Railway Journals Part 4

by dm gillis

read part 3 here

read the rewrite of the entire story here

Gibsons Landing, 1953 

“So, did he marry Nancy Pete?” asked Isaac Brunel. The old fat woman sat sipping her sugary tea.

“Oh, sure.” She took another bite of cake. “Married her and they had a pretty little girl, Wilhelmina Alisa Brunel. She come after, tough.”

“After?”

“After Granddad Leopold hung himself,” said Granny Wilhelmina.

“But wait a minute,” said Isaac. “Your name is Wilhelmina. That means that you’re her. You’re his daughter, Wilhelmina Alisa Brunel. But you call him Granddad. That doesn’t make sense.”

“Don’t you tell me what makes sense, boy,” said Granny Wilhelmina. She chased a cake crumb round her plate with a fork. “It’s a term of endearment. It comes with the story, the legend some call it.

“You know,” she said. “A legend grows like a tree. The tree trunk’s the truth of it. Even though it grows bigger every year that passes. The branches, though, they’re the ways a story can be wrong – goin’ off in all directions. Fact is Leopold died too young to be a father or grandfather to anyone, except in name. And that leaves the story open to misinterpretation.

“Your grandmother was Nancy Brunel, nee Pete, and the man she went off with, after Leopold died, was Basil Duffy. He was Leopold’s Foreman, if you recall. They went off to Scotland and left me here with relations. They were going to send for me when they were set up over there.”

She stopped a moment and stared at Isaac, and said, “That’s right. Your Great Granny was Nancy Brunel, herself.

“Now, Basil Duffy was Scottish and was gonna take Nancy back to Edinburgh to get married, but they only got as far as London. He got some bug there, and died. The flu, I guess. It was killin’ everyone in London back then. Seven months after that, Nancy gave birth to your grandmother, Veronica Rachel Brunel. Veronica gave birth to Thomas. Thomas married Miranda, and Miranda gave birth to you. And so it went until right now, in this parlour.”

“I never knew,” Isaac whispered to himself. “My parents didn’t tell me anything. Maybe I was too young to hear it. They died in a London air raid before they could tell me.”

“But they must have told you something about Granddad Leopold.”

“It was just a story told at Christmas, over punch, around a fire in the hearth. Like a ghost story.”

“It’s ironic,” said Nathan, sitting in a chair with his mutt at his side. “Miranda’s Shakespeare’s heroine in The Tempest. That’s the play you were supposed to be in this season. Prospero, am I right?”

“Yes,” said Isaac.

He shook his head, amazed. These people knew so much about the family, about him. Nathan was obviously a man of the world beyond Gibsons, but he’d still have to do some considerable research to know Isaac had landed the role of Prospero.

“Mary,” Granny Wilhelmina said. “How about some of them little baloney sandwiches you make? The ones with the sliced up gherkins and mayonnaise.”

“What about your diabetes?” Mary said.

“Damn the goddam diabetes. A woman’s got to eat. Go on, now.”

Mary got up, and went into the kitchen.

“I still don’t understand,” Isaac said. “What made him come here to build a railroad? Here of all places.”

“It’s as good a place as any,” said Nathan. “Leopold came to the Pacific for the same reason people still come nowadays, looking for solutions they’ll never find to problems they never had to begin with. And once they’re here, they stay put because the next stop is the Strait of Georgia.

“It was a good idea, the railroad,” Nathan continued. “But Leopold just didn’t know how to build it to scale. That was the Isambard in him. Leopold wanted his own CPR. Something big and heroic. Something to unite a nation. But that’d already been done, by then. And this isn’t the Rockies, or the prairies. It’s just a small stretch of coastline with some passable mountains and river valleys. In his mind, it was all grander than that. But in the end it really wan’t.

“All he knew was railroads, though. That’s what he learned at university. How to build them big and make them run like a top. It was in his blood. All he wanted was greatness. But by 1888, any chance at greatness for a man like him had been taken. That left him with a dream too big for this little place.”

