'The Flight of the Cuckoo' by Joseph Darlington

Updated: Jul 9, 2019



It was a sad day for Ivor Williams. A sad day for the Cuckoo. It was the first day of the last week that the Cuckoo would make its run.


The Cuckoo was the last steam train in England to run a passenger service. It did so between Langley Head, Mitterdale, and Avon Murray; the ‘H’ line, as it was known, on account of it being in the middle of nowhere. On the journey out it would pick up an average of eight passengers and on the way back it would carry the same.


On a sunny Saturday it could pass double figures. On a rainy Saturday it could be zero. Needless to say, there were far more rainy Saturdays than sunny ones.


As they crested Gasterwater Brow and began the descent into Cobblethwaite, Ivor pulled off his driver’s cap and poked his head out the window. There was nothing like the smell of steam and the wind blowing through your hair – or what was left of it. Ivor felt old. It wouldn’t be too long before he would be for the scrap heap too.


Ivor and the Cuckoo were one and the same. Entities out of their time. Too old to even be old fashioned. Merely relics, throwbacks.


They had never quite managed to explain to him why the steam train was still in usage. It didn’t help that every time he travelled to the regional administrative complex he found the place locked down in strikes, or else his old boss had been fired and replaced, or that to get in he needed a passkey or a QR code or some new thing he’d never heard of.


“Check your emails,” the security guard had once told him.


“My what?”


In lieu of clear instructions, Ivor had kept on, driving the Cuckoo over the hills and through the valleys, carrying passengers and stamping their tickets. He had done so for thirty-five years now.


The Cuckoo, he thought, must not be on their computers. And if it isn’t on their computers, then they’re not interested.


Then, suddenly, they were interested.


As he pulled in to Saddleton Massey one morning, loosing the steam and taking on water as usual, a man stepped out from the dense cloud that encircled them. He wasn’t wearing a uniform. Some kind of private courier, Ivor supposed. He signed for the letter on the courier’s machine and opened it, learning then of the sad news. They were retiring the Cuckoo.


That was two and a half weeks ago. Since then, Ivor Williams had taken all the pleasure he could manage from his familiar surroundings. The clank of the uneven tracks by Dobley Moor. The hiss of steam as fresh water hit the tank. Gnarled trees passing, rolling fields passing, and the curious faces of the cows as they passed by. He absorbed them all.


It wouldn’t be the same, he knew, once the Cuckoo had flown its nest. He’d be left with some diesel-driven catastrophe. A Northern Rail Pacer with two carriages that were actually just old Leyland Buses fitted with new wheels. He shuddered to think.


Ivor unpacked his last jam sandwich as they turned the bend into the valley. Avon Murray, their final destination, waited there to embrace them. With a grin that had never left him in thirty-five years of doing it, he pulled the chord that engaged the whistle. Three big parps, and the way was clear.


He disengaged the steam and put his hand to the brake. Home stretch.


As the smoke-blackened engine rolled to a stop, Ivor Williams saw the familiar figure of Tina Williams, no relation, clinging to her binoculars and ticking him off on her clipboard. As he got nearer she began her usual shouting.


“Oy mister! Can I ‘ave a go?”


Ivor straightened his cap in the side-mirror and looked as official as he could manage.


“I’m sorry ma’am, but its trained professionals only in the driver’s cabin. Them’s the rules.”


“The rules are rubbish!” she waved back. “Go on, let us ‘ave a go!”


Ivor grinned and shook his head. She was always like this. Always had been, ever since she’d taken up trainspotting, about twenty-two years ago now.


He pulled the Cuckoo in to Avon Murray station, engaged the parking break and disengaged the engine for the night. The last of the coal and steam would have to burn down before he could clean out the furnace, but in the meantime he was free to go and get a pint.


He stepped out on to the platform, nodding at the two pedestrians who had disembarked with him. Then, wrapping his company overcoat over his bare shirtsleeves, he toddled towards the exit.


He was met there, as always, by Tina. Today she’d brought him a mini pork pie, which she thrust ardently into his coal-dusted hand. She gave a breathy report of his success at, once again, arriving exactly on time, precise to the minute, all according to schedule.


“That’s two months in a row!” she beamed.


