Pride

this poem may not happen today, just
look at the sky
the province is burning from the inside out the
sun on the sidewalk is orange from the smoke
even in this town so close to the edge

so close that people trip over it
(the edge that is)
routinely and fall forever
waving good-bye as they go “Good-
bye, falling into oblivion was the least I could do.”

it’s a Saturday in August­
it’s Pride and fireworks
thousands of people in the park, waiting
there are horse cops in the neighbourhood
and cops on Denman with assault rifles
(very unCanadian)

don’t piss spit puke or shit in the backseat of my cruiser
that’s how the cops spoke to us
when we were kids and hung out in the projects
there’s probably still a bag of acid
hidden there beneath a hedge

Gay Pride and fireworks an
F-18 just flew over, low
so we all could feel the thrust

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Welfare Food Challenge, is it enough?

Oh man, here we go again. It’s November, and in these parts that means it’s time for the Welfare Food Challenge, where perfectly sane, and some of them prosperous, individuals will, for a week, eat only the food they can buy with $26. It’s an action to draw attention to the criminally low amount of income provided to recipients of welfare in BC, through BC Employment and Assistance (ironically named due to its lack of gateways to employment).

For purposes of the Challenge, someone has calculated that $26 per week is the amount left over for food for a person receiving a monthly $610 welfare cheque in BC. I can promise you that it’s less than $26, but you can see their arithmetic at http://welfarefoodchallenge.org/. There, you’ll also see the earnest faces of those participating in the Challenge, and read their stories of absolute dedication, principle and hope.

To those of you participating in the Challenge, I say that you are good and caring people. And the organisers deserve an enormous amount of credit and recognition. Raise the Rates is an awesome organization. But having written and worked on issues of local food insecurity, and having lived with hunger in this wealthy province, I wonder if it’s enough.

So, having said this, you’re probably wondering if I’m just some jerk who doesn’t get it, but I do. I’m a person with a disability, and I have lived on welfare in BC, as a result. Now I live on BC Persons with Disabilities Assistance, administered by the same Ministry as welfare. BCPDA pays more than welfare, and it comes with some welcome add-ons that people on welfare don’t get, like some dental coverage, but it’s still less than $1000 a month.

In spite of the higher amount, the second half of the month is a very hungry one. And before some troll tells me to go back to where I came from, if I don’t like it, you should know that I was conceived, born and raised in Vancouver. I also worked and paid taxes here, all of my life, until my disability made working impossible.

The thing about the Challenge is that I don’t want anyone to spend a week going hungry, not one person. I want all people to live in comfort and safety. And I’d prefer to see the energy, confidence and sense of inclusion commensurate with the right to food, fulfilled, used to kick some government ass, year round, every day. I want us all together to make government fear the people again.

After a week on a poverty diet, you’ll be slimmer, and after a remedial meal or two, you’ll probably feel shiny and new. But the Challenge itself can never inform a person of the profound humiliation, insult, isolation and hopelessness that comes along with the legislated poverty thrust upon so many in this province.

Poverty, hunger and disenfranchisement are systemic in BC. We have a government for whom foodbanks are a primary part of their business plan. That’s why I’d rather that participants in the Challenge save their strength and do things like vote, show up en masse at the BC Legislature, and the offices of Michelle Stilwell and Christy Clark, and make demands. Flood their offices daily with letters, petitions and emails. (But keep records. The emails will probably be deleted.) And cc the opposition. Tell them that the poor are not a complicated problem, they are people. And tell them that poverty need not continue simply because it has always been with us.

Many of you have already taken some of these measures, and I humbly thank you. And if you choose to go through with the Challenge, may I recommend Sunrise Market at 300 Powell Street in Vancouver as an excellent place to shop on a budget.

sidewalk man

10 p.m.

“You know the Skeena Terrace Housing Project, Sergeant Avakian?”

“Sure,” said the cop at the other end of the line. “I used to drive through a couple of times a week, on shift.”

“I lived there when I was a kid,” said Eli Fink. There was a blue eyed Australian Shepherd sitting at his feet, staring up at him as he spoke on the telephone.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Fink. “It was in the 70s and the cops loved to beat the hell out of us. We was just a bunch of monkeys with nothing in our pockets. They’d have a bad day somewhere else, then come to Skeena Terrace with their billy clubs and kick some poor kid’s ass.”

“I’m sorry about that, Mr Fink,” Avakian said. “I can assure you we do things differently now.”

“Oh c’mon, Avakian. The cops are doing the same shit they’ve always done, because they’re cops. You give some prick a gun, a company car and seventy grand a year, and he thinks he can do whatever he fucking wants. And mostly he’s right.”

“I see,” said Avakian.

“Good,” Fink said. “Now where I’m going with this, is this. Back then, the Vancouver cops and local cab companies drove the same car. Four door Plymouth Fury. It was the fleet car of choice. But in the mid to late 70s, Plymouth put out models with squeaky brakes, and they were loud too. You could hear ’em coming from a couple of blocks away. We got away with a lot of shit back then because when we heard that squeaky brake sound, we knew it was either the cops or a cab. Probably a cop.”

“That’s interesting,” Avakian said. “I was born in 1984, so I….”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” said Fink. “Just listen. So one day I get this idea after watching some shit on TV about Northern Ireland, and I run it by the boys. And they all laugh and say they’ll do it – of course they’ll do it! So we collect up all the rocks of a certain size we can find, which ain’t easy in a housing project if you want a lot of ‘em. Anyways, we spend a few days getting rocks together, and on Saturday night we settle in on the high ground over Herman Drive, behind the shrubs so we can’t be seen from the road. We smoke some shit and drink some beers, and wait for the squeaky brake sound to come.

“A couple of cabs went by, and then Philly the Rope who had a surplus cop Fury. And then came an actual cop car. A couple of fat pigs eating hoagies and drinking Slurpees, coming down Herman, the driver squeezing his brakes, looking all over for some delinquent to belt around.

“And when the fuckers were right below us on the road, we stood up from behind the shrubs and let ‘em have it, baby. You should have seen the pussies in that black and white piss themselves as all these rocks start comin’ outta nowheres. Bam! The windshield busted. Bam! The lights on the light bar shatter, blue and red pieces all over the road. The side windows blow out and rocks are bouncing off the body, dents and scratched paint. What a fucking mess. Then we split and hid, because every cop in Vancouver rolled in and they were pissed.”

“That’s a very interesting story, Mr Fink,” said Avakian.

“Call me Eli.”

“Okay, Eli,” Avakian said. “But I wonder what it has to do with the current situation.”

“Hell, I don’t know,” said Eli Fink. “I was just thinking about another time I was up against the cops.”

“We’re just here to keep people safe and facilitate the exchange.”

“And blow me away,” Fink said.

“Do you think that will be necessary?” Avakian asked.

“I don’t know,” Fink said, sounding a little confused. “I just know that after we pelted that cop car, the pigs spent weeks hunting each of us down. A couple of us ended up in the hospital. I got clobbered in a stairwell at night by this big fat fucker named Wilken. I still got numbness in my left hand from him grinding his heel into it, while his partner gagged me with his Maglite. The cops just wanted to let us know that they was the toughest street gang in town.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, fuck.”

“Do you think that what you’re asking for now is reasonable, Eli?”

“None of this is reasonable.”

“That’s true,” Avakian said. “I’m glad you understand that. You can’t hold the dog responsible, Eli. He’s just a dog.”

“I don’t hold him responsible. He’s just my hostage. If I could get my hands on its owner, I’d have a knife to her throat right now.”

“Careful what you say, Eli.”

“Fuck, it’s a dog,” Fink said, sounding slightly crazed. “How’d this all happen? It’s just a fucking dog.”

“And you’ve got that going in your favour, Eli. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says the most you can do is two years for causing an animal distress. You’d be facing serious time if it was a human being, instead of a dog.”

“Frankie ain’t in no distress. Are you, boy?” Eli reached out and petted the dogs head.

“All the better.”

earlier that day

How many of his dawns had come this way? Eli Fink waking from a dim dream of sleep within a wheel, with an idea of some significance lodged inside of a fragile sphere, ready to burst at the first hint of wakefulness.

Then bang, the great idea was gone, upon Fink seeing the worldly ceiling above him. As across the street a coin operated newsstand was refilled with the morning news, and its spring loaded door slammed shut. Was the sound of it a crash or a thud? It happened so fast, so unexpectedly every morning that no one cared to think. Then the newspaper truck sped away, and it was quiet again. A second chance at sleep.

But there’d be nothing for it. Eli would be fully awake, if a bit sticky of mouth and in a fog. And that idea of some significance had floated away. The residue of the fragile sphere it occupied had sunk to the ground, while the vapour of the idea itself had migrated into its surroundings, and twisted and bound with the atoms of the walls and floors, lost there forever. How many of his dreamed ideas had bound with those atoms? God might know, if God gave a goddam.

He thought for a moment of Rachel, so recently gone that her perfume lingered in the bedding and bathroom towels.

You’re mad, she had said in her kitchen table goodbye note, which he had found the night she’d fled. I thought it was aestheticism, she had written, but it’s just a common working man’s madness. Goodbye.

He’d had to look up aestheticism on Wikipedia. It was a compliment that had come too late, and it broke his heart. Rachel’s absence was an abyss that absorbed all available light. Eli Fink would now and forever stumble in the dark.

He turned in his bed and placed his feet on the floor. The clock suggested 5am. A sound offer. He’d take it, and wash his face. Then eat from the refrigerator. And after that, drive his flat black ’68 Ford to the job site, where the labourers lingered at the coffee truck, the surveyors played the angles and the foremen dreamed of empty desert highways, souped-up Chevrolets and any floral print damsel they could find, other than their own untidy wives, riding shotgun in the republic of doo-wop.

It was Wednesday. The day they’d pour his concrete. His curving masterwork through a maple grove and around a fountain in the park would come to life.

The excavation for his sidewalk conformed absolutely to the lines and grades specified. He had taken great care in avoiding damage to areaways, and appurtenances.

