Eyes dropped, or suddenly found the ceiling joists a matter of intense interest, or began cataloging back issues of ‘Railway Modeller’.

I was just about to sit down when a voice piped up. I looked around, trying to see who was speaking, for it didn’t sound like anyone I knew. Then I saw him: Simon, poor, slightly mad Simon, twisting his leather cap in his hands, the thin strands of his comb-over glistening on his scalp. I noticed he’d taken to tucking his trousers into his socks. His eyes, which normally either fixed on you with unwavering intensity or wavered around the room, were now attempting to do both.

“I… prop…pose a…vote…of no…con..fi…denCE.”

The last syllable came out as a shouted gasp and Simon clapped his hands over his mouth as if he’d just said a rude word. He looked surprised at what he’d just said.

But the motion was proposed.

“Any seconders?” I sounded weary even to my own ears.

Hands were raised. Tentatively, one or two at first, and then a veritable copse of arms pointing heavenwards.

I put my pen down on the table. I wasn’t going to look at Hef, I wasn’t….

I looked, of course.

He sat in the front row, positively glowing with self satisfaction, and already receiving congratulatory pats on the back.

“Right,” I said. “Um. I’d better go. Bye.”

Standing outside, I wished I’d said something more eloquent but trouble was, I still couldn’t think of anything. I went for a walk along the River Lee instead, the trains on the Liverpool Street-Stansted line rattling past. But, for the first time in my life, I hardly noticed them. I’d been booted from the club. I couldn’t believe it.

When I got home and slid into bed my wife, rousing herself drowsily, asked, “How did it go?”

“Fine.”

It’s a long story, but although we’re called the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club (or HMRC for short), we’re actually in Broxbourne now, one minute’s walk from the clubhouse of the Broxbourne Model Railway Club. So I joined them instead. The HMRC has a spacious new clubhouse, a pond we built for members’ boats, ‘O’ and ‘G’ gauge tracks permanently laid in the grounds of the clubhouse, and access to the River Lee. The BRMC has a hut. Mind you, the layout is excellent, but there’s not much left to do but tinker and drink tea.

Of course, I ended up speaking to some of my old friends in the HMRC. What happened that night was the great unmentionable, but what was going on now was up for discussion.

“Building,” said Barry, sipping his tea as we watched a class 66 shunt freight containers on the BRMC layout. “He’s got us all working like dogs, even Simon. I mean, I’ve never even seen Simon boil a kettle before, now he’s got him sawing ply and soldering away like he’s suddenly turned into…er, you.”

“How’s he with the electrics?” There was no need to specify who ‘he’ was; we both knew.

Barry blew on his tea. “Pretty good, really, but not as good as you, Colin.” He glanced at me, then went back to studying the layout. “Won’t you come back? We could use you?”

I’ll admit, I’d been dreaming about this moment ever since I’d left the club, but when it came, none of the answers I’d rehearsed seemed to fit. The silence lengthened. Barry repositioned a truck that had become decoupled.

“Did he ask you to come?”

“No. He doesn’t know I’m here.”

I shook my head. “Have I told you about our new project here at the BRMC? We’re going to enter it at Warley. Try for a place, maybe even a win.”

“Come off it, Colin,” Barry said. “You haven’t even started it, have you? It’ll never be ready in time for Warley. Besides, you haven’t seen what he’s doing. It’s… it’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen.”

“Then why’d you ask me to come back if you don’t need me?”

“Because I didn’t want you to miss out on this, you old duffer. We’re doing something that no one – no one – has ever done before and it’s all because of him. Yes, I know we shouldn’t have chucked you, Colin – honestly, I still don’t know what made me do it that night – but you’ll kick yourself when you see what we’re doing. Come on, Colin, what do you say?”

I looked over the BRMC layout: a little dusty, packed with detail and about as portable as Big Ben. It wasn’t going anywhere.

I turned to Barry. “Here’s what I say, and you can tell him it too: we’ll see you at Warley and may the best layout win.”

Some six weeks down the line, Phil wiped the grease down his shorts, creaked upwards from where he’d been kneeling, and announced, “This is effing great!”

Phil was an Aussie. He was still an Aussie despite having lived in England, or pom-de-terre as he called it, for nearly fifty years. He wore shorts even in winter, still spoke strine and ragged us all whenever Australia beat us at cricket, rugby (union or league), or pretty well anything else. He ragged us a lot.

I looked at the layout taking shape around us. We were working in my garage. The car was now permanently sat in the drive and the BRMC met in my kitchen for a quick tea before getting down to work. It was the best thing to happen to the club in years. With the clubhouse layout complete, all the blokes did was meet on Wednesday nights, run a few trains, talk railways and drink tea. Now, we had something to work for and it had knocked, oh, weeks off our combined apparent ages.

