I love trains and I always feel a little sad when I come across an abandoned railway line. It feels like it should be something more important, but our love affair with the automobile led to the death of a trusted friend that we only see in our dreams.
Liam was out walking with his father one late summer’s afternoon, strolling through the fields near his uncle’s house. Liam’s family had visited with his uncle every summer for as long as Liam could remember, and long before that.
Walking in the fields was one of Liam’s great joys. It didn’t matter what the farmers were growing. Some grew hay for livestock, some grew long lines of lettuces or cabbages. Some had sheep or cattle. It was the walk through the openness of the fields, which was only broken up by property lines in the form of low ivy-coated stone walls, or the odd line of bushy trees that rustled in the easy breezes. The lines crossed over the low and gentle hills, like someone had laid down a huge patchwork quilt, made with a hundred shades of green.
Except for the odd car, the only other thing Liam could hear were the distant bleating of sheep, and his own feet as they walked through the grass. The sun shone bright, he felt warm and cozy, like waking up in bed on a Saturday morning when the house was still. He walked, listening to the stories his father would tell about when he was a boy, coming out to visit with his relatives, and walking around the fields with his father.
“See that tree?” asked Liam’s father, pointing to a large oak. “There was a tyre swing on that big branch. You can still see the band where the rope was.”
Liam squinted at the tree. There was a thin line, which looked sort of like his father’s finger whenever he took of his wedding ring to cook dinner. He could almost see the hemp rope dangling, the worn tyre swinging back and forth, with himself wedged in the centre, his legs dangling. “Yeah,” said Liam wistfully.
They walked further, crossing through a gap in another stone wall. Trees ran thickly in a line, splitting two fields. The walked into the next field, which was smaller than the others, empty grass except for five trees towards the north end, which were separated by a huge gap in the middle. They walked diagonally across the field, towards the middle of the gap.
“Whoa!” Liam squealed as his foot caught on the ground, and he started to tumble forward. He quickly caught himself and stood up.
“Are you okay?” asked his father.
“Yeah,” said Liam, and looked down. He realized that he had caught himself on a raised bit of ground. He then noticed that the raised bit of ground was a long raised bit of ground, and that the long raised bit of ground seemed to go in a fairly straight line. In fact, the line seemed to go back through the stone wall and off into the next field, and the field after that. Trees grew out of the side of the raised bit of ground, making the line easier to follow to the east and west. “Dad, what is this?”
“Huh?” asked Liam’s father, distracted by a distant memory.
“What’s this?” asked Liam, stamping on the ground with his foot.
“Oh, that? That’s the bed of an old railway that used to run through here,” said Liam’s father.
“There was a railway here?” asked Liam excitedly. He had a model train at home that he loved to play with.
“A long time ago. It was gone when I was your age,” said Liam’s father. “Actually, it might have been gone even when my dad was your age! I’m not sure.”
“Where did it go?” asked Liam, following the bed’s line.
“Out to the coast, I think,” said Liam’s father, looking to the east. “It probably connected with the main line,” he turned and faced the other direction, “about three or four miles that way.”
“‘Main line’? What’s that?” asked Liam.
“The big railway. The one that goes near our house?” Liam’s father suggested. They hadn’t taken the train to see Liam’s uncle. Car rides weren’t nearly as fun.
“So… trains used to go through here?” Liam asked.
“Oh yes, big ones, too.”
“How big?” asked Liam.
“Real big. Back then, they were all steam trains.”
“Really?” exclaimed Liam. Steam trains were his favourite. “Where did they go?”
“To be honest, I’m not sure. Probably out to the cities. That’s where everyone wanted to go. That’s where all the dreams were made,” said Liam’s father with a smile. “Where the people went to see the sights, where you could find anything you could imagine.”
Liam looked down at the ground. The grass on the bed was thinner than on the ground to either side, and some of the heavy gravel that made up the bed was still visible. He shuffled his feet a little, and felt the stiffness of the stones. “Dreams,” he said to himself. He let his mind wander, and started to daydream.
He noticed a faint outline of a piece of wood. It was about as wide as his foot, and as long as the width of the road bed. Then he noticed another one near it. And another. Slowly, more of the wooden ties slowly rose up through the grass, growing like strange long brown mushrooms. The grasses between the ties grew backwards, diving into the stones and disappearing, exposing the whitish-grey rail bed.
Liam looked up. The field looked … different. The trees were shrinking into small bushes and shrubs. The stone walls between the fields seemed to sink into the ground like a strange submarine. He looked about, and could not see his father. But Liam wasn’t scared — he wanted to watch.