The cement would be type Normal Portland GU with a minimum 28 day compressive strength of 32 MPa, and a maximum nominal size of coarse aggregate of ¾ of an inch. Slump at point of discharge 3 ± 1 inch. All laid over an immaculate granular backfill.

His forms were of flexible plywood and were of sufficient strength to resist the pressure of concrete when poured, and all vibration from nearby construction. They were staked in place with three pins per yard, and he’d placed a pin on each side of each form butt joint. There’d be no more than a fraction of an inch of deviation from the grade.

He had chosen his trowels, edgers and a broom of the correct coarseness the day before. He would etch in the cut-marks with scrupulous precision.

After this magnum opus, he should retire. He could never top it. But he couldn’t retire. He was only fifty-four. There were still hundreds of sidewalks, avenues, boulevards, ramps, corners and curbs to lay. Hundreds of miles of them, to join the hundreds he’d laid before this. Would the length of them eventually reach round the world, or to the moon? Who kept track of these things? Perhaps some manless prude at city hall, who stayed overtime to check her arithmetic. Then went home to her pitiless cat.

The first cement truck arrived at 7.30am, and began to pour at 7.35.

He watched the fluid concrete flow down the chute, and into the forms. It was full of stony viscous metaphor. A river one might travel down, but upon which he could never return. There were tides of it, hard and in its liquid form, made high and low by the gentle moon. It lay wet and vulnerable for a time, at the mercy of cruel circumstance, but then solidified to a hardness and resilience beyond measure. But during that time of vulnerability, any number of things could happen. The worst of which were the careless footprints of senile oldsters, and unrestrained children and pets – and graffiti, who the hell was Ziggy, after all? There was no adequate protection against these things. He could only return from further up the length his work to find the irreparable damage, and inside, weep.

That day’s damage would be caused by an unrestrained pet, a friendly Australian Shepherd named Frankie. Frankie’s human was a woman named Francine. The closeness of their names was one of those things that made one wonder about human/pet relationships. Eli Fink would learn the names of these two when in a desperate fit, he did a desperate thing.

Francine, as it turned out, rejected leash laws, believing that they commodified and degraded animals as intelligent as dogs. In a newspaper interview yet to come, Francine would observe that leashes were only appropriate for cats.

Like all dogs of his breed, Frankie was born to herd the sum of all sentient beings on planet Earth into a tight maneuverable knot that could be run from one pasture to another, or back to the shearing hut. But lacking a medial orbitofrontal cortex, he had never regretted the fact that he had failed to ever do so – he’d just kept trying. And on that day, after the cement was poured and Eli Fink was creating his master work, as he moved up the walk with trawl, edger and broom toward the fountain roundabout, Frankie the dog would lock onto a grazing flock of Canada geese in the vicinity of the Fink’s finished work, and after sneaking in a crouched position so as not to alarm his quarry, he would launch into a genetically preprogramed dash meant to corral the rabble.

But the geese flew away instead, leaving Frankie momentarily confused, until he started biting away at what might have been a flea on his haunch. Regrettably, in his pursuit, Frankie had run along the sidewalk of wet cement and permanently added his paw prints. They’d remain there for all eternity.

Eli Fink ran back to the spot as fast as he could, when he was informed. But all remedial efforts were for not. The concrete had been too close to setting.

Frankie and his human, Francine, now stood by and observed the visible signs of Eli Fink’s heart sinking, and Francine stepped up and said –

“Frankie and I are real sorry, mister.”

Fink thought about those words for a moment and recalled all of the times he’d heard them before, from dog and cat owners, and mothers of wicked children with gummy soled shoes. In 1985, a car drove across his just laid sidewalk, and the driver, stinko drunk, got out of the car and vomited on Eli Fink’s boots – he’d said he was sorry. In 1989, a group of punk rockers had etched FuCK boN jOvI in two foot letters on a curb – they’d said sorry too, then fuck you cement boy. In 2006, a blind man tripped and fell trying to walk a just laid avenue – he said he was real sorry. But a week later, he began a civil action, claiming Fink and the City were negligent for allowing wet cement to just lay around, a hazard upon which anyone could injure themselves. It took three years, but it was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Fink was suspended a week without pay. Even the union couldn’t help.

There were other examples of the public’s carelessness and disrespect of his vocation and art. And then –

I thought it was aestheticism, Rachel had written, but it’s just a common working man’s madness. Goodbye.

“Fuck!” Eli Fink yelled, and grabbed Frankie by the collar. He began walking toward a park gardeners shed, pulling the dog behind.

“Wait!” Francine called out. “What are you doing with my dog?”

She ran after him as more and more people stopped to watch, and Fink turned, pulling a small Swiss Army knife from his pocket. He fought to open it with his teeth, as he held onto Frankie’s collar. But in his struggle, he succeeded only in producing the corkscrew. He swung it round wildly, so the world could see that he meant business. He’d always wondered what use he had for a corkscrew on a knife. Now he knew.

“Don’t hurt my dog, you psycho,” Francine shouted.

“Just back off,” Eli Fink said. “I got demands. (Actually he didn’t, yet.) You don’t get Frankie back until those demands are met, baby. And if they aren’t, the mutt gets it.”

Fink pulled Frankie along, looking over his shoulder once or twice, until he was in the shed. Then he closed the door and jammed a shovel under the doorknob, and waited. For what, he didn’t know.

Sergeant Avakian arrived twenty minutes after the first squad car, along with the Vancouver Police Department ERT, and an Officer of the BCSPCA.

“He’s just got a dog as his hostage?” said Lieutenant Black, of the VPD Emergency Response Team. He had his balaclava pulled back so the world could see his ruggedly handsome face, and what a swell bunch of good natured guys his heavily armed, black clad paramilitary team was.

“Hell, we can have him outta there in a couple of minutes,” he said. “With a stun grenade. We just got these new ones that….”

“No you don’t,” said Officer Wilma Muson of the BCSPCA. She was four foot, six inches to Black’s six foot, three.

“Why the hell not?” said Black.

“Because,” said Munson. “Section 23.2 (1) of the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says: A person must not cause an animal to be in distress. I think a stun grenade would definitely cause that poor dog one hell of a lot of distress.”

“It’s a dog, for the love of Pete,” Black said. “Since when is a dog a legitimate goddam hostage?”

“You’ve gotta admit, Lieutenant,” Munson said, “that there is a chance that the dog will be killed or injured in any attempt you make to free him and take the hostage-taker into custody, right?”

“I guess,” said Black. “There’s always a very slim chance that….”

“Well,” Munson said. “Section 23.2 (2) (b) of the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act says that: A person who kills an animal must not, in killing the animal, cause the animal to be in distress or do anything that is prohibited by the regulations. I’d wager that being shot and wounded or killed in the confusion you and your crew would cause, would be very distressful to that animal. It’s the law, Danno.”

“This is a joke, right?” Lieutenant Black said. He clenched his fists and kicked at the grit on the ground. “We just got in a brand new goddam shipment of stun grenades to try out. They’re from the Mexican Federal Police. They’ve been using them on the cartels down there with mucho goddam exito. Now we want to give ‘em a tryout, Officer Munson, and this is an excellent opportunity. You’re just getting in the way. Go rescue a fucking gerbil.”

“I’m pretty sure, Lieutenant,” Wilma Munson said, with a smile, “that you’re used to having things your own way. But now’s not the time for you to have a hissy-fit.”

“A what!”

“Look,” Sergeant Avakian said. “I haven’t even spoken to the hostage-taker yet. Let’s try that first, shall we? We just got his cell number a moment ago.”

“I’m the ranking officer here,” said Lieutenant Black.

“So far,” said Avakian. “But I’m the negotiator. Procedure says we talk first, and you know it.”

“Well, fuck me,” Black said, walking away and yelling at his men to take their goddam balaclavas off and stand down.

“Wow,” said Munson. “There goes an angry man.”

“Never mind,” Avakian said, and punched a number into his phone.

Inside the shed, Eli Fink’s cell phone rang. He thought it might be Rachel. It wasn’t her ring, but then she’d changed her number.

“Hello?” he said. “Rachel?”

“No, Mr Fink,” Sergeant Avakian said.

“Look,” said Fink. “I’m not interested in a time share.”

“I’m not selling anything, Mr Fink. This Sergeant Avakian of the Vancouver Police Department.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense.”

“Who’s Rachel? Is she someone you’d like for me to contact?”

“No.”

“I will, you know?”

“I wouldn’t know where to find her.”

“Is there anything you need?”

“Ah, no,” Fink said, disarmed by the cop’s calm tone and kind questions.

“How’s Frankie?” said Avakian.

“He’s a little shit,” Fink said. Frankie sat and looked up at him. He looked wise, for a dog. He looked like he might say something profound. For the first time, Fink noticed dried cement between the animal’s toes.

“There’s a woman out here who wants him back, Mr Fink,” Avakian aid.

“I want things, too.”

“Tell me what they are.”

“I want that sidewalk replaced,” Eli Fink said. “And I want every sidewalk I ever laid, that was ruined by animal or human, pulled up and replaced.”

“That might take a while,” said Avakian.

“Then get started.”

“This isn’t a typical demand. Replacing sidewalks will take a while.”

“I got a corkscrew at this little mutt’s throat, right now. (Actually, the Swiss Army knife was in Fink’s pocket.) You get the ball rolling or I’m gonna delete his cookies. I know it’ll take a while. You just get me a promise from the Mayor that he’ll do it. Then Frankie’s free to go shit on the lawn.”

1 a.m.

There was chanting coming from a short distance away from the shed. People were yelling animal rights slogans and lighting candles. Twenty cops in riot gear stood their ground. Eli Fink’s effigy had been hung by a noose from a tree. Special high powered lighting was focused on the shed. For some reason, the fire department and five ambulances was there.

“So, when do you think the Mayor’s gonna come through?” Fink said. “It’s been hours.”

“He’s been informed of your demand, Eli,” Avakian said. “He says he’s talking to the City’s lawyers.”

