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Authors: Steven Carroll

Spirit of Progress

BOOK: Spirit of Progress
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Contents

Cover

Prologue:
France, December 1977

The Language of Engine Driving

Part One:
Melbourne, Tuesday, 16 July 1946

1.
The Post-War World

2.
The Photographer and the Journalist

3.
The Journalist on the Street

4.
The Painter Reads the Journalist

5.
Skinner Observes the Light from Miss Carroll’s Tent

6.
Inside Miss Carroll’s Tent

7.
The Absent Father

8.
The Dancing Man

9.
Rita at Home

10.
Webster Imagines His World

11.
Vic Reads the Evening Newspaper

12.
The Day Ends

Part Two:
Wednesday, 17 July 1946

13.
Skinner’s Gift

14.
Webster’s Ground

15.
George Is Adrift

16.
The Indifference of Munching Cows

17.
The Contessa Reflects

18.
En Plein Air

19.
Affection

20.
Trust (I)

21.
The Concept of Too Much

22.
Trust (II)

23.
History Pays a Call

24.
A Painting Appears

25.
An Artist Without an Art

26.
A Simple Heart

27.
The
Spirit of Progress

Part Three:
Thursday, 18 July 1946

28.
Horizon

29.
Vic Discovers the Golf Course

30.
Sam on the Docks

31.
George’s Moment

32.
The Kitchen Sink

33.
Webster and Skinner Observe Each Other

34.
A Victorian Lady

35.
The Subject Is Unobserved

Part Four:
January 1947

36.
Elsewhere

37.
The Dutiful Servant

38.
A Goodbye of Sorts

39.
Heaven and Earth

40.
Singapore

Part Five:
1949

41.
The Lost Domain

42.
Care and Dread

43.
The Centre of Things

44.
Webster at Home

45.
The Wooden Frame of Fate

Part Six:
November 1977

46.
Woman and Tent

47.
The Survival of the Fittest Memories

48.
Rita Calls on History

49.
Old Streets

Epilogue:
France, December 1977

The Travelling World

The Art of the Engine Driver

The Gift of Speed

The Time We Have Taken

The Lost Life

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Praise

Other Books by Steven Carroll

Copyright

Prologue
France, December 1977
The Language of Engine Driving

T
hese are not the engines of his youth. They were steam and diesel, and were grimy and noisy. The drivers and the firemen sat in their cabins, windows pushed back, visible to the world, and the passengers would know who it was taking them to their destination or away from home. They had faces. Possibly even smiles, or perhaps blank stares on a drizzly day. The drivers of his youth ate lamb sandwiches, drank black tea from metal mugs, and smoked away those last few minutes before departing with other people’s lives in their care, in plain view.

The sight of a driver nonchalantly biting into a sandwich eased whatever concerns the traveller may have had about the journey. For there was always an unspoken contract: the traveller had not only invested money for the fare but invested trust, as well, in the expectation of a safe arrival. And if the driver was to err — as humans inevitably do — it would not be on this trip. These drivers
had faces. Different faces, but faces given a family resemblance by a common trade and all that comes with it: the blue cap, the overalls and the workshop of the engine cabin.

But these are not the engines of his youth. He knows all this because engine driving was his father’s world, and therefore Michael’s world as well. And his father, Vic, was beside him a few minutes ago as Michael stepped from the Metro with its brightly coloured maps, glossy advertisements of beautiful people and its shifting crowds. His father, who never set foot in a Metro or a foreign city in his life, was also beside him as he stepped out into the main station where the grand lines are — where the trains wait to take the likes of Michael, and all the baggage they bring with them, to the west of the country.

They are neither diesel nor steam, these trains. They are electric. And electricity does not hiss or hum or rumble into life. Electricity is silently efficient. Electricity allows these trains to slip out of platforms quietly, almost surreptitiously. Electricity allows them to depart in silent indifference. Turn your back for a moment, as Michael has right now, to take in the iron canopy of the station, and you may look back to find that the train has left and that the place it once occupied on the platform is now empty. And at no time, before departure, would it give any hint it was about to creep away.