I don’t think I’d ever seen a group of pensioners work so hard. We sawed, stuck, painted, wired, and planned and planned and planned. Of course, all the entrants to Warley did so, but I’d had an inspiration that I hoped would win us the trophy.

All the layouts were planned and built by railway enthusiasts – obviously so. But that meant the railway lines came first, and the town or country through which the railway ran served as a scenic backdrop to the main action on the tracks. However, that was the opposite to what had happened in the normal gauge world. There, geography came first. And that was what we were doing with our layout.

It was a close run thing, but we got it done. By eight o’clock on the eve of the Warley show, the last dab of paint had been applied, the final point tested and the last train run. We were ready.

Then it was time to disassemble the whole thing, a dash – or rather a crawl up the M1 – and we were there in time for setting up.

Warley is huge. The NEC in Birmingham is big, but fill it with layouts, dealers, traders and railway enthusiasts and it seems, paradoxically, even bigger. An empty space is just that, after all: empty. Filled, it becomes a buzzing, steaming, heaving cacophony of railway inspired life. There’s no where like it.

The early morning passed in a frantic haze of setting up: pasting, patching and putting things together that had fallen apart in transit. It was mid morning before I even had a cup of tea, and nearly lunchtime when I finally had the chance to leave the stand and take a look around. The judges had been round already, clip boards in hand, standing impassively in front of our display though I’d known every one of them for years. Phil tipped them the wink, but not a flicker. Gauging the reactions of the spectators, though, suggested we were on to something. Despite being tucked away in a corner and hidden behind the Bachman stand, we were drawing quite a crowd. The questions showed that some of them saw immediately what we’d set out to do with our layout. Now, all that was left was to take a look at the opposition and then wait for the judging.

I could tell Hef and my old friends at the HRMC had come up with something special by the crowd around their stand. It was five people deep and, unless you were a young ‘un and could worm your way through, the only option was to stand on tiptoe at the back and gradually work your way forward as spectators slowly moved on to other exhibits. At least, I thought that was my only option, until I felt a tap on my back.

“Barry!”

“Come on,” he said. “It’ll take you ages to get to the front. Come and have a look from the inside.” He led me around the crowd and we ducked under the table into the operators’ yard.

“What do you think?”

They were all there, my old friends, each with little headsets on and many with black gloves that had wires running from them. I’d never seen anything like it. But whatever they’d been doing before, they all stopped when I scrambled up on to my feet, and looked at me, as if waiting for my verdict.

All except one, that is.

“Keep working, we’ve got a railway to run,” Hef rumbled, and the members of the HRMC returned to their stations. But as he started making incomprehensible movements with his glove-clad hand, Barry mouthed to me again, “What do you think?”

I shook my head and spread my hands.

“It’s… it’s astonishing.”

It was.

Almost all the questions being fired at the operators were varieties on, “How do you do that?” and that’s exactly what I wanted to know too.

Looking at the layout, I realized how far our ordinary displays were from what we set out to create. We tried to make miniature lands, small worlds complete in themselves, but suggestive of their wider context. But usually all we achieved was to make a nice backdrop for the trains.

Here, Hef and the boys had made a world, and brought it to life. Not just the trains moved, everything did. The cars drove along the road, the barge motored down the canal and then, as I watched in amazement, went through a lock, the water apparently draining away. In the fields, tiny cows chewed methodically, looked round placidly at the passing trains and even, I swear, deposited fresh and steaming miniature cow pats in the fields.

And there were people, small figures waiting at the station, pacing up and down or smoking a cigarette – it was a 1930s station after all – and then when the train arrived, wonder of wonders, some of the passengers alighted while the people waiting got on.

“How are you doing it?” I asked, joining in the chorus.

Hef held up his gloved hand.

“Robotics. It’s all in the fingers.” He wiggled them, and a party of picnickers suddenly exploded into an impromptu highland reel, rather messing up their carefully laid out meal by skipping over the sandwiches.

“Congratulations,” I said. “It’s quite a layout.”

Hef snorted, a sound curiously like a train shunting up to a wagon. “Of course.” He turned back to the layout and I was left, suddenly an unemployed stranger among all the hard-at-work operators.

I went back to the BRMC layout.

“What d’you see, mate?” asked Phil. In honor of Warley, he was wearing clean shorts.

“The winner.”

We gathered in front of the judges’ table at noon. Even in the crowd I heard the excited buzz about Hef’s layout, the conversational fragments that all fitted together into the clearest, most obvious winner I’d known in all my years coming to Warley.

The judges shuffled on to the podium and took their seats, while the crowd slowly subsided into a state as close to silence as could be expected from a large group of excited railway enthusiasts.