“I want kibble, water and some capicola pizza and beer.”

“Good,” said Avakian. “I’ll get it for you.”

“Hurry. Frankie looks hungry.”

“Eli?”

“What?”

“Did those Skeena Project cops ever have to face disciplinary action?”

“Doubt it,” Fink said. “Someone would have had to rat them out, and we wouldn’t do that. My money’s on karma. Maybe they got prostate cancer.”

“Ah.”

“What about your SWAT boys? They ready to dance on my head?”

“ERT’s on alert, but they’re holding back for the moment.”

“How long will that last?”

“I don’t know. It’s dark. They like to work in the dark.”

“Frankie probably needs to take a piss, I guess,” Fink said. Then he heard a commotion at the other end of the line. After a moment, Avakian spoke —

“The Mayor’s office just called, Eli. He’s says no.”

“No?”

“No.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah.”

“Am I gonna die?”

“Come out with your hands up, Eli. No one needs to die tonight.”

Frankie was asleep, curled up at Eli’s feet. Eli reached down and scratched the dog’s ear.

“People think I’m high strung,” he said.

Avakian didn’t reply.

“I just got kicked around a lot when I was kid. Now I want some control over things. I like to do things right. You pay a price for that, you know?.”

Avakian remained quiet.

“You there, Sergeant?”

There was more commotion on the cops’ end of the line. It sounded like the phone had been dropped.

“Just give me a little more time,” he heard Avakian say.

Fink opened the door a crack and peeked out. There were animal rights protesters and media on the sidewalk. The energy of the crowd was changing.

Frankie barked twice, and began to growl, looking up at a small window. Then something burst through the glass. It was hard and the shape and size of a can of soup. It came to rest on the floor after bouncing off the walls. On its side were the words uso de explosivos extrema precaución. Mexican soup, Eli Fink thought a second before the stun grenade blew.

Fink lost the hearing in his right ear, and spent the rest of his life having to turn his left ear toward the source of pleasant sounds. He taught many of his fellow prisoners how to work with concrete while doing federal time. There were the animal endangerment charges, and other subsequent charges that added up to five years. While in prison, a psychiatrist prescribed him a benzodiazepine medication.

Frankie recovered after three days of deafness, and Francine now uses a leash.

Railway Journal – rewrite

please note that this story will be change slightly in places over the next week or so, as the deadline for its completion approaches 

part 1

1953 

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, British Columbia. 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, he knew 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 Leopold, 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. He’d been 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 darkness 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 Leopold 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. And 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 earlier, 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. Not enough to portray a man’s whole life, he thought. 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. Those years 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 for repair. 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….”

“Thermodynamics.”

“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 many, including 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. If you go, 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.

part 2

Langdale, BC 1953

The vessel shook, as the Black Ball ferry entered the slip. Isaac Brunel had arrived. He could see nothing through the passenger lounge window except trees and misty low cloud. Supposedly, there was a town out there in the mix. He picked up his army surplus duffle bag and marched to the exit. There were incoherent announcements coming over the intercom. A ramp that lead onto the wharf was being secured by two untidy men. The rain was still falling.

“Have a nice stay,” said one of the ramp men to Isaac Brunel, as he disembarked. Brunel was an obvious tourist.

Smiling grimly, he walked off between the two men. There were mumbled words and snickers behind him. Perhaps the crisp new Burberry pea coat and rust coloured cashmere turtle neck were a bit much, now that he thought of it. But a man must dress for the climate, and must never apologise for it. Olivier certainly wouldn’t. But then, Sir Laurence would never find himself here, in the rain, on a wharf, in Langdale.

He stopped at the top of yet another ramp that lead down, off of the wharf. In the parking lot below was a knot of expectant persons, greeting his fellow passengers with laughter, hugs and slaps on the back. It occurred to him once more that he’d done very little to inform the people on this side when he would arrive. An avoidance maneuver, he thought with mild panic. Isaac had been uneasy from the start about who might greet him here. He steeled himself and descended, and immediately thought about a car. He’d need one. How was that done in this place? He’d called ahead, but there was no agency.

As he stepped off of the ramp, he saw a lone Chevrolet with wooden sides at the far end of the parking lot. It had the word Taxi hand painted on its side. That was it. No line of them round the block, and no Porter to take his bag and place it in the boot. This was the new world. He put his head down and began to walk into the wind and rain.

“Hey mister,” said someone off to his left. He ignored whoever it was. “Hey! Mister! You from London?”

Isaac Brunel stopped and looked over his shoulder at a young woman under the overhanging eaves of a shed.

“’Cause you kinda look like you’re from there.”

She had a pleasant round face, and wore a blue wool car coat. The hem of a floral dress was visible emerging at the bottom. There was a worn baseball cap on her head, and saddle shoes with perfect white bobby socks on her feet. Her hands were in her coat pockets, and a black patent leather purse hung from her wrist. She was moving up and down – heel to toe, heel to toe – to stay warm.

“Are you Isaac Brunel?” she said.

He stood in the rain, and said, “Yes.”

“Well hello,” she said. “I’m Mary Brunel. Your cousin. Gosh, I’ve been coming here for a week, waiting for you. Your cable was scarce on information. But Granny Wilhelmina said I had to. She said you was polite company and we had to treat you with kid gloves. But you look like anyone else I ever seen. ‘Cept you’re real wet, right now. Granny Wilhelmina says you London Brunels break like China dolls. Is that true?”

He wondered.

“Do you have a dry cigarette?” he said.

“Of course.”

“Care to share?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Mary Brunel. Her pronunciation was short and clipped. She pulled a pack of Players from her handbag.

He walked over to the shed and ducked under the dripping eaves. She offered him the deck, and he took one. She lit his and her own with battered Zippo lighter. Isaac looked at her carefully now, for the first time.

“You’re an Indian,” he said, like she might not already know. It was an involuntary observation. A curse of fatigue or a hitherto hidden prejudice. He sounded surprised, and was immediately ashamed.

“Shíshálh,” she said, nonchalantly, as she smoked. “Welcome to our land.”

“I’m sorry, I….”

“Maybe you haven’t gotten to that part of great Granddad’s journal,” said Mary Brunel. “So, you didn’t know. White folk think the whole goddamn world is white. And what ain’t, should be. It’s not, you know. But I guess you’ll adjust.”

“Yes,” he said, looking at the pavement.

“So, let’s forget it.”

“Alright.”

She was right. For all of the importance he’d placed in investigating the journal, and what it meant, he’d neglected reading it seriously and in depth. He’d been carelessly relying on his visit here to supply the questions and their answers.

He was startled when she suddenly whistled. She seemed too small for it. It was the whistle of a London hooligan, loud and piercing. She waved at the taxi, and the driver started the engine.

“That’s Roger, driving the cab,” Mary said. “He’s a little rough, and a little stupid. But he’s our only ride to the house. Just ignore anything he says. I’ll make sure he don’t deviate from the directest route. You’re paying. Don’t tip too much.”

Roger drove his taxi in an unnecessarily wide arc round the perimeter of the parking lot to get to them. He rolled down his window when he arrived, and a cloud of stale cigarette smoke curled out.

“Where to, yous two?” he said, getting out and putting Isaac’s duffle in the trunk. His face was pale and pockmarked, and his hair vampire black. It was held in place with that week’s application of Brylcreem. He wore a leather biker jacket and engineer boots.

“Granny’s house,” said Mary Brunel. “You know the way.”

“I discovered a better route the other day,” Roger said. “We’ll take that.”

“The hell you say,” said Mary Brunel. “Just go the way I tell you.”

Mary and Isaac got in, and Roger headed for the highway. As he drove, he looked in the rear view.

“Who’s the chump?” he said.

“My cousin, Isaac.”

“That’s Isaac?” Roger said. “The fella everyone’s so up in the air about?”

“Don’t talk about him like he ain’t here, Roger.”

“Looks like a bit of a fag,” Roger said. “To me, anyways.”

He lit another cigarette off one already dying in his mouth.

Isaac raised an eyebrow.

“Everyone looks like a fag to you and your Legion buddies,” Mary said.

“You fight in the war?” said Roger. “I fought in the war. Seaforth Highlanders. Went to Vancouver to sign up. Lied ‘bout my age. Wasn’t eighteen yet. Landed on the beach, day after D Day. We went in on the seventh, not the sixth. But I still almost go my ass shot off a dozen times. Saw a lot of my pals die, liberating England.”

“We weren’t occupied,” said Isaac. “We didn’t need liberating.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I was too young to fight in the war,” said Isaac. “I was only a child.”

Roger made a quiet, self-satisfied ha! sound.

“I lived in a terrace in London that was bombed,” Isaac said. “My parents and little sister were killed, and our house destroyed. The whole neighbourhood was destroyed.”

Roger shrugged and went quiet.

Isaac had never seen so many trees, not even in Scotland. And the road was unpaved. Roger turned right at Stewart as instructed, and drove down the potholed lane. It came to a sudden end, where a large and unexpected house stood. It was well kept, in spite of its location and age. The large front yard had well-tended, winter-dormant gardens and a tire hanging from a rope tied to one of the many leafless deciduous trees.

Roger stopped, and said, “That’ll be five bucks, mister.” He hadn’t engaged the metre. Maybe he was right.

“Roger…,” Mary said.

“Okay, $3.50,” he said. “I was just roundin’ up for wear and tear.”

“Keep it,” Isaac said, handing over $6.00. He knew from living in London the value in keeping cab drivers happy. All the more so in this case, where there might not be an alternative.

“Thanks, mate,” Roger said, smiling in the rear view mirror. Three of his front teeth were missing. He was a vampire approaching toothlessness.

As Roger retrieved Isaac’s luggage from the trunk, the front door of the house opened and a young aboriginal man emerged, followed by an excited mutt.

“That’s Nathan,” Mary said. “Another of your cousins. He’s my brother.”

