Edition 18: Robert Fairweather and the Wrong Ticket by Mark Rookyard
His battles are long over but still Robert Fairweather feels like a relic and out of step with this new world. One chance encounter and Robert ends up on a train in trouble. In this world of steam, Mark Rookyard conjured up some empathetic characters and a dilemma the judges’ could empathise with to take home third place in this year’s Story Quest Competition. SY
The train whistled and steam billowed, great puffing clouds of it spewing all around Robert and the hundreds of others waiting on the platform. A hiss, more steam gasping out, and the steps wound back inside the doors.
Windows glowed golden through the steam, three stories high, and people waved excitedly from the giant brass contraption, looking out for loved ones on the platform.
Friends and family called out, their voices drowned by the hissing and steaming, and then the train was on its way, its brass length sleek and shining in all its glory.
Testament to the glory of man, testament to the glory of one man. A dead man. A beaten man.
The steam and smoke drifted all around Robert now, as idle and lost as those who had been waving farewell to their loved ones. They too drifted about the platform before slipping away into the crowds.
Who would be waving to Robert when he left on his train? Who would be waiting for him in Manchester when the gleaming giant powered into the station? He adjusted his tie, still uncomfortable out of uniform, and looked at the people all about him. Lords and ladies in plush velvets of every colour, hair carefully curled, hats at careful angles. Once these people had been his enemy, these southerners who had stood for Queen and country.
He heard a voice, just for a moment, drifting on the steam, “Not our enemy, Robert. It is ignorance and apathy we fight against.”
Robert smiled at the memory. A bitter smile. They had fought and lost. He glanced around the station, with its high arching roofs and glass windows. Almost like a church, although here they worshipped the age of steam. He could hear another train pulling into the station, majestic and beastly in its hissing and puffing. Sunlight spilled through the windows and gleamed on brass and steel.
Robert coughed. He felt hot, too many people about him, too many excited smiles, hats and teeth. His leg was stiff from the old war wound. And, as the steam drifted around his legs, he could remember more steam, only this time instead of laughter and excitement, there had been screams and the knowledge of defeat.
“I’m sorry.” Robert blinked. He’d stumbled into the back of a lady in a green velvet dress. She had a folded umbrella in her hand and she was smiling at him. Her hair was brown and artfully pinned, her neck shapely.
“Oh, I do apologize,” he said, fighting the urge to tip his head. He was a new man now. A new man in new clothes.
The woman smiled. She had small dimples on her cheeks. “It is rather crowded here.” She looked around at the crowd. “I think some people here come only to see the engines. They are impressive. To think what man is capable of. I hope one day to see the flying machines.”
Robert smiled, though it felt forced. He’d flown in one of those flying machines, been shot from the sky and seen the ground spiralling up toward him as smoke and dust choked him and burned his eyes. “I hope you do, madam. The world is full of wondrous things these days. We are lucky to see such a time.”
Dark eyes cast down for a moment. “Yes, yes,” she said. “Though it did come at a cost. That so many good men had to die in the war.”
“You’re right, of course.” Robert remembered a jail, a man there, his eyesight failing and his grey hair grown long and matted. “But somebody once told me that sometimes man can be afraid of his own genius, afraid of what he can make of the world around him, and what man fears, he seeks to destroy.”
The woman smiled. There was something bright behind her dark eyes. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Mr…”
“Fairweather,” Robert said. “Robert Fairweather.”
“Hattinkin,” the woman said, her eyes more cautious now. “Miss Hattinkin.” She turned to leave. She had dark boots beneath her rich green skirts.
Robert hated to see her go. This was the most he’d spoken to anybody since he had left the hospital. She was beautiful, with her thick hair and dimpled smile and dark eyes. When was the last time he’d looked at the world and seen beauty in it? Seen goodness?
“Er, Miss Hattinkin? Perhaps we’re travelling the same way? That is if your chaperone…”
Miss Hattinkin looked at him, one of her eyebrows raised ever so slightly. “I’m afraid my aunt got taken ill this morning. She was to accompany me to Liverpool to meet my future husband.” She looked at him a long moment, her eyes cool and appraising, something disconcerting and attractive in the unabashed curiosity. “Of course,” she finally said, “if you are travelling by the same train, then who am I to forbid it?”
Robert nodded, thinking for a moment of Manchester and the home he had once known, the people he had once known long gone. An empty city of empty memories.
Steam pluming through the station and over the platform heralded the arrival of the Manchester train. “Liverpool,” he said. “I do happen to be travelling to Liverpool, Miss Hattinkin. How fortunate.”
Crowds waved and cheered as the Manchester train gasped into the station. Some of the crowd waved white handkerchiefs or hats in the air as passengers leaned out of windows, heedless of the warm steam billowing all around them.
“I just need to attend to something, Miss Hattinkin, I hope to see you on the train.” He limped away, leaning on his cane, wondering how much a ticket to Liverpool would cost.
