Engines in Sidings: Diesel in the Dark

Diesel didn’t much like working in the shunting yard these days. Half the sidings had sad steam engines sitting idle in them. They made him uncomfortable with their long faces and longing looks. When he rolled by to arrange his trucks, they would try to talk to him and ask about the goings on at the station.

“I can’t sit around here with you,” he’d say snidely. “I have work to do.”

He did have work to do, but he also didn’t want any other diesels to see him talking to the steam engines. The diesels were quite proud of how well they were replacing steam. When they worked in the Yard, most of them would leer and jeer and honk their horns at the steam engines. Steam, they said, was going to be abolished soon. Diesel didn’t know what “abolished” meant exactly, but he could guess that the steam engines would all be scrapped because of it.

One night, he was putting some trucks in order for the next day when he heard something along the track out of the Yard.

“They’ll hear us. I’m all stiff.”

“They won’t.”

“They’ll smell us, for sure.”

Someone laughed quietly.

Diesel rolled closer to see what it was. He smelled what it was first: burning coal.

He peered through the gaps in the trucks until he spotted the glow of a steam engine’s firebox easing past. None of the steam engines in the yard should have been in steam. They were all meant to be retired. But this one had a Driver and a Fireman and was creeping along the tracks towards the junction out to the main line.

This one was trying to escape!

Diesel considered. He should raise the alarm and try to keep the steam engine from escaping. Even if he did though, none of them would be fast enough to stop the steam engine. He was already picking up speed, chancing to chuff a little louder about it as he got closer to the junction. None of the shunting diesels would be able to catch up to him once he got going. If Diesel called everyone over and the steam engine still escaped, he might be blamed for letting it happen.

So what if one steam engine escapes then , thought Diesel. No one will know I saw him do it.

“Aren’t you done yet?” complained one of his yardmates, another shunter, as he rolled up behind Diesel. “I’ve been waiting for thos- are you daydreaming over here? At night? What are you staring at?”

The steam engine hurried along towards them on the other track. It was only once he was right upon the two diesels that he saw them. His hopeful face fell at the sight of them, but he didn’t falter.

“Go it! They can’t catch us!” laughed his Driver.

Diesel and the other shunter watched as the steam engine – a worn-looking Jinty they could now both see – flew past them.

“A steamer’s escaping!” shouted the other shunter. “Don’t just stand there! He’ll get away!” He blared on his horn from behind Diesel to call the rest of the diesels, startling Diesel into moving forward. A chorus of diesel horns returned the call in the distance in long bleats that grew louder as they raced over to help.

Diesel went as fast as he could so the shunter behind him wouldn’t bump him, but he knew it was no use. The steam engine was already at good speed and could go three times as fast as Diesel could. The other shunter behind him honked his horn impatiently and berated Diesel for blocking the line. The steam engine was very nearly past the signal, well beyond any chance of them catching him. His signal was down and he ran straight through, letting out a couple tentative victory peeps of his whistle. By the time the rest of the diesels had caught up, the steam engine was gone.

They all demanded to know what happened and the other shunter was happy to tell them!

“He let a steam engine escape. Just sat there and watched them leave!”

“I did not!” defended Diesel. “I- I… It’s dark. I couldn’t see what it was until he was right on us!”

“You hardly need to see it to know what it was,” sniffed another engine haughtily.

“And he took his time chasing him too!” said the other shunter to the crowd. “You’d think he was trying to help how he meandered along in front of me!”

“I can only go so fast,” complained Diesel. No one cared. Everyone argued and shouted around him.

“What’s all this then?” said a voice breaking through the rabble. It was the Mainland Controller.

“He,” said the other shunter pointedly, “just sat there and watched while a steam engine escaped.”

“I didn’t, Sir!” said Diesel. “It’s just that… Well, it’s dark, Sir, and we’re all painted black. How could I even know what I was seeing until it was already too late to do anything about it?”

“Too late?” screeched the other shunter. “So you weren’t even trying to catch him? I knew it!” The rest of the diesels joined in the cacophony again.