Nathan was tall, young, and handsome. Isaac guessed he was about 20 years old. He came the remaining few feet to stand and look Isaac over. Then he held out his hand.

“I’m assuming you’re the London Brunel,” he said. The mutt danced and sniffed Isaac’s shoes.

“I’ve come to understand that that’s how I’m known round here,” Isaac said. “And that I might break like a China doll at any moment.”

“I further assume,” said Nathan, “that you’d rather be referred to by your proper name.”

“Yes,” said Isaac, as he shook Nathan’s hand.

“I’ll pass that along.”

Isaac decided he like him.

The young man hoisted the duffle, and said, “Let’s head on in, then. Granny Wilhelmina awaits, like a Buddha on a pedestal in an antiques emporium. She’s been speaking your name for weeks now.”

In the entrance of the house was a small cloakroom, with friendly hats on shelves and many coats. As Nathan took his pea coat, Isaac couldn’t help noticing him sneak a peek at the label and give an approving nod.

Then he said, “Come along.”

They entered the parlour and there she was. The matriarch of the Sun Shine Coast Brunels. Wearing a snugly fitted red and white polka dot dress over her vast girth. The room truly did resemble a well-kept antique shop. It wasn’t what he expected. Wilhelmina Brunel had a tea cup in her chubby fingers. To Isaac, she looked like an enormous, jovial ghost from a Dickens novel.

“Fill me up, Mary dear,” Granny Wilhelmina said, and Mary Brunel rushed to fill her empty tea cup. Then Granny Wilhelmina watched as Mary dropped in four cubes of sugar, a splash of milk, and then stirred it for her with a tiny spoon.

“This is Isaac Brunel,” Mary said as she stirred.

“You can call me Granny Wilhelmina, boy,” she said to Isaac. “Pardon me if I don’t get up. It’s a goddam chore moving this fat old body, let me tell you. Come over here and shake my hand.”

Isaac did. Wilhelmina’s hand was moist and warm.

“You’ve read the whole journal I sent to you?” she said.

So, it was her who sent it.

“I only scanned it. It was a busy season. I have the volumes with me.”

“Did you know you’re related to Indians?”

Mary smiled.

“No,” said Isaac.

“Does it matter to you?”

“No, not especially.”

“Ha!” Wilhelmina said, looking at Nathan and Mary in turn. “…not especially. The boy talks like a goddam book. What’d I tell ya?” She paused then for the sake of gravity, and said: “But you know Mad Granddad Leopold came here to build a railroad.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t know why he ever thought it was needed round abouts,” said the big woman. “Turns out it never was. Turns out a gravel road’s all we need round here. The train’s lost in the bush now. It broke the old man’s heart. He died angry as hell. Sad, too. I guess them two things go together, don’t they? Nathan can take you to see parts of it. But it’s just a lot of rusty rails, rotten ties and a few beat up old depots where the raccoons sleep now. Why the hell you come all this way to see that?”

“It’s difficult to explain.” Isaac faltered a moment “Leopold’s family. You’re family. What he did here was amazing, even if it didn’t work out in the end. I haven’t seen it or fully read about it in his journal yet. I don’t understand it. But I know it must be wonderful. Maybe I’ll write about it. Besides, you sent the journal to me. You must have expected some kind of response.”

“Don’t know what I expected,” Wilhelmina said. “I thought you was an actor, not a writer.”

“I am an actor. But maybe I can write, too.”

“Maybe,” Wilhelmina said. “I like them Harlequin romances, myself. Why don’t you sit down? Mary, make the boy some fresh tea. I ‘spect the boy knows his tea inside out.”

“He’s not a boy, Granny,” said Mary, as she disappeared into the kitchen.

Wilhelmina’s eyes were hazel and bright. She was a zealot, for something. Isaac didn’t know what. Maybe she didn’t, either.

“So,” Wilhelmina said. “I’ll start the story of Mad Granddad Leopold’s railroad in a minute. But first you have to understand that there’s a big difference between what I have to tell you, and what’s in them diaries. A man like Leo tends to glamorize and exaggerate a bit. Men do in general. The truth always comes down through the women. You with me so far?”

“Yes, Granny Wilhelmina.”

She paused for a moment and smiled. Her name sounded mighty fine when spoken with an educated English accent.

“Good,” she said. “I ain’t in no mood to debate that last point. Fact is men play fast and loose with the truth. It’s in their blood.”

Mary came back into the parlour with slices of cake. She placed one onto a side plate along with a fork, and handed it to Wilhelmina.

“Tea’ll be ready soon,” she said.

“Now,” said Wilhelmina. “I suppose you know that there’s insanity in the family.”

“No,” Isaac said. “I mean, I know there are rumours.”

“Well, there is. And Leopold Liberty Brunel may have been crazier than all of us put together. That’s where the Mad Granddad Leopold bit comes from. He talked to a ghost named Imelda. At least some said she was a ghost, since she wasn’t there for them to see. And Imelda was the one, far as I can tell, that pushed him on the whole railroad idea. Then she ridiculed him when his plans started to fall apart. She also might have been the one that drove him to suicide.”

Wilhelmina stopped there, and had a bite of cake.

“Mmm,” she said. “Raisins.”

“Suicide?” Isaac said.

“Yessiree,” said Wilhelmina, chewing and sucking the cake raisins. “Hung himself from a rafter in his office. His farewell note’s in the back of the last diary,”

“I had no idea.”

“Well, it ain’t his suicide that’s interestin’, I figure. It’s what lead up to it. Now get comfortable, sit still and listen….”

part 3

Sechelt, BC 1888

This he had noticed when he first arrived, the strange way that sound travelled in the dense rain forest. The way a raven’s crackle would echo for miles. The way a woodpecker’s intermittent hammering would as well.

He was convinced now that that was the case with the blunt and increasingly emphatic hammering on his cabin door. Then there was the hollering of the priest from Sechelt. The confused and pointless shouting of a Christian extremist, misplaced in the northern wilds of North America. Those combined sounds must also be travelling through the rain soaked jungle of ancient pine, fir and cedar.

“Open up,” Father Breckenridge roared, in his thick Belfast accent. “Brunel, you debauched heathen bastard. Let that young girl go. It’s Sunday. She should be in church.”

Leopold Liberty Brunel looked over at the woman sharing his bed. Nancy Pete was reading a book of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ignoring the priest’s tantrum. She was sitting up with her lovely, firm breasts revealed, and her long black hair falling over her shoulders. The hot stove was nearby.

She was seventeen, and their lovemaking the night before had been a wondrous rolling brawl that she had ultimately won. He wondered if the priest knew a single damn thing about women. Of course he didn’t. What a thought! All Breckenridge knew about was seminary buggery and sweaty confessional pedophilia.

“Go away, priest,” Leopold shouted. “This is a happy home. Your dogma is an anathema here.”

Nancy Pete smiled and turned a page.

“That ought to get him, eh?” Leopold whispered, then leaned over and kissed her ear.

“I’ve been sent here by Christ, Brunel,” Father Breckenridge shouted back through the locked door, “to protect this savage race from sin.”

“Then have the government stop feeding them whisky,” Leopold yelled.  “Reinstate the Potlatch. Hell, go off to Ottawa and have them stop giving the Indians blankets infected with smallpox. It’s not the Indians that need protection from sin. It’s the goddam politicians and robber barons. Besides, mister priest, there’s a fine tradition of good Englishmen taking savage lovers throughout the colonies. I am simply doing my duty, and carrying on that tradition.”

“Am I your savage lover?” said Nancy Pete, looking at him over the top of her book. She was unapologetically Shishalh.

“When you really get going, you are,” Leopold said.

“We shall meet in town, Leopold Brunel,” Father Breckenridge said. He’d become calm now, in his own savage Catholic way. “You cannot avoid me.”

“This is amply obvious,” Leopold said. He threw off the covers and put his feet onto the cold cabin floor.

There was quiet now, no more ferocious Christianity. The priest had gone, leaving behind just the sound of the forest shedding the most recent rain, in the form of drip-drops, the sound of Nancy Pete turning pages, and the most mysterious sound of all, the barely perceptible hiss of the rolling mist that almost always enveloped the cabin.

Leopold pulled on his long johns, put on his boots and walked over to the table where the surveyor’s map lay open. He drew out a wooden chair and sat down to study it once more. His design – his dream – was beginning to look like a railroad.

From Gibson’s to Doriston. Along the coast and east from Garden Bay. Sixty miles over tough territory. To carry timber and passengers. Not bad for a beginner. It would modernise the region. Business would flow in. The people’s poverty would be eliminated. He’d be a hero.

A direct route over the peninsula was impossible. There were small forest company lines, moving logs to rivers and tidewater. But a direct and continuous line was out of the question. The surveyors and cartographers had said as much. The mountains, trees and deep valleys were the obstacles. Those and the land’s refusal to accommodate a straight line. The prairies would have been a better choice, but those had been sacrificed to the CPR. The GDR, the Gibson Doriston Railway, was his alone. There were already depots built, twenty-three miles of track laid along the coast and an army of navvies camping along the way. He’d stun the world when it was done. He’d stun them even sooner if he could get the news out. Attract more investors. Every penny of his Honeycutt inheritance was gone, and his debts were enormous.

He said it out loud, “More investors.”

He took his treasured gold penknife off of the table and began to peel an apple.

“Investors?” said Nancy Pete. She was dressing now. “Who, for example?”

“The lumber companies. The government. Surely they see the value in it.”

“They don’t surely see nothin’.”

“Am I a fool, then?” It was his self-doubting voice. She’d heard it before.

“No one knows that for sure, yet,” Nancy Pete said. She came and hugged him from behind, and kissed the top of his head. “It’s too early to say. Crazy men always secretly doubt themselves more than anyone else, until they do something magnificent. They thought your father was a fool. In the end, maybe he was.”

She meant the SS Great Eastern, a project too big for its time. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s last great dream. It had been meant to sail from London to Australia, nonstop. It never did, and ended up laying telegraph cable instead. But before that there were the Great Western Railway, bridges, tunnels and a prefabricated hospital for the Crimean War.

