Sighs and puffs and a swirling fog of steam, the smell of fireworks, a billow of charcoal smoke as perfect as a child’s drawing then the pitch black barrel of an engine. Up front a driver in a slouch hat with the top half of his body hanging out at a dangerous angle, the pull of a rope and a breathy toot-toot, the wave of a friendly hand. A man in soot covered overalls shovelling coal into a firebox, two men in grey lab coats wearing goggles stoking a fire. At the end a conductor checking the time on his fob watch dressed in a double breasted uniform with shiny buttons and a black cap.
No it’s not Thomas the Tank Engine or his pal Henry but a glimpse from my past. It’s a steam train in 1956 hauling ten red varnished carriages up the steep gradients and sharp curves of a line measured in chains to the station of Warrimoo. This is why I became bewitched by trains – especially steam trains. There was an ‘up’ service and a ‘down’ service which ran to a strict timetable. We rarely missed either the morning or the afternoon ritual – my mother and I on the grassy verge of Railway Parade waving with frantic energy. I with my doll in a pram and Mum with the white sheets in a cane washing basket. The washing, you must understand, could not be hung out until the ‘up’ train had passed and the carbon and charcoal had shaken itself out of the fresh Blue Mountains air.
Our laundry – a windowless brick enclosure under the house held a copper boiler and a wringer suspended over double concrete sinks. While I played with the dolly pegs and my new baby sister slept upstairs in her bassinet Mum attended to this laborious task. Together we hung the washing out on a line built by Dad of wooden cross pieces and ropes which could be raised and lowered as needed. Those white sheets had until precisely 3:00pm to dry before the screech of metal on metal and the black smoke came billowing back down the mountain to cover us again in soot and ash.
There’s an unshakeable curiosity in me when it comes to trains
After 1958 when the line became electrified and red rattlers replaced steam, we still left our chores, our games and our babies to run out the front and wave to the driver or a cheerful passenger. Counting the carriages on the long, long goods trains was a game saved for the afternoon when Dad arrived home from school. The Fish and The Chips – regular commuter trains so named because the original driver was a big man with the surname of Heron (affectionately known as The Big Fish) took their own place in history. But the sleek silver carriages and diesel power of the those later years lost some of the magic of the steam era.
Warrimoo girls had girl toys – our dolls and our tea sets, our knitting and our dress-ups. But we also built with Dad an impressive train set on a board the size of a double bed that we lowered on pulleys from the ceiling of the garage. Hornby engines and metal carriages, yards of track and papier-mâché tunnels and bridges, plastic stations, sheds, miniature people and farm animals. No rigid definition as to how girls should behave defined us then or now and like Thomas we were fiercely proud of our side line.