“So, he hung himself,” Isaac said.

“Now hold on,” said Wilhelmina. “Don’t say it like you know the man. None of us do. Let me finish the story. Then you can judge him, if you still feel up to it.”

Gibsons 1888

“It’s too damn big,” Basil Duffy said, when he saw it. “Too damn long.”

Locomotive 1022 was finally assembled from its aggregate parts, having arrived by barge from New Westminster two weeks earlier. Now it sat steaming in idle at the Gibsons Depot, making a self-contented hissing sound as white puffs of steam were discharged.

“What the hell were you thinking, Mr Brunel?”

“It’s a fucking piece of art,” Leopold said, dreamily. His Eton accent made Duffy almost believe it.

The colossus was bright red, the entire expanse of it, with black and green trim. Its brass and exposed iron gleamed, in spite of the overcast. Its matching tender was filled with split stove-length timber. The passenger car and caboose were masterworks.

Leopold climbed the three rung ladder, into the cab. Duffy followed.

“There’re at least two curves it won’t take,” Duffy said. “Maybe more.”

“We haven’t laid that track yet,” Leopold said, admiring the gauges and levers. “We’ll alter the rail bed’s blasting pattern. We’ll compensate.”

“There’s no room for compensation. We can’t blast away entire mountains. The Bankers aren’t gonna like this.”

“But this is exactly what the Bankers want to see, Duffy.” Leopold took an apple from his coat pocket. “They want to hear it breathe. They want it to talk to them in their mean little dreams. Bankers deal in tangibles. 1022 is the ultimate tangible.”

“Hmm,” Basil Duffy said, biting a chaw of tobacco off a plug. “You know, I’ve worked for fellas like you before. Fellas that escape into oratory whenever they’re facin’ trouble. And I’ve noticed that the fancy words never make much difference.”

“We need an engine that can pull a load up a grade, Mr Duffy,” Leopold said.

He used his treasured gold handle pen knife to slice off bite-sized pieces of apple, and eat them.

“Maybe, sir. And I’ll grant you this monster’s got pulling power. It could pull the goddamn moon out of orbit. But we could have joined up multiple smaller engines as need-be. We could’ve leased ‘em locally, and you know it.”

“Just look at it, Duffy,” Leopold said. “It’s history in the making.”

“So was Krakatoa, Mr Brunel.”

The problem of the defective rail had been solved, for the time being. A warehouse in Vancouver was filled with CPR surplus. Leopold asked for more credit, and ordered all he needed. To keep them busy, he convinced the towns along the existing track to have his navvys paint their public buildings, and any others that needed sprucing up, during the two weeks it would take for the paperwork to clear and the track to be transported.

“Well,” Leopold said. “It doesn’t matter for the moment. My wedding’s tomorrow. The riddle of 1022 can wait until after that. Turns out the women of Nancy’s family are great planners of weddings.”

“I hear it’ll be Father Breckenridge doing the service,” Duffy said.

“Yes,” Leopold shrugged. “Nancy’s God is poetry, but her mother’s a Catholic convert. And we must keep Mother Pete happy.”

“He’ll be smirking like a Belfast monkey.”

“Let him,” said Leopold. “I’ll be back here the very next day, building something grand, while he sits in the dark hearing the confessions of loggers and yokels. Tell me which has more meaning.”

“Don’t ask me. I’m a Methodist.”

Then Leopold yelped and dropped the apple and pen knife. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed a cut finger.

“Where’s that damn knife?” he said looking down.

“I can’t see it,” Duffy said.

“It must be found. It was the only thing Isambard left me in his will. And it’s worth a small fortune. They’ll be drunk for a month if the Engineer or Fireman find it.”

Both men searched the floor and under outcroppings of steel, but the knife was nowhere to be seen.

“It’ll turn up, sir,” Duffy said.

Leopold looked grim.

The next morning, Leopold woke alone in his bed. Even his normally free-thinking bride-to-be had succumbed to Catholic histrionics, and stayed chaste the night before the wedding. It was April and the sun was shining. He rose and heated water to shave and wash.