The Great Eastern had given Isambard a stroke. But he’d worked right up to the end. Leopold would too, if it came to that.

“I need to get water for tea,” Nancy Pete said. She put on her coat. There was a well in the small yard.

“Yes, yes,” Leopold said, with a dismissive wave, looking at the map again.

“And I’m pregnant.”

He looked up from the map.

“How do you know?”

“I haven’t had a flow for two months.”

“But it’s impossible.”

“It happens every day,” she said. “It’s how we get little Indians. Though this one’ll be half a crazy Englishman.”

She opened the door and took a pail into the yard.

“Hey, babies,” he heard her say to the chickens as she exited.

This was the wrong time for a child.

Ha! Pregnant!  — Imelda said, the voice of the ghost that had followed him since he was a young man. And shadowed his every move.

Leopold tried to ignore her.

A child will ruin everything. We didn’t begin this to be held back by a woman.

“It is becoming of a man to have children,” he said calmly, placing the illustration of the Fairbanks Morse twenty-three wheeled Mountain Master locomotive over the map.

It would be Locomotive 1022. The locomotive. The only truly tangible emblem of his success, so far — that anybody cared about, that is. In the eye of the investors, it was more important than the miles of track laid. The colossus had already been manufactured to his specifications, and was on its way from Kingston. That and the custom passenger coach and caboose. He had agreements to lease the lumber cars and other rolling stock locally.

It’s fun to have a little Pocahontas, isn’t it – said Imelda.

“Please leave. You have no relevance to today’s undertakings.”

You’re already in hock for your toys, all that land you purchased.

“That’s business,” he said. “Debt is a reality of it. That’s how it works.”

There was a consortium of mill and logging company owners putting up money, but not enough. They expected results. And then there were the banks, one in Victoria and one in Vancouver. The faces of the bankers haunting his dreams.

A child will be another expense – Imelda said – I can make her not pregnant.

“You can’t,” he said. “You won’t.”

It would be easy.

“Leave her.” He needed to eat something and harness the horse to the trap, for the ride to the railhead.

You’ll have to marry her now – Imelda continued – Don’t think she’ll accept anything less, her or her relations. And don’t forget how things are changing on the railroad. The first twenty-three miles of track were easy. But there’s a steep grade ahead, then the turn inland and your first deep gorge. The white navvies don’t like the Chinese, and the Chinese hate the whites. It’ll be hard to keep them separated when things get narrow.

It was true, he’d rather not have the Chinese in camp. But only the Chinese would set the black powder charges. Some had already died doing so. They were essential, but their presence was a complicating factor.

He went to the barn to harness the horse.

* * * * *

From the railhead, he rode the small steam mule that hauled rails and ties up the line. Now it was hauling telegraph poles and wire, as well. The telegraph would be a valuable source of income.

The first twenty-three miles was like a dream. Gibson’s to Halfmoon Bay. The Gibson’s, Roberts Creek and Sechelt depots were already built. The Halfmoon Bay depot was under construction.

There was an ocean on one side, most of the way, and steep cliffs and overhangs on the other. It was smooth and picturesque, a postcard of sound planning and investment.

But further up the line lay the first great challenge, where it would turn inland. A 3.4% grade with compensation for curvature. A spiral tunnel was an alternative, but there weren’t the funds. His Mountain Master would have to work hard, even with another engine to assist in the ascent. Then its brakes would work overtime on the descent.

Approaching Halfmoon Bay now, he saw the navvies standing around and smoking. Something was wrong. When the mule finally stopped, his Foreman, Basil Duffy, greeted him. Duffy was a massive Scotsman with a blunt Scottish brogue.

“I thought we agreed the men would work Sundays,” Leopold said, as he stepped off the mule, “to speed things up. Why aren’t they working?”

“It’s the new rails,” said Duffy, greeting Leopold. “They’re cracking when we hammer the spikes into the ties — at least some are. Too much carbon in the alloy, I’d estimate.”

“How many?” said Leopold. His belly sank.

“Five of the last ten we laid. I’m afraid to lay anymore. They certainly won’t take the weight of a train.”

“Then what do we do?” Leopold said.

“It’s you railroad,” Duffy said. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. But if a rail broke here and a train derailed, it could end up in the bay with all its passengers and freight.”

Leopold thought for a moment. Isambard would have a solution. Another shipment of rails was essential. But it would arrive only after a long, time consuming series of telegrams between him and the steel mill in Hamilton, ordering and making sure the next load was properly manufactured. Then there was the matter of funds and refund, and what to do with the current stockpile of defective rail. It could be a month or more of delay. He did the arithmetic in his head. It could mean ruin.

“Lay off the navvies,” he finally said. “I’ll arrange for each of them to receive an extra week’s pay. They can leave if they like, but I’ll feed the ones that remain in the camp until we’re back laying track.”

“There’ll be a riot, Mr Brunel,” Duffy said. “You know there will. Some of ‘em will return to camp. But most’ll make it back to Sechelt and tear the place apart, after they’re done with Halfmoon Bay.”

“They must understand the situation,” said Brunel. “We can’t lay inferior track.”

“They understand a hard day’s work, grub and payday,” Duffy said. “And some whiskey, thrown in. That and the fact that they were guaranteed two to three year’s steady employment. After that there ain’t much they understand, at all. They’ll use that week’s pay to get terrible drunk. And there’s no local constabulary. It’s beyond the local citizens to handle what will happen. I’d call in the RCMP, if I was you.”

Beyond them…. Duffy had said it with unqualified Macbethian gravity in his voice, as was his birth right. He knew his navvies better than Leopold, better than anyone. It sent a shiver through Brunel. But there was nothing for it.

“Just do it,” he said. “The locals will benefit from the railroad in the end. For now, they must suffer the inconvenience.”

For a moment, Duffy seemed to hold his ground. As though he might refuse the order. After all, what was he if not a high priced navvy, himself? Then he sighed deeply and kicked the gravel at his feet.

“I’ll announce it, but I won’t try and hold ‘em back. And after that, I’ll be leaving for Vancouver. You’ll have to finish this alone. There won’t be one goddam Foreman in the country or the continent that’ll work for you now. It’s a shame, though. This railroad was a dandy idea.”

Duffy grabbed an empty dynamite crate and stood up on it. Then he made the announcement.

“It’s bad news boys. And I guess some of you figured as much.”

His voice boomed but was slow, giving the English speaking Chinese Foreman time to translate.

“There ain’t no track for the time being. You all seen how it busted driving spikes. It could take more than a month….”

“More than a month?” came a voice from the crowd. “Wadda we do in the mean time?”

“You wait here. You’ll be fed and taken care of. You’ll get a week’s pay on top of what you’re already owed.”

“That means no pay after that until we get more track,” came another voice. “More than a month, you say. Probably longer, I say.”

“You won’t need no money. There’ll be grub, coffee and shelter for you here.”

“My children need money, though,” said a young man. His was the loudest voice yet. “I didn’t come to Canada to sit around waitin’ while they go hungry.”

“Then there’s work in Vancouver,” Duffy said. He had no stomach for this.

“Vancouver?” It was a shout, an accusation. “But we were promised work here.”

A man hollered, “I want my money now.”

The crowd yelled and shook their fists in agreement.

Now Leopold stepped forward and waved his hands for the men to be quiet. They went silent. Even the birdsong was lost.

“The money’s in the bank,” he said. “In Sechelt. It’s Sunday. I’ll have it for each and every one of you tomorrow.”

“You mean you get on the mule, steam back to town and catch next boat to Vancouver.” This time it was the Chinese Foreman with his broken English who spoke. He was hated by the whites. But he’d incited them, all the same. The crowd was becoming violent. A rock shot past Leopold’s head.

“It’s not like that.” He couldn’t shout louder than the navvies.

“Says you,” a man yelled, followed by another rock. This one grazed Leopold’s forehead.

Meanwhile, Duffy had signaled the mule driver to get ready for a quick escape. Then he grabbed Leopold, put him over his shoulder and began running. The engine was already moving backward, away from the uproar. Duffy sprinted as fast as a man his size could, and was helped up onto the mule’s platform by the fireman. He dropped Leopold onto the floor, as the locomotive gained speed, and began kicking navvies off on one side as the driver and fireman did the same on the other.

Soon they were moving too fast for the navvies to catch up.

“I think I just sold my soul to a wicked Englishman,” said the driver. “Ain’t no place on this coast for me now.”

Duffy pulled Leopold to his feet by the lapels of his coat.

“There’re foot paths,” he shouted over the steam engine. “They can follow the track. Them boys’ll be in town by tomorrow for sure. And they’ll be looking for you.”

“I can pay them then,” said Leopold.

“Pay or no, that’ll be just the start of your troubles.”

part 4

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.”

She cornered the crumb and jabbed it with her fork.

“You know,” she said. “A legend grows like a tree. The tree trunk’s the truth of it. Even though it grows bigger with 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, as I said, Basil Duffy was Scottish and was gonna take Nancy back to Edinburgh to get married, after Leopold died. 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 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 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 Gibson’s Landing, 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 coast 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 it really wasn’t in the end.

“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.

“The riot Duffy predicted over the lay-off never happened, or at least it was delayed to another day. Leopold got hold of the situation and worked some magic. He held onto Duffy too. But I guess it was just too late by then.”

* * * * *

Gibson’s 1888

A short man in a dark overcoat and bowler hat, named Marvin Talbot, arrived in town on April 18th, and took a room at the hotel. After settling in, he began inquiring as to the whereabouts of one Leopold Liberty Brunel. Being a stranger, and considering Leopold one of the easiest men in town to find, the people of Gibson’s Landing said nothing when asked.

But the stranger was a man accustomed to biding his time. There was talk of a wedding in a day or two, a cheerful town celebration. He had no desire to dampen the mood with the execution of his task — until the happy day was over. So he lay on his hotel bed, drank coffee and read his Robert Louis Stevenson and Oscar Wilde.

