Friday, 21 September 2018

Heavy Rain on a Slow Train (2017)

The two brief texts that follow can be regarded as chapters that were lost from my novel Cloud Farming in Wales. They weren’t lost from there, of course, but I had to do something for the sake of symmetry. My novel is a tribute to the writer Richard Brautigan and his Trout Fishing in America book. He genuinely misplaced a pair of chapters, which he later rewrote and included in his collection, Revenge of the Lawn. This is precisely why I also require two lost chapters, and why they had to appear in a separate story collection of mine, The Seashell Contract. And here they are:

Escaping the Rain

We had to leave Wales or go mad. We were already crazy perhaps, crazy to escape, to get out of the endless downpour. Our umbrellas were dented canopies on twisted poles. They had endured too much, and so had we. It was time to flee, to hurry into the rain and rush to the train station, and to catch a train, any train, heading east.
The English border is only an hour away. We just had to cross the big river that marks the frontier; and we knew the torrential rain would cease at that point, or at least slacken considerably. Rainfall in Wales is about eighteen times as heavy as it is in England, according to the latest figures released by the meteorological office.
But we all know how they tend to underestimate things. Probably they had received bribes to downplay the downpour. The truth of the matter is that in Wales it never stops raining, not even for one minute, and on those days when it seems not to be raining it simply means that a very big flock of birds is migrating directly overhead.
We headed for the train station and bought tickets to Bristol. The train pulled into the station and we jumped onto it. Then we searched for seats in the crowded carriages. The train was bursting with commuters. Maybe other people had decided to escape from Wales too. At last we found free seats in a carriage at the rear of the train.
One seat faced forwards and the other seat faced backwards; and both of them faced each other across a plastic table. Chloe lowered herself into the seat facing forwards before I had a chance to object. That was the seat I wanted! But no point being childish or churlish about it, so I sat down in the other seat, the one facing backwards.
Travelling backwards in a vehicle often makes me feel nauseous and I much prefer to face forwards and look out of a window to see where I am going. But this seemed to be a trivial detail at this stage. The crucial thing is that we were together, Chloe and I, and escaping the rains of Wales. It was a relief to have finally taken this step.
The guard blew his whistle and the train pulled out of the station. We waved farewell to Cardiff and its dripping relentlessness. We held hands across the table, and this felt nice and romantic and special, but there was a persistent tugging, as if a force was trying to break our grip. I fought it and noted that Chloe was fighting it too.
“Something is yanking at my arms,” I informed her.
“Mine too. Just keep hold of me.”
“I wonder what it is?”
“Probably the inertia of the train’s motion.”
“Pesky laws of mechanics.”
And so we held hands, fingers in gloves intertwined, until an inspector came to check our tickets. He punched a hole in them with a little device, returned them to us and lurched on his way. Then we resumed the holding of our hands, both of mine in both of hers, or both of hers in both of mine, across the table. It felt important to do this.
I wasn’t sure why it felt so important, but it did, and even when a very powerful itch tormented my nose I refused to scratch it. I endured it until it went away, which it eventually did. The time was passing. At long last we were approaching the tunnel that would take us under the river, and on the far side we would be in sunny England.
The train hurled itself into the tunnel mouth and the view beyond the windows went black. My ears popped. I frowned at my reflection in the glass and saw that it was holding hands with Chloe, but I wondered why her reflection was out there, in the window, and I feared I was losing her; that she was on the other side of a barrier.
“What are you doing beyond the window?” I asked her, and I jerked my head to indicate her reflection.
“No, I am here. You are the one in the glass!”
I froze at her words. She knew.
The train emerged from the tunnel. No rain streaked the windows. It was a dry sky that confronted us, blue and speckled with clouds that were white rather than an angry dark grey. This was England, a country where it doesn’t rain every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year.
It was a place where it would be possible to make a fresh start without squelching, without growing mouldy. The train pulled into the station at Bristol. Then Chloe disengaged her fingers from mine and stood up, and smiled at me. “Time to get off. We’ re here,” she said. Then she noticed the tears in my eyes, like substitute rain.
“Yes, you have arrived, but I haven’t,” I said.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I was sitting the wrong way,” I explained. “I have been travelling in the other direction all this time. You were facing forwards and that’s the way you have gone; but I was facing backwards and I’ve ended up going west instead of east. I know it doesn’t look that way, but appearances are deceptive. We are further apart than ever!”
“Where are you now?” she asked.
“Almost at Swansea. Should be arriving in a few minutes. That’s what happens when passengers sit opposite each other instead of side by side. I realise we didn’t have a choice. These were the only free seats. It’s a real shame. Don’t forget me, Chloe, please!”
“Take care in the rain, dear,” she begged me.
I promised her I would. She couldn’t linger any longer. The train was about to depart. With a tender look, she broke away and got off the train just in time. She stood on the platform with a raised hand and I raised my own in a melancholy salute. I shut my eyes.
I opened them again. The train was pulling in to Swansea. The heavy rain was beating against the windows. Everything was greyness, mist and blurred lights. At least one of us had managed to escape! That was better than nothing! I listened to the bark of dogfish as the train came to a stop. The flooded city was infested with them.

