Michaś Łyńkoŭ

Andrej, The Speed Wizard

Ah, Andrej, Andrej, so this is what you have come to - fit for the dust-bin: no real life left for you, no staff, no passengers ... languishing on your whistling donkey-engine, stopping for hours to take a truckful of rotten sleepers a score of yards away. A greasy old kind of a life - that. No steam to raise, no speed, no waving semaphore-signals, no miles of glittering track that roars and reverberates under your rumbling wheels... Well, brother Andrej, just shut up shop and don't go kicking over the traces. But why all this? Just because you've grown feeble; your old age is to blame: it is eating into your bearings, so that you can't go whizzing off like a shot, can't go scorching along ... like you used to... That is as good as saying "What can an old man do but die?" Give up! No more! Chuck up your driving!

This was the way Andrej Sapun sometimes talked to himself. He was an old engine-driver who had previously driven express-trains for many years, and who once had the reputation of being a brave and daring man. And he was not called Andrej Sapun then, but Andrej, the Speed Wizard, for his trains did not run but simply flew. He had a way of driving into each station with a dignity and a daring that were in his nature. The signalmen in their boxes would always shut their eyes as the frantic coaches of a no less frantic train flashed by like a whirlwind. Just one moment, it seemed, and the engine would come crashing down the embankment, the wheels splinter against the joints and the switchgear be smashed into smithereens.

However, everything always ended well; the train would storm into the station and abruptly come to a standstill.

True, if a certain big shot should receive a nasty bump on his forehead from a jolt on the train Andrej would get the worst of it. He would be demoted from the elevated driving cab of the passenger engine, and for six months compelled to run freight trains. But only for six months. Then back to the passenger train and, eventually, to the express train, which Andrej had been in charge of for the better part of his life.

That was really something. Man is not endowed with eyes of iron or hands of steel, but ordinary human eyes and hands. And the lights on the railway track are hard to count: white and green and red lights. They twinkle from the switches, gleam from the tall semaphores and glimmer down the distant line. Try and discern those shimmering lights on a frosty and windy night with snow falling fast, and not one night or one year, but for many years - and that will cost you your sharp eyesight, your vision will grow dim, your eyes will lose their lustre. And not your eyes alone. Just look, how your breast is scarred: the monster furnace has breathed upon it, the snowstorms have roughly stroked it with their icy blasts.

This is why Andrej is running the donkey-engine now. Old age. Infirmity. One grows dim-sighted, dull of hearing, feeble-limbed - the hand shakes on the controls. No wonder the coupler Ivan, who was forced to repeat the signal, "Hoi, bring her up here!" snarled out.

"He doesn't hear, the old codger, no use calling him like that. Hadn't I better go and give him a shake - must be asleep, eh."

The coupler walks to the engine, mounts the steps and yells into Andrej's ear.

Dozing in front of the furnace Andrej wakes with a violent start, rubs his eyes and, taking a look round him, thrusts his fist under Ivan's nose.

"Look here, you louse. I won't have you yelling into people's ears and scaring them. Let me get my hands on you, you skunk, and I'll squash you like a toad - you won't have time to squeak!..."

"What, squash me with your old donkey-engine?"

Andrej makes no reply. What can you say to a man who disparages an engine in that way? No matter if it is only a feeble old crock of an engine, it is a service vehicle and deserves due regard. As for calling it a 'donkey' engine, well...!

Andrej silently places his hand on the lever and demands in a naughty manner, looking down at Ivan.

"Where to?"

"Fourth line. Some coupling to do."

"Well?"

"What more do you want to know? Through train. Loaded. Get some steam up in your old kettle."

"Well, mind your own business."

Ivan lapses into silence. Andrej toots the whistle, and silently shifts the lever.

There is a violent throbbing somewhere in the maw of the rusty shunting engine, its wheels skid rapidly round, a cloud of vapour bursts forth, and the engine moves off, clanging in every part of its iron frame.

"Wants lubricating - squeaks like hell," the coupler yells, unable to contain himself.