“QUIET!” shouted the Controller, silencing all the engines. “I will be looking into this matter, but as of this moment, it no longer concerns you engines,” he said. “Go back to your sheds.”

“What about him?” asked the other diesels. “A traitor in our Shed is certainly our business!”

“I’ll hear no more of it! Off with you!” ordered the Controller.

But he did hear more of it. The next day, none of the other engines would work with Diesel. They sabotaged his jobs, they took his cars and put them in the wrong places, and they refused to speak with him. It caused confusion and delay.

There was too much work in the Yard to take time out to teach all the other engines a Lesson, so the Mainland Controller made Diesel stay in the Shed instead.

It isn’t fair , pouted Diesel. It wasn’t, but it was easier. With Diesel in the Shed, the other engines stopped being naughty and went back to work.

“As you can see,” said his Controller, waking Diesel from a bored sleep, “We’re quite strapped for motive power ourselves.”

“What’s this back here? Not so strapped then,” said another voice suspiciously. Diesel squinted against the light from the open doors to see who was with his Controller. He recognized the tone in that voice just as surely as he recognized the silhouette it belonged to. There at the other end of the shed, talking to his Controller was a short, stout gentleman in a tall top hat.

“Oh, er–” said his Controller and then, more quietly: “Yes, I’d forgotten. We–” but the stout gentleman was already walking away from him and toward Diesel.

“You, there!” he called. “Are you a working engine?”

“Y-yes, Sir!” answered Diesel rather too quickly. And then, more cautiously: “It’s nice to see you again, Sir Topham Hatt, Sir.”

The stout gentleman stopped short with a look on his face that made Diesel tremble as though he were idling, even as his engine stood cold. The Fat Controller did not look happy to see him.

“Ahh yes, I remember you,” said The Fat Controller. Diesel braced for the admonishment but it never came. The Fat Controller instead walked right up to Diesel’s track and started examining his buffers. Diesel watched until the silence became too much.

“Enjoying your visit, Sir?” he chanced to ask.

The Fat Controller did not answer. Instead, he moved on to looking at his side rods and wheels. “You’ve not been in the Shed for too long, then. You’re not in need of repairs, are you?”

“No, Sir!” said Diesel proudly. “Fit as a fiddle, I am! Our Railway is so efficient now, with all us modern engines here, sometimes the Controller doesn’t need all of us.”

The Fat Controller turned back to his Controller, who mumbled something and looked away sheepishly. “There’s still work to be done in the Yard,” the Fat Controller said, turning back to Diesel. “Why have you been placed in the Shed?”

“Ah… well, Sir,” said Diesel with a glance towards his Controller. “The other engines and I are having a… disagreement is all. They say they won’t work with me.”

“Have you called them names?” the Fat Controller asked pointedly.

“Certainly not, Sir,” said Diesel. “They think I let a steam engine escape the Yard.”

The Fat Controller looked suddenly much more interested. “Did you?”

“I… well…” Diesel wanted to say he had because the Fat Controller liked steam engines, but his own Controller was also very interested in his answer. “It was dark, Sir, and we’re all painted black. It’s like I told them,” he added with another glance at his own Controller, “I couldn’t know what I was seeing until it had already passed by me. By then,” he added imploringly, “it was too late.”

“I see,” said the Fat Controller. Diesel hoped sincerely that he did.

“We don’t have any serviceable steam engines,” offered the Mainland Controller, “but perhaps we could spare this one.”

“I don’t know…” hedged the Fat Controller. “There may yet be a steam engine going up for sale soon.”

“Or one on your doorstep,” grumbled the Mainland Controller. “Still, you ought to plan a contingency.”

“Hm…” said the Fat Controller. “My own engines aren’t very keen on this one either.”

“Please, Sir,” said Diesel. “I could be really Useful. I’m the fastest shunter here. I could run your Yard so well, you could open more branch lines for the steam engines. They’d like me more then.”

“I’ll decide the Arrangements on my Railway, thank you,” said the Fat Controller. He didn’t look as annoyed as he sounded though.

