It was to be the Storybook Festival on the Skarloey Railway. People from near and far would come to admire the engines and hear the stories that had been written about them. All the little engines had received new coats of paint for the occasion, and were quite excited.
Rheneas gave Duncan a bump on accident as he was shunting his trucks into place.
“Mind the paint!” hissed Duncan. “I’ll no’ have it scratched before the Festival. Not that I expect anyone will notice if it is,” he huffed. “Every year they come to see the Little Old Engines, not poor Duncan, no sir. All the work I do, and none of the credit–”
Skarloey was sitting at the other platform watching them. He laughed. “Now, now. I don’t think The Thin Controller would be very happy if his favourite engine didn’t look his best,” he said, and he winked at Rheneas, like this.
“Quit yer foolin’,” spluttered Duncan. “There’s no call for cruel jokes.”
“No need to be cross, Duncan,” said Rheneas cheerfully as he rolled up alongside. “That’s unbecoming behaviour for The Thin Controller’s favourite engine.” He and Skarloey laughed and pulled away, leaving Duncan red-faced at the station.
Duncan was in quite a state as he chuffed along the line to the Quarry.
“Favourite, indeed! Favourite, indeed!” he grumbled as he trundled along. At the next station, he found Sir Handel and Peter Sam chatting about the Festival.
“Who do you think is The Thin Controller’s favourite engine?” said Duncan, butting in.
Sir Handel and Peter Sam looked at him, puzzled.
“Well, all us engines are important to the Railway,” hedged Peter Sam. “It’s not so much that he thinks one of us is better than the others–”
“–but it’s you, isn’t it, Duncan?” finished Sir Handel, raising an eyebrow.
“How can tha’ be?” said Duncan crossly. “He’s always scoldin’ me. Givin’ me the heaviest trains. That’s no way to treat an engine!”
“He scolds you because he doesn’t want you to damage yourself,” replied Peter Sam.
“And he gives you the heaviest trains because you’re the strongest,” said Sir Handel.
“He knows with you, they’ll always get there on time!” added Peter Sam.
Duncan was furious. “You’re both bein’ silly,” he weeshed. “I’m no one’s favourite!” And he huffed away.
At the Quarry, Rusty sat patiently waiting for the trucks. When Duncan arrived, red-faced and spluttering, Rusty gave him a cheerful beep-boop. “Hullo, Duncan! You look ready for the Festival. Are you planning to make that face for the pictures?”
“Everyone is makin’ fun of me, sayin’ I’m The Thin Controller’s favourite engine,” fumed Duncan. “Can you believe tha’?”
“I can,” said Rusty. “I expect they said that because it’s true.”
“I s’pose you all think this is a great joke,” said Duncan, miserable now. “Payin’ me out like this when I’ve done nothin’ wrong, makin’ me feel foolish.”
Rusty paid him no mind, instead buffering up to the rear of the train as Duncan was uncoupled.
“It’s ridiculous,” he bemoaned. “I’m no’ some ‘splendid’ Little Old Engine. I’m a plain-speakin’ factory engine. I say what’s on my mind, no bother. I’m no one’s favourite engine, least of all The Thin Controller’s. He probably thinks as little of me as you lot seem to!”
After a moment of silence, Rusty honked loudly.
“You great, silly engine! Were that I you, and I couldn’t see past the end of my own nose! How simple life would seem, indeed!” Rusty pulled up alongside Duncan, puffing a cloud of black smoke in his direction, as cross as Duncan had ever seen. “If you’re so worried about it, go and ask him yourself,” snapped Rusty, rolling away and leaving Duncan speechless.
The Thin Controller was on the platform at the station making Arrangements for the Festival with the Station Manager. Duncan chuffed slowly forward, stopping short of them to wait for the conversation to finish. Even after the Station Manager left, The Thin Controller had not looked up from his clipboard.
Duncan’s wheels wobbled. He was suddenly quite nervous.