I scanned the faces, looking for Hef and the other members of the HMRC, but they were nowhere to be seen, which seemed odd. Maybe they were hiding in the wings and were going to be brought up on stage in triumph once their victory was announced. I’d not seen that happen before, but then I’d never seen anything like their layout before.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I looked round but there was no one there. Then I saw Barry, over on the other side of the crowd, waving his black-gloved hand. I felt his fingers on my shoulder even though he was twenty feet away. How did he do that? The other HMRC members were there too, scattered in a loose entourage around Hef. I’d never realized how big he was before, but he loomed over the rest of them, despite his limp. And he was heading my way.

I couldn’t say it was an encounter I’d relish, but sometimes you’ve just got to admit it: the better man won. Having seen what he’d done, I was prepared to do that. What I wasn’t prepared to accept was humiliation.

Hef’s grin grew wider as he came nearer – and his limp became more pronounced, although I don’t suppose he’d have been too happy about me noticing that.

He raised his own black-gloved hand and made a come-to-me gesture. I felt an almost irresistible pressure on my back and it was a case of either head towards Hef or fall flat on my face. I should have fallen. But old bones become disinclined to accept gravity’s embrace; I stumbled forwards.

Hef spread his arms, the members of HRMC lined up behind him, my old friends.

“Are you ready to be shown up for the talentless little impostor you are?” said Hef.

I think I blinked. My mouth probably opened and closed a couple of times. But I do know that my face and neck suddenly felt very hot.

“Entering a layout in competition with me.” Hef snorted. “These others didn’t know who they were taking on, but you did. Did you honestly think you could beat me?”

My mouth opened and closed a few more times. Much longer like this and I could found the fish impersonators’ club.

From the podium came an amplified cough and a finger tapping the mike. The crowd grew quiet.

“I’ll deal with you later, after the judgment of Warley.” Hef turned towards the judges, planting himself squarely in my view. From behind, he was broader than a railway carriage; I couldn’t see a thing. But I could hear.

There was the usual preamble and then the judge went on to distribute the minor prizes. I did think about creeping away but a curious lassitude of fatalism had settled upon me: there was no point in trying to get away.

“And now,” said the judge, “we come to the main prize of the competition: the award for the best layout.” The crowd shuffled expectantly, already knowing who it would go to.

“There were many outstanding layouts on show this year, but it quickly became clear that two stood out – the layouts by the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club and the one by the Broxbourne MRC. There must be something in the water down there.”

The crowd murmured. I felt slightly dizzy. At least I could see the judges now. Hef had moved nearer to the podium.

“The HRMC layout represents a huge leap forward in the technical aspects of railway modeling,” continued the judge. “We’ll be asking, ‘How did they do that?’ for months after this show has come to an end. But these are supposed to be model railway layouts and in the end we decided that the HRMC layout contained too many historical infelicities – running the City of Truro, the Flying Scotsman and the Eurostar on the same network for instance – for it to be awarded the prize, so, for its innovative approach and fidelity to railway history, we award the prize for best in show to the Broxbourne Model Railway Club…”

At that point, everything became slow motion. I saw Hef, who had been surging towards stage like a Norwegian ice breaker, suddenly halt, and heard Barry, who had been towed in his wake, a small and overlooked tender, saying something about the folly of mixing up railway eras. Hef turned around, grabbed Barry’s arms and lifted him into the air as if he was a kitten. He appeared to be about to launch Barry, feet first, towards the judges, when he saw me. This proved fortunate for Barry, as he was returned to the ground, but I feared it might not be so advantageous for me. I tried to make my way through the crowd but if Hef was an ice breaker, I was the Endeavour, and as firmly stuck.

Hef bore down on me, looking even bigger than he had before. Now he towered, head and shoulders, over everyone else, and his shoulders looked wide enough to make up a scrum front row on their own.

But cutting through the hubbub, there was a regular loud tapping and we both looked at the stage where the chief judge was rapping on the microphone.

“Would the BRMC please make its way forward to receive the prize and judge’s congratulations and,” the judge paused and, despite a comb-over and bottle bottom glasses he looked positively fierce, “anyone obstructing will be disqualified from this and future competitions!”

Hef and I turned to each other. He seemed to shrink, his proportions becoming more human. Barry, who had been hanging on to his shirt tails, was suddenly able to bring him to a halt.

“Hef, stop.”

The big man glared at me and he was so angry fires seemed to glow behind his eyes.

“I don’t like being beaten, particularly by the likes of you.”

Then he strode away, Barry bobbing helplessly in his wake.

The rest of the prize giving passed in something of a haze. I’d always dreamed of winning best in show at Warley, but now I’d done so, it like felt like I’d cheated. And, by the desultory round of applause, it sounded as if most of the spectators agreed. I might have won on the day, but it was Hef’s layout they’d go back to their clubs and talk about. I could even see the editor of ‘Railway Modeller’ talking to the remaining members of HMRC – no prizes for guessing which layout was going to be splashed in the next issue.

