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Tonton and the Steam Engine


         Tonton stood and looked up at the steaming railway engine. It was painted dark green, with big black wheels, and silver connecting rods, that flashed and glowed in the sun. Every now and again, small clouds of white steam came from its wheels and pistons, and there came from its funnel, at the front of the boiler, a plume of smoke that went straight up in the still air, and hung above it. This smoke gave it an almost magical quality. It was like a dragon resting. Tonton stared at it in fascination. To a small boy like him, it seemed enormous, though really it was not a particularly big engine. But his head only came up to the level of the top of it’s driving wheels.

         Tonton’s father had promised to take him on a short steam engine journey for a special treat, in one of the two carriages that the engine was coupled to. Though it was only six miles there and back, Tonton was still excited. His father was further down the platform, talking to one of the guards on the train. In a few minutes, thought Tonton, I shall be travelling on a real journey, pulled by this wonderful steam engine. He continued to gaze at the engine with wonder and delight.

         Then the driver looked out of the locomotive’s cab. Seeing Tonton staring with such attention at the engine, he smiled. ‘Hallo!’ he cried to Tonton.’Do you like him?’ ‘Oh, yes, ‘ said Tonton excitedly. ‘Very much.’

The driver, wearing a peaked cap, suddenly had an idea. “ Tell you what,’ he shouted down to Tonton. “Do you want to come up into the cabin and see the controls?’ ‘Yes, please, cried Tonton, having to speak above the hiss and  chugging of the engine. “Up you come then,’ said the driver. “I’ll come and help you up’. And Tonton found himself being pulled up and into the cab. It was even more exciting than he thought. The driver showed him the various controls – valves and regulators, and where the brakes were. Tonton was amazed and excited. In a real steam engine! He realised the driver was talking to him. ‘You know, you can really talk to this engine. It seems to go all by itself sometimes. All I have to do is to shovel coal into the firebox, which provides the energy to generate steam, which drives it. It’s really good fun’.

         Suddenly, the driver was interrupted by the sound of a commotion further down the platform. People were shouting something, and then they heard the sound of running feet. Before they knew it, two men leapt into the cab. ‘Get this train going now!’ one of them shouted at the driver. He was a big man, and somewhat fat. The other was a small skinny man, who was clutching a small suitcase. ‘You heard!’ he also shouted. ‘But I can’t go yet!’ cried the driver. ‘We’re not due to go out for another five minutes!’ ‘Do as you’re told!’ said the big man, in a menacing voice. The driver, without another word, released the brakes and opened the throttle. The engine suddenly began to move forwards fairly slowly along the gleaming tracks

‘Whoop, Whoop! Whoop!’ And steam from its funnel suddenly erupted into a great fountain.

         As it moved forward, the large man quickly grabbed the driver by his overalls and actually pushed him out of the cab. The driver fell next to the railway track and rolled over. Tonton looked back in horror, but’ to his relief, saw him pick himself up and shake his fist at the men in the engine. Neither man had even noticed Tonton, who had moved to the back of the cab, next to the coal. The engine began to move faster. ‘Clickety- Clack! Clickety- Clack! Clickety-Clack! as its wheels ran along the rails. It was making chugging and wheezing sounds as it moved faster and faster. The two men stared ahead of them intently.

Then the smaller one turned round and saw Tonton. ‘Oh no’ he yelled. ‘We’ve got a kid on board! The big man looked behind. ‘It’s too late to get rid of him now. You, kid! Just stay where you are, and you won’t get hurt!’ Then he turned back to look forwards again. Tonton sat against the coal, wondering what to do. He was trapped in the cab, with these two men, who he rightly guessed were probably robbers making a getaway in a stolen train. But he felt strangely alert. He began listening to the sounds of the engine, and realised how much he liked it.

         It was at this point that Tonton realised something very strange. As he listened to the engine, he began to understand that it was talking to him! The more he listened, the more he knew what it was saying! And’ amazingly, it was speaking to him in steam language!’ ‘I’m going to get rid of these two,’ it said, distinctly. ‘Now, we are coming up to a steep cutting, and then a long tunnel. I want you to hold on tight in a minute, because I’m going to do something that might be a bit dangerous. I’ll warn you, don’t fear.’