"There is something you want, too - a good licking I daresay. Some day I'll give you a jolly good thrashing."

"Come on then, come on. Better look where you are going!"

One might think that the old engine-driver and the coupler had a grudge against each other, that they were sworn enemies and thought of nothing but revenge, insults and the like. Not at all. They are old pals who are as thick as thieves and absolutely inseparable.

Many rails have been worn out in the course of long years, their spikes have bent, thousands of axle-boxes have burnt out, hundreds of locomotives have been driven to decrepitude, but a human life remains adamant. Neither the sun, nor sleet, nor wind, nor blizzards can affect it. Once an engine tumbles down the embankment it is lost. But lo! The engine-driver struggles out alive from amidst the splintered wheels, and in a day or two he is back, driving a train again. Man is tenacious of life, but still more tenacious is friendship. The coupler Ivan used to be a stoker and formerly ran the engine together with Andrej. They have been pals ever since. And now when the coupler is busy scurrying like a squirrel between the buffers, Andrej shouts as he watches him from the driving cab.

"Look out - or you'll bloody well get run over!"

Meanwhile he thinks to himself.

"You've got to be on the look-out. Move on in a careless manner and you'll make a pancake of a man. As likely as not old Ivan's reactions are not as good as they used to be. If he were to dawdle and be a little too slow down there between the buffers, or should he lose his footing as bad luck would have it - well..."

And carefully opening the throttle, Andrej backs his engine up to join the train gently, without so much as a jerk or jolt. Even after the coupler has blown his whistle to give the 'all clear, pull ahead' signal, Andrej waits till Ivan scrambles out from under the car, and then puts the engine in motion. To tell the truth, Ivan sometimes gets into a bit of a temper.

"Are you half-asleep or something," he shouts. "When I give the whistle, you get a bloody move on!"

Indeed, old coupler as he is, he is in the habit of doing things on the move: coupling-up, scrambling out from under the car, catching hold of the engine or coach railings, jumping-off the train at the switch - everything on the move.

However, he cannot be expected to keep moving the whole day long. The station is not large. The shunting is done mostly by daylight. So when the semaphores beyond the station begin to twinkle, and the moon pours down its silvery light upon the rails it is time to call it a day. The donkey-engine rumbles past for the last time, and turns into the dead-end siding, to find rest there till morning.

Then old Andrej takes a chipped kettle out of his small oil-besmeared chest kept behind the brake, fills the kettle with water from the tender and, if the fires are not yet out, hangs it near the fire-box. After that he takes some tow, carefully wipes the black oil off his hands with it, opens the chest again to get a towel and a cake of soap, black with ingrained soot, and goes to the pump-house. There he carefully makes his ablutions.

"You've got to get washed. Your hands will get chapped and your nose'll start peeling, and after all your face is not like the top of a boot in need of black-oil polish", Andrej says after washing as he combs his thin brown hair before a little cracked mirror. Beard he has none.

"A beard's in the way when you're running an engine: you are sure to get it dirty with oil or grease, or get it singed. And then, my wife doesn't like beards. She'd be saying, 'What the devil do you want that brush of yours!'"

Having put everything in proper trim, Andrej takes his seat on a gnarled log in front of the furnace and silently waits for supper. Soon the chipped kettle begins to display signs of unrest: the lid is tossed up and down, the spout lets out hot puffs of steam and the whole kettle starts shaking as though it had the ague. A slight grin touches Andrej's bristly unshaven lips.

"Go on, let your fury run away with you till I take you down and make tea - that'll be capital tea, to be sure."

A frying pan with some salt fat bacon takes the place of the kettle. Now Andrej has to buck up because there are many more things to do: the pan has to be turned this way and that, and the slices of bacon turned over - if you don't do it promptly enough they will burn.

"How that damned fat sizzles and crackles, troublesome stuff it is - no better than the station-master!"