“Hello Duncan.” The Thin Controller’s words startled him, and he abruptly hooted his whistle in surprise.
“Hullo! Afternoon, Sir,” he said.
“I’m very busy, Duncan.” The Thin Controller flipped a page over his clipboard. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“No– well, yes. Not ‘help’ as such, Sir. It’s just–” said Duncan, bumbling over his words. At this, The Thin Controller looked up.
“It’s the other engines, Sir. They’ve been teasin’ me all day, sayin’ that I’m your favourite engine, which of course I said was ridiculous, Sir.” Duncan studied the track ahead of him intently. “I didn’t want the word to reach you and you thinkin’ I was all puffed-up in the smokebox, Sir. I expect they think it’s a great joke, seein’ as I’m just a coarse and plain factory engine who can’t go two days without a scoldin’, so they’re saying things that aren’t true. Can’t be true.” Duncan closed his eyes.
“An’ I figure since you have the Festival to worry abou’, well. I– I wanted to set the record straight, Sir.” Duncan chanced a glance at The Thin Controller. Duncan expected him to be cross or maybe even to laugh at him. Instead, he was looking at him in a way Duncan didn’t recognize.
“Duncan…” The way The Thin Controller said his name made Duncan’s wheels wobble even more. It didn’t sound like he was going to be told off but…
“Do you remember when you first came to the railway,” asked The Thin Controller, soft and careful. “And you rode rough at speed and got stuck in the tunnel?”
Duncan wanted to be indignant, but The Thin Controller was still looking at him in that curious way and he found he couldn’t be cross.
“Yes, Sir, I remember.”
“How do you manage that now?”
Duncan was not sure where this line of questioning was going. “Well, my wheelbase is still short, so I try to take the rough track slower. Means I have to leave early some days,” he groused despite himself.
“That’s right,” said The Thin Controller, eyes crinkling at the corners. “And do you remember when we made our deal that you’d get a new coat of paint if you didn’t complain for a whole day?”
“…and I couldn’t do it,” Duncan muttered, frowning at his buffers.
“But you tried,” said The Thin Controller, startling Duncan again. “And you came to me to apologise when you knew you’d failed.”
Duncan grumbled something about it being only fair, but The Thin Controller went on.
“You aren’t like the other engines, Duncan. It’s easy for them. They’ve been here a long time and they’re accustomed to work on a passenger Railway in the outdoors. You came from a factory, it’s true, and that might make you…” he trailed off, looking skyward for a moment with a small smile. “…Difficult, some days.”
Duncan flushed and opened his mouth to argue or perhaps apologise, but the Thin Controller stepped closer, meeting his eyes earnestly. “But you’re as reliable as they come and you never shy away from a job,” he said. “No engine here tries harder than you, Duncan.”
Duncan trembled. He felt like there was something lodged in his funnel.
“And in my book– which, I might remind you, is the only book on this Railway that matters– that’s what counts. So I would appreciate it,” The Thin Controller said kindly, “If you didn’t call the pride of my Railway ‘coarse’ and ‘plain’, because I think he’s Really Useful.”
“Oh.” Duncan felt dazed by such a high compliment. It settled on him heavily. “Y-yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
“D’you think he finally believes us?” asked Rheneas. “About being the favourite?”
They sat together, watching Duncan as people milled about, taking pictures and admiring his fine paintwork.
“Maybe, maybe not,” smiled Skarloey. At that moment, Duncan laughed and hooted his whistle at a visitor’s request. “I expect it doesn’t really matter either way.”
“No, I suppose not,” agreed Rheneas. “It’s not like he’s getting special treatment. Might even be more of a burden on him, really.”
Skarloey chuckled. “You’re right! The Thin Controller might be harder on him now. He can’t let it get around that he’s playing favourites!”
The Little Old Engines smiled at each other and laughed.
And in every picture taken at the Festival, Duncan beamed.
This one is more my co-author’s work than mine. Ray just throwin’ down a heartwrencher about my favorite Skarloey Railway dynamic.