Doodlebug by Bill West

Geoffrey paints the plastic figure with a fine-point sable brush. The magnifying lens makes his calloused fingers look huge. They pinch the tiny figure of a schoolboy, a model-shop version of a WWII London evacuee with a label tied to his lapel; peaked cap, jacket and a tie with black and yellow stripes. Satisfied with his brush work he puts the finished figure in pride of place on the platform of the model railway station. He's careful not to topple the three figures waiting there: a man, a woman and a black and white sheepdog.

The man holds a shepherd’s crook and the woman wears a blue scarf over brown hair. Geoffrey has painted her lips red and made her cheeks appear rosy.

He sighs and picks up another plastic figure, ghostly grey -- a woman waving farewell. He wants to paint her too, give her colour, picture her face.

Some things he remembers -- the rocking of the railway carriage, the clatter of iron wheels over points, the wail of a steam whistle. The excitement. Endless hedgerows, telegraph poles appearing and disappearing, lines of trees. A pony bolts, clods flying from its hooves. It races along beside the train but is stopped by a gate. Green fields divided by lanes, flashes of water, a pond with ducks, a river winding away, disappearing beneath an archway of trees.

Long ago, down the twisting silver tracks, amongst the rows of houses with blown-out windows, burnt-out factories and bomb sites, his mother, wreathed in steam and smoke had waved goodbye.

He puts the figure aside, stands up and groans. His neck is stiff, his joints complain. He dims the overhead lights and flicks a switch on the control-panel. The windows of the model houses glow with yellow light. He turns a dial and the LMS 7412 model train hisses along the tracks and brings its passengers to the village and safety.

The little boy steps down from the train. The one-armed Billeting Officer calls his name and Molly greets him, leans close and takes his hand. She smells of lavender. They clamber into the pony-trap and her husband flicks the reins and makes a clicking noise with his mouth. They ride up the steep hill, past fields ofsheep, up to the tiny farmhouse where he sleeps in the cosy bedroom beneath the eaves.

Years later, after Molly’s funeral, Geoffrey will empty his bedroom and line the walls with a circuit of tables; glue railway track to a plywood base, make hills from chicken wire and plaster, a tunnel entrance of card, houses with electric lights, shops: grocers, butchers, newsagents with signs advertising Players Cigarettes and Bile Beans.

Outside a barn owl shrieks. He turns the control-dial anti-clockwise and the train runs backwards, out of the station, past the shops, under the window, around the chimney-breast with paintings of fields on the wall, and back into the darkness of the tunnel. The train stands still, humming in the dark.

It was on a Sunday after Chapel that Molly told him that his mother was dead. A flying bomb with a funny name -- Doodlebug -- had taken her away. After he'd wept she dried his eyes, took him into the parlour, where a fire burnt in the grate, gave him a heavy earthenware plate. She heaped it with sour milk pancakes, dribbled with honey from the coiled straw hives in the kitchen garden. She explained to him about bad men, bombs, Heaven and adoption. She cupped his cheek mid-chew.

Now he sits in his attic room and stares at a plastic figure of a woman. An old man trying to remember a face without a photograph, recalling memories of wartime, of iron and steam, and a woman waving a handkerchief, indistinct amongst wisps of childhood memories.


@ 2010 - West

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