The train to Liverpool was enormous, perhaps two hundred carriages in length, and it shone like the promise of a better future.
Robert had been one of the last to board, hurrying as best he could with his wounded leg. He walked through the train, looking into carriages until he saw her sitting near the window. Others were in the carriage with her, but Miss Hattinkin had placed her satchel on the seat facing her.
“Thank you,” Robert said as she moved the satchel.
“You made it then,” she said, meeting his eyes.
Robert smiled and looked away out the window. Clothes of every colour; sunlight shining through the high-arched windows of the station; the feeling of the train slowly starting to gain momentum. Even now, it was hard not to feel the thrill of the new age they lived in. Even now, when he knew what it had cost.
“So you fought in the war?” Miss Hattinkin said.
Robert looked up, surprised. “How did you know?”
Miss Hattinkin smiled, though there was little humour in it. “I saw you limping on the platform, and I saw the look in your eyes. My brother was in the war, too. I’d know that look anywhere.”
“He died in the battle of Kettering. He was my guardian. My aunt thought it wouldn’t do to leave a young lady to fend for herself and so I’m going to meet my prospective husband. A minister from Bootle.”
“I’m sorry,” Robert said. Kettering: the last big engagement of the war. He remembered fire on the water, machines shattering and collapsing under the onslaught of the guns from the Queen’s Brigade. The sheer numbers of the south, come to finish the rebels once and for all. The end of the rebellion. The end of the man who had changed the face of England.
Silence reigned between them. The train hissed and pumped and sped through London, the distant buildings little more than silhouettes through the thick steam and smog.
“You were there?” Miss Hattinkin said. “At Kettering?”
Robert clasped his hands together. He’d never met a woman like this before: so forthright, so plain speaking. Shouldn’t women avoid his eyes and let him direct the conversation? But it was so long since he’d spoken to a woman. And wasn’t this the new age after all?
Miss Hattinkin looked at him with cool intelligence, and Robert tried not to think of cannon fire and the screams of his comrades flying through the air in burning machines.
“Yes, I was at Kettering, Miss Hattinkin,” he said.
“I’m glad we can now speak to one another as friends, Mr Fairweather; that our country can now begin to heal the wounds of the past three years.”
Robert was going to ask how she knew which side he had been fighting for, but let it pass. She was obviously a perceptive woman. “And I hope you flourish in your new life, Miss Hattinkin.”
She laughed and there was more than a little bitterness in it. “Flourish? I hardly think so! The wife of a minister in Bootle? Your leader, for all his faults, he showed us a world with flying machines, and trains that can speed through the countryside, and even at sea I’ve heard tell of giant ships as big as islands. There’s a world of adventure out there, a world that my aunt and her ministers could never have imagined.”
Robert looked out the window. They were coming out of London already and into the morning sun, trees smearing the landscape, mist hovering over green fields. And there in the distant blue skies, black against the white clouds, three flying machines, brass glinting and propellers whirring. A world of adventure. Robert felt faint at the memory of flames licking his arms as the ground spun beneath him. He took his handkerchief and mopped his brow delicately.
“A gentleman might say that adventure has no place for a lady,” he said.
Miss Hattinkin smiled, her dimples showing. “Adventure. Possibility. Is one so different from the other? Take you, for example, Mr Fairweather. You changed your tickets at the station. Manchester to Liverpool. Why would you do that? Was it the spirit of adventure? A leap into the unknown? Or had you merely bought the wrong ticket this morning?”
“What?” Robert flushed with embarrassment. This woman missed nothing. What had Henry started with his inventions? A new world in every way.
The whining of the flying machines was getting louder, they were flying straight towards the train, and now Robert saw a steamtrack racing across the fields.
“Watch out!” he shouted, reaching out to shield Miss Hattinkin.
“What—” Her question was cut short by the peppering sound of gunfire raking the train and the ground all around it. The great train screeched in protest, steam clouding the window as the brakes locked.
The flying machines were circling around again, clouds of steam following them like puffs of smoke from a trailing pipe. The steamtrack had screeched to a halt next to the train, five men climbing out with handkerchiefs tied across their faces and guns in their hands.
Robert grabbed his bag from the shelf above, his hands shaking, and he stuffed his jacket pockets.
“It won’t do you any good, son,” the man at his side said. “That’s the Cranston Corps out there. They’ll take the gold from your teeth.”
Somebody was moving through the train, banging on all the doors, and Robert heard women screaming. The flying machines were coming in to land, jets of steam slowing their descent, the pilots’ caps flapping in the hot air and their goggles covering their faces. Already people were starting to spill from the train to stand before the crew of the steamtrack.
“The Cranston Corps?” Miss Hattinkin asked. She didn’t look so keen for adventure now, but she held herself together.