It Goes Without Saying

Mondaugen has invented many different kinds of vehicle and it was thus inevitable that he would eventually turn his attention to designing a new kind of train. There was nothing special in the way it looked when it was finished; but he insisted that the power source was something quite new and that it would save a lot of money.
He couldn’t interest any of the authorities in investing in it, so he was forced to pay for the construction of a prototype himself. This is normal when it comes to Mondaugen’s creations. He spends all the profits that he earns from his successful inventions on his unsuccessful ones. But at first his new type of train seemed promising.
“Silence is the fuel of the future!” he announced.
We craned forward to catch these words, because he hadn’t made this announcement very loudly. In fact he had merely mouthed words silently and we were expected to lip-read them. Some of us managed to do so. A few of us can’t even read newspapers all the way through, let alone lips, and they remained as confused as ever.
“The engine of this vehicle,” he continued silently, “runs on smooth air, on undisturbed atmospherics. In other words, even the vibrations of the barest whisper will disrupt the fuel that it feeds on and ruin it. That’s why I insist on no talking in its vicinity.”
This was a lot to ask from a crowd of curious Welsh onlookers. Most of us had squeaky or squelchy shoes and dripping noses from the endless rains of Wales, and total silence was an unknown ideal in our damp lives. I thought that Mondaugen was going to be disappointed, but we tried our best not to make a sound, to be inaudible.
How the engine processed silence into motive power is something he never explained in detail. Sometimes I wonder if Mondaugen knows how his own inventions work, but that doesn’t really matter. The main point is that they do work, and work well, although they often go wrong later. But this one seemed to go wrong from the start.
He pulled a lever on the side of the engine but the vehicle just refused to budge. It stood on its metal wheels on the rails and slowly rusted in the rain. Mondaugen waited and we waited with him. Then he placed a finger to his lips. He assumed one of us was rustling or making some other faint noise and polluting the fuel, but we weren’t.
It was a vehicle that ran on absolute silence. Talking would bring it to a dead halt. It was a train that goes without saying; and such an invention is doomed in Wales. Not only is Wales a garrulous country in terms of its inhabitants, but the rain doesn’t just pitter-patter like normal rain in other nations. It makes conversation when it falls.
The raindrops in Wales have tiny mouths that utter a word when these drops bash themselves open against the ground, roofs or umbrellas. They cry out in joy or surprise or fear or just for the hell of it. Although a man with a stethoscope might be able to hear these words clearly if he’s lucky, he won’t understand them. They are inhuman.
And that’s why Mondaugen’s train was doomed to failure. The instant he realised the rain was responsible for sabotaging his project, he made a few half-hearted efforts to fix the problem. Nothing helped. At one point he persuaded us to stand on the roof of the train with umbrellas, shielding it from the rain. But there was too much noise.
Everywhere there was splashing and the utterances of those tiny damp mouths, the background hum and buzz of Wales, wettest land in creation, and silence stood no chance. We dismounted from the roof and cast aside the useless umbrellas and waited for him to acknowledge defeat. But he’s always the most stubborn inventor imaginable.
He kept tinkering to no avail and finally I approached him, tapped him on the shoulder and broke my vow of silence. I said, “A train that runs on silence is a totally unfeasible device here. Why not convert the engine to run on a more practical and plentiful fuel, such as rainwater? Can you try that, do you think? Invent a kind of rain train?”
He could, of course. He was Mondaugen, the most ingenious inventor ever to plod through the puddles of possibility, or wade the waterlogged vales of wonder, in this saturated land of ours. He could take his spanner right now and make the necessary adjustments to the mechanism without delay. Because that’s the kind of genius he was.
He stood back, panting. The rain streamed down his face, but he was happy. He had converted the engine from one that runs on silence to one that was powered by falling rain. It was ready already. He reached out to pull the lever. We watched him in trepidation and leaking shoes. Down went the lever and the train simply disappeared.
It vanished in a blur; and all that remained was an afterimage that was so persistent it is probably still there. There is so much rain in Wales that a train powered by the stuff is going to fly off at the speed or light or even faster than that; and it will vaporise or go backwards in time. No one can guess exactly what happened to it, not even him.
We all turned away and left the scene. We walked without enthusiasm and our knees shone in the rain and our feet squeaked in the rain and our chins dripped in the rain and our ears flapped in the rain and our nostrils quivered in the rain and our souls rotted in the rain. I made an apology to the great inventor. I felt it was my fault and said:
“Wales is simply too rainy.”
“That also goes without saying,” he answered.

Well, there you have the lost chapters of Cloud Farming in Wales. They weren’t really lost, because to get lost you have to go somewhere and in order to go somewhere you have to exist; and these chapters didn’t exist until after I had decided they were already lost, which is the wrong way around. But that doesn’t matter much.