The Tracks

Beaver’s Pick
Robin Sidwell


We all knew not to go down to the tracks. We all knew the stories. We’d heard so many; we figured it was the place to be. When it rained, the embankment became a mudslide and we’d go down it on the soles of our trainers, squatting down low, like we were on skis. We’d get in through a panel of the wire mesh fence that had been wrenched back at the bottom left corner, like the lid on a tin of sardines. We’d play there, we’d hang out there, we’d scrap there. The older kids would smoke dope down there, leaning against the slimy tunnel walls of the viaduct. Sometimes, they’d bring girls down there and disappear behind the rows of derelict carriages that occupied a stretch of disused line.

In the winter we lit fires down there. We burnt anything we could find—old tyres, the backs of chairs, grass cuttings, the Gideon Bibles we were given at school. If we could light it, we’d burn it. Sometimes we’d get the chase off the security guard whose sole purpose was to patrol that stretch of track and keep us out. The Fat Controller, we used to call him. We’d throw stones at his dog. Other times we’d place two pence coins on the lines and then scarper up the bank to wait for a train derailment. We never saw one.

Loads of stuff happened down at the tracks. You could say I grew up there. I smoked my first cigarette—and later, my first joint—in the viaduct tunnels. I got drunk first time down there—on White Lightning Cider. I haven’t been able to drink it since. I copped my first feel down there and if I had still been hanging out there by the time I got the ride, I most probably would have gotten the ride down there, in one of the tunnels, like little Joey Robinson. But it wasn’t to be. By the time I eventually got laid, nobody hung out there anymore. Nobody had hung out there since the previous winter. Fourth of November, to be exact.

*

It was the last day of our mock exams, a week before my sixteenth birthday. The sky was like smudged ash. Me and Jake Dooley had skipped school and caught the bus up town. I skipped school a lot. It wasn’t like my parents really gave a shit. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying my family life was that bad or anything, but we were hardly the fucking Waltons.

Jake and me were good friends. Jake always skipped school. His parents really didn’t give a shit. Nobody gave a shit about Jake, outside of us boys. He was a good lad though. You know the one, the class clown, the kid who doesn’t get it and who’s not going to bother asking ’cause nobody listens to him when he does. But if he fucks around everybody loves him for it. That was Jake Dooley. Class clown. Every school has one.

“Geary’s got a new BB gun, a gas gun,” he said to me that day as we sat on the wall of a multi-storey car park and got drunk on cheap wine we’d stolen from the Co-op.

“I know.” Jake was always telling you stuff you already knew. He was always the last to find out about stuff.

“He’s gonna bring it down the tracks tonight.”

“Yeah, he said.” I lit a cigarette. “Titch Anderson’s gonna bring some bottles. To shoot at.”

“Let’s ‘ave one o’ them!”

I passed him one.

“You’re pretty smart aren’t you, Dan?”

“Dunno about that.”

“Did you know, Mr Carver reckons that if a flea jumped from the top of the Eiffel Tower, its speed would give it the moment of an Elephant?”

“Momentum.”

“What?”

“Momentum.”

“D’you reckon it’s true?”

I shrugged. “I s’pose. It’s relative though.”

“What?”

“Nothin’.”

“Just think though, Dan, it’d be enough to kill us, with that kind of momentum.”

“S’pose.”

“D’you reckon if I spat off the top of this car park and it hit someone, it’d hurt ’em?”

“No. Does it hurt when a seagull drops its load on you?”

“Guess not.” He leaned forward and spat over the side.

Jake was a funny looking kid. He stood at almost six foot and was all thin and hunched over like he’d grown up in a confined space. The kid was an ugly fucker. You probably think I’m being a bit harsh, but I’m just telling it like it was. His face was shaped like the underside of an iron and his hair grew in these tight, wiry curls, like pubes, but on his head. The Pubic Barnet. Everyone called him Goat Boy.

That evening, we got onto the tracks further up and walked to the viaduct, which was about ten minutes from my house. The white gravel that had been laid at the bottom of the bank was littered with crisp wrappers, empty cans of Coke, and bin liners full of hedge clippings that had been slung over the back garden fences. The smell down here was of locomotive dust and creosote.

“Winkle’s having a party tomorrow night.”

“Yeah, Marvin was on about it. Apparently there’s gonna be a load of sixth form girls turning up.”

