*The theme for my A to Z is Childhood Stories. Some are real, some are embellished, some are downright fictional but are based on the kind of things I imagined when I was younger.*
In our house in London, there were two rooms right at the top of the house, almost under the eaves. One was a normal room, one was not.
The not normal room had yellow walls – but that wasn’t what made it special. What made its special was the huge panel that took up almost a whole wall. If you pushed it until it clicked, it swung down until it was parallel to the floor at knee height, and on it was the most beautiful and intricate model train track you have ever seen.
Tiny green pine trees, train tracks that curved, went up and down hills, rocks, stations, clusters of houses that formed villages…Even tiny switches to move the trains from one set of tracks to the other. A compartment had been built into the wall to accommodate it all when the panel was closed.
After we discovered the model train, my brothers and I spent a while playing with it. We moved the trains along the tracks, making all the right noises, we moved wagons from one miniature engine to another, and we even engineered a train crash (sound effects provided by my youngest brother). When it was time for lunch, my parents picked up the edge of the panel and swung the model train track back into its secret compartment, so that the room was once more empty. There was no other furniture.
I came back later, on my own, creeping up the stairs so no one would hear me. I wanted to look at the train alone. I had to stand on tiptoe to reach high enough to open the panel, but it was heavier than I’d expected, and I fumbled my grip so that it fell open, smacking into position.
“Careful with that!” said a voice like a crinkly paper bag.
I spun around to find an old man standing behind me. He was hunched, his head poking out from between his shoulders like a turtle’s head out of its shell. He wore a creased black suit.
“You have to be careful,” he said again in his crackling voice. “That took me ten years to build. It’s delicate. And tell that brother of yours to be more careful with my engines when he does a train crash.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t think we damaged anything, though.”
“Hmm…” He bent over the model and examined it so closely his nose almost touched one of the pine trees. He let out a low rattle. “Raaahh – see there, you’ve chipped the pain a little bit. See, come here. Look.”
I looked where he pointed and as I leaned towards him, I realised that he didn’t smell of moth balls or of that odd, antiseptic smell old people sometimes have. He didn’t smell of anything.
The tree he was pointing at had a little white chip on one side where the paint had come off.
“Maybe it’s like a little bit of snow,” I said. “Maybe winter is coming, and the trains are bringing food to the villages before the snow makes it impossible to travel.”
“Hmm. Alright, I guess that will work. I’ll let you off this once, but you have to look after my model, you hear me? It’s precious. It needs care, gentle care. My sons didn’t know how to care for it. Young people these days. I tried and I tried to show them but they never listened. Worse, they wanted to tear it down. Can you believe it? Tear it down! Hack it up like it was nothing more than kindling!” The old man’s voice caught in his throat and he fell silent. He patted one of the engines as if it was a cat. “Kindling,” he repeated to himself.
“Who are your sons?” I asked with a frown. Were there more people in the house we didn’t know about?
“Oh they’ve left now. They sold the place a while ago. That’s the one benefit of being dead, you know. It’s much easier to be persuasive.”
I nodded, not entirely sure what he was referring to, and entirely sure I didn’t want to find out.
“You seem like a nice family,” he added. “You seem like a family that might look after things.”
“Celine! A table!” called my mother from downstairs. (This is, by the way, the french for dinner time, although it also works for lunch.)
“I have to go,” I told the man. “It’s dinner time.”
I went to push the panel back into its compartment, when he grabbed my wrist. His touch was cold, like autumn mist, and all I felt was a slight pressure where his hand was.
“Don’t let them turn my masterpiece into kindling,” he said urgently.
“Your parents. Don’t let them tear it down.”
“I don’t know if I can tell them what to do. I’m only a kid.”
“Of course you can. Play with the train. If you play with it, they’ll leave it alone. But you have to be gentle with it.” He let go of my wrist and ran his hand over a cluster of house. I wondered if he could even feel anything beneath his fingers. “Tell your brothers to be careful with it too,” he added.
“Celine!!” called my mother.
“I really have to go,” I said, “or I’ll get in trouble. I’ll put the train away now, but we’ll come back and play with it later. Or maybe tomorrow.”
I picked up the edge of the panel, and the man stepped back, his eyes following the model as I pushed it back into its compartment. Once I had finished, I turned around to tell him again that I’d be back later, but he was gone.
“Hello?” The room was empty. I stepped out into the corridor. “Hello? Mister?”
My mother called for me to come down again and I hurried downstairs. As I ran down the steps I wondered if I should tell my parents that we had a ghost in the house.
This story is partly true: we did move into a house that had a large model train built into a wall. It was awesome. I never came across the ghost who had made it though, if there even was one.