“Off the Rails” by Nicola S. Heighton

We’d like to present a new Feature Story here at Metro Fiction. Please check the Welcome page for more information about us. In this week’s story, an elderly widower is frustrated that his wife and daughter don’t appreciate his obsession.

Please enjoy our Feature Story: “Off the Rails” by Nicola S. Heighton:

James sat in his armchair, fag clutched deftly between his fingers as he worked the spanner, putting the final touches to a slide valve that he had assembled from scratch. The metal was clean, shiny. He could see his unshaven face reflected in it: red eyes, grey skin. He tried to remember the last time he slept more than an hour but couldn’t. His clothes were dirty – not just unwashed but uncared for. His flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, was supposed to be chequered brown and white, but now it was just a pattern of browns and yellows. He no longer bothered with a handkerchief or a tie. He had no need for them. They didn’t matter. All that mattered was the locomotive.

He took a drag and smiled as he looked over at the end of the settee where Jane always sat. Her cushions were still arranged as she always had them; there was even an indent where she used to rest her head in the corner when she was too tired to sit up straight. The lace doilies still sat on each armrest, stained yellow from nicotine now, as were the walls and the carpet. She would never have let them get into that state.

“I’ve almost finished, you doubting old crone,” he said. “Almost finished.”

There was a knock at the door. He ignored it but he heard her voice in his head.

“Put that thing down and answer the door,” she said.

James shook his head. “I’m trying to work!”

“Work! All you ever do is tinker with that thing. Sometimes I think you wouldn’t notice if I were dead.”

“Of course I would. There’d be nobody to nag.”

“Just answer the door.”

In frustration he threw his spanner on the table. It landed with a dull thud, straddling several teacup rings. Two of the cups still stood on the table. James had no idea how long they’d been there but the quarter-inch of tea left in the bottom of each was starting to grow green mold. “Sometimes I think it would be easier if you weren’t here,” he said.

James stood and went to the door, pulled it open as there was another knock. His daughter looked him up and down and flared her nostrils. It didn’t suit her.

“Dad,” she said, “have you got no self respect? Don’t you care what people think?” She glanced down the street nervously, but she needn’t have bothered. There was nobody there who would care. A few boys with scuffed knees, playing kick the can. Their clothes were just as dirty as his.

“What do you want?”

James looked back into the room, trying to decide whether the slide valve needed to be filed down a little before it would fit into the engine.

Betty was wearing her finest clothes: a perfectly white, perfectly ironed dress – just the way her mother would have done it; black shoes; a blue hat. James thought about it for a moment and decided it must be Sunday. “Shouldn’t you go back to your husband?”

She opened her mouth, waved her hand about a bit, and then closed it again without saying anything.

“He’ll be expecting his dinner,” James said.

She straightened her back. “It’s that thing, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Yes, you do. That train of yours. You want me to go so that you can get back to it.”

“It’s not a train,” he said, “it’s a locomotive.”

“You’re not even denying it! Don’t you care that my mother’s dead? Don’t you care that she hated that thing?”

“Well.” He scratched the hair on his chin. “There’s still a lot to do. There’s no need to get angry about it.”

“Angry? I’m livid! That thing came between the two of you for ten years and now you want it to come between us as well.”

“That’s enough.” James pulled the door closer to himself, shutting her out just a little. “I knew your mother. She loved my locomotive; it gave her a reason to argue with me. It gave me an excuse to be away from her. My locomotive kept us together.”

She snorted. “It drove you apart!”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You did nothing but argue before she died.”

“Your mother enjoyed nothing more than a good argument.”

Her jaw moved back and forth as she stared at him. “I came here to ask you to dinner,” she said. “I don’t want to argue.”

“Thank you, but I have too much to do.”

James closed the door as she opened her mouth to speak again.

He walked back to his seat.

“Who was it?” Jane asked in his head.

“Your daughter.”

“She loves you, you know.”

He nodded. “I’m too busy for all of that.”

James didn’t sit down. He lifted up the slide valve and took it with him to the kitchen.

When Jane was alive he had been limited to only a small corner of the room, but now with her gone he had nobody to stop him using the floor space for his project. In the six months he had been here alone he had completed the whole of the chassis and most of the internal workings. He’d removed the kitchen cupboards to make space. The locomotive stood in the middle of the floor, bereft of an outer shell but otherwise complete.

It was seven feet high, eight feet long and four wide. Small for a locomotive, but everything was in perfect working order. James had never been trained as an engineer; he’d worked at a desk until the day he retired. But he knew about steam engines and locomotives. He liked to just walk around it and admire his own handiwork.

“I’ll show you,” he called to Jane. “And I’ll show that daughter of ours and everyone else who doubted I could do it.”

“You’re an idiot, James,” she shouted back from the other room. “I doubted your sanity, not your ability.”

He smiled. “There’s nothing wrong with my mind, Jane.” Picking up the file, he began working away at the corner of the slide valve.

Nicola S Heighton lives in Cornwall, England, where she spends her days working as a mathematics tutor and her spare time telling stories to her friends and family. Off The Rails is based on one of many true stories of eccentric family members and their bizarre exploits.

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