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Memoirs of a locomotive - A short story


Some seven years before I’d reached locomotive retirement age, a committee of experts met one Sunday afternoon behind closed doors and decided with one or two abstentions that I should either tender my resignation or be terminated. The debate was so very heated with warning signs all over. Thus, I thought best to draft my resignation, sign it and submit it there and then. It wasn’t immediately clear to me why this course of action appealed to the board of directors, but I did notice that a number of brand new cadre were injected into the pipeline who insinuated that I was more like unwanted, outdated stuff. For the sake of keeping a seeming of normalcy, a retirement ceremony was organized right after I had submitted my resignation letter. There was lots of honking and whistling, which was the normal thing to do on occasions like these, and at the end of the ceremony, I was whisked to a hangar not too far from company headquarters, to rust there, permanently. **** In that hangar, I met a number of locomotives that had undergone a similar fate. There was a multitude of tracks, each with one or more locomotive parked on it. Mine happened to be sort of center left at that time, though the distribution has been shifting rightwards slowly over the years. On either side of me, there were locomotives that sat, silently. Some of them bore dates of many years earlier, and the flags painted on their sides were not readily visible as so much dust had settled on them. **** Come to think of it, there was really nothing to jump up and down about with regard to my new forced-retiree status. It wasn’t bad either. I have had plenty of time to cogitate on life and its unexpected turns. All over the place, there were other locomotives that were, too, consuming time, waiting and watching, not waiting for anything really, and not expecting any major events to rock the stillness of the place. It was in a way a sort of exile for trains that had served for many, many years, not much of a punishment, but not a rewarding life either. From time to time, a company clerk would pop in on us, make a random check on some of us, and then leave. That was about the only occasion when the hangar lights were turned on, but as soon as the clerk left, we would all return to a life of silence and obscurity. **** The winter nights were particularly cold. We could feel rain water from outside running underneath our iron wheels, and gusts of wind slapping us through broken glass windows and other apertures. For one reason or another, it was decided that the hangar gates would remain open at least one day a week, maybe because the smell of diesel and dead lubricants would be so nauseating if there were no draft circulating freely. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, stray dogs would find refuge among us. I didn’t know what it was that told these dogs to refrain from barking; they may be too hungry to bark anyway, but it was likely that they intuitively understood barking would cause company bosses to order the guards to chase them out. **** Summers, too, dragged on forever. Here we were all packed in one place, under temperatures almost calculated to evoke a desire for revenge. Worse still, because our engines were shut off, we couldn’t release those huffing noises trains produce as they start their screech when coming to a standstill so passengers could disembark or board. **** There were times when I felt that I nearly forgot that honking sound I often made as I approached villages in the middle of the night. That was a time when I was in the prime of youth, furrowing the land and making my presence felt among scattered country homes, villages and even those packed slum areas where the railroads passed. Retirement, I came to understand, was a time when you were forced to burrow in, to build a wall around yourself, and to stop the good old habit of saluting other locomotives with a loud honk as you ran parallel one, or as you had to wait for another because there was just two railway lines. Life, with a purpose, was pretty exciting and was definitely worth living. **** It is probable that the rails underneath me are suffocating because I have been standing on them for far too long. When I was a young train, I had no sense of gravity; the business of being a locomotive meant that we had lots of power pulling or pushing one way or another. There were times when we maneuvered, back-tracked, or stood on the side for a while, but most of the time, our life was one of motion. The one occasion I still remember to this day was at eight in the morning; new railways lines were being inaugurated, and the honor was mine to make the first descent down to the very end of land. It was true that the end of the railways was marked with what was probably a one meter thick wall, and though that wall looked permanent, I knew, in hindsight, that it was only erected to be destroyed one day so extensions could take place and new directions charted. **** I have been sitting here for many, many years. It may be that I am gaining in age, as I am nearly starting to forget the last time I drove or was driven. It didn’t really matter, there were many drivers who sat on this seat, but eventually, none of them lasted forever. I didn’t either, or maybe I did. I, the engine, was there, and could, sort of, move myself; perhaps I could even use my auto-pilot, and cruise for hours on end, uninterrupted, until I was to reach the next big destination. I am now starting to feel some itching in my iron wheels; their shape, it seems to me, has started to slightly bend under the sheer pressure of my weight. O, am I getting stuffy or what? My eyes, with their once-dazzling lamp lights across the nights of the country and the brouhaha of the city haven’t been put to use since last time the engine was fired. In fact, I am not even sure that my spark plugs are working properly as they too have been dormant, idle, and downright inactive for over four decades now. **** Friends around me in this abandoned place are saying that within a few weeks of their service being discontinued, they noted large increases in the rat population who had a nightly go at their electric wires and their many hoses. I can still feel something in the engine of my belly, but it’s not nearly as distinct a feeling as I used to get when I was driving at record speed in my heydays. A few days ago, I observed a fellow locomotive being disassembled by an army of engineers who apparently needed some spare parts to fix another locomotive, and I saw the lid of my colleague’s diesel tank removed, and boy! The fuel inside had solidified and was discolored beyond recognition. When they wanted to dispose of the lubricants, the drainage pipe was simply clogged, and a horrible stench was released, which drove away rats in their swarms. I’m not surprised at that, as this septuagenarian gentleman of a locomotive had served for nearly forty years and was then confined to some kind of solitary existence after the country in which it was made expressed its dismay at the recent purchase of locomotives from a competitor in another part of the world. **** Though I wasn’t very much upset that this same fate would be befall me, I have lately seen around me an unusual kind of commotion. First off, three engineers came to inspect me some two weeks ago. The locomotives on either side me played dead, having witnessed the fate of their brother locomotive. Though they were not leading any level of existence commensurate with a lifetime of service, they probably considered a vegetating life better than seeing their organs grafted onto other living things. Two days after that initial visit, I was taxied out of the hangar. I could see the station where I had served ages ago. It’s now a lot bigger than when I left, but it looked like it had been burned. In the distance, I could hear the deafening voices of thousands of people marching and there was a distinctly familiar smell of burning tires blackening an already cloudy January day. Marchers were carrying banners and flags. Strangely enough, it was not the same flag that was perched with pride on the mast of the company building when I was serving. **** In what looked like a rush job that lasted just a over a week, my engine was tuned up, with a new carburetor, a like-new diesel tank, a set of seven and seven spark plugs in different locations of my 1500 horse power engine in replacement of my ageing plugs, a refurbished horn, a glaring coat of paint on my front end, and what not. Experts argued for a while, but it seemed they were under pressure to act fast, and consensus was reached in my presence and with my approval that was no need for a new transmission. The one originally fitted onto me when I was made back in the forties was good enough and was capable of withstanding a reasonable extension of service. **** Now, I am all fired up and ready to go. As I centrally stand in Central Station, people, young and old, are boarding me. Some think I’m brand new, but others are inquisitively looking me in the eye, as if I were a familiar old train with a facelift. **** I do not so much mind the new flag just painted in the place of the old one on the sides of me before my second coming. Within a few months of running, I am sure the heat inside me will help deface this layered coat of paint. I will be myself again in due time, and will run at my own pace, as before. ****

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