The Railway Journal, Part 1

read part 2 here

read the rewrite of the entire story here


Isaac Brunel thought about place names, gazing out of a ferry porthole, as the floor of the vessel vibrated beneath his feet. The rain here was torrential and never ending. The Black Ball ferry, S.S. Smokwa, had departed a bay named Horseshoe thirty minutes before, and was now approaching its destination, Langdale. These were place names born to oblivion. They would not be included on any great scroll of cosmic remembrance. The places themselves could slide into the Pacific tomorrow, and after a perfunctory search, intended primarily to locate bank vaults and government property, they would be forever disremembered.

He lit a cigarette and wondered once more at the circumstances that had brought him here.

The man he pursued was a bastard, but of the sympathetic sort. The illicit child of a moody luminary, a Victorian mechanical engineer and a London teashop girl. His name was Leopold Liberty Brunel, or mad granddad Leo, as the greater family referred to him, the unwanted son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Alisa Tolbert, born February 5, 1857, in a room on London’s east side. Named via telegram by his father, who was too busy and too decent a man to attend the event of the boy’s birth. The naming telegram was accompanied by a ten pound note. Alisa Tolbert lived long enough to hold it in her hand and wonder at the strange economy of baring an illegitimate child.

As Leopold lay on his mother’s belly, raging loudly against his own birth, the midwife informed Alisa that she’d sent for a doctor and a priest, that Alisa was losing far too much blood to last very much longer. Alisa was indifferent to the news. She’d already hemorrhaged like a champion. The edges of her existence were dimming. Before absolute dark fell, she witnessed the midwife take the ten pound note from her hand, later to be shared with the doctor and the priest.

Mad granddad Leo had gone to Canada to build a railroad, and never returned. That much was fact. The rest was dinner table guesswork and gossip: he’d married a native princess, he’d fought in Indian wars, he’d invented the prototype for the Winchester repeating rifle. He was most definitely insane.

But when his mother died, he was officially a foundling, and was slid that night through the baby-hatch of the Holy Trinity Workhouse in Old Nichol. Believing in the power and importance of names, the anonymous slider had pinned the child’s handle to his swaddling rags before walking away into the London coal smog. This had taken place round 3:00 a.m. Leopold lay quietly until 6:30 a.m., when he first gave forth an inquiring squawk, followed moments later by a full-on wail of hunger and discomfort. From that moment, and for many years henceforth, hunger and discomfort became intimate companions, knowing more of his body and mind than any parent could.

Isaac Brunel knew this of his grandfather from the man’s own journal. It had arrived mysteriously in the mail at Isaac’s London walk-up a year ago, in a large bruised parcel with no return address. The airmail postage had been Canadian, but looked oddly British, some of the stamps featuring George VI’s crisp profile. They bore the cancellation marks of a dreary sounding locale, Gibson’s Landing. But now it was the origins of his grandfather’s near-legend he sought. The locations were secondary.

It was The Tempest that season. Isaac had landed the role of Prospero, and had prayerfully thanked his muse for it. Reviews had been good. But the journal was a distraction. It consisted of five identical thick leather-bound volumes. Each stamped on the spine with the binder’s name, Nettleton of Plymouth. Five volumes, he thought at the time, not enough to portray a man’s whole life. But then he didn’t keep a journal, himself. His documents of existence were the newspaper reviews, the posters and notices, all kept in a row of scrapbooks over the coal fireplace. There was some evidence of gold embossing on the covers of the journals. But they were mostly worn, many of the densely handwritten pages, water stained, and a few even stained with mud. On the title page of each was written, in the man’s steady hand, the name: Leopold Liberty Brunel, and the years each individual journal represented.

The first volume was retrospective, a remembrance of the years shortly after his birth to the age of eighteen, in 1875. They weren’t Dickensian, Isaac would say to anyone who asked. They were Victorian. Dickens wrote serialised fiction. His grandfather had written an autobiography. The earliest years of childhood were hazy, perhaps. But the later years were crisp in their recollection.

At five years old, Leopold recalled being sold by the workhouse to a match factory, operated by the finest of Church of England parishioners, Mr Samuel Constable. There, Leopold was employed dipping match sticks into buckets of toxic phosphorous. His young coworkers were routinely burned alive by the combustible substance, but not Leopold. He nearly starved and survived there until 1867, when a kicked-over bucket exploded and burned the factory down, ruining Samuel Constable, who had no insurance or savings, having spent it all on opium and depraved women.

This led to Leopold finding work on the London Underground, helping to build the Circle Line. He was a hard worker, toiling daily in a dark underworld, carrying broken iron tools as big as himself to the blacksmith. And it was there that he had the fortune to meet Lionel Honeycutt, a Civil Engineer intrigued by the young boy’s last name.

“Brunel, eh,” Honeycutt had said, one day, looking down upon the boy from his great bodily height.

Leopold shrugged. His name meant nearly nothing to him. It was just a rope his taskmasters pulled upon, dragging him into one filthy undertaking after another. Besides, Construction Engineers never spoke to the nippers. Only the Hagman did that, and then only to holler and call them lazy.

“I worked for a fellow named Brunel once,” Honeycutt said. “On the Great Western Railway. One Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He built great ships, as well. Are you any relation, by chance?”

