Friday, 29 April 2016

The wrong side of the tracks

When I was about thirteen I started secondary school. Every lunchtime we'd spill out onto the streets of town like a herd of wild animals, roaming in packs, or lounging on walls to display our coolness to the world. The town happened to sit on a rarely used train-line which mainly carried slow-moving freight cars. Although it was completely off limits, some of us would climb over the fence and walk the tracks to the far side of town as a shortcut. To my teenage mind, I was thumbing my nose at the establishment, walking on the wild side, a fugitive from justice.

Although I'd never let on to my friends, there was one particular part of crossing the tracks that always made me sick to my stomach. The bridge. The ground dropped away until there was nothing between the sleepers but fresh air. A hundred feet below a river churned, fast running, but not particularly deep. Every time I placed a foot on the narrow maintenance walkway the same feeling of dread fell over me. What would happen if the train came?

As casually as I could, I'd listen for the rumble of a thousand horsepower engine bearing down on us. I'd rest my foot on the cold metal of the track and feel for vibrations. All the way across the bridge I'd imagine what I might do should tonnes of crushing locomotive trap us with no place to run. Would I jump into the water below, risking broken legs, back, or even drowning? Would I have enough room to lie on the walkway and let the train pass over my prone body. Every step of the crossing I'd replay the scenarios in my mind, imagining the water rushing up at me and the shuddering impact when I hit that churning surface, or the feeling of the undercarriage screaming inches from my nose, tugging at my jumber until some low-hanging piece of metal sliced me open from head to toe, spilling my steaming guts all over the bridge.

Those images were bad enough to have rattling around in my brain as we crossed, but I also had to contend with Barry. Sometimes your friends can be your biggest nightmare. Barry was a butty lad with a small brain and a big mouth, who was never happy unless he was showing us up, or slagging us off. Every time we crossed the bridge Barry would climb on top of the ten foot high metal balustrade and walk the narrow ledge the whole way across. If that was not exciting enough for him he would hop from sleeper to sleeper, with the yawning drop between each not bothering him at all.

One day, myself, Barry and a few others were starting to cross the bridge when all my fears came true. Around the bend ahead, a wall of fume belching death came thundering toward us. Barry was hopping as normal from sleeper to sleeper when we saw it. We turned and ran away from the train, back toward the end of the bridge.

"Come on Barry!" I shouted over my shoulder but noticed he was actually hopping toward the train, not away.


"I can make it!," he said and continued to race the train to the far end of the bridge. The driver must have seen us at that moment because the horn blared, once, twice, three times and then the scream of metal on metal breaks joined the din. By this time we were all off the bridge except Barry who was still a dozen sleepers from safety. The train driver was trying to stop but his efforts were having no affect at all, he was going too fast and the engine was far too heavy. 

Barry had stopped leaping and was now trying to run across the sleepers. His head was swinging wildly from side to side looking for a way to escape, his terror blatant as he relised these moments may be his last. That was the moment his foot skidded from under him on the greasy timber. He fell back ward and one leg vanished into the void. He managed to wrap an arm around the thick timber beam and stop his fall. His eyes were huge as the first train wheel hit the bridge, the howl of breaks, horn, and metal wheels, mingled with Barry's blood curdling scream until it was impossible to say where one started and the others finished. The train divers panicked face loomed huge and white in the glass. 

There was nothing anyone could do. I got one last look at Barry as the train rushed over him. I don't know if I was yelling or not, I cant remember. It seemed to take forever for the spark spitting wheels to pass by us. When the last carriage cleared the bridge: blood, gore, and mangled body parts should have greeted our eyes, but by a miracle two thin arms were still wrapped around the moss covered sleeper with Barry's tear streaked face hovering inches above it.  We all ran over and dragged Barry onto the bridge as quick as we could before escaping the scene of our crime.

Barry didn't say a word for the rest of lunch time and was particularly quite during the afternoon classes, but by home time his natural boastfulness had overcome his fear. He ended the day standing at the bus stop bragging about taking on the train and winning. But between you and me, he never crossed the bridge again.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Pass the Parcel

You know when you arrive home and find that package you ordered from Amazon waiting, did you ever stop to consider the journey it has taken, or the people it encountered on the way. Yes, it might be a dull brown box but when you think about it, that innocent little box has a secret life you know nothing about. You may have been the spark that gave birth to its journey, and you will be the one to rip it asunder in its final moments, but what about the middle?

I got to thinking about this because of a story my mother told me the other day, and I thought it might strike a cord with some of you.

Recently, my Mom has been getting a lot of packages delivered to the house, some ordered by my Dad for one job or another, but most of them she ends up minding for neighbours who are out working.

The man who delivers the parcels is quite elderly, and in a past life was one of the post men for the area, an old school delivery man you might say. The man has become a regular sight standing on our doorstep exchanging a few words with my Mom over assorted packages. Anyway, Dad had been having trouble with condensation building up in their car and sourced some Silica to fix the issue. With one click the order rolled into life in a factory thousands of miles away, and the hidden journey of this brown package began. 

It took a couple of weeks for the package to arrive and by the time it did, my Mother had forgotten all about it. Mid-morning one Tuesday the doorbell chimed. My Mom went to open the door, wiping flour from her dough speckled hands with a tea-towel.

"Morning, Missus. Package for you," said the delivery man, getting her to sign for the padded envelope in his hand. As she printed out her name, the man turned the package over and over in his hands, looking at it quizzically. When he handed it over he looked at her earnestly and asked, "What’s in it anyway?"

Now, my Mom is a trusting sort of woman and would read nothing into such a question, where I might be shocked at the man's nosiness. She took the package in her hand, looking at my Dad's name the label and said, "Lord, I've no idea, why?"

"It's just that me and the lads at the depot were all trying to figure out what's inside, and it’s got us stumped. Seems to be squishy but then there are loads of little balls," said the delivery man, holding out his hand to give the package a squeeze in demonstration.

As my Mom, and the delivery man stood kneading and fondling the innocent little package, realization stuck.

"Ah! It’s the stuff for the condensation."

"The what?"

"The condensation in the car, look," said my Mom, pointing at the fogged up windows on the car in the driveway.

"You're joking?"

"Nope, found it on the internet. Apparently it will soak up all the moisture on the air and get it out of the car."

"Jesus, what will they think of next," said the old man scratching his head. He began walking away when he stopped and turned. "Why don't yea bring the car back to the garage and get them to fix it?"

"Ah, its a lot of bother for a little mist. We will give this stuff a go first."

The man waved and walked away down the drive, with his hands stuffed into his pockets, his clipboard wedged under his arm, lazily taking in the fine spring day God had blessed them with. My Mom closed the door and thought nothing more about the whole thing. When she told my Dad, he could not figure out which was stranger, the fact the guys in the transport depo were feeling everyone's parcels to guess what people were ordering, or that the old guy was so perplexed by the package he actually asked what was in it. 

A few weeks after, the same man ended up at our house with a neighbours package.  As my Mom signed for it the man demanded, "Did the balls work?"

Most middle aged Irish women are not in the habit of discussing balls, working or not, with near strangers on the doorstep. The confused look on her face must have betrayed her shock as the man clarified himself saying, "For the car, did the balls work?"

"Oh the condensation? Yes actually, they did," said my more than relieved Mom.

"Well I never, mist drinking balls, what next?" he said with a jaunty salute, and strutted back to his van full of yet to be guessed mysteries. 

So the next time your delivery man gives you a look when getting you to sign for a package, give it a good squeeze, because sure as Billyo, he did.

If you enjoyed this why not try out some more tales from the Irish Countryside.