December 21, 2010

The Gift

“Teddy, that’ll be enough for today!” cried Mrs Nethercott her voice rising in pitch as she watched with impatience her son spread out a map of the Midland Railway on his table as though he were preparing to make a survey of the area. The boy was devoted to trains with an intensity that came close to obsession, and it troubled Mrs Nethercott to see that the boy showed no regard for the clock beside him which said it was time for breakfast and then off to school.

Teddy rose reluctantly and followed his mother into the kitchen. Mrs Nethercott looked worried as she hurried her son through breakfast and then made him dress. Term examinations were drawing close but the boy had shown the least inclination towards his books and spent hours at Elmsworth station on his way back home from school each day.

Such a tremendous enthusiasm for trains would do her son no good, thought Mrs Nethercott. And so did the neighbours. But there was one person who seemed to understand, who spoke well of Teddy. Station Master Jenkins in charge of Elmsworth station was known to be a kind old soul, and often called on Mrs Nethercott to see how things were doing. Jenkins’ visits always brought cheer; they were accompanied by laughter and merriment, and would usually end with the man sharing a dinner of roast mutton, soup and apple pie.

“He is a fine lad, is Teddy Bear!” the burly man would say with gusto. “With a bit of application there’s no reason why he shouldn’t rise to the top one day. I’m proud of you, son!”

At these words, Mrs Nethercott’s heart would swell with pride, but inwardly she worried. Now over ten years of age, the boy attended St Vincent’s Grammar School in nearby Wiltshere. The path leading to school wound its way across the picturesque countryside till it came to Elmsworth station. Here the lad would spend hours on his way back home, waiting to catch a glimpse of the Express from Paddington as it steamed out of the station, the navy blue locomotive letting out angry puffs of smoke as it emerged victoriously carrying a line of six red carriages. At other times he strolled into the sidings where he could watch a tank engine shunt a goods train to the shed. Station Master Jenkins seemed greatly pleased when Teddy was around. The electric token instrument in his office held great fascination for the lad and Jenkins often sportingly allowed he boy to operate the device and extract a token.

Only a few days ago Mrs Nethercott had been to Elmsworth market for her weekly shopping. There were so many things to get: coloured embroidery thread, chicken feed for the poultry, groceries, and a new school bag for Teddy. The market place, gay as ever, was a pleasant change for the boy who bounced along holding his mother’s coat. They had emerged from the bakery when, as if on impulse, the boy halted suddenly catching sight of something in a shop window.

“Mamma, did you see that book in Ben’s Corner?”

Mrs Nethercott had seen what it was and did her best to ignore her son, but the boy kept tugging at his mother’s coat till in exasperation she agreed to inspect her son’s finding. Teddy ran up to the shop and pointed to a large picture-book displayed in a glass case amongst toys and fancy items.

“British Railways - An Illustrated History”, remarked Mrs Nethercott drily. “Well, if you must—run along and ask the man how much it is.”

“It’s only three pounds mom—see it’s printed on the side. But who’s written it? Ah—James Morgan. Mamma can’t we have it?” Teddy pleaded.

Mrs Nethercott shook her head. Three pounds were enough to buy a whole month’s groceries she thought. Besides a picture-book was the last thing she wanted to get for her son with the term exams round the corner.

Mrs Nethercott pursed her lips firmly. “We’ve had enough of trains, son!” she said in a curt voice. “It’s time you get back to your lessons!” And taking her son by the hand she made a dash for the red bus which was drawing to a halt at the street corner nearby.

Over the next few weeks Teddy felt deeply hurt. He had never seen a book as lovely as this before. It carried both pictures and history and went on to explain the working of a locomotive, how trains were signalled, coaling towers, weedkiller trains, and a lot more besides. Pictures he had seen in the book kept flashing across his mind as he lay awake at night. How mean elders could be! The dealer was even prepared to offer a discount, so why couldn’t mamma get the book for him?

The weeks rolled by and term examinations came round. To everyone’s surprise Teddy scored well in the test and even won a prize. Mrs Nethercott was pleased and made a roast turkey and strawberry cake for her son. Secretly the boy had hoped his mother would let him get Morgan’s British Railways, but he kept silent. When mother had refused a thing once he knew it was wise not to ask for it again.

Then one day something exciting happened. Teddy had been searching for a box of crayons when he came upon an old sheet of newspaper lying in a corner of his shelf. He was about to toss away the sheet when he spotted something that fixed his gaze on the paper. There was an illustration showing a train steaming out of a station. The boy smoothened out the sheet carefully and spread it out on his table. It was a piece of writing with the caption: ‘LNER Announces New Breakthrough in Railway Signalling’ by one James Morgan. Teddy was thoroughly excited. The date showed that the writing had appeared not long ago. Was it the same James Morgan whose book he had seen so often in Ben’s Corner? Who was James Morgan, and how did he happen to know such a great deal about trains?

The only way to find an answer, Teddy knew, was to ask station master Jenkins who always seemed to know everything. The boy finished his tea and put on his jacket and red cap. Then carefully tucking the sheet of paper in his pocket, he kissed mamma goodbye.

“Don’t be away too long, Teddy!” cried Mrs Nethercott as the boy hurried out.

“I won’t mamma!” yelled back Teddy, and away he sped, darting through the narrow village streets, right through Blueberry farm and onto the piece of land with a row of birch trees adjoining the tiny railway station of Elmsworth.