The appetizing smell of the fried bacon is wafted all over the shunting-yard. Indeed, it is so appetizing that the shunter on duty, after a few sniffs, has quite a mind to bolt off home, but, remembering that it is not yet time for his relief, reluctantly plods back to his cabin. There he applies himself to the task of cleaning the lantern so assiduously, that soon no more than fragments are left of the glass.

"Lord, isn't it overpowerin' - I wish he'd have his supper in a house somewhere. But he will get onto his engine and fry his bacon and eggs."

The shunter is not the only one who is attracted by the smell. A few repairmen who usually spend the night at the station also sniff it and hurry towards the engine.

"He's having his supper... Come on, fellows, it's too early to turn in yet, and we'll get a mug of tea there."

A whole crowd of young men surrounds Andrej. He enjoys his supper, and treats his guests to some tea. Soon the shunter also joins the company, and attracted by the light, along comes the watchman, Anton, who is always seen walking about with a handkerchief tied round his cheek. He dumps his bag of clanging spikes and his hammer, feels his cheek, mounts the engine steps and, screwing up his face, mutters, 'How're you getting on?'

"Some people get on all right, but not you, it seems. Got a toothache, eh?"

"Something shockin', devil take it," so saying, Anton feels his cheek again, as if in an attempt to demonstrate to everyone the reason for his indisposition.

"Let me have a look, I might cure you," the shunter says, reaching out his hand to touch the man's sore cheek.

"Leave me alone, you slacker. Do you call it work dawdling all day long at the switch-points - no risk of your ever getting even as much as a chill. I wish you'd try trudging about a bit, like me."

"There's a real workman for you! What do you know, except your spikes and nuts and botls? Even your hammer's for show, as likely as not: there he is, looking about for a chance of striking a couple of blows somewhere - and calling me a slacker - what cheek!"

"Cut it out! What are you kicking up all that fuss about?" Andrej butts in, trying to pour oil on troubled waters.

"Calling me a slacker, indeed... Look at that swollen cheek of his. He got it from sleeping too much in his cabin... There's a real lazy devil for you!"

"Of course, you are a slacker. The switches are not yet cleaned and here you are, loitering around hell knows where."

"Who do you think you are, the station-master, eh?"

"So this is the way you look after your track!"

"And this is how you look after the points?"

"You good-for-nothing cur!"

"You bloody cheap penny-whistle!"

"You're just a railway rat, that's what you are! Think who you are trying to get equal with. I'm a shunter, and you? What are you I'd like to ask? You bloody walking spanner. I'm a shunter and I've mastered my trade: send me to look after the switches, or do the coupling - I'm cut out for any job like that. If I wanted to I might go - well, anywhere... If I wanted to... well, to cut it short, whatever job I'd like to take on - 'come along', they'd say to me, come along, Astap Haŭryłavič, you're welcome... But what are you good for? To stand guard over the rails. And who are you guarding them from, I'd like to know?"

"Come on, come on. That'll do ... look how he goes on, there's a specialist for you!" the repairmen horn in, ever ready to defend one of their brotherhood, a linesman.

Snorting his disgust, Astap Haŭryłavič dismounts from the engine. As he walks towards his switches he can be heard muttering to himself.

"Much good keeping them company - nice sort of people they are..."

For a moment a painful silence falls upon the company, and to break it everybody starts rolling cigarettes. Andrej rummages in the dying furnace, snatches out a hot coal, throws it from hand to hand, blows the ashes off it, and lets everybody have a light.

"Look how hot it is," some one breaks the silence. "You just wonder if you've taken the light from this or from the switchman - he was red with rage."

All of them draw on their fags and silently watch the flickering patches of light reflected on the rusty walls of the cab. All around the engine the night is still, with a grasshopper chirping out there, near a pile of sleepers, and with the odour of wormwood and lubricating oil wafted over the track. There is also a smell of coal, and of a kerosene lamp burning. And in the distance, where the eye of the semaphore is twinkling through the black-winged night, the steel ribbon of the track gleams in the moonlight. Andrej likes watching the track, and as he does so, an inexpressible sadness steals over him. For a moment, it seems as though his heart is striving forward in an attempt to catch up with, and overtake, someone along that gleaming track, the never-ending human path. However, it is only for a moment; the heart cannot break out, it is too old, shrivelled by the fire and oil, rusted through like an old engine. Therefore it is filled only with mute sorrow for tracks traversed and roads passed over. His head bows and the words of his dream world recede into the darkness of the night, filled with the smell of wormwood, and black oil, and the smoke of burning coal.

