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A child's imagining

M K Lee
Age Rating:

Short Story

The pantry cupboard in my grandparent's house was next to the front door.

It occupied a floor space of barely a square metre, but there was space enough for shelf upon shelf of food. There were mismatched jars of homemade jam complete with cute gingham covers beneath the lid, tall bags of flour that would expel a huge puff of dust if touched, and every kind of tinned product you could think of, from pease pudding to Irish stew.

Also in the cupboard was the old electricity meter that fed on 50-pence coins; not the 'small' ones we have now, but the old clunky ones that were so big they would almost engulf my small chubby palm. My grandmother would either hoist me up on her hip or balance me on a stool so that I could reach the slot. As I grew, that became my 'job'. I would drag the stool through from the dining room leaving a trail of disturbed carpet pile like a miniature train track. I would turn the round, rusting door knob with the few remaining flecks of cream paint, and the door would judder in protest before creaking open. I would wobble precariously on the stool like a first-time surfer, stretch my fingers out for the sides of the electricity meter as though I were clutching for its cheeks, and then haul myself up to 'eye' level.

The left eye of the meter face was the largest. With six dials in the panel, five black and one red, it blinked at you as though it were narrowed in contemplation. The nose, sitting high on the forehead, was a long, thin panel with one dial and a three window counter beneath forming odd nostrils. Then there was the right eye, the money dial itself. To the top left was where the money was slotted in, and then began the chase. There was a metal disc with notches in at regular intervals like perfect eyelashes, and a thick metal arm that blinked and turned, slowly, slowly, as the meter ingested the coin with a low whirling sound. Beneath the dial was a round half-smile, and behind this, I presumed, was the 'stomach', where the coins fell when you first fed them in.

Once a month a man would visit, wearing stained navy blue overalls and a happy but tired expression on his face, to empty this stomach. I always sat pensively on the bottom step, hands wrapped around ankles, watching him as he worked.

I was always fearful that he'd take the meter away.

Because to me, the meter face was never really a face at all. To me, this was the control panel and the pantry cupboard the cab of my train. The dials varied daily with actual function. Sometimes speedometer, sometimes mileometer, sometimes the number of cups of tea consumed in the buffet car. The 'throttle', 'brake', and various buttons floated beneath the meter in my imagination, and by a complex series of hand movements, I, a five year old who got travel sick at the slightest motion, could power and command a train. Go anywhere I want, whenever I wanted to go. And not be sick at all.

My train was called Diesel, and many of my days were spent travelling in Diesel away to far off imaginary places. Sometimes my grandfather would walk past making 'choo choo' noises. My grandmother would bring in plates of cheese and pickle sandwiches and thick slices of victoria sponge cake, insisting that even train drivers needed to stop for lunch.

When I wasn't in my train, I was never far from it. In the small lobby area between the pantry cupboard and the first step of the stairs was where you often could find me. Here was where I would set up my Thomas the Tank Engine projector and flip loyalty between Diesel, Percy and Thomas, with each day bringing a new favourite. My grandfather said you could always tell what mood I was in by which train I chose that morning. Thomas, I was good, well-behaved, easily-contented. Percy, happy but seeking mischief. And Diesel, well, there was no hope. I was in a black, sulky mood and nothing, not even my grandmother's delicious Melting Moments with an extra splodge of jam could bring me out of it.

Diesel Days were usually the result of recurring dreams.

In these dreams, it was always the middle of the night. I, clad in a Smurf nightshirt with raspberry pink edging and huge Pluto slippers, would sneak downstairs in the dark. I would turn that round, rusting door knob with the few remaining flecks of cream paint, and the door would judder in protest - louder than it ever did during the daytime - before creaking open. I would slip inside and find myself in my black-panelled, highly polished train cab, looking out through the windows into the night.

Pressing a button on the control panel, I would feel the train shudder to life beneath me. I would turn on the headlights of the train which would penetrate the thick, foggy darkness outside. I would hear the stir of the passengers as they were roused temporarily from their slumber after a pause on their journey.

Confidently, I would press more buttons, twist dials, edge the throttle forward, and off we would go.

In these dreams, I was never sure of the destination. I only had the feeling that I had to keep going, on and on into the night, and that if I fell behind schedule something terrible would happen. Out in the shadows all sorts of shapes would loom up in my view, or dull lights flash by. But inside the train, I felt safe.

These dreams, the nights where I stayed inside the cab of my train, were actually not so bad.

It was the nights that the train refused to move and I had to get out, walk along the tracks to a far off platform in an unknown station, that were more frightening.

The crunch of the gravel always told me I wasn't alone, and several unidentifiable footsteps would follow along behind me at different paces. The whisper on the wind through the trees beside the track was not the comforting lullaby of train wheel on train track, but a threat of something bad to come.

Sometimes the night was punctuated by the sudden bright lights of the train, and, heart pounding, I rushed along the narrowing track as the train started to follow me of its own accord. I ran and ran, tripped, fell, got up again, but the train always caught up with me, and just at the moment I could feel the train begin to nudge into my back, I woke up, drenched in my own sweat, hair plastered to my face.