On the platform a young woman is sitting on her suitcase. The seats are all taken. In one hand she holds a croissant, in the other a cardboard cup of coffee. Her eyes are gazing out over the vast open space of the station but
she doesn’t see the station because it is not important. And she doesn’t hear the announcements or the talk around her. That, too, does not concern her. Nor does the crackle and hum of all the other human and mechanical sounds of the station. She has all she needs and could be at her breakfast table as she immerses herself in the ritual of coffee and pastry. At least Michael sees her, like himself, as someone given over to ritual. And this is what catches his attention. That and the stillness of her. She eats with a minimum of movement: the fingers that hold the pastry, the arms that lift it, the mouth that sips the coffee, even the languid rising steam, all, it seems, moving in slow motion. It’s a trick he imagines she has, a way of slowing time so that the movement and urgency all around can’t touch her. And it is entrancing to watch, distractingly so. He is sure that this young woman, in giving herself over to her morning ritual, has somehow managed to obliterate everything around her. We don’t exist, do we? Michael mentally addresses her. My eyes upon you, and the glance of that man whose greying hair is still wet from the shower, don’t concern you because we don’t exist. But I see you. Even if I don’t exist in your world, you exist in mine — this world you have so neatly obliterated.

Michael is standing on Platform Number 1 of the Gare Montparnasse. His train will not leave for some time. He has come early so as to observe the station and the train. His first observations of these stations — all of them, not simply the one in which he is standing at the moment — came from paintings, in art galleries or the books he once
studied, with their coloured reproductions and names such as Monet and Sisley and Pissarro; names that all merged into one some time after his studies and stayed that way. And although the haze has gone from railway stations now, evaporated with the Age of Steam, and the smoke of the diesels has long since floated into the past, Michael, at this moment, sees the glass-and-iron canopy that arches over the lines, platforms and people through the medium of those painted images and the eyes of some fanciful artist. Not that they were really fanciful, these artists. They knew what they were doing. And they knew they were on to something. No crumbling Roman ruins for them. No pastorals. No sunsets falling across antique arches. No Classical ideals. They were painting railway stations and steam trains. Symbols of everything that was modern, like themselves. They were, in short, painting Progress. For these stations were where journeys started and ended. It was from places such as these that people, ordinary people, took trains and quite possibly saw the countryside for the first time in their lives. These artists were painting patterns in the smoke, true, but they were painting movement and change, History in mid-stride. Why else, Michael speculates, would Flaubert have hated the railways? Because it meant that movement and speed had come to his world, and would soon take it away. That’s what Progress does. It’s always taking your world away. And that’s what these painters caught: not just impressions of fleeting moments, but of fleeting worlds, here one minute, gone the next.

It’s the engine at the front of the train that has
particularly caught Michael’s attention. These engines are sleek and low, almost crouched at the platform, and the windows are dark, making it impossible to see into the cabin. At best there is an occasional shadowy movement behind the glass. No meeting of the eyes here, no smile dispatched between bites of a sandwich or gulps of black tea, no possibility of unspoken contract between traveller and driver. The scene behind the tinted windows of the TGV has to be imagined. And Michael can only picture in that cabin the faces he knows from the past. A gallery assembles in his memory, faded like old faces are, and faded like his face will become too in the minds of those who will have known him — and this is not difficult to imagine at what feels like the terribly advanced age of thirty-one. Which is all Paddy Ryan would have been when he first became the master of the smooth ride and instructed Michael’s father in the art of engine driving. Paddy Ryan. It is not a name he has contemplated for years. But the name suddenly pops into his mind. And the face, from an old photograph, for Michael never met Paddy Ryan. He was always just a name, a myth. But myth or not, his mother had banned Paddy Ryan from the house because he not only taught his father how to drive, he taught him how to drink.

And so, in this way, a faded gallery assembles that includes his father, whose dust now lies in a small urn in a subtropical garden near the town to which he retreated when he was done with engines (and which Michael has never seen, because there is nothing left there but dust). Michael took a trip to that town just the once, and even
then his father’s face had the gaunt, washed-out look of those who don’t have long left. Gone was the full face, the big smile and the booming laugh that he heard so often as a child. And his father would say from time to time between lulls in their conversation — in recognition of the fact that that energy he had always had, and which had always defined him, was now gone — that it was getting near dying time. That was his phrase. Dying time. Presumably there had been growing time, maturing time (when he had married, seen Michael arrive and settled down for a while in his own unsettled way) and aging time, which he had seen through all too quickly. Now, all of that behind him, the stuff that more than makes up a lifetime, there was only dying time left. And he would see it through, the phrase implied, without any help from anyone. More than that, without the concern of anyone. He would see it through without pity and without self-pity. And on his own terms, for he was one of those who had chosen years before to live and die on his own terms. He would see it through like an animal bedding down for the last time because it was old and tired and sick and ready to die. This was dying time. And although nothing to be sneezed at, it was nothing, all the same, which hadn’t always been there waiting for its moment. Something else that happens in life — or not in life, depending on how you look at it. It was simply a fact, that everything had its dying time, and as large and incomprehensible as the fact might be, the sooner you came to terms with it the easier it was on everyone.