“Aye,” Ivor nodded. “Well that’s what they pay me for.” He looked at her awkwardly, she strumming her fingers along the back of her clipboard in excitement. Scratching the back of his head, he asked, “Shall we get a pint then?”


*


The Hatters’ Arms was a narrow, some would say cosy, pebbledashed pub just across the cobbles from Avon Murray station. Today, as every day, Ivor plodded across the road and in through the Hatter’s heavy doors, Tina following in his wake.


“Pint, Ivor?” the landlord nodded.


“Aye,” Ivor nodded. “Tina too.”


The landlord grinned. “Oh, sorry Tina. Didn’t see you there.”


Tina blushed as she walked hurried past the bar to find their usual nook. Ivor stood, waiting for the pints, his ten pound note held out in front of him all the while. The landlord made some passing observations about the weather that morning and Ivor nodded, confirming them. Soon, pints poured, he toddled off to Tina and settled himself in the corner. His eyes, firmly settled on his pint, turned instantly misty.


“I don’t know what I shall do, Tina. I cannot give up my uniform: it’s who I am. But to ride another train now, after so many years on the Cuckoo. It would feel like adultery. Like blasphemy even.”


“It’s a nice train,” Tina nodded. Seeing Ivor furrow his brows she continued; “the nicest, in fact.”


“It is that.” Ivor confirmed.


Ivor lost himself in his thoughts. Tina lifted out a pack of crisps from her bag and began eating them.


From around the corner, the landlord called out, “Oy! I can hear that, Tina!”


“Som-reh!” she apologised, mouth full of Walkers.


“You know, this uniform, it makes me a part of history,” Ivor nodded. “I’ve never really thought about it until this week, but now it’s all coming to a close I realise how lucky I’ve been. These railbuses… these electric trams… they might be all well and good for new drivers, those who are just out of school and have never driven anything more complicated than a six-gear bicycle, but there’s no art in them, no science.


“You know, to get the steam up in the morning I’m doing the jobs that two or three people would have done back in the day. Driving is only half the trouble, and the easier half at that. The rest is managing pressure, keeping up a head of stream, and dealing with the system when it goes wrong, which it does often. Very often, I can tell you. Yes, with the old steam trains, even some of those first diesel ones, you need a professional man aboard. Someone who knows what they’re doing.”


“That’s you,” Tina smiled.


Ivor nodded, lifting up his chin like a mural. “Aye,” he confirmed.


Tina sipped more of her pint. “They look nicer too.”


Ivor nodded. “Aye, that they do.”


The pub was nearly empty, but for the usual group of old and hard-done-by men who spent their afternoons there, reading the paper and nursing a pint of mild. Normally these men were lost in their own worlds, but there was one, there at the bar, whose ears had pricked up.


“You see the steam engine has a noble history,” Ivor continued, “and it’s due to the people in uniforms like this that it changed the world. Human and steam, coming together to make movement.” He broke from his reflections for a moment to offer Tina a fact. “You know the ancient Greeks had a steam engine?”


“The Aeolipile,” Tina grinned, “it was kind of a novelty thing. For their temples.”


“Aye,” Ivor nodded, recalling now that it was Tina who’d told him about it. “And they never thought to do much with it, other than gawp at it. No, it took engineers. Peoples in uniforms, like this one, to get it going.”


Tina sipped her beer and smiled. She wasn’t entirely confident in the veracity of Ivor’s claims, but he seemed to be building to something else, so she sat and listened politely.


“If it wasn’t for men and women in uniforms,” Ivor nodded, “skilled workers, like, then we’d still be back in those dark ages.” He swallowed a mouthful of his pint and made his closing statement; “and now they’ll do all they can to get rid of us!”


“Hear hear!” came a cry from the bar.


It was one of the regulars, stockily built with a droopy old moustache and unkempt hair. He was slapping the bar and nodding, struggling to get of his stool, which he knocked to the floor seconds later.


“I concur absolutely with that sentiment, brother,” the man nodded, leaning in to Ivor now with a hand outstretched. “Let me shake your hand, and buy you a pint while I’m at it.”


“Oh no,” Ivor shook his head. “Just the one for me. I thank you for the applause, however.”


The men shook hands, and then the man shook Tina’s hand, and then Tina turned to Ivor, offering her hand, which he proceeded to look at, baffled.


“I was the branch secretary of the union around here,” the stranger grinned, showing gapped teeth. “Name of Bob Tuffort.”


