Jude stood on the simple wooden train platform, it was just long enough to accommodate a family of four, and just high enough to allow a father to hoist his children into the carriage doorway. Little more was needed, these days there weren’t more than a handful of families living in this remote extension of the community. His late father used to tell the story of his daddy buying the house there, how he told of the salesmen in their open-collar shirts with gold chains, wearing golf shoes had promised the world to families and retired couples. Jude remembered asking his father what “retired” meant.
His father had chuckled and said, “‘Retired’ is what people who thought they’d worked hard enough in their life did when they wanted to holiday for the rest of their lives”.
“So why aren’t you retired dad?” he remembered asking, still blushing at the insensitivity of his teenage inquisition of his father.
“Well son, in those days making money didn’t take work, it took luck, and if you were lucky, you could live off the money you made for twenty years or more. You could tell someone to invest your money in a company in China, and they would just make it happen, all with a few clicks on the computer, you didn’t even need to see the money or go to the bank to withdraw it”. The memory faded as he considered the blessings of his own little family, things were mighty different from when he was a boy – hardship was commonplace these days, life was just tougher and so were the people. His father was long gone, but the memories of watching this strong man work with his hands made Jude proud to be his son.
He turned his head as he heard the train whistle down the line, gathering up his pull cart, ensuring that the bags containing the produce were strapped down in the bed. “Not so bad”, he thought to himself, “only had to wait a couple of hours this time”. Today’s trip into town would be the first for the summer, his wife Ella and the children would stay home this time, there was still much work to be done around the homestead. He waved to the driver as the engine came into view, and heard the squeal of the brakes as the clickity-clack slowed to a walking pace, carriages whipping past in a blur of windows and faces. The conductor appeared at a door that stopped in front of the platform. They negotiated a price for the ride, this was a privately operated train on a railway that no longer received any attention from CPR. Instead a group of train owners employed local labour a couple of times a year to perform rudimentary maintenance to the track and right of way. It was an arrangement that had served the local population well for over a decade, it seemed unlikely that CPR would be back to claim their line any time soon.
The conductor helped him with the cart and he made his way to find a seat in the carriage’s interior as the train started again with a hiss of steam and a loud blow of the whistle. Jude’s senses were assaulted as the compartment door slammed behind him. A few faces turned his was to see who the newcomer was, but most remained focussed on their goods, or the conversation with their travel partners. First it was the smell, in one corner of the compartment, where the original designers had likely imagined long distance travellers placing their luggage for the duration of the journey, sat four very large pigs.
Some of the bridges between his stop and the town were obviously in bad shape, requiring the train to slow down to a crawl. Jude offered a silent prayer as his carriage made the precarious crossing, was it his imagination or could he hear the groans of the steel and timber members under the load of each wheel? He furtively looked around the carriage and could see some of the occupants engaged in similar upward-looking supplications to an unseen deity, apparently he wasn’t alone in his distrust of the maintenance capabilities of the Kootenay Railway Company. As the last wheels of the train passed from bridge to land, a collective sign of relief shifted the air within the carriage, at least Jude hoped that was the case- it was that, or the pigs had passed wind.
The whistle blasted out a mournful sound as they slowed, coming round the last corner into town. In his lifetime, the downtown had shrunk to what was manageable on your own two feet, most everything else had fallen to the wayside – not just because of transportation options for residents, but because there wasn’t enough stuff to sell, or money to buy it anymore either. The gas stations were gone, the car yards were cracked and full of noxious weeds, the buildings long abandoned. The railway was the last surviving safe link between the communities of this valley. Jude saw the new church across the way, he couldn’t remember what had been there before, some nondescript strip mall or warehouse-style big box store he guessed. At last the train shuddered to a stop, the momentum of each carriage fighting the couplings in a wave of noise and motion and the release of steam billowing out across the platform,the station master checking the arrival time on his pocket watch as though he was at Grand Central – it was not as though there was any other train expected to require the services of the platform today, however, it was the motions of a man who knew what was expected of him in his appointed position, even if the train was over two hours late.
Jude waited for the rush of people and animals to leave the carriage, collected his cart, made sure the bags of produce were secured. He marveled at the people, it had been almost two months since his first trip for the year, and it felt good to be back in town. He paused in the shade of the platform awning planning out his day, based on the errands he had to run and the meager handful of cash and coins he had in his pocket. First he would head down to the barbershop, a shave and a haircut were a luxury, but it was a necessary part of the journey to find out what’s making the news these days. Then he would swing by the general store for household supplies, the list that Ella had carefully written out was safely in his breast pocket, he’d checked it over as he waited for the train: cloth, needles, teapot, candles, sugar and salt; while he was there he’d pick out some candies for the children and search for a gift for Ella. The market would be the next stop, he needed to sell the carrots, beets, radishes and peas that were the excess from his first harvest, and hopefully pick up some early tomatoes as a surprise. The cobber was on his list – he looked down at the hole in his boot, he knew he had to get it fixed, or he would have to replace it soon enough. The stock yards would have quietened down by the time he got round there, he prayed that there would be some turkey chicks for sale and maybe a pig or two, there were a few birthdays coming up and Jude wanted to raise some fine animals for the celebrations.
He smiled to himself as he thought of the stories his father once told him, how people used to shop for fun, that they replaced games and family time with buying more stuff than they had room for in their houses. Today would be a good day, it was as much work as any of the other days of his life, but he knew the seasons bring new challenges and blessings, selling produce was a blessing. With a small hop, he shouldered the rope used to pull the cart and made his way off the station platform and into the bustle of downtown, he would be back to ride the train home tomorrow morning.