“Yes, well, if you’ll follow me back to my office then,” said the Mainland Controller hurriedly. The two made to leave.

“Goodbye, Sir!” called Diesel desperately after them. “Goodbye!”

“We saw Sir Topham Hatt come in here earlier,” said one of the other diesels as he backed into the shed that night. “Has he come to give you a fourth try then?”

“What business is it of yours?” snapped Diesel.

“Doubtful!” chimed in another diesel, ignoring him. “Not if he finds that steamer you let escape first.”

Diesel hadn’t considered that. He had hoped the Fat Controller would buy him if he thought he’d let a steam engine escape, but he might not if he found the steam engine instead.

“What a shame,” taunted the first diesel. “If you don’t find somewhere to go soon, the Controller will have to just be rid of you.”

“Wouldn’t that be a laugh?” cackled the second diesel. “You gettin’ soft on steamers and then getting sent to the scrap yard right along with them for it!”

Diesel didn’t think it was very funny. He found his sleep that night fitful, but he remained in the Shed the next day so it hardly mattered if he was tired.

He remained in the Shed for so long that he was sure the Fat Controller had found that steam engine and was not going to take him. The other diesels thought so too.

“What’s this load of scrap still doing in our shed?” They hissed when they saw him. “Put it in a siding with all his scrapheap friends.”

One morning, they did just that. A man who was not Diesel’s driver came in after the other diesels had left and started to climb into his cab.

“Where are we going?” asked Diesel nervously. He knew well enough that he wasn’t being put back into service. The man did not answer and Diesel supposed that he just didn’t know how to talk to engines. They drove out to the far end where the steam engines were kept in the Yard. There, the man got out and left him there.

The steam engines were excited to see him.

“You there!” they called out to him. “You’re the one who let that Jinty go, aren’t you?”

“I… “ dithered Diesel, but the steam engines didn’t give him much chance to decide what to tell them.

“Yes, yes, ‘it was dark and we’re painted black’, say no more, say no more!” they tittered. “You’ve done a good turn for him, you have. He might not have made it if you didn’t hold up the other diesels.”

“I didn’t–”

The steam engines weren’t really listening. They chattered away to each other about how good Diesel was and how he ought to be an example to all diesels. Diesel pouted. Why would he have been left out with the scrap engines unless he was to be scrapped himself? And what until then? He was new and modern and yet he’d just be left here to rust with these antiques? Diesel sniffled to himself pitifully.

“Don’t worry, dear,”  croaked an especially old engine to him. “It won’t be long now.” Diesel wondered what she meant.

Soon it grew dark. Diesel tried to sleep but he was kept awake with worry. The steam engines dozed around him. They didn’t see a lantern swaying in the distance or the crunch of footsteps on the ballast as it approached, but Diesel did.

Was this how it happened? Did they come in the night and make off with an engine under cover of darkness? Did the steam engines just wake up in the morning to find one of them missing or cut up?

The lantern came closer and Diesel could see the beginnings of a shadowed form behind its light.

“Not me!” he cried. “Take one of them!” The lantern and the shadow holding it came closer still.

“Shhh!” hissed the shadow up at him. “Don’t wake the others. We’re trying to leave quietlike.”

“Then take one of them!” begged Diesel. “I’ll stay quiet if you take someone else.”

“He can’t use any of these.” The shadow raised its lantern and Diesel saw that it was his Driver. “He bought you .”

“Who did?” snapped Diesel. He was cross that his Driver had scared him in front of the steam engines, who were still asleep and had not seen.

“Sir Topham Hatt, of course,” answered his Driver impatiently as he climbed into his cab.

“Of course? …Really?”

“The Controller says some engine at some museum railway put in a good word for you with him.”

“He bought me? Outright?” asked Diesel again. “ Really?

“Yes,” grumbled his Driver. “And the Controller made me come here in the middle of the night so’s you leaving wouldn’t cause a stir in the Yard. So get a move on.”

Diesel rolled slowly along, as quietly as he could, until he came to the signal at the junction. When he passed under it, he couldn’t help but let out a couple taunting toots of his horn on the way out.

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