Later, in Sechelt, in a small ramshackle church, Leopold Liberty Brunel and Nancy Pete said their vows. Nancy was fabulous in a gown from the Hudson’s Bay Company store in Vancouver, Leopold slightly less so in a frayed swallowtail jacket.

And as Father Breckenridge smirked like a Belfast monkey, he pronounced, “…in so much as the two of you have agreed to live together in Matrimony, have promised your love for each other by these vows, the giving of these rings and the joining of your hands, I now declare you to be husband and wife.”

There was a hushed sigh in the church, when that was done. Nancy would start to show soon. Her family had been in a state of panic. Now it was time to celebrate.

As far as her new husband went, if she had to marry a white man, then why not an English engineer?

The couple was showered with rice and barley as they left church.

The newlyweds sat at the head of a row of tables laid out down the centre of Mermaid Street, surrounded by Shishalh Elders sitting in places of honour. Basil Duffy sat further down in a too-snug jacket and tie, from his youth.

There were many speeches, and one by the Mayor who lauded Leopold for his great works. Then an Elder and Father Breckenridge blessed the wedding feast, and everyone laughed, ate salmon and venison and drank cold beer and hot tea.

Through it all, Leopold pondered the question of 1022. Had he miscalculated?

You have, you know.

It was her, Imelda. The voice. The witch ghost that dwelt in his head, and haunted him.

“Not here,” he whispered, and shook his head. “Not now.”

“What was that?” said Nancy. She was drinking beer from a small porcelain tea cup, for the fun of it.

He shook his head again.

Duffy’s right. – Imelda said – You should have known better. It’s your ego sitting on that track with nowhere to go. It’s too big. It doesn’t fit this little place. And it cost you a fortune. Even if you succeed in building this silly little railroad, how can you possibly make it pay?

There was a bottle of whiskey in front of him. He poured a large drink.

“Careful with that, Romeo,” Nancy said into his ear. “I want you functional for tonight.”

He swallowed it and poured another.

That won’t help, Mr English Engineer. – Imelda mocked.

“Fuck off!” He slammed his fist down.

“Pardon me?” This time it was Nancy’s mother, the newly minted Catholic Molly Pete, who heard him. Her and the other Elders sitting nearby. Some looked shocked, others smiled awkwardly.

Nancy stood up and took him by the elbow.

“Let’s go for a walk, big boy,” she said to him. Then to the Elders, “He’s under a lot of pressure right now.”

They walked over to a row of storefronts, and Nancy sat him down on a bench.

“The voices?” she said.

“The voice.”

“You have to ignore it. It doesn’t know anything. You said so, yourself.”

“She might be right about this,” he said.

“About what?”

He closed his eyes.

You don’t even love her. – said Imelda – You’re a fool. She can’t replace me.

“No no no!”

“Don’t answer her.”

1022’s too big.

Then there were more voices. Loud ones. Shouting that even Nancy Brunel could hear. Coming from the end of Mermaid Street. She looked and saw a crowd coming toward the reception tables.

“Leopold?” she said.

“What?”

“Did you invite your navvys?”

He opened his eyes and said, “No.”

Then he looked in the direction of the shouts, and there it was. A wall of unwashed labourers, hollering and pumping their fists.

Basil Duffy rose from his seat at the table and went to face them, with Father Breckenridge close behind. Leopold followed.

“What’s with you lot?” Duffy said to the navvys.

“We come to celebrate a gentleman’s wedding,” said a big man named Bob. “The fella who’s got us paintin’ the Mayor’s office and outhouses like we was a bunch of niggers.”

“You’re navvys,” Duffy said. “What do you care what you do to eat?”

“We’re railroad navvys, not housepainters.”

“Well, you weren’t invited here,” said Breckenridge.

“Kiss my ass, priest.”

There were shouts of agreement from the mob.

“Gawd!” a man near the back yelled. “He’s a paddy, to boot.”