Somewhere behind us was a train, although there was only a whisper of it, a taut, seething sound that slithered through the rails. A sound that was thin and dense at the same time, like the sound some pylons make as they carry hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity overhead.

“There’s a train coming,” Jake warned.

“I know.” It didn’t matter anyway; there was a fence between us and the track. Kids on the tracks was a big problem back then. It was on the local news and everything, this stretch of track.

“Geary reckons they’re gonna get the place camera’d up,” Jake said.

“I don’t reckon they will though. It’d cost too much.”

“Cheaper than security.” He’d obviously had this discussion with someone else.

“S’pose.”

“The law was down here the other night.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“They wanna try building a youth club. If there was more stuff to do then nobody’d even come down here.” That was something I’d told him. Jake was always taking stuff you’d told him and making out like it was his own. A polythene sheet that had snagged on a bramble blew furiously like a flag in the bustling wind of a passing train.

“You goin’?” I asked as it rattled off into the distance. “To Winkle’s party?”

“Dunno. You?”

“S’pose.”

“S’pose, then.” I kicked a crumpled football and lit a cigarette. Gunk oozed from a rusty carburetor like stale honey.

We could hear people as we approached the viaduct, hear their voices from somewhere inside one of the tunnels.

“Sounds like Geary,” Jake muttered, flicking his cigarette butt at the gaping mouth of an old leather shoe.

“They’ve got a fire,” I said. I could see the flame, ragged and distorted against the shadows that spilled from the abandoned tunnel. We slipped through a gap in the fence below the black and white ‘NO TRESPASSING’ sign that had been smothered in red and blue tags.

Jake went first. I followed.

The viaduct was built of brown brick, but the bricks around the top of each tunnel were blackened. Jake reckoned it was soot from in the days when they had steam engines. It seemed like a reasonable explanation, but Jake was pretty fucking stupid so I didn’t take it as the gospel truth or anything.

There were six tracks in all—seven if you count the disused one. They criss-crossed and then separated, taking a tunnel each. The seventh tunnel was where we congregated. There was still track there, but the wooden sleepers were rotting and sodden. Spindly plants and weeds grew in the gravel between them. Brambles and creepers coiled around the smooth, black iron lines.

The walls of the abandoned tunnel were daubed in graffiti and splashed with piss. Halfway along it—about a hundred yards in—was an empty oil drum, the inside blackened from countless fires, the corrugated metal warped slightly from the heat, so that it leaned to one side, like it might topple.

There was other junk in the tunnel too—an upturned shopping trolley, the rusty handlebars of a child’s pushbike, the entrails of its tyres. Along a ledge halfway up the tunnel wall were rows of beer bottles, lined up and decapitated with the pellets of air rifles.

The first person we saw down there was Titch Anderson. He was taking a leak against the white pole of a signal box and had his back turned to us as we approached.

“Woy oy!” Jake greeted him. Jake was always making up words. I suppose when you’ve got such a piss poor vocabulary that you have to. Sometimes they were just noises though. “Jus’ remember, Titch, more than three shakes is a wank! Hyeeerrrmmm!”

“Boys!” Titch turned around as he zipped up his flies, before offering us his hand. Neither of us shook it. “How’s it goin’, Danny? Goat Boy?”

“Not bad, not bad. Yourself?”

“Pretty good, yeah.”

“Geary here?” Jake asked.

“Yeah, he’s in the tunnel. He’s got a new BB gun. Gas.”

“What’s it like?”

“Ain’t as good as mine.” That was Titch for you. Nothing was ever as good as his. If you bought a pair of trainers you could guarantee that Titch had a more expensive pair. If you told him your old man was thinking about buying one of those new Peugeots you could bet that his old man was thinking about buying an Aston Martin.

There were five others in the tunnel: Titch’s brother Carl, Fergus Geary, Gary Rangle, Barry Stiles and little Joey Robinson. They had lit a fire in the oil drum. Carl was walking around it, blasting it with a can of Lynx. The green and blue flames made a whooshing sound that filled the tunnel. “Check this! Check this!” he kept saying. The kid was a prick—like his brother but ten times more competitive. He had to be in charge of everything. Only reason he hung out with us was because he was too much of a pussy to hang with kids his own age. Nobody liked him. ‘Cept maybe Titch.

