“You may have heard of my nickname?”
Of course I had, but the thought of sitting across from someone of such importance and saying, “Yes, you’re the Fat Controller.” felt a bit risky. Too risky. I’m here to do an interview, part of a feature on the Island of Sodor for a newspaper…I don’t want to upset him already.
“I’ve heard of it.” I reply, “But I can imagine you’re not very keen?”
“Well, lad, when you look like this, it’s the least you can expect!” He pats his stomach, laughing heartily. His pocket watch is jumping up and down as his body almost bounces with his laughing. He takes off his top hat to reveal a bald head that reflects any and all light that hits it. Looking around the office, there are numerous pictures of old steam trains on the walls as well as one on his desk; a picture of him stood next to a blue train with the number one on it. It strikes me that he is in every picture, next to every train, but there is only one picture of any other person, an older woman, sat on a chest of drawers in the corner of the room.
He leans over and stretches out his large right hand, “My name is Sir Topham Hatt, it’s a pleasure to introduce you to our island. I’m sure you’ll absolutely love it here.”
I’d heard several stories about Sir Topham; a strict task master who believed very much in the older things in life and was reluctant to change. It was easy to sense that this was true. Wearing a three piece suit with a top hat, running the island’s public transport system primarily with steam engines…he had made this little island feel like a different world. I introduced myself and explained that I would be on the island for a few days, exploring the sights and focusing on the absolutely unique aspect of Sodor; the public transport.
“What I’ll really be looking at and writing about,” I tell Topham, “is the fact that all of the vehicles on this island communicate and have characters. There’s nowhere else like it, I know that nobody has found out how the trains talk but…”
“But nobody ever will.” Sir Topham Hatt sits back in his chair and stares at me. His eyes had turned beady, his fingers were interlocked resting on his stomach. “It’s the island’s secret, my boy. Sodor needs it to stay that way.”
I don’t know how to respond. He maintains a stare on me, awaiting a response. I look at him bemused until he eventually lets out a booming laugh, his whole body shaking, the pocket watch now essentially floating in mid air.
“If people knew how they worked, everybody would do it! This way we keep tourism alive on Sodor. These trains, buses and other vehicles are what make Sodor so special. I’ll never give the secret away. I’d have to kill you if you ever found out!”
The laughter was louder than any laughter I’ve heard, but nothing funny had really been said. There was a knock on the door and Sir Topham was advised that his next appointment was waiting for him. It was a family with a young boy, Phillip, who was suffering from a serious terminal illness.
Sir Topham became suddenly very serious. “This is why I can’t tell the secret. For this boy, this dying boy, the magic of this island will give him a smile. If people knew, then the magic is gone.” Sir Topham stands up and walks to the door, holding it open for me. “Enjoy your few days. We will have to meet over a brew on Wednesday afternoon.”
No handshake, just a nod. I walked through the door and looked at the young boy, Phillip, and his parents. Phillip looked around 7 years old and was holding a green toy train with the number 68 on it. He looked excited. By contrast, his parents looked as though they had been crying. His Mother looked at me. Her eyes were completely blood shot. Sir Topham summoned them in to his office. “The number 68 train? I might have one just like that.” He picked the boy up, everybody walked in the office and I heard the door lock.
It was 1.15pm, I opted to go to the cafe on the platform for some lunch. Sitting by the window, I kept looking over at Sir Topham Hatt’s office. He was an intriguing character. One minute laughing, the next almost intimidating. I didn’t know how to take him. I also couldn’t imagine him being fun company for an ill boy. Sipping on my tea, my eyes gazed up to see the office door opening. The parents walked out, the Mother was sobbing uncontrollably. The Father put his hand on her lower back and practically forced her to run to the exit. The door closed, with no sign of Phillip leaving.
Ten minutes passed and the door opened again. This time it was Sir Topham Hatt, carrying his top hat in one hand and a briefcase in the other. As he stepped out he neatly placed his top hat on his head and then gave the briefcase to a train conductor. He closed the door and locked it, before leaving the train station.
Where was Phillip?