“Not the Bob Tuffort-” Ivor began


“The very same,” Bob nodded. “And I’ve not heard words like that for many a year. The union’s put me out to pension. I’m wasting away here. I told them, I did, that soon there’d be no trains serving Avon Murray at all… and now you say you’re being laid off?”


“Perhaps,” Ivor shrugged. “All I know is they’re scrapping the Cuckoo.”


“The Cuckoo?” Bob Tuffort pulled off his flatcap and held it to his chest. Tina, mimicking Bob’s reverence, crossed herself. “Why,” Bob sniffed, “they can’t take the Cuckoo.”


Bob sighed deeply. “They can and they will. This is our last week. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to help the old lass warm down.”


He sank the last of his pint and shook Bob Tuffort’s hand one more time on the way out. Tina waved to Ivor as he left. Turning to take an interest now in Bob, who no doubt had train stories too. Just another day, just like the one before, but what the next would hold, nobody knew.


*


The next day Ivor Williams ran the Cuckoo just the same as always. He watched the crows gathering in the fields and smelt the biscuity steam as it lingered in the cabin after a tunnel. He would miss it. He almost missed it now, even as it happened, with each moment passing by before him like images from a dream. He wondered which of them he would remember. Which, out of all of these pictures, would actually impress itself onto his mind, and which would simply slough off and get blown off into the steamy air.


He hit Saddleton Massey on time, then Gasterwater Brow. He was a little late on the Cobblethwaite descent, but he made up his time and, as he approached Avon Murray, he was relieved to see Tina there, just as always, ticking him off on her clipboard and crying out:


“Two months and a day, Ivor! Nearly a new record!”


Ivor tipped his cap in recognition.


“Now can I ‘ave a go?”


“Sorry, ma’am,” Ivor folded his arms, “no can do. It’s the rules.”


“The rules are rubbish! Let us ‘ave a go!”


Then, as the train pulled into Avon Murray station and Ivor disengaged the steam, he was surprised to hear a knocking on the cabin window. He turned to see Tina’s face, smiling up at him through the porthole.


“What is it, Tina?” Ivor swung open the iron door. “You never normally come onto the platform. Is something up?”


“You could say that,” Tina grinned. She had a map clasped tightly in her hands and, shaking a little with anticipation, she pulled it open in front of him. Ivor scratched his head.


“I’ve found an answer!” Tina laughed. “I’ve found how we can save the Cuckoo. It’s here,” she jabbed a finger into a fold of the map, somewhere in mid-Wales, “the Cymru Steam Park! ‘A Haven for Trains’, they call it!”


Ivor reached into his top pocket and lifted out his reading glasses. “Oh aye?” he blinked, seeing the name right there, in black and white. “And what’s that then?”


“It’s a place for retired steam trains. They run them every day. They even make passenger journeys sometimes along neglected commuter lines. It’s like a big museum, but their trains have the run of all of Wales,” she chuckled, “with the right scheduling beforehand, of course.”


Ivor leaned back and crossed his arms. It seemed too good to be true. His heart pounded in his chest as he realised that this really could be the answer he’d been looking for; an answer he had known, logically, couldn’t exist. But then here it was before him. There had to be a catch.


“So what’s the catch?” Ivor rubbed his chin with his coal-blackened fingers. “If this has been here all this time, how come I’ve never heard of it?”


“Well,” Tina swallowed, “it turns out that the train companies in England don’t like the Welsh way of doing things. They say that they can’t have the old steam engines clogging up the lines. So, as much as I hate to say it, they won’t let us take the Cuckoo there. They still want to retire it. I spoke to them before on the phone.”


“Right,” Ivor took off his reading glasses. “So, if we can’t take the Cuckoo there, then why are you even bringing it up, Tina?”


“Well,” Tina swallowed, “that’s because there is another plan, you see. But it’s not what you’d call, ‘in compliance with company standards…’”


“Oh aye?”


Tina nodded. “Yes. You see, if we can just get the Cuckoo past Liverpool, then we can ride her all the way down to the Steam Park no problem.”


“You mean steal the Cuckoo?”


“It’s just going to the scrapheap otherwise,” Tina frowned.