“How’s it goin’?” I asked, sitting down on a breeze-block at the entrance of the tunnel and taking a king size Rizla from my jacket.

“Okay,” Geary replied. “You?”

“Sweet, yeah. Did I miss anything in class?”

“Na. Just Mr Carver banging on about the time he met Stephen Hawking.” You could bet your life that Fergus Geary had been to class. Geary never skipped. “You seen my gun, Dan?”

“Yeah, it’s gas, ain’t it?” I looked across at Jake and rubbed my thumbs and forefingers together. He passed me half a cigarette.

“Dad got it yesterday,” Geary said. “He let me choose it.”

“I never shot a gas one. What’s it like?”

“Good. Until the gas runs out. It’s got a sniper torch and everything. You’ll have to have a look, once Titch and his brother have finished playing with it.” That was code. It meant, ‘if you don’t take it off them, they’ll fire it until there’s no gas left.’

Fergus Geary was the smallest kid in school. At fifteen, he stood at around five foot—most of the girls in our year were taller. Actually, the kid was pretty ill, something that had become more apparent as we had gotten older. He had Cystic Fibrosis. I remember going round his house for tea when we were kids. After we ate he had to lean over his mother’s knee and have her drum on his back for fifteen minutes. Fuck knows why. Probably to loosen the phlegm or something. Geary always had shit loads of phlegm. It was always a funny colour too. I wouldn’t be surprised if it glowed in the dark. Anyway, as we grew up, most of us had become more sensitive to it—his illness, that is—although it hadn’t always been that way. When we were kids, we used to play a game we made up, a kind of variation on tig. We called it Deadly Disease. Whoever got tigged had the disease—the disease was never specified—and had to pass it on. Geary could never keep up, what with his wheezing and all. He always got tigged. After a while, people just used to call him Deadly Disease anyway. It was kind of his nickname. He seemed to like it.

Of course, we didn’t understand back then. Truth is that most of us were pretty jealous of Fergus Geary. The kid had everything. I mean, don’t get me wrong, none of our families were what you’d call ‘well off,’ but Geary always seemed to have a new jacket or a new pair of jeans or the latest tennis racket. Like when we were in junior school I really wanted a Mr Frosty. You know those plastic snowmen that make blue snow cones? When I was seven I wanted a Mr Frosty more than anything else in the world. I never got one, of course. I got Mr Ice Treat. Mr Ice Treat! What the fuck? Of course, Geary got Mr Frosty and I was so jealous I actually punched him, full in the face. I even got suspended for it.

Fact is that when we were kids most of us thought that Fergus Geary was spoilt. Nobody likes a kid who’s spoilt, especially on an estate like ours. Especially if the kid can’t fight like the rest of us. Consequently, Geary got bullied pretty bad. He probably wouldn’t have made it through school if it hadn’t been for Jake Dooley. Jake had always looked out for Fergus Geary.

By the time I hit fifteen, the differences between Fergus Geary and everybody else in our year were obvious. I mean, we were all morphing into these overgrown kids with lank greasy hair and acne, whilst Geary kept on getting paler and thinner and wheezier. He still looked like a child and I no longer begrudged him a pair of Nike Shox just because I still had to wear Air Max. I guess I’d grown up a bit. Nowadays I understood why.

But to kids like Titch and Carl Anderson, that kind of bullshit still mattered and it was clear as they stood around examining Geary’s new BB gun that they weren’t happy.

“Shall I go home and get mine?” Carl suggested.

“Bit of a walk, ain’t it?”

“S’pose, it’s worth it though. I mean, this fucking gas is gonna run out any second. If you were ever in a combat situation you wouldn’t wanna rely on a gas gun to protect yourself with.” He said it to his brother, but made sure it was loud enough for all of us to hear.

“Twat!” I muttered. “If you were ever in a combat situation you wouldn’t wanna rely on a BB gun full stop, fuckwit.”

“What’s that, Danny?”

“Nothin’.”

“If that prick’s still banging on about that gas gun when I come back, I’m gonna wrap it round his head,” Jake said quite audibly as he wandered over to an emergency telephone in an orange kiosk and took a leak. I licked the sticky end of the Rizla and sealed the joint, putting it to my mouth, where it hung heavy from my bottom lip as I signalled to Joey Robinson for a light.

“That bud or resin?”

“Bud.”

“Twos on that, Dan!”

I caught the disposable lighter in my right hand.

