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.

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