It is winter, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble streets silent. Roused from his dreams of gigantic machines by an unsympathetic alarm clock Fireman Thomas has left his warm bed in the railway hostel. Gliding quietly up the stairs to the locker room he puts on his overalls and a well worn donkey jacket. Outside it cold, jumping cold, this morning.
After signing on he carefully makes his way along the ballast pathway at the side of the railway line. All a sudden he is bathed in light as an automatic flood light bursts into life. The rails and sleepers are white with frost and oh so slippery. And fireman Thomas and a tawny owl are the only ones with business at this hour of the day.
He opens the little door to the engine shed and gropes his way to the electric light switch. It is warmer in there and he climbs into the cab of locomotive number 823, hangs up his coat and begins to clean the cinders and clinker from yesterday’s fire.
After twenty minutes of diligent work the reminders of the previous day are gone. In their place coal and wood are carefully arranged on the grate of the firebox. An oily rag is placed on the shovel and a flame from a lighter is applied to the edge. Flames begin to dance on the rag as it is lowered into the furnace.
By now the driver has arrived and is trying to encourage, cold, reluctant, lubricating oil from a tall metal can into the axleboxes. Fireman Thomas busies himself polishing the paintwork until he can see his reflection in it.
But all is not in order with the appearance of the “Old Lady”. The paint on her smokebox is flaking off and rust is peering through. She must look her best today and so a painter arrives to apply a coat of heat resistant black paint.
Now looking elegant; locomotive number 823, Countess, makes her way from the little engine shed to the station and couples onto the train. There is nearly an hour until the first train is due to leave but there is an import job to do first and that is to warm the carriages. Steam from Countess’ boiler is released through a pressure reducing valve and into the steam heating pipe to the train. Under the seats are steam filled radiators and soon wisps of vapour from the exhaust vents are reaching up towards the abandoned rooks’ nests.
As time ticks away the sound of excited children can be heard. Countess and her train are going to take them to meet Santa Claus ! A short distance outside Llanfair Caereinion the train is flagged down by a man wearing a silly hat. Then from an old railway carriage appear a group of elves in outfits of Lincoln green and signal red. Behind them comes the fellow that the passengers have all come to meet – Santa Claus. The bearded old gentleman and his posse climb aboard the train, the guard waves his green flag and the adventure begins.
The train glides through the frozen countryside on rails still clad in a sliver coating of frost. Fireman Thomas shovels Welsh steam coal onto the fire, little and often, building it up in readiness for the short sharp gradients through The Kink and over Brynelin viaduct. Steam whispers from the safety valves and the injector gurgles and chuckles as water is added to the boiler.
The climb out of The Kink is achieved without problem; so far so good. At the approach to the viaduct there is a sign indicating the start of a temporary speed restriction. The line here has just been relaid with new sleepers and rails and has not yet had time to settle properly. The driver allows the train to slowdown as Countess begins to tackle the climb. As it goes into the curve the engine slips a little, regains her footing and then slips again. The driver makes a small adjustment to the regulator and the “Old Lady” settles into a steady beat for the rest of the climb. He whistles for the level crossing and the train rolls into Cyfronydd station; the end of the outward journey.
Fireman Thomas gets down and uncouples the engine and Countess runs around to the other end of the train. Meantime Santa Claus is moving to the next carriage. Soon the Santa Special is on its way again. The low winter sun casts a shadow of Countess and the smoke and steam from the chimney onto the grass. It is almost as if she is being chased by a cartoon rival.
At Heniarth station there is another stop for the old gent in the red suit to move to the third and final carriage.
The train re-starts it journey and tiptoes slowly along the long straight past School Mistress’ cottage and creaks and groans on the tight curves at Dolrhyd Mill. The little house up by the road comes into view and in the bright sunshine the driver can see it reflected in the steam dome.
Before long it is time to stop to let Santa Claus and his elves go back to their old railway carriage. He waves goodbye as Countess takes the happy boys and girls back to Llanfair Caereinion.
And so for now Fireman Thomas and his driver hand their charge over to another engine crew and go and rest for a little while.
Note. The opening line is adapted from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas – to the best of my knowledge no relation to Fireman Thomas.