"This is just our way ... quarreling over some stupid trifle, come to think of it all. Let us say you're a switchman, and you watch over your points... You - a linesman, and you're concerned with spikes and nuts and bolts, and again the rails... I'm an engine-driver - driving along the rails, and never losing touch with them. So it all comes down to the same thing - we are all in the same wagon, all driving along the rails, living upon them ... cannot do without them, and we'll have to die on the rails, though we might die elsewhere... Well, am I not saying the right thing? Really, fellows ... what is all that quarreling for?"

A faint engine whistle is heard somewhere in the distance.

"To be sure, Kaŭtun's speeding along with his locomotive - the real thing: her voice can be heard a dozen miles off. A different story from my donkey-engine. But Kaŭtun himself, well - he hasn't a long way to travel after me: old age is catching him, and he never spares his engine, cares about nothing but piling on the steam. That's asking for trouble, that is. And why does he do it? He's taking it out on the engine because of his son. Listen, here's the story of what happened to his son a long time ago - even before Ivan, our coupler, came to be my stoker. I used to drive the engine with Kaŭtun's son who was called Piatruś. He was an efficient stoker, young and strong, with arms like iron bars and he could get up steam in no time. No, it wasn't just raising steam - you could trust him with the whole engine, for he was a keen-witted and smart fellow. He would have made a first-rate engine-driver. But it wasn't to be. You cannot get away from your fate, can you? When you're on the rails, you have it dogging you all the way and it won't drop behind, no, not a bit of it."

"It happened one autumn. Piatruś and I were driving a train, a long and heavy-loaded freighter. I remember I chaffed Piatruś badgering him with questions as to when he was going to invite us to his wedding, and why he kept putting it off; he had a pretty lass - the daughter of Ryhor, the blacksmith. The sweetest girl you could ever hope to meet. Her greatest attraction was her long hair that reached down to her knees, and her eyes were like lights on a distant line that bewitch and entice you: come on, come closer, take a look! While I was thinking about them, that is about Piatruś and his sweetheart, I was feeling as gay as a lark, and it was so easy for me to handle the engine then, to cram on speed and race along with the wind.

We drove on and on like that. The train was going downhill. We let it gather speed as there was a rise and a bend before us - you have to increase speed at a place like that. Piatruś shovelled more and more coal into the furnace, in case the boiler temperature should drop by any chance. I stood at the window gazing into the dark night that was swooping down upon us, swallowing the sparks of the. engine and hurling night moths and midges against the engine headlights.

Piatruś was busy shovelling away at the coal and humming a tune. I can't recall what kind of tune it was, nor the words - besides, what do words matter? At times a song only makes your heart heavy, and makes you miss your absent wife, or feel sorry about your youthful years that flashed by long ago, without stopping at any of the stations. It was different with Piatruś, he was young and so was his sweetheart. You couldn't help envying his happiness when it was at his very door.

But happiness or no happiness, the bend in the track could not be avoided. Suddenly I remembered, the bend being sharp and the rise steep, that the sanders were not in order. Something had to be done about it. I climbed out of the cab onto the front platform. The night was pitch dark. The wind nearly swept me off my feet, bellying out my shirt like a sail, as though intending to take hold of me and hurl me off the rails. I had hardly taken a step - maybe two - when I felt as if somebody had lifted me under the arms and pitched me forward. How long I flew - I cant' recall. When I came to and opened my eyes I saw that I was lying on the slope. 1 made an attempt to pick myself up, but a sharp pain in my leg nearly made me lose my consciousness again. The leg was broken. With great difficulty I managed to look around, and my heart died within me. The engine lay with her front wheels buried deep in the ground, the tender, squashed flat, and forced to one side with a heap of wagons behind it, one on top of the other, the first one standing upright over the tender. Most of the trucks were smashed to smithereens, with the iron ribs twisted and sticking out of them.