“What’s wrong with that?” shouted a man with an Irish accent, and the mob laughed.

“I can stand me an Irishman,” Bob said. “At least he ain’t a chink. But I can’t stand an Irish priest. Telling me I’m goin’ to hell while he eats outta the collection plate.”

“Go back to the table, Breckenridge,” Duffy said.

“I won’t,” said the priest. “I’m not intimidated by a rabble of goons.”

“Well I am,” said Leopold quietly, as he stepped forward. He raised his hands in a placating gesture, and said, “You men have put up with a lot.”

There were grumbles of concurrence.

“And this is a day for celebration,” he said.

Nancy came and stood next to him.

“So, every man of you can have two glasses of beer. But then you must go back to camp.”

“There must be thirty of them,” Nancy said, with a taut smile. “How much beer is there?”

“We’ll get what extra we need from Tommy Braiggan’s bar.”

Duffy turned away from the crowd, and spoke quietly into Leopold’s ear: “Don’t do this, Mr Brunel.”

“It’s as good as done,” Leopold said. “You seem to be in charge here, Bob. Line up your men, and we’ll bring over the keg and some glasses.”

The big man hesitated a moment, looking Leopold in the eye. Leopold didn’t blink.

“All right, you navvys,” Bod bellowed. “Line your sorry asses up, and behave while you wait for your beer.”

The navvys had their beer, lining up twice. They stood on Mermaid Street, drank and talked. It was a quiet jumble of words that sounded like conspiracy to the ever-cautious Basil Duffy.

“I’m nervous about this,” he told Leopold. The two of them stood together on the street between the throng of men and the tables. “I’ve never seen a navvy drink just two beer in my life.”

“They’re fine,” Leopold replied.

“You’ve miscalculated in that regard before, sir.”

Father Breckenridge returned after fanning another fire. He had Shishalh Chief Julius Victor and Sechelt Mayor Jedidiah Wilks with him.

“I understand you appeasing these men, Mr Brunel,” Chief Julius Victor said. “You may have avoided trouble this way. But it brings no honour to this day.”

“It is my sincere hope that honour will be restored,” Leopold said.

“They should be ready to leave about now,” said Breckenridge.

“You stay out of this,” said Duffy.

“You listen to me, Mr Duffy,” Breckenridge said. “There are no RCMP here. This coast has never needed them. Not until Brunel started to build his ridiculous little railroad, that is. Now all that stands between the welfare of this town, and out and out savage anarchy, is the love of Jesus Christ. And I am His delegate here.”

“Oh piss off,” Duffy laughed. “You can’t be serious.”

“All right you men,” Breckenridge shouted, stepping past Duffy. “You’ve had your beer. Time for you to return to camp. But before you do, let us bow our heads and thank our Lord Jesus Christ for His grace and forbearance with the Lord’s Prayer.”

“We want wedding cake,” came a shout from out of the mob, followed by cheers of accord. A jarring chant of wedding cake, wedding cake, began.

“Goddam it, Breckenridge,” Duffy said.

“Father Breckenridge is right,” Leopold yelled above the noise. “You can forget the prayer, but we agreed on two beer each, and you’ve had them. Thank you for blessing my Bride and myself with you presence here. But now you must go.”

“There’s more liquor at Braiggan’s bar,” Bob roared. “Let’s go, boys.”

“No!” hollered Breckenridge.

“Damn,” said Leopold.

The thirty navvys moved up the street, past the wedding tables, taking food off of plates and serving platters. One grabbed the wedding cake and tossed it to another, who couldn’t catch it. It fell onto the ground and was marched over by the many hobnailed boots. It was left behind, only a stain on the cobble.

When they arrived at Braiggan’s bar, they smashed in the door and looted the place. There were plenty of bottles of whiskey and other liquors, and the navvys drank heartily.

The guests of the wedding reception watched in dismay as the shops along Mermaid Street were looted. Then a man with a bottle in his hand poured whiskey onto the straw in the stables of Pritchard’s tack and livery, and lit it on fire. The blaze that developed traveled with the wind. Citizens rose to douse the flames, but the navvys blocked them. Soon the entirety of Sechelt was alight. That night, the glow of the burning town could be seen as far away as Vancouver.