“There’s girls gonna be coming down ‘ere tonight,” Joey said, coming across and squatting down next to us. “Charlie Grayson’s sister, Shauna. If you’re lucky she might bring a couple of mates.”

“Yeah, but I ain’t lucky, am I?”

“Dunno. I don’t care either, so long as I am.” He leaned across and ruffled my hair. “I can feel it, Dan! This is my lucky night!”

“You ain’t getting a sniff of this joint if you fuck my hair up!”

“Sorry, Dan. Oh! By the way, just so as you know, I told her that I’m seventeen and I’ve got a car. Okay?”

“Sure.” I lit the joint and leaned back against the cold brick, slugging on a can of Special Brew. A few feet into the tunnel, Titch and Carl Anderson shot at empty beer bottles.

*

By ten o’clock the numbers had trebled. A can of Stella sat on an upturned bucket, beer spraying from a puncture wound like blood from a main artery. Tins of spray paint hissed and rattled in the tunnel, like fire from a toy machine gun. I could hear Joey Robinson telling Charlie Grayson’s sister about the alloy wheels he’d just bought for his fictional car, interspersed with hand-up-the-skirt giggles that floated over from the other side of the tracks. Jake Dooley had just let rip a cacophony of grunts at one of his own jokes—or rather, somebody else’s joke (Jake only knew the jokes that everybody else knew)—that he’d gotten completely wrong anyway. I would have told him that he’d gotten it wrong, but right now I didn’t feel so good. I was beginning to wish that I hadn’t eaten macaroni cheese for dinner. It was bad enough the first time round.

I was oblivious to it at first, busy trying to think calming thoughts. Still thoughts that might help me forget the looming inevitability that I was going to be sick. I was sitting on my breeze-block, head in my hands, listening to Marvin Fletcher a few feet away—“Look at Dan! Check him out! He’s gone white! He’s gonna be blowing chunks any second!”—when I became aware of the argument that had broken out at the entrance to the tunnel.

“What I’m saying is that you ain’t his fucking Dad.” It was Carl Anderson. “If he wants his gun back he can come and ask me himself.” I slowly lifted my head. Carl was standing just inside the tunnel, his arms stretched out either side of him, his palms open in a ‘here I am/have a go’ kind of gesture. Jake was standing just outside the tunnel, his body slouched, his shoulders shrugged in a ‘who the fuck’s this kid think he is?’ kind of way. Geary was standing between the two of them with his hands raised in front of him in an attempt to halt the onslaught of confrontation like it might have been a car.

“It’s too late now anyway,” Jake told him. “You’ve caned all the fucking gas. You’re gonna have to buy him some more.”

“If he didn’t want us to use the gas he shouldn’t have brought it down here.”

“Just stop fucking about and tell him where it is!”

“Jake! Just leave it! It ain’t worth it!”

“If he wants it back he can ask.”

“He has asked,” Jake said. “He’s been asking all night.” He took a step forward. Geary blocked him. “Stop acting like a prick and just tell him where it is!”

“So what, are you asking me for him? Is that it? Little Geary ain’t old enough to fight his own battles so the Goat gets involved. Is that it?”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“If he wants his gun back he can ask us himself,” Titch said, appearing behind his brother.

“Just stay the fuck out of this, Titch! Anyway, he already has asked. Now quit fucking around and give it him back!”

Carl Anderson spat on the ground. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Or what?” Jake yelled, dodging Geary and making a lunge for Carl, catching his shoulder but losing his balance and falling to the ground, taking Carl with him, where they grappled in the dirt, biting and pulling at one another’s hair, grunting and cursing and rolling and tumbling away from the tunnel and onto the tracks. Within seconds they were the focus of attention. Cries of “get off the track!” were interspersed with yells of “go on, Goat boy!” and “have him, Carl!” as they exchanged punches. I climbed to my feet and stumbled toward them, a torrent of sick gushing fourth as my stomach reminded me why I had been sitting still as the Buddha for the last half hour. As I lifted my head up I could see Marvin holding Titch back, stepping from side to side and eventually grabbing him and wrestling him to the ground. I could see Carl on his knees with Jake in a headlock, Jake digging quickly and mechanically at Carl’s temple with his sovereign fist, unable to actually see his target, but nevertheless hitting it with surprising accuracy. And that is one thing I will say about Jake Dooley. The kid could fight. He’d had a hard time of it all his life and he knew how to give a good beating as well as how to take one. If I’d had to put money on it I’d have gone with Jake, I don’t care if Carl was a sixth former. As it stood, Jake was winning. Then suddenly, the focus of attention shifted once more.