“Vets from the war,” Robert said, watching the flying machines come to a stop. The pilots jumped from the wings, taking their goggles off, their leather jackets black with high collars.
Miss Hattinkin watched the passengers stumbling from the train, bags and jackets snatched from them, contents spilled on the ground, pockets emptied.
A man hammered on their door with the butt of his gun, his face covered in a soot-smeared handkerchief and his jacket hanging open to show a vest stained with dust. “Out!” he shouted. “Out!”
They stumbled out with their hands up. Robert leaned heavily on his cane and hurried after an aged man with a long coat, Miss Hattinkin behind him.
The gang waited outside, faces covered. Piles of money and jewellery lay on the ground near the steamtrack, steam from the train carried on a cool wind that whispered across green fields dotted with unconcerned sheep.
The leader was a big man. “Bags,” he said in a thick northern accent, gesturing to their captor with his gun.
Robert watched as the clothes from his bag were spilled onto the muddied ground and kicked aside. Then it was a minister’s turn. Clothes flapped in the breeze and the robbers took what they wanted and flung the rest away.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Robert said.
The leader stopped rooting through a bag and looked at Robert, his eyes narrowing above the handkerchief. “What’s that you say, city boy?”
“I said you don’t have to do this,” Robert repeated, trying not to look nervous as two rifles turned his way. “The war’s over. It’s time you soldiers started to find a new life.”
“And what do you know about it?” the leader said, his gun levelled at Robert’s chest. “What does a city boy know about the war, about what we fought for?”
“I was there with Henry Cranston from the start.” Robert watched the men. Five near the steamtrack, one watching passengers in the field and another on the train. “I was there when they came to take him to prison and I was one of those who broke him out and started the war.” He didn’t look at Miss Hattinkin as he spoke. He could feel the shame burning on his face.
“Fairweather? General Fairweather?” One of the robbers said, the handkerchief muffling his voice. “I thought you’d died at Kettering.”
“Back to work!” the leader shouted. “I don’t care who he is. He’s a city boy now, like the rest of ’em! The war goes on boys; let’s get this done!”
“One thing!” Robert shouted. “One thing!” The robbers looked at him. “Henry would never have stood for this, never have let you use his machines for this.”
“Henry’s dead,” the leader said. “And so will you be if I hear from you again, General.”
“Yes, yes he is,” Robert said. “And he didn’t show you all his tricks.” He pulled a small black ball from his pocket and pressed the trigger on its side. It clicked and began to whine, getting warmer. He threw it at the steamtrack and the robbers watched it arc through the air.
“Duck!” Robert hissed to Miss Hattinkin and the other passengers around him, even as he was pulling the tip from his cane.
The explosion was loud enough to shatter the windows on the train behind them, steam flying into the air, the steamtrack sent sailing high before crashing back to the ground, the rebels landing next to it, guns falling from loose fingers and debris falling all around them.
Robert aimed his cane at the other robber guarding the passengers. The man was already turning, shouting something. The cane was hot and Robert pulled the trigger and, with an explosion of steam and sound, a ball of lead hit the robber full in the chest, sending him to falling backwards with a scream of agony.
“What the—” The last robber came from the train, pulling his handkerchief from his face and looking at the destruction before him in amazement. He screamed in agony as Miss Hattinkin speared him in the stomach with her umbrella and, as he bent over, she hit him again, hard on the back of his head.
As though the world had paused to draw breath, everybody started chattering at once. Men and women alike checked themselves for injuries after the explosion, and congratulated each other on what they had just witnessed. A few of the children ran over to the twisted shell of the steamtrack and began to climb all over it. Some of the robbers shook their heads, consciousness slowly returning, and tried to sneak away into the bushes.
“Thank you, thank you,” Robert said as men and women came to shake his hand. He looked at the flying machines, still and silent in the field.
Excited chatter still filled the fields as the passengers collected their belongings and began to file back onto the train. Laughter echoed all around, relief and shock on every face, smiles wide.
“Mr Fairweather?” Miss Hattinkin was the last one on the steps, holding onto the brass rail, steam already beginning to rise around the wheels beneath her.
Robert looked again at the flying machines, waiting. He remembered the terror of that last crash, of being shot down at Kettering; but now he could also remember the thrill of soaring through the skies, of seeing the world far beneath spread before him, the rush of speeding through the clouds, steam billowing behind.
He smiled. “It was a pleasure, Miss Hattinkin, but you were right, I have no place in Liverpool. You should go and meet your husband.”
Miss Hattinkin smiled and stepped off the train. Her black boots were muddied and her green skirts brushed the grass. “Actually,” she said, “I think I might have bought the wrong ticket as well.”
Robert smiled and lifted the door of the flying machine.
Mark Rookyard lives in Yorkshire, England. He enjoys running long distances and writing short stories. His work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Acidic Fiction and Saturday Night Reader.