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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 10 (February 1, 1934)

Midnight! And Where Now?

page 31

Midnight! And Where Now?

As it struck we came laughing down the road, kicking at paper box lids on the ground, crowning the white railway gates with them, before we turned to cross the line and walk up to the signal box. There was gravel underfoot, stars overhead, coloured signals before us and the voices of men passing and a cold ironic smell about the tracks and yards. The crisp odour of iron sweating in the night air. Car lights shone on our faces while they were still a mile away … detectives of the night, these, that came with a slow searching scrutiny, a roar of first-degreeing naked, brilliant light, and then still doubting, passed with sweet screaming of wheels to the next lonely walker by night.

The signalman's buttons glittered as he stood on top of the steps of the signal box. He peered, invited, and we clattered up to him. Over his sore lips he roved a would-be healing tongue and smiled at us in the green-yellow undying glare of the small room. In black iron slots the signal levers stood regimentally. Black and white. Black and red. Some slanted outward to lock the lines for the train rumbling down the valley. Others stood upright in their iron busbies, deeply wounded with thick letters incised on them. “Home Goods Down.” “Home Goods Up.” “Crossover 14.” “Interlocking 12.” Others merely bore numbers. He patiently and intricately explained their uses. “You see, he (the signalman at the other end) can't move until I release his line, and I can't move till he releases me,” and the act of releasing was demonstrated with a tide of technical terms compared with which, the square on the hypotenuse and Lucian's most recondite dialogues were simple Simons of intellectual achievement. I couldn't understand, but didn't like to ask again and again. He took us down below, and under the signal box we discovered the iron serpents that lie there with their weighted tails and marry the lines, and, after the train has slid across, divorce them again. Toward those long cold coils he held an insufficient looking match, a titbit of light which they mutely rejected. “You see?” he said, but the match blotted out and we couldn't, so we went up the steps with him again.

The roar of the incoming train drowned all other noises and its far-away light whitened with a sort of fear the entire station, and an engine that had had a little to do with some cattle trucks now neatly rejoined its quiescent part and withdrew with much rattling conversation into a humble corner. But the great black bulk racing up the valley roared and came crashing into the station on lines which it ate up as fast as an Italian eats spaghetti, its pitiless metal passenger punctuated, its speed spinning them and its furniture into mere cones of colour.

We too, stood, whitened and awed, conjecturing, paying the great engine the respect we felt was due to it.

Then, suddenly, we remembered the signalman and turned to him, but he was swinging on the narrow arms of the levers, pulling them out, jerking them in and sliding them forward with a small, light energy. “Pulling out six and eight to let the engine come up and put off a couple of carriages,” he gasped hotly, remembering that we had asked him to tell us everything connected with his activity at this crucial moment. And …. the engine did come up to put off its carriages. Under the signal box it panted thirstily with the old song of steam and a reflective glow of action, and the driver got slowly down and crossed her smoking paws to come and see what was wrong with something, while the tall young fireman leapt up into the tender and gave the furnace's seethe something to live across, when his shovel hit the lumps of coal with a decided clang.

The signalman was talking instructively, and with half an ear we learnt that one cannot clear the line until the signals were clear … that the points and the lights worked together … that the work certainly is responsible (as we had respectfully hinted) but being accustomed to it, one does not feel it. There is still one cloudy point not cleared in the yards of my mind, something about a guard in the rear of a train signalling with a coloured light to advise a driver on a certain course of action … but, I don't know yet what he had to do. Therefore he stays with me still, that enigmatic guard, garbed in the clothes peculiar to the be-whiskered railway officials of the last century and waves his little lamp to the driver leaning with a bewildered gape from the cab. I tried to communicate some of this ill-managed state of thought to the signalman, but he picked up the receiver from its hook and into it said, “Yes. When I get this train off the road, I'll lock it and come down.” So, we made him a leg and departed.

The cab of the great engine above us was filled with things of shining marvel, with flames that quivered from iron to flesh … with blue lights and golden heats, and the driver seemed to be standing in the cell of a Titan's brain as he stood draining the enamel cup he held to his lips. And in the shadows of flame and dark that swept over him, this little commonplace action, that at the tea table seems so empty of any significance, became fine and real and pagan-god-refreshing-himself-like in that steam lion's cavern above the thin silver fire of the lines.