Thor was in a right tizzy that night, hurling his hammer for all he was worth from one corner of the heavens to another. Lightning forked, flashed and floodlit the sky, while the thunder rumbled and rolled, then roared, now far, now near, constantly returning.
A grander spectacle could not have been imagined to herald any entrance. But speak to me not of portents, omens, harbingers or signs. I didn't believe in them then and I don't believe in them now.
The fact remains, however, that like the very universe itself, Bart came in with a bang.
* * *
Hello. I'm Bart. And I’m bats about trains. Absolutely train mad! I adore trains and draw trains, eat and drink and dream trains, imitate trains, sing train songs, write train names, play train games, pray train prayers... Our Father who art in the Great Control Centre, hallowed be Thy rails... Give us this day our daily trains and forgive us our trespassing... etc., etc. My greatest, most solemn and holy desire in life has always been to drive a train. How many times have I gone down on bended knee and said, O Lord above, Creator of every trunk and branch line, every siding and every switchpoint, Lord of all the locos, grant but this my greatest wish...?
Otherwise I'm perfectly normal.
* * *
Bart's Mum had been firmly resolved not to dash off to the hospital at the first false alarm. So we waited. And waited. And when the decision to depart was finally made and I couldn't get a taxi, I had fearful visions of a makeshift domestic delivery without even a DYI guidebook to turn to. When we did eventually arrive, both the driver and I had to assist BM to the maternity ward.
I was then shown to a waiting room where several men were sitting, showing clear signs of nervous fatigue. Five or ten minutes went by. A nurse came in. All the tired and anxious faces stirred, legs moved, bodies straightened. She called my name, so I rose and followed her out, aware of indignant, even outraged, stares, as though I were blatantly jumping the queue, having doubtlessly bribed the powers that be.
But in I went. The hospital encouraged Dads to be present at arrival time and I certainly wasn't going to miss out. There are no second chances, with the same child that is. Indeed, I pity all those paters who have not shared the experience. I helped administer gas when necessary. I got out of the way when necessary. And I saw him first.
* * *
Never can anything without wings have had an opening in its face more suited to snapping up worms from the soil than the creature who takes us for English. So we call him Birdie. (There are other reasons too.) His real name's Smith.
Well, I suppose it all started that day when we had Birdie at the end of the morning, having already suffered Bio Bill going on about our feathered friends, with tits and cranes and heaven knows what else (but not Smith), and Stone Age Sam babbling about the time before even he was born and the place, or much of it, was covered with ice.
Birdie came in with his book of poetry under his arm and in no time at all was spouting about moons waxing and waning, things wheeling and straining and people being cut to the quick, while 'doths' and 'eres' and 'perchances' poured from his beak and flew through the air in flocks.
“Wouldst that thou...” I heard him say, before I switched off and started to scribble a poem of my own. It was better than listening to him.
Wouldst that though might shut thy gob,
Depart and seek another job,
Ere I to the quick am cut –
And ram your book right down your gut!
Then I abandoned poetry altogether and turned my attention to something more worthwhile – drawing trains in my rough-work book. I'd done a couple of Inter City 125s and was well into a poor, still-born APT tilting round a bend, when an elbow hit me in the ribs. It was Sandy, who sits next to me. Now believe you me, knobbly knees (and he's got those as well) are nothing to the sharp, pointed bits of bone joining that boy's upper arms to the parts that hold on to his hands.
I turned round fast, ready to poke the ball point of my pen in an appropriate place, hard, because it's not pleasant being derailed so suddenly and painfully. But although he was facing straight ahead, his eyes were looking at an angle of ninety degrees past my right shoulder. So I turned that way. And there was Birdie, standing just behind me, staring at my book from somewhere near the ceiling. He's about eight foot tall – when you're sitting down. Six-foot-four otherwise. Talk about Bird's eye view!
“And what have you been doing Silver?” he said.
“As far as I am aware you are the only Silver in the class, the one and only piece of precious metal we have.”
He has a sense of humour, Birdie, about on a par with any other dumb animal in danger of extinction.
“I've been drawing Sir... Drawing trains Sir...”
“But this is an English lesson Silver. And don't for goodness sake say they are English trains,” he added hastily, no doubt delighted to earn a few laughs, though he looked as po-faced as ever. “Do you ever think of anything but trains Silver?”
“No Sir. I mean yes Sir. Sometimes Sir.”
“But not when we are talking about poetry.”
“No Sir. I mean...”
“There's only one thing I can think of Silver to overcome the difficulty you obviously have and that is to try to combine your passion for railway locomotion with what you should be thinking about during my lesson. You can write me a poem, Silver. Let's say about twenty lines. On trains. Now that should suit you fine, shouldn't it?”
“Er, not really Sir...” I began to say. But I couldn't get the thought out of my mind that if he started fishing around on my desk he might find the little verse I'd already scribbled. “I mean yes Sir...”
“Good. You can bring it to me in the morning.”
“But what Silver?”
“... Nothing Sir.”
* * *
He howled for the first six months. Almost non-stop. “Colic!” they said – the pundits, the ones with an instant answer to every care caused by the additions to other people's families. “It's colic, poor thing! Colic!”
“Get a hot water bottle.”
“Turn him over.”
“Lay him across your lap.”
“Pick him up.”
“Put him down.”
The advice was as unending as it was conflicting. And useless. Nothing worked, except perhaps the plug. We bought him a special rack for his dummies. The pundits were horrified. “Filthy habit!” they might mumble, not quite out of earshot.
“Overworked tum,” said the down-to-earth doctor.