The worst of the dreams came when the train stopped at an abandoned station, and all the lights went out. The train would grind to a halt and I would sit in the cab, waiting, listening to the complete silence around me. I would eventually step out on to the platform, clutching a torch in shaking hand, and look up at what seemed to be a series of terraced buildings in what I now know to be Derby Gothic style. By daylight they would have been beautiful; a strawberries and cream colour scheme with matching lantern and station sign posts. Only there was no light in the lantern and the name of the station was long gone - just the posts themselves remained. A large flagstone reading 1876 was set into the side of the building.

Walking passed the windows that still had glass in, I stared at my reflection. I was no longer a chubby little girl, but a slightly older boy with too thin limbs and a look of hunger in his eyes. The first few minutes of every part of this dream, I always stood, transfixed.

A loud bang like a heavy door slamming off to the left shook me from this. The noise was followed by what sounded like a heavy footstep accompanied by a dragging sound, like a very heavy rolled-up carpet was being pulled along a slate floor. This pattern would continue; step, drag, step, drag, growing louder and louder until I ran inside, through a beautiful arched red door hanging off of its hinges like a large loose tooth about to fall from a gaping mouth.

Inside the station, there was an impossibly tall ceiling and white marble floors. Wooden seats sat in rows of four seats facing each other and back to back. The ticket office window looked forlorn without either staff or passenger, and leaflets providing information formed a carpet around the waiting room. The toilet door creaked and a faucet dripped continuously in the silence of the room.

Flashes of lightning revealed oddly-clothed passengers waiting patiently in their seats, only for them to disappear as soon as the light faded away. One woman stared up at me with a scowl on her face. With her thick brown hair curled up and tucked into her bonnet, dressed in a dark green dress and black pointed-toe boots that peeped out from beneath her skirt, she wore an expression of complete disgust at my being there. I looked down at my hand as I extended it to her, not sure of what I was asking for.

The most intimidating character was the Station Master, and knowing that he was coming for me left me trembling. After the waiting room, I found myself standing out on the platform, looking through the windows of the signal box. I saw the silhouette of a man complete with top hat and broad shoulders. I could never make out his face from that distance, but I could feel his glare. When the lightning flashed he disappeared, only to reappear again at the end of the platform. Here he stood for a moment, as though inspecting the train - my train - and then he became aware of my presence. I could only watch, momentarily frozen to the spot, as he spun on his heel and slowly paced towards me.

I always turned and ran, his footsteps echoing faster than my own throughout the empty station, and he always gained on me at the last corner of the waiting room hallway, where somehow I shrugged away from his grip at the very last moment. Here I ran back outside, on to the train and along through the carriages from the rear of the train towards the front. But it was no longer my train. When I had taken my eyes away from the platform, my train had gone, and had been replaced with a bottle green steam engine, complete with wooden carriages, billowing steam, and firemen feeding coal into the engine room furnace as though the train were an ever hungry beast.

Here is where he would catch me.

Standing next to the blazing furnace heat that cast a bright orange glow on his angry red face, I was trapped. I stood, now barefoot having lost my Pluto slippers along the way, waiting. I flexed my toes in the coal dust, hands pressed behind me against the train wall. He reached for me with fat fingers, grabbed me by the neck, opened the carriage door and dangled me out over the track, now rushing past beneath me as the train gathered speed. I clawed at him, pleading for him to let me back inside as my toes tried helplessly to cling to the edge of the door frame.

But it was no use. With one final, disgusted shove, he would release me from his grasp and I would fall.

I would wake, curled in the pantry cupboard, arms draped around a sack of potatoes as though seeking comfort. Tears ran down my face and a gasp rattled in my chest as I trembled, waiting for the panic to subside.

My grandmother always asked the next day why there were black footprints at the bottom of the stairs, and how on earth had I got such a tidemark of dirt around my neck?

My grandfather stood, with a grim, thin-lipped expression on his face, but explained it all away with my sleepwalking and the dirt coming from the sack of potatoes.

The dreams continued up until I was eight and then, overnight, they just stopped. No warning, no weaning off, just an abrupt end to my nighttime adventures. Relief was my main emotion, but sometimes I missed it. Parts of it, anyway.

They sold the house in 1998. A young couple with two small boys moved in, and when I heard, a cold feeling settled in my chest.

They found a skeleton during an excavation when they decided to extend the property. A boy of around 8 years old with the back of his skull caved in as though he had been dropped from a height. Analysis of his bones found him to be malnourished, probably a street urchin back in Victorian times.

When they ripped up the floorboards throughout the property, beneath the pantry room floor they found a small wooden chest. Inside was a battered black toy train and several pages torn out from old children's books. The page that seemed the most well-thumbed had a picture of a big bloodhound-like dog staring up from the page. It looked a lot like Pluto.
Trains don't hold the appeal for me that they once did. Now, I drive a big black beast of a car, free to go wherever I want, whenever I want to go. Without ever feeling sick.
Naturally, I call it Diesel.

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