What was the reason for the accident, I wondered? It might have been a broken rail, but you couldn't be sure because now it was all in such a terrible mess.

When they took me to hospital I was unconscious. It was only the next day that I remembered Piatruś: where was he, and what had become of him? I inquired after Piatruś from my friends who came to visit me, but they told me he had not been seen anywhere. It was only on the third day that my stoker was found at last - in the engine's furnace. There was nothing left of him but bones, and even those fell to ashes after they were taken out of his untimely grave. Piatruś had been shovelling coal into the furnace, and when the engine dug her front part into the ground he was hurled headlong into the fire."

Andrej falls silent, hanging his head low, and taking a drag at his cigarette which is already burning his fingers. Then he spits out the butt and squashes it with his foot.

"No, you can't tell me anything! Each man has his lot, you know... Could Piatruś have possibly thought of anything like that? And what would have become of me, if I hadn't gone out to take a look at the sand-boxes? And, come to think of it, what a time I chose to do it!"

"I say, Uncle Andrej, did you happen to run many people over in your life?" a young repair worker, apparently new on the job, asks him. Curiosity was heard in the boy's voice.

"It's the engine that runs some silly people over, not me."

Like all engine-drivers Andrej does not like to speak about the accidents he has been through; it is in bad taste, and besides, there is no sense in it: why tarnish your own reputation speaking of your mistakes? No, this isn't something Andrej is going to speak about.

"If you're so serious, go and ask the engines, they know more about it. As for me, well, why should I run people over? Quite the contrary, some people I even set right again - with my engine. But this is quite a different story."

"Put'em right again?! With your engine! How's that?"

"Well, it was like this. D'you know Saŭka, the repairman? Ah, you do. Now, he used to be a little lame, once. Must have injured his knee with a hammer or a spike long ago. Anyway, he limped. Not so badly, after all, but lame he was all the same. That's why they nicknamed him Saŭka, the lame one. Well, all right. One day I was driving a passenger train, ah, and we were approaching the points. Everything was running smoothly; the pointsman was at his place, the track was free, in the distance 1 could even make out the station foreman who had come out to meet us. Well, when I looked around again, - then it was that it happened - right in front of the buffers a man leapt across the track where the points were. I thought at once.

"Well, he's dead and done for, may he rest in peace! I hope he didn't suffer much."

I immediately slammed the throttle shut and the stoker jammed on the brakes. We stopped and got down from the engine. Then we saw our man who was lying close by, motionless, white as a sheet and almost unhurt. The engine struck him bang on his bad leg. She struck him and flung him aside. So there he was, lying beside the track. We picked the poor chap up, put him under the tap, threw cold water over him, then lifted him onto the engine and took him to the station. There we carried him into the casualty room, handed the poor beggar over, and went on our way. Well, in a month or so, I came across this Saŭka at a place where some sleepers were being changed. I was driving straight ahead, slowly, when I saw a bloke nod and wave to me. He was all smiles.

"Hallo, Uncle Andrej," he yelled, "big thanks to you for putting my bad leg right again. Look I don't limp and I don't drag my leg either. It's as good as new, as if it's just come out of the smithy."

"Well, I was real frightened at first, but then I took a better look at him - indeed he walked straight with no limp or anything. There, you see, and you say we run people over... Everyone has his own fate in life."

"Ah, Uncle Andrej, fate be blowed. You've already talked enough about it. You'd better tell us how you gave a lift to the bandits."

"Well, so I did. Why not take the bandits for a ride once in a while after all?"