And as much as Vic might have imagined that the
subtropical sun would shine as it always did, and the bathers would stroll down to the beach and the surf would be good on the day that he died, he died, in fact, in the dark of night. Somewhere between three and four in the morning. All the world around him — the whole town, the overarching sky — still dark, apart from a silvery moon casting its glow upon a beach to which no bathers went, and upon the good surf that swelled and broke for no one.

And, knowing this, Michael wonders as he gazes upon the tinted windows of the TGV if there was time for anything that we might call thinking in that minute or two that it took, in the dark, for dying time to see itself through. Or was there just the sensation of the thing, the distinguished thing. The pain (his father had died of a heart attack) that, in the end, was bigger than Vic. That had its way because it was bigger. I am Death, the pain said. Don’t resist. Michael nods to himself as the noise of the station gathers around him. No time for thoughts or memories, just the final incomprehensible fact of dying time to be seen through, without too much thought, or pity or concern from anybody. Just something else that happens in life, or not in life, depending on how you look at it.

Although the noise on the platform has risen and it is, Michael imagines, the noise of expectant travel, there is still time for him to contemplate the engine cabin in front of him, the shadowy figure behind the tinted windows, and time to fill the cabin with something more substantial than shadows.

He glances back at the long chain of carriages that stretches out to the end of the platform and notices again the figure of the young woman seated on her suitcase drawing on the last of her coffee, then turns to the engine, looking for a sign of movement behind the dark glass. And as he is gazing at the window he suddenly pictures his father standing in the cabin in the blue overalls and blue cloth cap of another age and another country. And, as much as Michael might imagine Vic to be at a loss, as much as he might imagine him to be puzzled or confused by the sleek lines and shiny surfaces of the new engines, the engines they drive in fancy foreign places, he is not. In fact, with one look around the cabin, a glance here and a glance there, his father nods, satisfied, with a slight, respectful raising of the eyebrows to tell the other driver he is impressed. But not lost. He has, in a few moments, taken in all he needs to know. The basics don’t change. They are a family, these drivers, and they all bear a family resemblance — as do their engines and carriages and signal systems. And far from being lost, Vic is at home in the cabin of an engine, even this one. It is still a cabin, and it is still an engine. And engines do what they have always done. What, the twenty-year-old Vic would have asked himself again and again in preparation for his driver’s examination, memorising the book that Michael had found in the small box of possessions brought back by rail after Vic died (for Vic had kept the book all his life:
Bagley’s Australian Locomotive Engine Drivers’ Guide
), what, he would have asked himself time and time again until he didn’t need to think about it any more, what is a
locomotive engine? Answer: a steam engine placed on wheels capable of producing motive power to propel itself and draw carriages on a railway. Yes, a quick look, a glance here, a glance there. That’s all he would need, for engines, no matter how sleek or shiny (and no matter if they are neither diesel nor steam), do what engines have always done. And it is then that he would point to the throttle, to the brakes, to the speed gauges (which Vic always ignored anyway). Action and mime would accompany the indicating and the pointing, and the driver of this fancy, foreign train would nod back to Vic, recognising their shared knowledge and the shared understanding that, underneath it all, the basics don’t change. And, with gestures and looks, sounds and mimes, they would begin speaking the language they shared, the language of engine driving.

So, his father, who never travelled beyond his country, would not be lost if he were suddenly placed in a cabin, on a station in one of those flash, foreign places where they drive the new engines. For, he too, had driven the best, the train to which the Age gave its name — or did the train give its name to the Age? Vic would be at home. And the French driver, who had quite possibly never ventured any further than the south of his country for the summer holidays, would understand immediately this shared language that was different from that of their day-to-day lives. For inside the cabin, they would have no need of everyday speech. And it would be the same on the journey, reading the signals and the signs. And, as much as Michael might see himself as part of a generation that travels to
foreign places with a casualness their parents’ generation never knew, his speculations now tell him that in that cabin, and during the journey he is about to take, his father would be completely at ease.
That
was his true home, and he took it wherever he went.

These engines might not be those of Michael’s youth, but they bring it all back. As Michael returns along the platform, strolling towards his carriage in the middle of the train, he looks for the young woman and her suitcase but she is gone. He neither saw her come nor saw her go. And that’s as it should be. Platforms will fill and empty, the picture will constantly shift, but engines will do what engines have always done, and platforms will always contain a young woman oblivious of the world around her, and the baggage that you bring with you for the journey will always be more than the suitcase you carry.

BOOK: Spirit of Progress
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