The ends of each brown wooden tie sprouted something that unfurled like a fern frond. They were a darker brown than the tie, and much taller than any frond Liam had ever seen on his walks near the brooks and creeks. They grew up and up, then fell down to lay atop the ties on either side, one frond upon another. They kept unfurling, twisting together, growing larger and stronger until they formed a solid rail.
A train track lay beneath Liam’s feet, extending as far as he could see in either direction. The walls and trees and bushes and roads that had once covered the tracks were gone. He bent down and touched the track. The rail felt cold in his hand, the top shiny and smooth from the train wheels.
Under his hand, Liam felt a vibration. Something was coming! He leapt off the tracks just as he heard a whistle coming from around a bend in the tracks some distance away. From behind a clump of trees he saw … smoke! Smoke was flying into the sky, moving across the tops of the trees. He heard the whistle again just as he saw the front of a steam train coming around the bend, heading towards him!
Liam stepped back a bit further as the train barrelled towards him like a bellowing iron dragon. The head of the dragon was a kingly sky blue locomotive with long curves from the front to the rear. Behind it were eight beautiful passenger coaches, a light tan on top with a deep, rich brown on the bottom. The train didn’t slow, and the locomotive whistled loudly as it roared past. The massive wheels twirled, the huge piston rods banged. Liam waved mightily to anyone on the train who might notice him.
And suddenly, Liam found himself standing not on the grass, but in the middle of a passenger coach. It seemed like the inside of some grand hotel he’d seen once before: deep reddish-brown wood that lovingly wrapped around the windows. The carpet on the floor was like a deep grass green, and wonderfully soft. Instead of benches, there were huge stuffed armchairs with deep red leather, gathered around small round tables in groups of four. Liam listened to the rapid clickety-clack of the wheels as the train sped along.
“Welcome aboard, sir!” said a voice. Liam spun on his heel and saw an older man in a dark blue suit with bright brass buttons, and a cap that read: Conductor.
“I… I… I…,” Liam stuttered, trying to think of how he got on a train. A train that was riding on rails that hadn’t even existed a few moments earlier!
“You don’t need a ticket, Liam!” said the Conductor. He cupped his arm around Liam’s back and took hold of Liam’s shoulder. He walked him through the car to the largest, most comfortable-looking chair of them all.
“Where … where are we going?” asked Liam.
“Does it matter? Sometimes it just matters to be on a train. Where it’s going is unimportant,” suggested the Conductor.
“But … well, I guess the ride might be nice,” said Liam, looking out the window as the countryside sped past.
“Would you be hungry, by chance?” asked the Conductor.
Liam’s stomach growled as if the question had been meant for it. It had been a couple of hours since lunch, and after all the walking… “I would very much like a snack, thank you!” he said.
“Waiter!” called the Conductor.
Almost immediately, a smaller man with a thin layer of dark hair, wearing a stark white jacket with brass buttons that matched the Conductor’s, appeared pushing a small cart with a cream tea set. He quickly laid out the small tea pot after pouring the first cup, a small plate with two scones, the clotted cream, strawberry preserves, along with a small pitcher of milk, a slice of lemon, and a little jar of honey.
“How did you know?” asked Liam, startled.
“Why, it’s your favourite, of course!” said the waiter, as he bowed, and disappeared.
“Enjoy your tea, sir!” said the Conductor, who headed off down the car.
Liam looked out the window. The rolling hills drifted past his window like clouds on a sunny day. The trees blurred past. Every so often, they would approach a small town, announced by the shrill whistle of the locomotive. The townsfolk seemed to all be lining the tracks, and waved enthusiastically to Liam as they went past. He waved back, regally twisting his hand at the wrist.
The hills sudden gave way to a tremendous valley. The train crossed the valley atop an equally tremendous viaduct that curved to the other side, rising from deep in the valley in arch after arch. Down the valley, Liam could see a vast sea that sparkled in the late afternoon sun.
“Are you enjoying your trip, Liam?” asked the Conductor, reappearing at Liam’s side.
“Oh very much, yes, thank you. Though I have been wondering…”
“Where are we going?” smiled the Conductor.
“Could you give me a hint?”
“Where you’ve never been before, and always dreamed you could go!” the Conductor laughed.
Liam thought about that. Where had he always wanted to go? Sure, there were all sorts of neat places he could think of, but none of them really seemed like somewhere he’d wished to see. The world was full of big cities, or football pitches, or sunny beaches. He could go to them any time he wanted. “What’s it called?” he asked.
“You don’t know?” asked the Conductor. He leaned forward, placing his hands on his knees, and came face-to-face with Liam. “But it was your dream!”
“My dream?” asked Liam.
“You don’t remember?” asked the Conductor.
“I … I don’t know what I dreamed I wanted to see,” said Liam quietly. He felt bad, like when he’d lost his favourite marble.