While talking, Andrej involuntarily touches the left breast pocket of his oil-smeared suit. It is there that on holidays he wears his Order of the Red Banner. On working days the Order is safely deposited in his trunk, for it is a bit in the way, and besides, one might happen to smear it with oil somehow, and all that. After all, there are all sorts of work a man has to do. But all the same, as soon as Andrej is reminded by someone of the bandits, his hand habitually goes to the left breast pocket as if of itself. And at such moments, Andrej himself seems to become somewhat taller and even more handsome, while he strokes his sunbleached light brown moustache.

"Yes, indeed, I gave a lift to those bandits once. What haven't I seen in my life, after all? You people have it just too easy in your life now, haven't you? What troubles have you got? None, in fact - the engines run like clockwork, the guards are there in wait for any silly fare-dodger; even a flea cannot travel without a ticket. Same about everything, there's not the smallest thing lacking. You, repair-people, for example, you know at once what's wrong with any sleeper. If you see one getting worn, you straightaway demand - give us a new one! Same with the spikes, the fish-plates, the nuts and bolts. Sure enough, you won't put up even with one lock-nut, will you? No, indeed, you cannot say that your working conditions aren't good. You should have tried working in nineteen-nineteen, or nineteen-twenty. Well, you would have known what's what if you had. But I don't even have to tell all of you this! You, Gaŭryła, for example, you also worked with the rolling-stock in those days, didn't you? So you knew the times, of course. Well, it was some six or seven years back, and one day I was driving a passenger train. At the moment I'm speaking about we were running down the stretch just before Jasny Bor*. The fuel we used, the firewood, was awfully bad; you felt like jumping into the furnace yourself to keep the steam up, but we managed somehow, and the engine never failed. True, the young drivers had a hell of a lot of trouble with all that firewood, not me, though. I wasn't a greenhorn even then."

* Jasny Bor (Belarusian) - Beautiful Forest, a place-name (translator's note).

"Just as we started going over the Kryvulinski bridge, I saw a light flicker in front. And it wasn't just any kind of light but a regular red one. I hooted and heard the siren go, so I knew I hadn't dozed off after all. In fact, I was quite puzzled, and kept asking myself what the reason for the red light might be. Then I slowed down and we started coming closer to the place. It was a pitch-dark night, and there wasn't a soul to be seen around, just that light flickering in front, going up and down. I saw that it was really a serious business, so we wound on the brakes, slowed down and stopped. I looked out of the window to find out what it was all about, and at once guns were poked into my face, and two men armed to the teeth jumped on to the steps. In fact, their weapons were nothing less than rifles, and they all had hand-grenades, too. To tell the truth, I wasn't very curious about how they were armed, because my mind was occupied with quite different thoughts.

"Well," I thought, "sure as Christmas they'll do us in and won't turn a hair."

From the direction of the coaches came screams and the noise of scuffling. All the raiders but one were ransacking the coaches, and the one that wasn't kept a watch on me and my stoker. All the time, my engine was shaking and snorting under steam, just like a horse ready to take a jump at a five-bar gate. My heart was also beating like a hammer, and suddenly I felt awfully miserable. I stealthily glanced at the sentry. To me he looked like a regular silly green-horn, and with a red lamp at that! Just imagine! All of a sudden I felt absolutely furious. And it wasn't so much that silly youngster, the sentry, that made me so mad, but the fact that such scum should wave a red lamp, order you about, stop a train on its way, and all just for no good reason whatsoever. And as for the sentry, he held on by the hand-rail, bending down from the engine, and looking in the direction of the coaches. In fact, he didn't seem to have much patience... I don't even know myself how it all exactly happened, but suddenly I gave this sentry a good kick right between his shoulder-blades. He just groaned and fell headlong from the steps. Even as I gave him a kick, I had already clutched the throttle-lever and pushed the engine forward at once, and we started full speed ahead so fast that I couldn't even hear what was going on in the coaches. Presently, I saw a green signal light ahead winking in welcome, as if saying, "Go ahead, please, we expect you." The green light showing and the way free, I went on at full speed, and switched on the alarm hooter. Everybody was up in an instant, both the chiefs and the guard, as they told me later, and all were wondering why I hooted, raising the alarm, when the green light was up.

