Les Cheminots (from The Forked River Anthology)
The loud-speaker crackles information along the line. A train is approaching. There is no station-master, and the ticket-office is closed for refurbishment. But the buffers are solid. The shock makes the rickety Railway Hotel tremble, but it stays put.
Bras is the end of the line on the route to the sun. And so, railwaymen tend to retire here. At fifty-five they are too young for the Maison de Retraite, and so the station hotel has become their interim resting place. Pre-fabricated annexes keep up with the influx. A band of them have colonized what was once the station garden, a profusion of red and yellows poppies which thrive where no other flowers would.
‘Voilà, les anciens cheminots’, says Welsh. ‘The pride and joy of La France reduced to becoming their own buffers’. He has been commissioned to sketch them for their Union brochure. Under the moth-eaten plane trees, the cheminots hunch together playing boules. When the metal ball donkey-drops to scatter the clutter, one of them whistles like a night train. Welsh concentrates on his art by talking about something else. ‘During the Occupation train drivers had the coal watered to slow down the locomotives transporting people to the camps. Thus, facilitating escapes. And after the war, national pride was revived by getting the railways up to speed with the Trains a Grande Vitesse, TGVs.
‘However, since steam has been replaced by diesel the railwaymen have been running on self-esteem. The early retirement needs to be justified as shovelling coal is a thing of the past, and they haven’t a lot to do. They stand around being as unhelpful as possible in updating travellers on the latest interruptions to the timetable, the sacrėe horaire.
‘Claimed diseases due to asbestos has been cited but it is common to most industries. Occupational smoking also is mentioned. Time on their hands means fags behind the fingers. But neither Pierre le Terre with his double cancer, and M. Jacky with the less glamorous chronic bronchitis, were keen to make themselves a Union issue. Anyway, now smoking is banned, even on platforms, their case is past its sell-by date.
‘But the buffers have a reputation to keep up as victims of the pre-health and safety age. Whenever they meet you can hear them greet one another with the usual ‘Tamaloo.’ Where does it hurt? And, indeed, a working life spent rattling along in a train travelling over three hundred kilometres an hour cannot be good for the joints. And no doubt standing around killing time is bad for the blood circulation.’
I deign to interrupt. ‘The cheminots have derailed themselves as national treasures. Lightning strikes have stolen their thunder. Their privileged status is a joke. The last time I travelled by rail I asked a group of them when the next train was due. One of them asked to see my ticket. Another pointed up at the screen which was blank. The third said the next train has just gone. And the fourth laughed triumphantly, saying we are ahead of ourselves’.
‘You need to regard them more kindly, Augustus. They must feel like redundant stock thrown on the rust-heap. Haven’t you noticed their absent expressions, and if you look long enough at them, like the Pyrénées, they cloud up. They’re in search of the lost time when they were sympathetic figures, like Jean Gabin in the film La Bėte Humaine, who as the train speeds past shovels coal into the garden of the war widow’.
I remember rightly Gabin’s character was a psychopath. Still the romance of the
railroad dies hard. ‘Le temps mange la vie’, says Baudelaire in his
poem ‘L’ennemi’. Time eats life’.
‘I would add ‘table’ to that’, says Welsh. ‘They are not killing time but the time-table is killing them’.
‘They are back-tracking . The sacrėe horaire is the ‘invisible enemy’ that, according to Baudelaire, ‘breaks the heart, and pumps iron into the blood-stream until one becomes as a rail-track?’.
A railwayman nearby, hearing the word ‘horaire’, pauses to stare us down as though discouraging a question. But when Welsh asks him ‘How did you all manage to hold onto the peaked caps when you retired?’ the buffer eagerly replies. ‘The last train is the next, and it won’t be long’.
won’t be long’ is the railwaymen’s refrain’, Welsh laughs, and closes his
sketchbook. ‘The final mile of the line
between the station and the town is overgrown. You can see the tracks worn into
the road that leads to the port, which once freighted bananas to the cities,
and ferryboat passengers to Africa. Now the ferry no longer embarks from Bras,
and the fruit is transported in lorries.
‘The only wind the cheminots know for certain is the wind of change, and it seems always to be against them. Even so, the greening of the tracks has a rightness about it. Time is not eating up the track, it’s returning it to nature. Augustus, there is no such thing as a terminus, only cycles. The railwaymen’s day will come again when the world runs out of petrol. The Port Authorities still maintain the railway bridge, painting over the rust. Trains will return, they think, when ecology issues go beyond banning plastic bags in super-markets. It won’t be full steam ahead, but electric’.
‘Meanwhile, politically they have become a force against retirement reform. Not least because they dispute the fact that if they change jobs (work on an airline instead, say) they keep their privileges’.
‘This won’t be sustainable ad infinite, Yann’.