The Conductor leaned in close. “Think of a great city on the sea…”
A faint spark burst in the depths of Liam’s mind.
“…With great towers of white stone…”
The spark grew brighter.
“…The winding streets filled with lights…”
Liam’s eyes flew open. “Castle Liam! I remember!”
As if Liam’s announcement were a command, the sun quickly set into the horizon, somewhere in the distance ahead of the train. The stars popped out one at a time, quickly turning the deep black sky into a field of tiny sparkles overhead. The rolling hills outside the coach had flattened, the grass disappearing into the cracks of cobblestones. And suddenly, they entered a great trainshed, covered with immense glass-filled arches.
“We’re here!” the Conductor crowed, and led Liam to one of the doors. The Conductor threw open the door, and Liam stepped out onto a steamy, misty platform. At the front of the train, the locomotive sat, hissing and humming to itself. They walked through the huge station building, which had huge stone columns and gilded arches, with a huge gold clock that hung in the middle of the huge room.
Out the front doors they stepped, into the edge of a city he had only ever seen in his mind. Above him, the stars in the sky seemed to dance to an unheard rhythm. Before him, lay the huge Great Gate that led into the centre of the city, where lay the massive Castle Liam, which rose above the coast in a great white spiral from the ground. Towers sprang from the spiral as it grew, each a different width and height, but all topped with shiny blue cones. The walls had countless portals, which formed into bridges above houses and halls, whisking countless people from where they were to where they wanted to go.
Lights seemed to burst from every corner, from every street, from every rampart, in great iron stands that held a wonderful yellow light. It glowed like the warmth of the sun, casting beautiful shades on every surface, turning the white of castle to the colour of warm sand. The shadows the lights left behind were playful, moving in tune with the people who seemed to fill every street. Even the sun wanted to play a part, and stopped its decent, leaving a thin strip of light where it met the edge of the sea.
The city was coming to life, woken from its long slumber. Music erupted from every street, the joyous notes filling the late dusk sky. Flags leaped out from their poles, banners unfurled from the tallest towers into the night breeze. Whistles and shouts were followed by firecrackers and the bright booms of fireworks.
“Is that Liam?” asked an unseen voice from high on a wall.
“It is! It is Liam! Liam’s here! Liam’s returned!” shouted another.
“It’s Liam!” rippled through the city streets, followed by great cries and hollers. “Let the celebration begin!”
“Shall we?” asked the Conductor with a great smile.
“Yes!” smiled Liam, and they walked through the Great Gate into the city. The streets were narrow, with two- and three-storey houses that nearly touched across the streets at the top. The streets weaved back and forth towards Castle Liam, under the bridges of the spiral. From every door and every street, people appeared in their finest dress, singing and dancing, joining into a massive crowd dressed in every imaginable colour, in a thousand different costumes. Some wore masks, some wore silly hats adorned with bells. Some wore floppy shoes while some wore no shoes at all. Together, they entered the Grand Plaza, at the entrance to Castle Liam.
The Grand Plaza was ringed with stores selling cakes and sweets and breads and pastries. Every tree was lit with tiny lights. Along ropes that strung across the square in a huge X were lanterns of a dozen sizes, which lit the performers who were entertaining all who came. Some ate fire from a stick, then blew out huge balls of flame from their mouths. People juggled, people danced, people sang, people swung on swings that seemed to hang from the stars themselves.
“Have some cake!” squealed a woman, thrusting a piece of cake right into Liam’s hands. He quickly took a bite, and tasted fresh strawberries and raspberries, with jam filling, and a vanilla whipped cream icing.
“Have a lollipop!” said a girl, who presented a huge circular candy upon a large stick. It was a rainbow-coloured swirl that seemed to change taste with every lick.
“Candy apple?” asked a clown dressed in purple and red frills, with bright yellow hair, as he rolled past on an impossibly small tricycle. Liam nodded and bowed, and took a huge bite of the deliciously sweet treat.
“Your attention, please!” called a voice. Everyone turned to look at the man standing on a balcony in the centre building overlooking the Grand Plaza. “In accordance with his majesty, we declare this to be Liam’s Day! All hail King Liam!” The crowd, of course, gave a tremendous cheer.
Several people picked Liam up, carrying him on his shoulders. All around, the crowd began to chant: “Liam! Liam! Liam!”
Liam snapped out of his daydream, and looked up at his father. He quickly looked down to his feet. The rails had disappeared, the wooden ties sunk back into oblivion. He blinked a moment. The dream, for now, had gone. “Hey, dad, why did the railway go away?”
“I guess it was too hard to run, the company ran out of money. It happened a lot back then. The only thing left of it is the bed,” Liam’s father explained.
“Hey Dad, can we follow the tracks?” shouted Liam, and started running down the line. “Who knows where they’ll lead!”