It was another wonderful, bright summer morning as I got dressed and then went downstairs for breakfast. Exciting smells floated from the kitchen as my mother sang along to the music on the radio. She put tea and toast down on the table, and smiled. ‘Are you looking forward to the journey?’
‘Of course, Mum,’ I said. ‘Where do you think we’ll be going? Any ideas?’ I took a bite of toast and a mouthful of hot tea and looked past her to the blue sky beyond. A trip on the Mystery Train on such a brilliant day was something to get excited about, and it was no surprise that I spilled tea on my clean shirt.
‘Easy cowboy, it’s going to be a long day, so slow down and take your time. Ok?’
I nodded and brushed flakes of toast from my mouth with the back of my hand and went to get the camera. It was my job to make sure that we brought it when we went for a picnic or a spin in the Wicklow Mountains, and I was certainly not going to forget it today. I had already been on a Mystery Train journey a month before and, with all the excitement and anticipation, I had forgotten to bring the camera. It was a disaster as the train took us to Wexford town where a colourful circus troop had paraded up the main street and we had no camera to capture the tumbling acrobats, amazing fire-eaters and jugglers. ‘Let that be a lesson to you,’ Mum said later. She wasn’t upset, just letting me know that if I really wanted something then I would have to pay attention. We were ready to go and, as she rinsed our teacups clean, I got the camera and checked that there was a spare roll of film in the bag. We were set for the day and made our way on the bus into Pearse Street station, wondering all the while, where we would be heading?
The long, incline to the main platform was busy as truck drivers delivered and collected bags of mail and the smell of burning coal was everywhere. I got excited when the train driver gave a loud blast of the whistle, before it stopped a few feet from where we were standing. He wiped his brow with his sleeve leaving a dirty mark. He grinned. ‘Want a look?’ he said.
My heart skipped a few beats. ‘Me’, I said looking around to see if he was talking to someone else.
‘Go on then,’ said Mum ‘while I go and get the tickets.’
I handed the camera to her and that photograph she took of me and the train driver on that Iron Horse is a fond memory.
The driver reached down a big hand and the next moment I was standing on the running plate of a train for the very first time. ‘Wow,’ I cried when he opened the coal hatch and the blast of hot air made me jump. Deep inside I could see the white heat of burning coals as my new best friend expertly tossed a shovel load of the dark fuel into the blazing furnace. He shut the hatch and pointed at the whistle’s cord. ‘Go on, give it a try?’
I took a deep breath and pulled hard on the cord. The scream of hissing steam was so loud it made me shake with nervous laughter. The driver smiled and when I looked down onto the platform Mum was giggling into her handkerchief. It was an unforgettable moment and we hadn’t even left the station! As the driver helped me back down onto the platform he said, ‘Thanks, partner, hope you enjoyed that!’
‘I sure did. It was absolutely brill. Thanks.’
‘Good, and I hope that you enjoy the journey.’
‘Do you know where we are going?’ I blurted out.
The driver grinned down from his smoky throne. ‘Of course, I’m driving the train after all.’ He shrugged. ‘And it’s going to be good. Ok?’
I nodded. ‘Ok, partner.’
He laughed and gave the whistle another shrill blast.
Finally a guard waved his green flag and the train slowly chugged out from beneath the dirty roof and into the sunlight. Beyond, the tracks seemed to stretch forever, all the way to our mystery destination. Soon the train built up speed, and before long I could hear the familiar clickity-click as we sped along.
Mum handed me a hard sweet and told me to ‘make it last’.
Dublin was far behind us and still we had no idea where we going to end up. I loved journeys on the Mystery Train and today had already been special. Was it going to get any better, I wondered, looking at the funny shape of the mist from my breath on the window? All the while Mum ‘rested her eyes’, lost in the travelling rhythm. I didn’t disturb her and continued to look at the passing landscape and thought of cowboys riding across flat plains that stretched to the horizon. The smell of the rushing smoke added to the images of cattle rustling and dangerous stampedes that were running around my head. We still hadn’t come to the Shannon, the big river, or was that the Mississippi, and I sucked hard on my sweet.
The train eventually slowed and stopped in Athlone. I was disappointed, kind of, as I had been to Athlone many times on my way to Roscommon where Mum’s sister lived. Aunt Lilly was my favourite aunt and, although I had not seen her for months, she had sent me a nice birthday present and a postcard of the Eiffel Tower from her holidays in Paris.
‘All stay on the train,’ shouted the Inspector as he moved along the platform. ‘This is not the destination for the Mystery Train, so please stay where you are, thank you. The train will be leaving any moment.’
At the head of the train I saw the driver jump onto the metal ladder and after a blast of my whistle we were off again. ‘Well, Mum, where do you think we are going?’ I said as the train crossed the Shannon, where small boats floated and passengers waved up.
Mum leaned back, her head resting comfortably on the high seat. ‘Don’t know….but it might be Sligo. You never know.’
‘Or Galway,’ I answered.
She closed her eyes again, and nodded. ‘Could be….you’ll just have to wait and see.’
The train rattled along as I imagined Indians in war-feathers with murder in their eyes trying to jump aboard. Grey, stone walls were the boundaries to ranches and every home a place where cowboys returned at night with tales of derring-do and chasing wild stallions. This was the West alright, my west, and I was heading deeper into it, not knowing what lay ahead. Pioneers, that’s what we were, and still the train rattled on.
Just as I was expecting a raid from Indians hidden near the bend in a river, the train slowed. And kept on slowing
Mum opened her eyes and looked at me. ‘I think I know where we’re going!’ she said a note of surprise in her voice. She sat up, looked out the window, and smiled.
The look on my face asked its own question.
‘You’ll know soon enough,’ she said and playfully tossed my hair. She was giggling now and didn’t stop until the train pulled up at the station and the Inspector announced that we had reached our destination.
‘All out,’ the Inspector shouted again, ‘this is Roscommon, the end of the line for today’s journey. You have until six o’clock to get back here for the return trip. Have a nice day!’
Without any further ado we stepped into the heat of the station and headed down the road to my aunt’s house. I knew Mum had been surprised when the train stopped, but it was nothing like the look on my Aunt Lilly’s face when she opened the door. And I remember them laughing out loud, and the magical day I spent rounding up stray cattle on the ranch in the big garden at the back of the hacienda.