The steam engine sat at the platform edge, smoke billowing from its nostrils. Up close a steam train is a curious thing: oily, dripping with moisture. The guard and fireman fussing around it as they get ready for the return journey. Alive in a way you can’t really grasp until you see one breathing before you.
The sun was high in the sky, shining brilliantly in the cold December air. I remember how our breath coiled before us as we walked up to the cab, trying to get closer to the warmth we knew squatted inside, out of sight. I remember my dad holding my hand firmly. I was five years old, tugging at his hand slightly, wanting to get closer to this strange creature. The adults smiled, pointed at my eager little face. A man in a blue boiler suit and a smudged, dirty complexion grinned at me.
“Want to see inside the cab, laddy?”
My dad lifted me up, legs swinging over the abyss as we clambered aboard, into the cab. I stared greedily at the gauges and levers festooning the insides, my little fingers reaching out but not quite touching them.
Then I stared into the fire; glowing coals stretched out into the engine’s innards, a vivid orange energy radiating off and hitting me in the face. A terrible fear struck me; I recoiled, wanted to get away. I squirmed and tried to push past my dad who gave an apologetic glance to the driver.
I watched timidly as the engine pulled away. Later, I was alone in my room, the image still burned into my mind. What was it? I remember thinking. Why had I turned and run? I didn’t know, and returned to my toys, turning over the day’s events seared into my mind.
Eventually my sister came up.
“Did you have a nice time?” she asked. “Daddy told me you got scared.”
I nodded mutely.
“Did you see the dragon?”
I stared up at her. She grinned.
“There’s a dragon in the firebox,” she said. “He breathes on the coals and keeps them hot so the steam engine can keep going. Didn’t you know that? Everyone knows about the dragon in the firebox.”
She smirked and left the room. I returned to my blocks, but a strange sort of logic was forming in my mind. That’s what I must have sensed! The dragon, warming the coals and waiting to snatch a little boy off his guard! I hadn’t seen it, but I must have sensed it, lurking down at the other end; crouched, waiting to strike, to gobble me up…
I lay in bed that night, my eyes growing heavier and heavier. When I fell asleep, the dragon was waiting for me.
I stared at it, sitting on its nest of coals. Its very body glowed with a fierce orange light, every inch of it simmering and spitting. I could feel the heat radiating off it, and from its breath as it warmed its nest. I remember hopping from one foot to another, to keep my feet off the hot floor. I back away slowly, keeping my eyes fixed on the monster, its yellow eyes boring back into me. Eventually, with a chilling sure-footedness it stepped out of its nest and onto the carpet of coals. Moving slowly, one foot in front of the other, tail swinging lazily from side to side. Knowing it could catch its prey.
I turned around, hammered on the doors to the firebox. Let me out! I cried. Let me out! The dragon is going to eat me! Up close, the heat and light was almost unbearable. It scorched my skin and forced me to screw up my eyes. I leant away from it, heart pounding in my chest as its mouth opened and I saw its rows of razor-sharp teeth. And then it went for my neck.
I woke up, trembling. The room was dark, save for the moon peeking through the curtains. Unsteadily I got out of bed and, slowly, went to close the chink letting the moonlight in.
I stayed at the windowsill for a long time, thinking. When I closed my eyes the dragon was still there, padding towards me through the blasting heat. Something hardened inside my chest. I made a decision.
It was even colder on the platform this time, as my dad took me to the engine again, a little slower now.
“Back again, laddy?” grinned the driver, his face dirtier than before. Had he been wrestling with the dragon, I wondered. Beating it back with a poker, heart in his mouth? But no, he seemed at ease; maybe he was just that brave, and took it in his stride. I swallowed and clambered onto the footplate, by myself this time. I sensed my dad behind me, though, ready to catch me if I slipped. But I didn’t slip.
I strode to the centre of the cab and crouched down, chubby red face staring defiantly into the firebox. There the coals were glowing again, their heat hitting me in the face.
But where was the dragon? I squinted, my eyes travelling to the far end and glancing at the walls. No, there was nothing but the coals. I sat there for a minute more, my dad and the driver laughing at the things little kids do.
After about a minute my dad touched me on the shoulder. Time to go: there were other people wanting to see. I stared for a few more seconds, then got up, suddenly unsteady. There was nothing there. Just a lot of heat and light. A lot of smoke and mirrors.
“Do you like trains?” The driver asked me. I nodded mutely, suddenly shy. I could face down dragons but not the slayer. He nodded in response, thoughtful.
“Aye, she’s a magnificent creature,” he was saying to the pair of us. “Fickle, arrogant, but a beauty once she behaves. I swear, when I look into the fire she reminds me of a dragon! The way she smokes and roars and carries on! Hey, you want to blow the whistle before you go, laddy?”
I decided it was time to get out of the cab.