“Well,” Ivor scratched at his chin again. He looked down at his uniform. He took off his engineer’s cap and held it in his hands. He ran his grubby finger over the badge. His badge still held a steam engine on it, a viaduct, and a cogwheel spinning. The new ones, so he heard, just had some corporate logo. A blue circle being cut in half by a purple squiggle. Ivor swallowed and replaced his cap, then turned back to Tina. “Okay, I suppose if it means saving the Cuckoo then we can go against regulations. Just this once. So, what’s the plan?”


“I’m glad you asked,” came a voice from outside of the cabin.


The moustachioed figure of Bob Tuffort climbed into the cab, already unfolding a huge set of blueprints. They were the route maps for the entire North of England and Wales. He set them down on Ivor’s stool and the three of them huddled round. The plan, it was clear, had been thoroughly worked out.


*


It was the last day of the Cuckoo’s official running as a North-Western Rail engine. Ivor’s heart was beating hard in his chest, thumping along to the turning of the wheels and the chuffing of the steam. The greenery passed him; more alive than ever, but for once his mind was set on other things.


He made the stops just as always. If anything, he was just a little ahead of time, but then he couldn’t bear to be late, not today.


As he made the final run into Avon Murray he could see the crowds awaiting him. Tina had spread the word about this being the last flight of the Cuckoo. Despite the train being so little used by the local community, it soon became clear that they held the grubby little engine dear. The local band turned out, blasting brass to the skies, as the air filled with banners and balloons. Cake stalls and chippy vans turned out. Children had ice creams and nobody knew where they’d got them from.


At the final critical moments, timed precisely to the minute, the music swelled to a peak and Tina held up her clipboard to tick off the final arrival of the Cuckoo into Avon Murray.


“How am I doing, Tina?” Ivor called out over the noise of cheering.


“Two months, two days,” Tina beamed. “That’s a new record!”


The Cuckoo pulled triumphantly to a stop, unleashing a huge gust of steam over the assembled crowd. Then, as Ivor stepped out of the cabin onto the rickety old iron steps, the crowd burst into applause. The three passengers who’d used the line that day jumped out of their carriages confused, and quickly scurried off.


“Thank’ee, thank’ee!” Ivor waved his hat and the crowd grew quiet.


“You know I’m not by constitution a speaking man,” Ivor rubbed his hand against his jacket pocket, “but I figure that I ought to say something, considering the many years I’ve been piloting this engine.”


There was a big cheer that quickly stilled.


“You see, as I see it,” Ivor began, scratching his head to remind himself of the lines. “There are two different ways of looking at the world. There’s them as looks backwards, to what’s already gone behind them, and there’s them that looks onwards, to try and see what’s coming up ahead. Now, in thirty-five years of doing this job what I’ve learned is that if you aren’t looking both forwards and backwards, then you’re going to be in a whole heap of trouble. In fact, if you aren’t looking out for what’s in front, and seeing what’s behind, and keeping a close eye on what’s around you right now for that matter, then you can’t rightly say that you’re doing any looking at all!”


The crowd cheered. They weren’t entirely certain of what Ivor meant, but they felt the general sentiment, and all agreed that he looked very fine in his blue coat with its golden buttons.


“Now this fine old engine,” Ivor continued, slapping the side of the Cuckoo with affection, “is going to be led away for scrap. Perhaps it’s no bad thing. After all, there was many back then, when engines like this were first made, that lamented the end of the canals, and before that it was the horses and carts. So, perhaps we’re right to move on…”


Ivor could feel the crowd getting anxious. Tina had disappeared into them. She was somewhere out there. He carried on.


“Perhaps the diesel engine they get in to replace her will bring about a new era of rail travel for Avon Murray and the surrounding district. I mean, maybe they used to be buses that were turned into trains during the eighties, you know, all as a result of a rushed-though privatisation… and maybe they belch out fumes and leak oil and are generally far worse for the environment… but they’re easy to drive, eh?”


Mutters of discontent were passing around the crowd now. Ivor swallowed, wondering if he had laid it on too thick. But then, late as they always were, a noise at the rear of the crowd signified the arrival of the railway company.


“It’s the company’s lorry!” Tina called out, buried within the crowd. “They’ve come to take the Cuckoo! Stop them!”


“Yeah!” an unknown member of the public shouted.


“They can’t take the Cuckoo!” said another.