I had already pulled up to a halt when every one was on the spot. And even without switching off the alarm, I shouted to them at the station that they should seize the bandits. And now, what d'you think? All of them were arrested, just like kids. There was only one who had jumped off the train, but even that one, poor beggar, crushed his scull. You see, when the train started moving the bandits were dumbfounded for a moment. Some wanted to escape but the passengers had already realized what the matter was, took them by the scruff of the neck and immediately disarmed them."

"Well, we had a good laugh about it later when I gave the chief guard a dressing down, saying that he ought to have collected the fares from the bandits. And he, in his turn, told me off, saying,

'What right did you have to start off at that crazy speed without my giving a whistle?'

'And why did you have to lose you whistle, hiding yourself under the bench? I said'.

It was dead funny, my lads, that it was! Then in a few months my Red Banner Order arrived."

And again Andrej touches his breast pocket and, as the Order is not there at the moment, he lowers his hand self-consciously and says.

"It isn't a holiday, so why should I be wearing it now?"

A puffing, powerful Ščukin steam engine hauls a goods-train into the station. As soon as the giant engine pulls alongside our "donkey", we see somebody looking out of the cabin window. Andrej greets him.

"Hallo, Kaŭtun!"

"Oh, that you, Andrej? Sorry, didn't recognize you; pitchdark, you see. Well, still driving your 'donkey'?"

"That's right. What can I do about it, after all?"

"Well, go on driving her, I suppose. When are you going to see your wife?"

"Next Monday, I think. If you happen to see her before, tell her I am coming soon."

"Don't worry, she isn't missing you very much. Probably found a younger fellow; you're not much of a match for her, are you?"

"Eh, come off it! You can cut that out! You're a proper lad for soppy jokes. Better come round and have a cup of tea with us."

When the goods-train spun its clattering wheels, and its powerful engine moved forward again, Andrej fell silent. He seemed to become somewhat greyish, even colourless.

"Now, Uncle, tell us about the armoured train."

"No, boys, enough's enough. I'll tell you all that some other time. It's time to turn in. All my bones seem to ache, and I am so sleepy that when I yawn, it seems as if I could swallow my 'donkey'. And of course, it's time you should be in bed, too. I'm sure you've got to be up and at work by six o'clock tomorrow morning. That means you'd better snuggle down in bed a bit, in case your fingers all turn into thumbs. That's what happens if you don't sleep enough."

"No, no, Uncle, that doesn't happen to us."

"I should think not! I'm sure I can't compare with you, lads. It seems if I were your age, I'd be able to push a steam engine out of the roundhouse with my shoulder alone. But I have become old, boys, and I'm getting weak, too. It grows worse with every year. But I'm not sorry, fellows, I've had my day, haven't I?"

Andrej's family lives at another railway station. Actually it isn't even a family, but just his wife. Every Sunday off he goes to see her. And every time he gets a lift from a friendly engine-driver of a passenger train. He can't do otherwise.

"I simply can't bear sitting in a compartment," he says, "It just bores me to death, and I feel I'm going to choke."

And as soon as the train leaves the station, Andrej turns to the engine-driver and begs.

"I say, old chap, please give me a chance to drive a bit."

Nobody can refuse him. With a trembling hand Andrej pulls the shining throttle-lever and becomes as tense as the powerful engine herself. He listens to the hot steam throbbing in the boilertubes, to the giant wheels clattering faster and faster, to the hiss of the jets of steam spurting out of the hot and shining piston-rods as they slide out of the cylinder.

And leaning out of the window of the cab, Andrej deeply inhales the smell of the wormwood grass and the oil, and while swaying in his seat to the rhythm of the movements of the engine, he mutters to himself sometimes.

"Look, boys, look! We're flying, aren't we? Try and catch us! Think you can?"

 

1928




Source: Colours Of The Native Country. Minsk, Byelarus Publishers, 1972.
Translation: A.Weise, R.Lipataŭ

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