Tomorrow the world changes. A new dawn, bringing with it new times, new foundations, new concepts. Tomorrow the blood and sweat poured into the tracks that will now carry people from one town to the next will not be in vain. The passion I have borne for the past years will finally see fruit. Tomorrow all our efforts shall be rewarded. The Stockton-to-Darlington railroad is born.
I turn from the window (I don’t know why I am stood here, it is the dead of night and outside is pitch black). His breathing in the corner of the room has become more laboured, as if the body is craving, heaving, fighting for the air all around it yet unable to take enough in. Rapid breathing, now quieter. Easier. I feel my body relax again. I didn’t even realize I was tensing with every inhalation. Subconsciously breathing each breath with him.
I can smell sheep’s wool now. There is none here. Not a scrap to be found in this small, homely bedroom. Perhaps it was part of my life for so long that it has become as a memory, as clear as if I were seeing those days in my mind’s eye. The strong, animal odour of the wool, the raised voices of the market, the closeness of the traders, buying, selling, bartering. My father keeping me close as he negotiated a price and winking at me as the deal closed. The agony of the road. That stale feel of time and tiredness which stuck to your body with each long journey. When I was at my most dejected, my father would dig into his pocket, pull out a peppermint and push it into my hand saying, “Eeee, if only we could fly eh? We’d be there in no time,” and he would tug on the reigns of the horse and the wagon would rattle on. I took my father literally back then, believing that in time his little wish may come true.
I hated those long journeys. I used to sit and dream how wonderful it would be if I could one day invent a way of letting every wool merchant fly. Sometimes, on our travels across the country, I would lie back against the mounds of wool in the wagon, sucking on my peppermint and stare up at the sky. The clouds would wade by, slowly and I wondered what it would be like to travel on a cloud. Then my mind would start pumping, as hard and fast as a piston. I started to see the sky in a new light, imagining it full of flying wool merchants, horses with wings, like strange angels carting wool across the heavens.
The first time I saw a locomotive, I was mesmerized. To me, it was a work of art. All those cogs and coils working and whizzing, like miniature metal bees, zipping back and forth in their ever fixed cycles. The sound, like a vast and powerful snake, scaling itself
across the ground, hissing with pride and vigour at all before it. It was as though my dreams of flying horses were coming true. What a wonder! Of course, who would have thought that when the day came for innovation, it would be the merchants themselves who snubbed it? Before I ever met the man who would make the Stockton-to-Darlington railroad happen, I tried all ways to encourage the forming of a railway in this part of the country. From the moment I first saw iron wheels on iron rails, I knew that something wonderful awaited humanity. I believed that I must lay down my life for the good of society’s future and for the generations to come. Neighbours and merchants alike called the ideas ‘ridiculous’ and ‘damaging.’ Even when approaching the coal merchants, to whom the enterprise would afford new market opportunities, I was met with suspicion and indifference. Are we not all alike? So afraid of the unknown. Even angels are feared.
Perhaps they should be.
Angels. The breathing is laboured again. I wonder how many angels are in this room right now. I wonder if they are mourning. Can angels mourn? The scripture tells us Jesus wept. Though He had the power to crush it, death still made him weep. I walk over to the bed and place my palm against the white, clammy brow of my son. He had began to fade some hours ago. After a short burst of words when all he wanted to do was talk to me about where he was going and telling me how much he loved us all, he sunk into the state he is in now. His last words to me were, “I look forward to meeting Him, father.” Precious child. He always did look forward with such eagerness to every new adventure.
He was more excited than I the day we met the Blucher. Isaac was already worked into a steam of wonder at all the things Stephenson had been telling us about his wonderful design. Isaac believed every word. That is the hallmark of the young. They have not been hurt enough yet in life to take words and actions with a pinch of salt. On this occasion, however we were not to be let down. My excitement began when I saw the beast. What strength! What power! The steam pouring forth like sweat from an athlete’s brow. Of all the methods of transport I had conjured up in my head over the years, I knew in my gut that here was pure genius. This was different. Isaac knew it too. I could feel the elation radiating beside me from my 17-year-old boy. I looked at the Blucher, chugging away beyond us and then back to Isaac, awestruck.
This machine belonged to his time. It represented everything about the young: hope, energy, power, strength, innovation. I was honoured to be witness to it. I remember glancing at Stephenson, the machine’s creator and seeing the glint in his eye. I chuckled. He knew he had us both. He also knew he had my money and my backing. I wanted to enlist him. His Blucher had won my heart. Now I knew that this would be my passion, my first and foremost. This would be my life’s passion. For years I had dreamed of flying wool merchants. My dream became truth that day. Not in the sky as I had once thought, but flying over land. The industry was improving all the time. Wrought iron rails to replace the cast iron ones, so they could bear even greater weight. These new rails could carry the bulk of a locomotive and its wagons. Life would change. All those merchants, traveling miles and miles to trade and make a living, like my father had done. I had often fumbled across ways to improve the transport of coal from the port to Stockton. Now they too would all be able to fly. I would place my soul into this love I had found. For them and for my son, Isaac. For his generation and his future.
The room is quiet now, just he and I. We are both waiting. Please, spare him Lord.
They will all be there tomorrow, presenting it to the world, to the people. There will be excitement and joy and wonder. Is it wrong that I care no longer for this venture? I try but my heart has gone out of it. I pull up a chair and sit close to Isaac, who is ever fading, and wish with every part of my being that I had devoted as much time to him as to this scheme. He was not my eldest, nor my youngest. He came in the middle, where Rachel and I were no longer daunted by the process of rearing a child and where we composed enough to let the true wonder and joy of him work through us. Did I show him enough affection? Did Mary’s illness and death lessen the attention I might have given him? Mary…My poor girl. It is only 5 months past but the wound is still raw. I don’t know that I can bear another blow to that open wound. The loss of a child… Did you bless me with seven, God, so that you might take two back? One day perhaps you will allow us to design some physic for this dreaded consumption. A low rattling noise, like the clattering mechanics of a locomotive comes from Isaac’s throat. I take his hand, his clubbed fingers resting against mine, helpless, as they did when he was a newborn baby in my arms. As when I first met him. Helpless. The sound stops. I listen. There have been pauses like this all night, between the rapid breathing. I often think he has gone. Then it has started again.
This time the silence goes on. On and on.
I shall not be at the Stockton-to-Darlington railroad opening tomorrow. What seemed to be the most important thing in the world yesterday, has become nothing tonight. Tomorrow, the world changes. Tomorrow, George Stephenson celebrates his first love. Tomorrow, I will grieve over mine.
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