But… I was the winner, or at least the Broxbourne Model Railway Club was. And I knew that in any other year our layout would have won deservedly. It was our name that would go in the record books and that couldn’t be taken away from us. Or so I thought. When I eventually returned to the BRMC layout, it was to find the operators looking cross, annoyed and baffled, and the layout itself static. The stream of visitors heading our way to see the best in show hung around for a while and then headed off, disappointed.

“What’s wrong?”

Phil emerged from under the baseboard, screwdriver between his teeth, ammeter in hand.

“Search me, mate. I’ve checked every single point, junction, connection and terminal, and it’s all live but nothing’s running.”

And it was true. We even asked ‘Sparks’ McKay, the electrics bloke from ‘Railway Modeller’ to take a look, and he couldn’t find the problem either.

“There must be a short somewhere,” he said, looking doubtfully at our unmoving display, “but I’m blowed if I can find it.”

That afternoon, the judges came to see us. They were regretful, polite and inflexible. If we couldn’t get the layout running by Sunday’s opening time, then the prize would be taken from us and given to the HMRC instead.

We worked through the night, stripping everything down, re-soldering all the connections, checking, double checking, triple checking everything we could think and, when the late November sun rose on the final day of the competition we looked at each other with exhausted, beaten faces. Nothing worked. Even applying power to a single, isolated loop of track produced nary a wheel twitch. We’d checked to see if our meters were giving us false readings, if the power supply to our table was faulty, everything. But all was clear and nothing worked.

“Go get some tea and breakfast,” I said to the other club members. I picked up the ‘Best in Show’ plaque from its resting place. “I’ll take this back.”

The huge hall was still quite empty. One or two of the exhibitors were filtering in, and rather more of the trade stands were manned by people straightening their wares for the final day of the show, but luckily no one noticed what I was carrying – mainly because I turned the written side to my chest and scurried along to avoid being dragged into conversation.

I only slowed down when I came in sight of the judge’s podium and saw Hef lounging there, boots up on a chair.

Strangely, and despite everything he’d done, I’d never really disliked him before. Now, despite the bluff manner and his evident mechanical genius, I marked him down as the sort of bloke I’d had to deal with at school: a bully.

Hef looked up from cleaning his nails. “How’s the layout going?”

“It’s not.” I put the plaque face down on the judge’s table. “As you know. I don’t understand how you did it, but I’d like my layout back.”

“Not until I get my prize. Then I’ll set it running.”

“How did you do it? We spent all night and most of yesterday working on it and we haven’t a clue.”

Hef grinned. “I’m not about to give away my trade secrets. Let’s just say machines like me, and like to do what I say.”

“So you really did sabotage our layout?”

“It wasn’t going to be Barry, was it? You should thank me for throwing you out of the club – a more talentless group I have yet to meet.”

“Thank you.” I reached into my pocket and took out my mobile phone. “Did you get that, Barry…? Yes, ‘talentless’. You’ll tell the judges…? Good. Thanks, Barry. Bye.”

I put the phone back in my pocket. Hef’s face was reddening, his eyes took on the deep glowing color of forge fires and lava flows, the color at which all solid things flow.

“You’ve got as long as it takes me to walk back to my layout to start it working again,” I said. “Do that, and it’s an end to it. Don’t, and you’ll be disqualified, disgraced and barred from all other competitions. Oh, and this is coming with me.” I picked up the plaque and turned to go.

“This is not the end of it.”

I didn’t even turn round, but Hef’s voice reached me. “You don’t even know what I am, do you? You have no conception of what I can do. I’ll enjoy demonstrating the true range of my powers on you later.”

That’s when I turned.

“I’ve never been keen on nicknames; you should stick with Hephaestus. And before you start planning your revenge, think what your peers will say when they hear I beat you. Think what your wife will say.” I took a deep breath and stared into the forge fires of his eyes. “Leave it, and I never say a word of who you are and what happened here. Take your revenge and the whole world knows. The decision is yours.”

The forge fires glowed brighter, brighter, brighter. Then, Hef blinked. I marched away, plaque under my arm. Once I was lost among the stands and layouts, and safely out of sight, I stopped, mainly because my legs had stopped working. Luckily, there was a stand close by that I could grab hold of, otherwise I’d have fallen over. That’s when I remembered to take out my phone and switch it on.

“You’ll never guess, mate,” Phil said, almost running up to me as I returned to our stand.

“It’s working,” I said.

“You guessed.”

Here.” I handed him the plaque. “Put this up. This is where it’s staying.”

Edoardo Albert is a writer of Sri Lankan and Italian extraction now based in London. He lives online at EdoardoAlbert.com.

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