“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 Gibson’s 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 too tight for it to 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.

“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 magnificent in a gown from the Hudson’s Bay 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 Gower Point Road, 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, in unexpected and growing despair, Leopold pondered the question of 1022. Had he miscalculated?

You have, you know.

It was her again, 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 China 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,” Nancy said.

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 the one in charge here,” he said to 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 Gower Point Road, drank and talked. It was a quiet jumble of words that sounded suspiciously like conspiracy to Basil Duffy’s ever-cautious ear.

“I’m nervous about this,” he told Leopold. The two of them stood together on the road, 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 in the dirt.

When they arrived at Braiggan’s bar, they kicked 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 Gower Point Road 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 Gibson’s Landing 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, Marvin Talbot finally found Leopold sitting in the cab of 1022.

“Are you Leopold Liberty Brunel?” said Talbot.

Leopold sighed, and said he was.

“Tragic what happened,” Talbot said. “I hardly had time to retrieve my books and suitcase from the hotel.”

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” Leopold said.

“Yes, well,” said Talbot. “Mine is a profession burdened with inconvenience. One learns to endure.”

“And your business,” Leopold said. “What is it?”

“I destroy dreams, sir,” Talbot said, handing Leopold an envelope. “Not out of malice, but necessity.”

“I won’t like the contents of this envelope, will I?” Leopold said.

“No sir. You will not. But that’s not my concern. Now I have to arrange transportation back to New Westminster. I thank you for your kind attention.”

Talbot tipped his hat and strode away.

The envelope contained 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 a whiskey bottle.

“Well,” said Nancy. “Who was he?”

She’d been helping with children made homeless by the fire, when news of the two men meeting came to her.

“A bailiff,” Leopold said. “Not a bad fellow, actually.”

“And…?”

“And, it’s over,” Leopold said, handing her the document.

“We’ll start again,” Nancy said.

Leopold shook his head.

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

Duffy arrived in time to hear.

“Not 1022,” he said. “We’ve taken care of that.”

“She’ll just sit on the track and rust, no matter what,” Leopold said.

“Maybe,” said Duffy. “Probably. But at least the bankers won’t get her. And it won’t be the first steam locomotive abandoned by Bankers.”

*  *  *  *  *

Gibson’s Landing, 1953

They came upon the massive locomotive in the morning. It was hidden in dense bush, just up from the water. The sun was breaking through, 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.

“It was a gamble getting her here,” Nathan said. “Story goes, that when things started to look uncertain, Nancy and Duffy conspired to build a partial spur line to the main track. That way they could get 1022 here, in case of an emergency. When axe fell, they completed it. They paid some of the navvys handsomely to do it, and keep it secret. Duffy drove her here himself. And when he parked her, they tore up the spur line and camouflaged everything until the forest took over.”

Despite the decay, 1022 was a message in a bottle. Leopold Liberty Brunel had been here, and had attempted something wonderful. It rivalled any abandoned Inca city in its magnificence.

Isaac had brought the fifth volume of the journal. Now he took a note from where it was tucked into the back. Unfolding it, he saw it was written in a graceful, slanting hand.

Dearest Nancy, 

I came to this rainy place to build something splendid, 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 placed the note back into the fifth volume of the journal. Then he hoisted himself up and into the cab of 1022. There he rattled levers and lamented over the gauges’ broken glass. He tried to free up both hands for this by placing the journal under an arm, but dropped it instead. And as he knelt down to pick it up, he saw something in a corner, on the floor. Reaching out, he saw that it was a gold pen knife.

Picking it up, he turned it over and over in his hands, and saw that its handle was engraved with two names. On one side was Leopold Liberty Brunel; on the other, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Railway Journals Part 4

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.

 

Railway Journal part 3

read part  two here

read the rewrite of the entire story here

Sechelt, BC 1888

This he had noticed when he first arrived, the strange way that sound travelled in the dense rain forest. The way a raven’s crackle would echo for miles. The way a woodpecker’s intermittent hammering would as well.

He was convinced now that that was the case with the blunt and increasingly emphatic hammering on the door of his cabin. Then there was the hollering of the priest from Sechelt. The confused and pointless shouting of a Christian extremist, misplaced in the northern wilds of North America. Those combined sounds must also be travelling through the rain soaked jungle of ancient pine, fir and cedar.

“Open up,” Father Breckenridge roared, in his thick Belfast accent. “Brunel, you debauched heathen bastard. Let that young girl go. It’s Sunday. She should be in church.”

Leopold Liberty Brunel looked over at the woman sharing his bed. Nancy Pete was reading a book of poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, ignoring the priest’s tantrum. She was sitting up with her lovely, firm breasts revealed, and her long black hair falling over her shoulders. The hot stove was nearby. She was seventeen, and their lovemaking the night before had been a wondrous rolling brawl that she had ultimately won. He wondered if the priest knew a single damn thing about women. Of course he didn’t. What a thought! All Breckenridge knew about was seminary buggery and sweaty confessional pedophilia.

“Go away, priest,” Leopold shouted. “This is a happy home. Your dogma is an anathema here.”

Nancy Pete smiled and turned a page.

“That ought to get him, eh?” Leopold whispered, then leaned over and kissed her ear.

“I’ve been sent here by Christ, Brunel,” Father Breckenridge shouted back through the locked door, “to protect this savage race of people from sin.”

“Then have the government stop feeding them whisky,” Leopold yelled.  “Reinstate the Potlatch. Hell, go off to Ottawa and have them stop giving the Indians blankets infected with smallpox. It’s not the Indians that need protection from sin. It’s the goddam politicians. Besides, mister priest, there’s a fine tradition of good Englishmen taking savage lovers throughout the colonies. I am purely doing my duty, and carrying on that tradition.”

“Am I your savage lover?” said Nancy Pete, looking at him over the top of her book. She was unapologetically Shishalh.

“When you really get going, you are,” Leopold said.

“We shall meet in town, Leopold Brunel,” Father Breckenridge said. He’d become calm now, in his own savage Catholic way. “You cannot avoid me.”

“This is amply obvious,” Leopold said. He threw off the covers and put his feet onto the cold cabin floor.

There was quiet now, no more cacophonic Christianity. The priest had gone, leaving behind just the sound of the forest shedding the most recent rain, in the form of drip-drops, the sound of Nancy Pete turning pages, and the most mysterious sound of all, the barely perceptible hiss of the rolling mist that almost always enveloped the cabin.

Leopold pulled on his long johns, put on his boots and walked over to the table where the surveyor’s map lay open. He drew out a wooden chair and sat down to study it once more. His design – his dream – was beginning to look like a railroad.

From Gibsons to Doriston. Along the coast and east from Garden Bay. Sixty miles over tough territory. To carry timber and passengers. Not bad for a beginner. It would modernise the region. Business would flow in. The people’s poverty would be eliminated. He’d be a hero.

A direct route over the peninsula was impossible. There were small forest company lines, moving logs to rivers and tidewater. But a direct and continuous line was out of the question. The surveyors and cartographers had said as much. The mountains, trees and deep valleys were the obstacles. Those and the land’s refusal to accommodate a straight line. The prairies would have been a better choice, but those had been sacrificed to the CPR. The GED, the Gibson Doriston Railway, was his alone. There were already depots built, twenty-three miles of track along the coast and an army of navvies camping along the way. He’d stun the world when it was done. He’d stun them even sooner if he could get the news out. Attract more investors. Every penny of his Honeycutt inheritance was gone, and his debts were enormous.

He said it out loud, “More investors.”

He took a treasured gold penknife off of the table and began to peel an apple.

“Investors?” said Nancy Pete. She was dressing now. “Who, for example?”

“The lumber companies. The government. Surely they see the value in it.”

“They don’t surely see nothin’.”

“Am I a fool, then?” It was his self-doubting voice. She’d heard it before.

“No one knows that yet,” Nancy Pete said. She came and hugged him from behind, and kissed the top of his head. “It’s too early to say. Crazy men always secretly doubt themselves more than anyone else, until they do something magnificent. They thought your father was a fool. In the end, maybe he was.”

She meant the SS Great Eastern. Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s last great dream. It had been meant to sail from London to Australia, nonstop. It never did, and ended up laying telegraph cable. But before that there were the Great Western Railway, bridges, tunnels and a prefabricated hospital for the Crimean War.

The Great Eastern had given Isambard a stroke. But he’d worked right up to the end. Leopold would too, if it came to that.

“I need to get water for tea,” Nancy Pete said. She put on her coat. There was a well in the small yard.

“Yes, yes,” Leopold said, with a dismissive wave, looking at the map again.

“And I’m pregnant.”

He looked up from the map.

“How do you know?”

“I haven’t had a flow for two months.”

“But it’s impossible.”

“It happens every day,” she said. “It’s how we get little Indians. Though this one’ll be half a crazy Englishman.”

She opened the door and took a pail into the yard.

“Hey, babies,” he heard her say to the chickens as she exited.

This was the wrong time for a child.

Ha! A child! Imelda said, the voice of the ghost that had followed him since he was a young man. And shadowed his every move.

Leopold tried to ignore her.

A child will ruin everything. We didn’t begin this to be held back by a woman.

“It is becoming of a man to have children,” he said calmly, placing the illustration of the Fairbanks Morse twenty-three wheeled Mountain Master over the map.

It would be Locomotive 1022. The locomotive. The only truly tangible emblem of his success, so far — that anybody cared about, that is. In the eye of the investors, it was more important than the miles of track laid. The colossus had already been manufactured to his specifications, and was on its way from Kingston. That and the custom passenger coach and caboose. He had agreements to lease the lumber cars and other rolling stock locally.

It’s fun to have a little Pocahontas, isn’t it – Imelda said.

“Please leave. You have no relevance to today’s undertakings.”

You’re already in hock for your toys, all that land you purchased.

“That’s business,” he said. “Debt is a reality of it. That’s how it works.”

There was a consortium of mill and logging company owners putting up money, but not enough. They expected results. And then there were the banks, one in Victoria and one in Vancouver. The faces of the banker haunting his dreams.