Titch had broken lose after punching Marvin and now Charlie Grayson was holding Marvin back as Titch pointed the gun on Jake like he was about to shoot. Several people were telling him emphatically to put it down. This told you how fucking wired everyone had gotten—after all, the whole argument had been about the fact that there was no gas left, which meant that the gun didn’t fire. Geary was hovering nervously around them both, pleading with them to stop fighting. Even Joey Robinson had stopped what he was doing to see what all the noise was about. Everybody else was circling them, either shouting in support or telling them to pack it in. I was making my way over to try and break it up myself, but that was when I heard the yell. I don’t know who said it, but the voice rose clearly above the drunken clamour. Even Jake and Carl heard it.

“There’s a train coming!”

The mood suddenly changed. People began to plead and yell at them to get off the track. A few jumped in. Jake was now on top of Carl, pinning one side of his face against the gravel, punching him over and over, occasionally turning his head to spit the blood that was running into his mouth from the back of his broken nose. Several people were trying to pull them apart, a few of them had a hold of Jake’s jacket, but he managed to wriggle out of it. The sound of the approaching train shot through the iron like pain through the root of a nerve. Joey Robinson came legging it across.

“Get off the fucking tracks, lads! Get off the tracks!”

Jake had stopped now and was leaning over, his face right next to Carl’s, talking softly.

“Hear that, Carl? That’s a train. D’you like trains? Eh? Eh, fuckwit?” He grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up so that they were face to face. Carl’s head fell forward, lifeless. “D’you like trains? Wanna see one close up?”

“Get the fuck off him!” Titch was struggling to pull Jake off his brother, screaming through tears as the sound roared towards us, already echoing in the tunnels. Geary was kneeling down beside Jake, talking softly, as if he thought he could somehow snap him out of it. Pretty much everyone was now involved and after a few seconds, confident that he had won, Jake gave it up and let go of his opponent, allowing them both to be quickly pulled to safety. It didn’t matter anyway; the train was on another line.

I didn’t actually see it happen, but I still have a clear image of it, in my mind. I remember the thud. A hollow sound, like you’d get from kicking an empty cardboard box as hard as you could. Even over all the noise, I heard it loud and clear. The next thing I remember is the torch, rolling on the gravel, the light moving in an arc across us, the sound of the tail end of the train disappearing into the tunnel on the far side of the tracks, the drunken yells and squaring-ups trailing off with it.

People began to take flight, scrambling up the bank, running this way and that like they were ants and somebody had just kicked off the top of their ant’s hill. Titch and Charlie Grayson picked up Carl Anderson and began struggling to get him up the bank.

Jake lit a cigarette, spat a load of blood and turned to me.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here, now!”

Geary began to cry. A dog barked. A single bark. A German Shepherd.

*

It’s been three years since it happened. Yesterday, I celebrated my nineteenth birthday. I’ve thought about it every birthday ever since and this was no exception. I bumped in Marvin Fletcher in the Dog and Doublet and we caught up over a couple of beers. Neither of us mentioned it, of course, but I was still thinking about it as I caught the 75 to the office this morning and later as I sat on a bench on Upper Gough Street and ate my sandwiches.

We all knew not to go down to the tracks and after that, nobody did. Turned out the Fat Controller knew my mother. He drank in the pub where she worked. Geary’s old man played darts with him. Loads of people went to his funeral. It was in the paper. I’ve still got the cutting:

‘The funeral of Doug Peterson was held today at Pawlsey Heath Roman Catholic Church. Mr Peterson, forty-two, was hit by a train on Friday. He had been employed by a local security firm to patrol the stretch of track between Pawlsey Heath and Harbour Oak Green, on which youths continued to gather. Police investigating the incident believe that Mr Peterson ventured onto the tracks after local residents reported a fire in one of the viaduct tunnels. They are appealing to anybody with information to come forward.

Mr Peterson leaves behind a wife and two children.’
pencil

“I am twenty-six, from Birmingham England and have been writing for a long time. I have a BA in Creative Studies and an MA in Writing.” E-mail: robogambino[at]yahoo.com.

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