Which figured. The Bartlet was always hungry. Could never guzzle down enough. It was the same throughout his early childhood. The problem was not getting him to eat, but getting him to stop. No wonder his tum hurt. Whose wouldn't? So he howled.
People felt sorry for him, and said so, with never a word or gesture of sympathy for the prime sufferers, who piled sleepless nights upon stress-filled days till the strains could no longer be glossed over. Worse still, often they blamed us for his wails, as though we deliberately tormented him.
If there is one thing I have learnt in life, it is compassion for those who have begotten infants that screech and squall without end, for they are the true martyrs of mankind, tortured by day and by night, beset with doubt and beheld with contempt. What human personality can fail to undergo change after exposure to a prolonged dose of such treatment? If ever my ship comes home, my fortune made, I swear I shall endow a fat foundation for the psychiatric care of parents suffering from chronic bawling infantitis and its disastrous side effects. It is time someone stood up, aware of their plight, and championed their cause.
* * *
So that's this evening ruined, I thought when Birdie went back to the teacher's desk. I'd planned to go train spotting straight after school. But in fact, I got most of the poem done in the lunch break and finished it in maths in the afternoon. It went like this:
Give Me A Train
When moon doth wane
And dog doth strain,
When sky doth drain
And limbs do pain
(From outlawed cane) –
Give me a train.
When others stroll down country lane,
Observe the tit, the wheeling crane,
The ridge where ice once left moraine,
When endless lessons tire the brain
Till one wonders who is sane –
Give me a train.
It matters not I say,
Old or new,
By night or day.
A dreamlined, streamlined,
Or with puffing, hooting,
Hissing, steaming –
Perchance stopped and dreaming,
In the rain (t’wit).
As long as it’s a real life train.
OK, it was more than twenty lines. But that was to stop him complaining about their length. I know what he's like. As it was, when I handed it in the next day he glanced at it, cheeped a “Thank you Silver, there's nothing like poetry for improving the concentration,” and put it in his desk. But I could have sworn he had trouble keeping his pecker stiff and straight.
* * *
When sufficient damage had been done, he gave up howling on all occasions as a matter of pride and principle and kept his outbursts for specially selected moments, such as four-thirty in the morning, when he woke up. Always at the same time. He also kept his complaints for private consumption. When other people were around he’d sit up with sparkling eyes, full of goos and gahs and little giggles.
“What a delightful baby!”
“Isn't he pretty!”
“Just like my little grandson!”
“My Johnny used to be like that!”
“What a joy he must be!”
And they would coo and cluck and cackle over him, never understanding why he had such careworn parents.
* * *
Dad's a deadly menace in the kitchen. I think. Some might disagree. There are even those who say he could have been a chef, gawdelpus! Trouble is he's a veggie nut. An organic veggie nut into the bargain. Grows most of it himself. When he gets going in front of the cooker there's no telling what concoction he's going to come up with. You wouldn't believe such a mixture of rabbit feed was possible. And if he's in the mood, he'll give it fancy names as well, like pommes provençales, or soufflé espagnole, or boulettes á la this or that, instead of saying straight out: spuds with garlic, dumplings, or what-have-you. Then there are times when he won't go near the cooker at all if he can help it. Everything'll be as raw as the moment it came out of the ground, but scrubbed and scrubbed, and hacked to bits.
I suppose we all have our quirks. But give me a plateful of spaghetti with lashings of meat sauce any day. Or bangers and mash. Or an oversized hamburger. And heaven save me from those pommes provençales! They must have been developed as a secret weapon during the Second World War to keep invaders out of southern France.
Anyway, we came to an agreement, Dad and me – one veg-only night a week at most, no grated grass as main dish and no garlic. Ever! There was some pretty hard bargaining, I can tell you. But we hammered it out and put it in writing. There are what Birdie would call “differences of interpretation” at times all right, a few grumbles here and there, but on the whole it seems to work. Thank the Lord Mum's not like that. At her place it's fish fingers and chips, beefburgers and chips, beans and chips, with seldom a veg in sight. I sometimes wonder whether she got the way she is because of Dad, or whether he got the way he is because of her.
The night I got home from train spotting was a veggie night. I was so hungry I didn't care. Mushroom and tomato turnovers I think it was, with stuffed peppers, or aubergines, or something similar. It's all the same to me. And bean sprouts. There are always bean sprouts. Whole jars of them wherever you go. And some hacked raw green stuff. If you're really famished it'll go down I suppose.
We'd moved on to the fruit salad when he came out with it. “How would you like to spend the summer down on the Kent coast?” he said. Some people he knew with a big house overlooking the sea were going away for a few months and wanted him to look after it. Didn't sound very exciting. Worth a one-week visit maybe. Definitely not more. Place was miles from anywhere, but took passing bed-and-breakfasters and the owners didn't want to lose the trade.
Bit of a joke that was eh? Fancy asking Dad of all people! Or did they imagine the guests would appreciate bean sprouts for breakfast? With herb tea to wash 'em down! Those people would have been better off closing up for the season and opening again next year, without having their name dragged in the Vegemite. No. It didn't sound like anything for me. He'd have to sort it out with Mum. I'd have to stay with her from the end of May anyway if he was going to get down there early enough. Right until fairly late in July.
Then I remembered a promise he'd made. We were going to North Wales in the summer holiday on our Family Railcard, to visit the little railways. He couldn't run off somewhere else! A promise is a promise.
“But there's a railway right there in Kent,” he said. “A little railway. Runs right along the coast. They say it's the longest little railway in the world.”
“How far away is it?”
“From Folkestone, about ten miles.”
“From the house?”
“A day's march?”
“Roughly ten minutes' stroll up the road.”
“When do we leave?”