One man couldn’t think of words so just made a disgruntled noise.


Soon the rail company’s flatbed truck was surrounded by angry, yelling countryfolk. They jostled it and hammered on its wheels and its doors. The brass band opened up again, playing a rendition of a Rage Against the Machine song, and the banners and balloons seemed to take on the look of placards.


Freeing herself from the crowd, Tina hopped up into the cab. Ivor was already easing the Cuckoo out of the station and increasing the steam. The carriages decoupled and pushed into a siding, the Cuckoo built up momentum, soon flying out of Avon Murray, up Cobblethwaite and out into the direction of Saddleton Massey, and beyond – all the while driving backwards.


At Saddleton station they met the station master. After thirty-five years of seeing the Cuckoo in and out, he was happy to help for this one afternoon. Even if it was risking his job, the job itself had all been computerised and centralised now, and he was a few months from retirement anyway. The Cuckoo pulled in to the turntable, ticked slowly around to orientate Southwards, and then puffed away along the old neglected Chipperham route in the direction of Liverpool.


They passed Globham and Marley, Peasfold and Gluckampton. Barley Foot station waved them by, and they were cheered by the station master at Suddon Coalway. Ivor held the Cuckoo steady, his attention switching between the tracks, the driving instruments, the boiler readings and the coal scuttle, all with his usual practiced swiftness. Tina ran her fingers along the complex blueprints, mapping out for them the best routes to take, one ear held close to her radio that had been tuned illegally to the railway company’s frequencies. She had to keep them away from active lines. If they met another train, it was as good as over.


Then, as they approached the Wirral and moved down towards Liverpool, the radio went quiet. The tracks too had gone quiet. Ivor looked at Tina, who in turn looked at her watch.


“Time for the news?” Ivor asked.


Tina nodded, and switched on the radio.


“Our top story tonight: railways across the greater Liverpool area have ground to a halt as a series of local union branches announced wildcat strikes. Radical union leader, Bob Tuffort, says that all trains will be cancelled for the next four hours if the rail companies don’t agree to get around the table and discuss the union’s demands.”


“Frankly, we don’t know what these demands even are,” a spokesman from the company could be heard to say.


Then, through the radio, came the gruff voice of Bob Tuffort, responding to the company’s statement. “Oh, they know what the demands are alright! They’re the same as they’ve always been. The problem with the company is they don’t listen. We want justice, and we won’t move until we get it. Good luck you two!”


What the rest of the news show’s listeners thought of Bob Tuffort’s last sentence, Tina and Ivor couldn’t guess. They were so sick of hearing about industrial actions that it was likely that none of them were listening anyway. Nevertheless, Ivor gave Bob a proud salute as he passed through the Liverpool central line, totally unopposed, and Tina laughed and waved as shoppers watched a steam train pass through their streets for the first time in half a century.


Once they were safely through Liverpool it was all downhill from there. Well, Ivor corrected Tina, being Wales there would be a lot of uphill too, but the general point was accepted. The fields gave way to the hills and valleys. The sky turned from a daring blue to a comforting grey. The tracks became precarious, narrow and twisting. Perfect driving conditions.


“You know Tina,” Ivor swallowed. “I don’t know if we’re going to make it or not, but I have to say that this has been a real turn out for the books.”


“Aye,” Tina nodded.


“And it goes to show that if you don’t try, then you’ll never know,” Ivor nodded. “And that… and that…”


Tina patted him on the back, before swinging out on to the siderail and beaming down at the long, flat valley ahead of them. She looked at Ivor, who looked back at her.


“Oy mister!” Tina grinned. “Can I ‘ave a go?”


Ivor stifled a grin. “Well, ma’am, the rules does say…”


“What do the rules say?”


“They say…” Ivor laughed. “Oh, forget what they say! Come ‘ere!”


And Ivor showed her the driving controls and the boiler controls, the various hinges and handles, and the last thing of all that he showed her was the whistle. And the whistle whistled, announcing the coming of the Cuckoo down the Cllelan Valley Line, and the signpost read “twelve miles to Cymru Steam Park”.





Joseph Darlington is a writer from Manchester, UK. His work, including the short story collection Avon Murray (No-Name Press, 2016) is available from www.josefadarlington.co.uk, and he can be found on Twitter at @Joe_Darlo.

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