“Ain’t got no relations,” said Leopold.

Honeycutt had wondered. There was something about the boy’s carriage, his eyes and the determined way he held his mouth and chin. And Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a man of the world with just enough self-pride to give his bastard his own last name, and then abandon him to the poorhouse and an unrestrained world.

“Do you know what an angle is?” Honeycutt asked Leopold one day, hoping to discover in him some engineering potential.

“It’s a racket, innit?” Leopold said. “A gimmick.”

“Well,” said Honeycutt. “I guess you’re correct, and very knowing for a nipper. How about trigonometry?”

“Sounds bloomin’ wicked to me, sir.”

Honeycutt made an hmming sound, and thoughtfully stroked his chin.

“Can you read?” he said.

The boy said nothing, only looked down at the broken stone of the rail bed. It was a delicate question for him to answer. He knew his words, most of them. He could read signs and discarded newspapers. But how, he didn’t know. He’d never been to school, never formally learned his letters. What he did know, however, was that it was dangerous to admit such a thing. The other navvys and nippers didn’t go in for reading. It was a thing best kept safely secret.

“Ah, I see,” said Honeycutt. “There’s no shame in not knowing how. Most of London is illiterate. Perhaps there’s a way I can help.”

“But, sir,” Leopold said, kicking a stone, deciding to risk it. “I kin read. Maybe not so good as an engineer, but betteran mos’ down heres.”

“Can you, then?” Honeycutt wondered, and took a small book from his breast pocket, opening it to the middle.

“Here,” he said, “pointing to a spot on a page. Read to me.”

Leopold took the book and looked over his shoulder, in case there was anyone who might overhear. The nearest navvys were far enough down the tunnel, so the boy recited: “The First Law o’ Therm – thermo….”


“The First Law o’ Thermodynamics tells us that en-er-gy is nei-ther cre-ated nor destroyed, thus the energy of the uni-verse is a con – constant.”

Honeycutt raised an eyebrow. He gave the boy a good look as he replace the book in his pocket. Leopold’s face was smudged with blacksmith coal and machine oil. His cap was crooked, his clothes just rags. He was a navvy, sure enough, through and through. Except he was clever; he could read.

“That’s not easy reading, for most,” Honeycutt said. “How old are you, boy?”

“Don’ know, sir.”

“I’d guess you’re as near to eight years old as anything. I think that’s close enough, how about you?”

Leopold said nothing. He’d never had an age before. It was strangely difficult to comprehend.

“Where were you born?” asked Honeycutt.

“Always bin in London. sir.”

“What’s two plus eight?”

Leopold gave it some thought, and said, “Ten.”

“What’s ten divided by two?”

The boy shrugged.

“Would you like to learn how to multiply and divide?”

“Crickey,” Leopold said. “It sounds indecent. You a nonce?”

“It’s arithmetic, boy. Repeated addition and subtraction.”

And so the interrogation went for some time into the afternoon, as they sat on a bench trackside. The other navvys and nippers walking past, suspicious of the sight.

The next day, Leopold Liberty Brunel was introduced into the Honeycutt household. He was washed and properly dressed, and put under the supervision of Miss Constance Honeycutt, a spinster sister living in her own suite of rooms in the grand house situated on a large lot of land in a peculiar place called Surrey.

Lionel Honeycutt’s wife, Samantha, had at first refused to accept the arrangement.

“You’ve brought him here for the novelty of his name,” she said. “You’re just laughing at old Isambard, God rest him. The boy’s nothing but a curiosity to you.”

To this he said, “No,” and nothing more.

It turned out that Leopold had an endearing way about him that Samantha grew to admire. He revered and respected Constance Honeycutt, he worked hard at his lessons, and he was determined to lend a hand with household duties where he could, despite the servants. But more than all of that was Samantha Honeycutt’s empathy for the intrepid foundling who’d survived the workhouse and always had a fond smile for her.

“What will you do when you grow up?” she asked Leopold.

His answer was unequivocal, “Build railroads, ma’am. In Canada.”

She was amused by that. His love of Lionel, and his desire to follow in his footsteps, was obvious. And what boy didn’t dream of such adventure. But she knew that his future enrollment in College, and meeting the right young lady, would cure him of it.

Before he left, Isaac’s motivation to chase after his allegedly insane grandfather was questioned by his fiancée, Daphne Wild.

“Why travel half way around the world?” she said. “It’s 1953. Any hint of the man will have disappeared, long ago. The nearest hint of civilization to where you’re going is a mere village called Vancouver. You’re a Shakespearean actor, Isaac, with soft hands and a new season ahead of you. You have bills to pay. You have me to consider. You’re as insane as the old man himself!”

It was all true, he knew. With the possible exception of insanity. It was vanity, perhaps even an outrages conceit. But he’d become obsessed with the journal, and what it contained. An epic story of a passenger railroad through an impossible wilderness. From nowhere to nowhere.

“It’s because I am an actor that I must go,” he told Daphne. “It’s because of my art, don’t you see?”

She did not.

And as she stood looking through the glass of the Heathrow passenger lounge at his BOAC jetliner taxiing in the London rain, she remained overwhelmingly uncertain about their future.


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