          Tonton continued to listen to the engine. It was muttering to itself, about how it did not like robbers on board, and how sorry they were going to be. ‘I will give them the fright of their life’. And now, on the count of five, hold on tight’. They were just passing through the cutting, with steep grassy banks on either side. Both robbers were still looking ahead, one on each side of the cab, hanging out to see more clearly ahead. ‘Now!’ screamed the engine. It’s wheels screeched, with sparks flying  everywhere, and came to a sudden full stop. Both robbers, not expecting this, were both thrown out headfirst onto the track. Immediately, the engine moved backwards along the track, leaving the two robbers bruised and dazed on the ground. Then it stopped and waited, hissing and steaming ominously.

         The two men frantically began to try to climb the steep embankments. But each time, they slipped and fell back again. Finally. looking back fearfully at the menacing engine, they began running towards the tunnel mouth that was in front of them. The engine began to move forwards slowly, very slowly, adding to their fright. They finally disappeared into the tunnel itself, but the engine continued to creep slowly onwards and forwards, with large puffs of smoke and steam from it’s funnel and wheels.

         By now the two men had disappeared  into the tunnel. But the engine crept slowly and menacingly on. ‘We’re going to have some fun’. It said to Tonton in its steam language, and actually seemed to chuckle, with spurts of steam from its pistons. ‘Now then’ wait for it! Wait for it! Wait for it!’ And then suddenly it lurched forward. A great shriek came from its whistle – a terrible sound, which Tonton thought was one of the most frightening things he had ever heard. At the same time the engine suddenly switched on both its lamps at the front, and suddenly there the robbers were, towards the end of the tunnel, frozen with fear and horror, caught in the glare of the two bright lamps.

         What the robbers saw was not a steam locomotive, but a great angry dragon, its two glaring eyes surrounded by great billows and clouds of smoke. Again they heard its dreadful shriek as it bore down on them. ‘Run! Run!’ shouted the small man. And they both turned and ran as quickly as their legs would carry them towards the end of the tunnel casting fearful glances behind them. The dragon was getting closer and closer. What it would do to them, they hardly dared think. Suddenly they emerged into bright sunlight that dazzled them. It dazzled them so much that they hardly noticed the four large policemen, into whose waiting arms they ran. And finally the dragon stopped at the tunnel mouth, with its terrible gleaming eyes and clouds of steam, still looking fearsome.

         On the platform at the station, Tonton’s father was waiting together with a crowd of people who had come to see the fun. It was his father, who knew that `Tonton was on board the engine, who had called the police, and driven down to the other station which was where the thieves were heading. There was a great cheer and applause as Tonton was helped down from the engine, and though in reality  he had done very little, they all treated him as a hero. Holding his father’s hand, they went to a nearby café for some much need refreshment, because Tonton after his adventure, felt ravenously hungry. Later, with his father’s permission, he walked down the platform to where the engine stood, hissing and burping little jets of steam. He stood and looked up at it.

         ‘That was good fun, wasn’t it’ said the engine  in steam language.’I’m quite pleased with myself. And of you, of course,’ it added hastily. You sound exactly like an uncle’. said Tonton. The engine was silent for a few moments. ‘Why did you say that?’ it said suddenly. ‘Because you look and in some sound exactly like an uncle that I used to have, when I was little. I was really too young to remember him properly, but my  father said to me that he was very fond of me, even though he was really a friend. I think his name was Uncle Chou. But he’s dead now’.’ Tonton replied sadly. ‘I think he died a couple of years ago.’ The engine was silent again, then it said softly, ‘Do you think, Tonton, that when people die, they can come back as something they always wanted to be? ‘I’d like to think so ‘ replied Tonton. ‘Well then,’ said the engine. ‘You must come back and see me more often’. ‘Why? asked Tonton. The engine remained silent and then said, even more quietly,’You see, Tonton…….’

         ‘I am your uncle’.

Frank Jackson (28/11/06)