* * * * *

“Well,” Duffy said the next morning, as the fire died. “Isn’t this fucking magic.”

He and Leopold sat on two of the few wooden chairs that had survived the fire. The citizens of the town had been evacuated the night before, but were returning to see the disaster. The navvys were gone for good.

It was Monday.

Soon, Mayor Wilks arrived and said, “It is my considered opinion, Mr Brunel, that compensation is in order.”

And Leopold Liberty Brunel knew it was. He drank from a bottle of whiskey he’d found discarded on the street.

“Let him be,” said Duffy to the Mayor.

“For now,” said Wilks.

Later that day, a Bailiff arrived from New Westminster with a Liquidation Order. Leopold had finally pushed his creditors too far with the purchase of the surplus CPR rails. He read the order through three times as he drank from the whiskey bottle.

Nancy came and sat next to him.

“Well?” she said.

“It’s over.”

“We’ll start again,” Nancy said.

“All of the money’s gone,” Leopold said. “No one will write me a loan now. Besides, they’re taking everything back.”

“Not 1022,” said Duffy. “At least, I doubt it. She’s too big to move. It’d be too expensive to take her back.”

“So she’ll just sit on the track and rust?” Leopold said.

“Maybe,” Duffy said. “Probably. It won’t be the only steam locomotive ever abandoned by Bankers. They’re just penny-men, beneath it all.”

*  *  *  *  *

Gibsons, 1953

The Gibsons Depot was in thick bush now, just up from the water. The sun was breaking through the overcast, and birds were singing as Isaac, Nathan and Mary arrived on the trail.

Coming there was Nathan’s idea.

1022, the tender, passenger car and caboose sat on the rusted rails. The locomotive’s boiler was mute and cold. A hulk silent in its sixty-five years of secrets. Its red paint peeling. Its steel rusting and its brass long ago gone green.

Isaac stepped up and ran his fingers over corroded bullet holes in the tender’s side. The once glossy smooth red finish was flat and coarse now.

“I could never figure out why they do that,” Mary said. “Shoot a stationary thing like this, like it’s an animal making a run for it.”

“It’s beautiful, even now,” Isaac said.

Behind them was the depot hut, its window glass long gone. It had been red, too, with cheery green trim. Now the roof and floor were rotting, and the benches inside were collapsed. The door hinges had been torn away. But an elegantly hand painted sign remained, next to the doorway. It simply read: Gibson’s Landing.

Despite the rust and decay, the locomotive and depot were a message in a bottle. Leopold Liberty Brunel had been here, and had attempted something magnificent.

Isaac took a folded note from his shirt pocket and opened it. He’d found it tucked into the back of the fifth and last volume of the journal. It was written in a graceful, slanting hand.

Dearest Nancy, 

I came to this rainy place to build something wonderful, and saw it fail before it even began. I was too foolish-proud, and my plan too grandiose, even for a Brunel. I wanted so to be Isambard.

Now there is so much that I owe, in currency hard and hypothetical, that only my extinction will erase the debt.

You are bound to weep over what I am about to do. I won’t ask you not to. But please do not grieve long. For there were moments of joy as well, mostly with you. But also in witnessing small things, in true context to their surroundings. You helped me to see them. Thank you.

I regret not leaving this place better than when I arrived. But mostly I regret leaving you in this unavoidable way. An inner voice tells me that this must be the way, and it’s not the voice you think.

If you cannot forget me, then please remember me well. 

All my love,
Leopold

Isaac folded the note again and placed it in his pocket. Then he hoisted himself up and into the cab of 1022. He rattled the levers and lamented over the broken glass of the gauges. Then he looked down and saw something in a corner on the floor. He knelt and retrieved it. It was a gold pen knife, the handle engraved with two names. On one side was Leopold Liberty Brunel; on the other, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

 

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