A dairy van had arrived at the goods shed and men were busy passing down cans of fresh butter and milk which would be packed into the lorry standing nearby. Teddy found the station master at the far end of the platform inspecting a signal being repaired.

“Mr Jenkins!” cried Teddy puffing and panting as he walked up to the man. “Mr Jenkins, you can’t guess what I’ve got to show you today!”

The station master who was attending to a workman at the top of a signal post looked a bit confused. The boy took out the sheet of paper he was carrying and opened it out.

“It’s about this bit of news that appeared in The Daily Mail,” Teddy explained eagerly. “It tells about a new system of signalling, and it’s written by James Morgan. Have you any idea who James Morgan is?”

Jenkins looked at the boy queerly. “Why, Sir James is the Chairman of the London & North Eastern Railway. But what brings you here today, Sunny?”

Teddy looked disappointed. “Is there anything wrong in being here today?” he asked crossly.

Jenkins held the boy’s gaze. “Well, you’re in luck today, son,” he said. “Sir James was on his way to Devon when his car broke down not far from here. He’s now seated in my office, waiting for the 3:20 from Paddington!”

“Oooh! How exciting!” Teddy exclaimed. “Please Mr Jenkins, won’t you take me along to meet Sir James?”

The station master gave a hearty laugh. “Very well, my boy,” he said. “Follow me. But see that you don’t play around with the token instrument while Sir James is around!”

Teddy followed the station master into his office where he found a middle-aged, bespectacled man seated on a chair. The gentleman wore a darkish brown suit; his moustache and balding head seemed to show that he was a man given to a great deal of study. By his side was seated a distinguished looking lady dressed in a flowing cream dress. She had a kind looking face, and she smiled at Teddy as he stood in the doorway.

“Sir James, if you’ll allow me the liberty,” began Jenkins hesitatingly, ‘there’s a lad here who says he would like to see you.”

“Why, yes, bring him in,” responded Sir James, putting down the paper he was reading. He held out his hand to the little boy who stood before him. “Hello young lad—it’s such a great pleasure meeting you! What’s your name?”

Teddy was dumbstruck as he shook hands with the man he had held in such great awe. “The boy is a great railway enthusiast,” Jenkins went on to explain. “He’s even read your recent article on signalling that appeared in The Daily Mail!”

“Ah, now that’s interesting,” remarked Sir James with a tone of satisfaction. “Now what did you say your name is? Ah yes, Teddy. Now Teddy, can you tell me what this writing is all about – what do you learn from it?”

Teddy was not in the least perturbed with the question. “Well – I mean – you have stressed how vitally important it is to have a reliable system of signalling, one that admits of no human errors…” he answered boldly. “… And you’ve spoken about the new invention called track circuiting that you’ve introduced on the stretch from London to Norwich. It’s a revolutionary concept, making it quite impossible for a signalman to accept a train unless the last one has fully cleared his section…”

Sir James looked impressed. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “That’s the kind of spirit I would expect in a railwayman. The boy shows great promise, Jenkins. There’s a good deal you could learn from him!”

Sir James briefly studied the sheet of paper Teddy held out. Then he leaned back in his chair and lit a cigar. “As time goes on we shall come to rely more and more on devices like the one you find here,” he said blowing puffs of smoke and pointing to the electric token instrument in the office. “It all began with the invention of the electric telegraph, you see. Were it not for this remarkable device, we would still be working trains on the time-interval system. But I don’t expect you’ll be knowing anything on this subject. Have you read the history of British Railways?”

“Oh well, yes—I mean, no sir...” Teddy stuttered. “I’d seen a book by you called British Railways – An Illustrated History in Ben’s Corner, but mamma wouldn’t let me buy it!”

The little tank engine at the shed gave a shrill hoot and had begun to move out towards the sidings with a row of wagons. The gentleman with the spectacles looked taken aback. “Oh dear, this something really unfortunate,” he said shaking his head. “Now what are we to do about this? It’s a great shame, isn’t it?”

Mrs Morgan who was seated next leaned over and whispered to her husband. Sir James considered for a moment and then acquiesced. “Jenkins,” he said, turning to the station master, “have you got a copy of my illustrated guide on British Railways?”

“Yes sir. It’s there on that shelf above.”

“Good! Give the book to the boy. On my return to London I shall see to it that you get a replacement.”

"Very well, sir."

As Teddy held the book in his hand he felt as if he were in a dream. It was too good to be true, and he was at a loss for words.

“That’s for you, Teddy! You may keep it!” said the lady seated beside, her eyes round with pleasure.

The boy moved his fingers on the cover with glee. It was the same book he had seen in Ben’s Corner. Even in his wildest dreams he had never imagined that some day he would have a copy all to himself. How good these people were, he thought, to give away a book so cheerfully without asking him a lot of awkward questions.

Teddy never felt so grateful before. “I very much appreciate this…” he began in a faltering voice, but Mrs Morgan would let him go no further. She rose from her seat and held the boy close, kissing him warmly. “Here’s my card, son,” she said, drawing a visiting card from her purse. “You will come over to see me when you happen to be in London, won’t you Teddy?”

The bell on the key-token instrument sounded a sonorous beat and station master Jenkins hurriedly rose to attend to the call. The Express from Paddington was on its way and would pull into Elmsworth station any moment now.

Teddy’s face glowed with pleasure. “Yes, I shall,” he replied holding Mrs Morgan’s hand. “And thank you very much!”
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Ravindra Bhalerao
(First published in Indian Railways magazine, December 2010)