A child will be another expense – Imelda said – I can make her not pregnant.

“You can’t,” he said. “You won’t.”

It would be easy.

“Leave her.” He needed to eat something and harness the horse to the trap, for the ride to the railhead.

You’ll have to marry her now. – Imelda continued – Don’t think she’ll accept anything less, her or her relations. And don’t forget how things are changing on the railroad. The first twenty-three miles of track were easy. But there’s a steep grade ahead, then the turn inland and your first deep gorge. The white navvies don’t like the Chinese, and the Chinese hate the whites. It’ll be hard to keep them separated when things get narrow.

It was true, he’d rather not have the Chinese in camp. But only the Chinese would set the black powder charges. Some had already died doing so. They were essential, but their presence was a complicating factor.

He went to the barn to harness the horse.

* * * * *

From the railhead, he rode the small steam mule that hauled rails and ties up the line. Now it was hauling telegraph poles and wire, as well. The telegraph would be a valuable source of income.

The first twenty-three miles was like a dream. Gibsons to Halfmoon Bay. The Gibsons, Roberts Creek and Sechelt depots were already built. The Halfmoon Bay depot was under construction.

There was an ocean on one side, most of the way, and steep cliffs and overhangs on the other. It was smooth and picturesque, a postcard of sound planning and investment.

But further up the line lay the first great challenge, where it would turn inland. A 3.4% grade with compensation for curvature. A spiral tunnel was an alternative, but there weren’t the funds. His Mountain Master would have to work hard, even with another engine to assist in the ascent. Then its brakes would work overtime on the descent.

Approaching Halfmoon Bay, he saw the navvies standing around and smoking. Something was wrong. When the mule finally stopped, his Foreman, Basil Duffy, greeted him. Duffy was a massive Scotsman with a razor sharp Scottish brogue.

“I thought we agreed the men would work Sundays,” Leopold said, as he stepped off the mule, “to speed things up. Why aren’t they working?”

“It’s the new rails,” said Duffy, walking up to Leopold. “They’re cracking when we hammer the spikes into the ties — at least some are. Too much carbon in the alloy, I’d estimate.”

“How many?” said Leopold. His belly sank.

“Five of the last ten we laid. I’m afraid to lay anymore. They certainly won’t take the weight of a train.”

“Then what?” Leopold said.

“It’s you railroad,” Duffy said. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. But if a rail broke here and a train derailed, it could end up in the bay with all its passengers and freight.”

Leopold thought for a moment. Isambard would have a solution. Another shipment of rails was essential. But it would arrive only after a long, time consuming series of telegrams between him and the steel mill in Hamilton, ordering and making sure the next load was properly manufactured. Then there was the matter of a refund, and what to do with the current stockpile of defective rail. It could be a month or more of delay. He did the arithmetic in his head. It could mean ruin.

“Lay off the navvies,” he finally said. “I’ll arrange for them to receive a week’s pay. They can leave if they like, but I’ll feed the ones that remain in the camp until we’re back laying track.”

“There’ll be a riot, Mr Brunel,” Duffy said. “You know there will. Some of ‘em will leave the coast. But most’ll make it back to Sechelt and tear the place apart, after they’re done with Halfmoon Bay.”

“They must understand the situation,” said Brunel. “We can’t lay inferior track.”

“They understand a hard day’s work, grub and payday,” Duffy said. “And some whiskey, thrown in. That and the fact that they were guaranteed two to three year’s steady employment. After that there ain’t much they understand, at all. They’ll use that week’s pay to get terrible drunk. There’s no local constabulary. It’s beyond the locals citizens to handle what will happen. I’d call in the RCMP, if I was you.”

Beyond them…. Duffy had said it with unqualified Macbethian gravity in his voice, as was his ethnic right. He knew his navvies better than Leopold, better than anyone. It sent a shiver through Brunel. But there was nothing for it.

“Just do it,” he said. “The locals will benefit from the railroad in the end. For now, they must suffer the inconvenience.”

For a moment, Duffy seemed to hold his ground. As though he might refuse the order. After all, what was he if not a high-rate navvy himself? Then he sighed deeply and kicked the gravel at his feet.

“I’ll announce it, but I won’t try and hold ‘em back. And after that, I’ll be leaving for Vancouver. You’ll have to finish this alone. There won’t be one goddam Foreman in the country or the continent that’ll work for you now. It’s a shame, though. This railroad was a dandy idea.”

Duffy grabbed an empty dynamite crate and stood up on it. Then he made the announcement.

“It’s bad news boys. And I guess some of you figured as much.”

His voice boomed but was slow, giving the English speaking Chinese Foreman time to translate.

“There ain’t no track for the time being. You all seen how it busted driving spikes. It could take more than a month….”

“More than a month?” came a voice from the crowd. “Wadda we do in the mean time?”

“You wait here. You’ll be fed and taken care of. You’ll get a week’s pay on top of what you’re already owed.”

“That means no pay after that until we get more track,” came another voice. “More than a month, you say. Probably longer, I say.”

“You won’t need no money. There’ll be grub, coffee and shelter for you here.”

“My children need money, though,” said a young man. His was the loudest voice yet. “I didn’t come to Canada to sit around waitin’ while they go hungry.”

“Then there’s work in Vancouver,” Duffy said. He had no stomach for this.

“Vancouver?” It was a shout, an accusation. “But we were promised work here.”

A man hollered, “I want my money now.”

The crowd yelled and shook their fists in agreement.

Now Leopold stepped forward and waved his hands for the men to be quiet. They went silent. Even the birdsong had disappeared.

“The money’s in the bank,” he said. “In Sechelt. It’s Sunday. I’ll have it for each and every one of you tomorrow.”

“You mean you get on the mule, steam back to town and catch next boat to Vancouver.” This time it was the Chinese Foreman with his broken English who spoke. He was hated by the whites. But he’d incited them, all the same. The crowd was becoming violent. A rock shot past Leopold’s head.

“It’s not like that.” He couldn’t shout louder than the navvies.

“Says you,” a man shouted, followed by another rock. This one grazed Leopold’s forehead.

Meanwhile, Duffy had signaled the mule driver, using sign language to tell him to get ready for a quick escape. Then he grabbed Leopold, put him over his shoulder and began running. The engine was already moving backward, away from the uproar. Duffy sprinted as fast as a man his size could, and was helped up onto the mule’s platform by the fireman. He dropped Leopold onto the floor, as the locomotive gained speed, and began kicking navvies off on one side as the driver and fireman did the same on the other.

Soon they were moving too fast for the navvies to catch up.

“I think I just sold my soul to a wicked Englishman,” said the driver. “Ain’t no place on this coast for me now.”

Duffy pulled Leopold to his feet by the lapels of his coat.

“There’re foot paths,” he shouted over the steam engine. “They can follow the track. Them boys’ll be in town by tomorrow for sure. And they’ll be looking for you.”

“I can pay them then,” said Leopold.

“Pay or no, that’ll be just the start of your troubles.”

The Railway Journal, Part 2

read part 1 here

read the rewrite of the entire story here

Langdale, BC 1953

The vessel shook, as the Black Ball ferry entered the slip. Isaac Brunel had arrived. He could see nothing through the passenger lounge window except trees and misty low cloud. Supposedly, there was a town out there in the mix. He picked up his army surplus duffle bag and marched to the exit. There were incoherent announcements coming over the intercom. A ramp that lead onto the wharf was being secured by two untidy men. The rain was still falling.

“Have a nice stay,” said one of the ramp men to Isaac Brunel, as he disembarked. Brunel was an obvious tourist.

Smiling grimly, he walked off between the two men. There were mumbled words and snickers behind him. Perhaps the crisp new Burberry pea coat and rust coloured cashmere turtle neck were a bit much, now that he thought of it. But a man must dress for the climate, and must never apologise for it. Olivier certainly wouldn’t. But then, Sir Laurence would never find himself here, in the rain, on a wharf, in Langdale.

He stopped at the top of yet another ramp that lead down, off of the wharf. In the parking lot below was a knot of expectant persons, greeting his fellow passengers with laughter, hugs and slaps on the back. It occurred to him once more that he’d done very little to inform the people on this side when he would arrive. An avoidance maneuver, he thought with mild panic. Isaac had been uneasy from the start about who might greet him here. He steeled himself and descended, and immediately thought about a car. He’d need one. How was that done in this place? He’d called ahead, but there was no agency.

As he stepped off of the ramp, he saw a lone Chevrolet with wooden sides at the far end of the parking lot. It had the word Taxi hand painted on its side. That was it. No line of them round the block, and no Porter to take his bag and place it in the boot. This was the new world. He put his head down and began to walk into the wind and rain.

“Hey mister,” said someone off to his left. He ignored whoever it was. “Hey! Mister! You from London?”

Isaac Brunel stopped and looked over his shoulder at a young woman under the overhanging eaves of a shed.

“’Cause you kinda look like you’re from there.”

She had a pleasant round face, and wore a blue wool car coat. The hem of a floral dress was visible emerging at the bottom. There was a worn baseball cap on her head, and saddle shoes with perfect white bobby socks on her feet. Her hands were in her coat pockets, and a black patent leather purse hung from her wrist. She was moving up and down – heel to toe, heel to toe – to stay warm.

“Are you Isaac Brunel?” she said.

He stood in the rain, and said, “Yes.”

“Well hello,” she said. “I’m Mary Brunel. Your cousin. Gosh, I’ve been coming here a week, waiting for you. Your cable was scarce on information. But Granny Wilhelmina said I had to. She said you was polite company and we had to treat you with kid gloves. But you look like anyone else I ever seen. ‘Cept you’re real wet, right now. Granny Wilhelmina says you London Brunels’ll break like China dolls. Is that true?”

He wondered.

“Do you have a dry cigarette?” he said.

“Of course.”

“Care to share?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said Mary Brunel. Her pronunciation was short and clipped. She pulled a pack of Players from her handbag.

He walked over to the shed and ducked under the dripping eaves. She offered him the deck, and he took one. She lit his and her own with battered Zippo lighter. Isaac looked at her carefully now, for the first time.

“You’re an Indian,” he said, like she might not already know. It was an involuntary observation. A curse of fatigue or a hitherto unknown prejudice. He sounded surprised, and was immediately ashamed.

“Shíshálh,” she said, nonchalantly, as she smoked. “Welcome to our land.”

“I’m sorry, I….”

“Maybe you haven’t gotten to that part of great Granddad’s journal,” said Mary Brunel. “So, you didn’t know. White folk think the whole goddamn world is white. And what ain’t, should be. It’s not, but I guess you’ll adjust.”

“Yes,” he said, looking at the pavement.

“So, let’s forget it.”

“Alright.”

She was right. For all of the importance he’d placed in investigating the journal, and what it meant, he’d neglected reading it seriously and in depth. He’d been carelessly relying on his visit to supply the questions and their answers.

He was startled when she suddenly whistled. She seemed too small for it. It was the whistle of a London hooligan, loud and piercing. She waved at the taxi, and the driver started the engine.

“That’s Roger, driving the cab,” Mary said. “He’s a little rough, and a little stupid. But he’s our only ride to the house. Just ignore anything he says. I’ll make sure he don’t deviate from the directest route. You’re paying. Don’t tip too much.”

Roger drove his taxi in an unnecessarily wide arc round the perimeter of the parking lot to get to them. He rolled down his window when he arrived, and a cloud of stale cigarette smoke curled out.

“Where to, yous two?” he said, getting out and putting Isaac’s duffle in the trunk. His face was pale and pockmarked, and his hair vampire black. It was held in place with that week’s application of Brylcreem. He wore a leather biker jacket and engineer boots.

“Granny’s house,” said Mary Brunel. “Straight up the highway to Gibson’s, and right on Stewart Road, to the end.”

“I know a better way,” Roger said.

“The hell you do,” said Mary Brunel. “Just go the way I say.”

Mary and Isaac got in, and Roger headed for the highway. As he drove, he looked in the rear view.

“Who’s the chump?” he said.

“My cousin, Isaac.”

“That’s Isaac?” Roger said. “The fella everyone’s so up in the air about?”

“Don’t talk about him like he ain’t here, Roger.”

“Looks like a bit of a fag,” Roger said. “To me, anyways.”

He lit another cigarette off one already dying in his mouth.

Isaac raised an eyebrow, and speculated.

“Everyone looks like a fag to you and your Legion buddies,” Mary said.

“You fight in the war?” said Roger. “I fought in the war. Seaforth Highlanders. Went to Vancouver to sign up. Lied ‘bout my age. Wasn’t eighteen yet. Landed on the beach, day after D Day. We went in on the seventh, not the sixth. But I still almost go my ass shot off a dozen times. Saw a lot of my pals die, liberating England.”

“We weren’t occupied,” said Isaac. “We didn’t need liberating.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I was too young to fight in the war,” said Isaac. “I was only a child.”

Roger made a quiet, self-satisfied ha! sound.

“I lived in a terrace in London that was bombed,” Isaac said. “My parents and little sister were killed, and our house destroyed. The whole neighbourhood was destroyed.”

Roger shrugged and went quiet.

Isaac had never seen so many trees, not even in Scotland. And the road was unpaved. Roger turned right at Stewart as instructed, and drove down the potholed lane. It came to a sudden end, where a large and unexpected house stood. It was well kept, in spite of its location and age. The large front yard had well-tended, winter-dormant gardens and a tire hanging from a rope tied to one of the many leafless deciduous trees.

Roger stopped, and said, “That’ll be five bucks, mister.” He hadn’t engaged the metre. Maybe he was right.

“Roger…,” Mary said.

“Okay, $3.50,” he said. “I was just roundin’ up for wear and tear.”

“Keep it,” Isaac said, handing over $6.00. He knew from living in London the value in keeping cab drivers happy. All the more so in this case, where there might not be an alternative.

“Thanks, mate,” Roger said, smiling in the rear view mirror. Three of his front teeth were missing. He was a vampire approaching toothlessness.

As Roger retrieved Isaac’s luggage from the trunk, the front door of the house opened and a young aboriginal man emerged, followed by an excited mutt.

“That’s Nathan,” Mary said. “Another of your cousins. He’s my brother.”

Nathan was tall, young, and handsome. Isaac guessed he was about 20 years old. He came the remaining few feet to stand and look Isaac over. Then he held out his hand.

“I’m assuming you’re the London Brunel,” he said. The mutt danced and sniffed Isaac’s shoes.

“I’ve come to understand that that’s how I’m known round here,” Isaac said. “And that I might break like a China doll.”

“I further assume,” said Nathan, “that you’d rather be referred to by your proper name.”

“Yes,” said Isaac, as he shook Nathan’s hand.

“I’ll pass that along.”

Isaac decided he like him.

The young man hoisted the duffle, and said, “Let’s head on in, then. Granny Wilhelmina awaits, like a Buddha on a pedestal in an antiques emporium. She’s been speaking your name for weeks now.”

In the entrance of the house was a small cloakroom, with friendly hats on shelves and many coats. As Nathan took his pea coat, Isaac couldn’t help noticing him sneak a peek at the label and give an approving nod.

Then he said, “Come along.”

They entered the parlour and there she was. The matriarch of the Sun Shine Coast Brunels. Wearing a snugly fitted red and white polka dot dress over her vast girth. The room truly did resemble a well-kept antique shop. It wasn’t what he expected from a Native Indian home, if he’d expected anything. Wilhelmina Brunel had a tea cup in her chubby fingers. To Isaac, she looked like an enormous, jovial ghost from a Dickens novel.

“Fill me up, Mary dear,” Granny Wilhelmina said, and Mary Brunel rushed to fill her empty tea cup. Then Granny Wilhelmina watched as Mary dropped in cubes of sugar, a splash of milk, and then stirred with a tiny spoon.

“This is Isaac Brunel,” Mary said as she stirred.

“You can call me Granny Wilhelmina, boy,” she said to Isaac. “Pardon me if I don’t get up. It’s a goddam chore moving this fat old body, let me tell you. Come over here and shake my hand.”

Isaac did. Wilhelmina’s hand was warm and moist.

“You’ve read the whole journal I sent to you?” she said.

So, it was her who sent it.

“I only scanned it. It was a busy season. I have the volumes with me.”

“You didn’t know you’re related to Indians, then.”

Mary smiled.

“No,” said Isaac.

“Does it matter to you?”

“No, not especially.”

“Ha!” Wilhelmina said, looking at Nathan and Mary in turn. “…not especially. The boy talks like a goddam book. What’d I tell ya?” She paused then for the sake of gravity. “But you know Mad Granddad Leo came here to build a railroad.”

“Yes.”

“Don’t know why he ever thought it was needed round abouts,” said the big woman. “Turns out it never was. Turns out a gravel road’s all we need round here. The train’s lost in the bush now. It broke the old man’s heart. He died angry as hell. Sad, too. I guess them two things go together, don’t they? Nathan can take you to see parts of it. But it’s just a lot of rusty rails, rotten ties and a few beat up old depots where the raccoons sleep now. Why the hell you come all this way to see that?”

“It’s difficult to explain.” Isaac faltered a moment “Leopold’s family. You’re family. What he did here was amazing, even if it didn’t work out in the end. I haven’t seen it or fully read about it in his journal yet. I don’t understand it. But I know it must be wonderful. Maybe I’ll write about it. Besides, you sent the journal to me. You must have expected some kind of response.”

“Don’t know what I expected,” Wilhelmina said. “I thought you was an actor, not a writer.”

“I am an actor. But maybe I can write, too.”

“Maybe,” Wilhelmina said. “I like them Harlequin romances, myself. Why don’t you sit down? Mary, make the boy some fresh tea. I ‘spect the boy knows his tea inside out.”

“He’s not a boy, Granny,” said Mary as she disappeared into the kitchen.

Wilhelmina’s eyes were hazel and bright. She was a zealot, for something. Isaac didn’t know what. Maybe she didn’t, either.

“So,” Wilhelmina said. “I’ll start the story of Mad Granddad Leo’s railroad in a minute. But first you have to understand that there’s a big difference between what I have to tell you, and what’s in them diaries. A man like Leo tends to glamorize and exaggerate a bit. Men do in general. The truth always comes down through the women. You with me so far?”

“Yes, Granny Wilhelmina.”

She paused for a moment and smiled. Granny Wilhelmina sounded mighty fine when spoken with an educated English accent.

“Good,” she said. “I ain’t in no mood to debate that last point. Fact is men play fast and loose with the truth. It’s in their blood.”

Mary came back into the parlour with slices of cake. She placed one onto a side plate along with a fork, and handed it to Wilhelmina.

“Tea’ll be ready soon,” she said.

“Now,” said Wilhelmina. “I suppose you know that there’s insanity in the family.”

“No,” Isaac said. “I mean, I know there are rumours.”

“Well, there is. And Leopold Liberty Brunel may have been crazier than all of us put together. That’s where the Mad Granddad Leo bit comes from. He talked to a ghost named Imelda. At least some said she was a ghost, since she wasn’t there for them to see. And Imelda was the one, far as I can tell, that pushed him on the whole railroad idea. Then she ridiculed him for his failings. She also might have been the one that drove him to suicide.”

Wilhelmina stopped there, and had a bite of cake.

“Mmm,” she said. “Raisins.”

“Suicide?” Isaac said.

“Yessiree,” said Wilhelmina, chewing and sucking the cake raisins. “Hung himself from a rafter in his office. His farewell note’s in the back of the last diary,”

“I had no idea.”

“Well, it ain’t his suicide that’s interestin’, I figure. It’s what lead up to it. Now get comfortable, sit still and listen….”

The Railway Journal, Part 1

read part 2 here

read the rewrite of the entire story here

1953 

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….”

“Thermodynamics.”

“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.