I woke up early, it was around 6am. I hadn’t slept too well. My mind was occupied with the thoughts of the family that had been to see Sir Topham after me. The sight of this poor woman leaving the office in floods of tears, the question of where the little boy had gone…he definitely didn’t leave with his parents and he definitely didn’t leave the office with Sir Topham…it was all I could think about.
I went downstairs to the hotel restaurant and set up for breakfast. The dining area was very old fashioned, keeping in with the whole feel of the island. You could hear the whistles of the steam trains through the open window. Sat above the breakfast buffet table was a framed picture of a magnificent steam train called Gordon.
“He’s a handsome engine, isn’t he?” The hotel owner noticed me looking. Removing the empty plates from my table, the elderly lady stopped and stared at the picture. She never removed her gaze when she said, “You should visit him. He’s the fastest engine here. He’s the best engine here; my Gordon.”
The plan for today was to travel by train, going to the main scenic locations on the island taking pictures of the sights I would see. I really wanted to ask about the boy from the day before. I grabbed my notepad, camera and pen and walked out of the hotel to the train station platform. One thing with Sodor is that the train stations are a stones throw from anything in the towns on the island. I started walking towards Sir Topham’s office when I heard a voice.
“Hello! You must be the reporter!” I looked around and was taken aback to see the number one blue engine looking at me with a smile. “Hello! You’re my special today! Sir Topham Hatt has asked me to show you all the sights of Sodor!”
This was incredible. How could a train talk talk? How could a train know who I was? Was this real? I walked towards the train and stared at this huge face staring back at me.
“You don’t say much, do you? He-he!” The train blew his whistle. “My name is Thomas and I’m the number one engine. Will my picture be in the newspaper?”
Nodding, I grabbed my camera and took a picture. All the stories I’d read hadn’t prepared me. I expected the mechanics to be clunky and obvious. I expected robotic voices…but this was nothing like that. It was as if I was talking to an excitable child. It just seemed impossible that any mechanism could create a machine that had such a character and personality.
Walking towards the carriages I noticed they also had faces, they both said hello and asked about the newspaper. I nodded again, climbing aboard and finding a seat. Thomas blew his whistle, told me to “hold on” and we were off. I looked out of the window and saw Sir Topham Hatt on the platform with a young girl, certainly no older than 10, walking towards his office. He looked up and noticed me, and proceeded to give a polite wave. I saw the young girl go in to his office and watched Sir Topham follow in behind her before we turned a corner and went down a siding heading towards the next village.
It was a beautiful, sunny day on the island of Sodor. Every village had areas full of picturesque beauty. The beach, although small, was a throwback to old English holidays. There were numerous children eating ice creams from cones, parents sat on sun beds reading broadsheet newspapers and novels. A blow up beach ball was bouncing along the sand. It reminded me of how my grandparents would talk about beach holidays.
“Come on!” Thomas said, “I want to take you to other places! I can go really fast, if you like? We could race Bertie when we see him!”
I took a few more pictures, and walked back towards Thomas. He was quite the engine, incredibly clean. As I began to step on to the carriage, another whistle sounded. I looked over and saw the same incredible train that I had seen in the picture earlier. It was Gordon.
Thomas whistled. “Hello Gordon! The Fat Controller gave me a special today. I am taking this reporter around the island showing him the sights of Sodor!”
“Well,” said Gordon, “He probably asked you to take him so he’d be able to take pictures. After all, I’d be far too fast for him to take pictures on and pulling the express is the most important job on the island.”
“Or maybe it’s just that I’m the number one engine and have more personality than you!” Thomas tooted his horn and let out a cheeky laugh before we started to set off again.
As we rode by, Gordon cried “Oh, the indignity!” and Thomas kept laughing. We travelled down another siding towards a tunnel – I was told this was Henry’s Tunnel, named because Sir Topham had a train named Henry bricked up in there for not following instruction – and came to a sudden stop.
“Cinders and ashes!” Thomas whistled hard and the brakes squealed. There were some cows on the tracks blocking our path. Thomas whistled to try to encourage them to move but eventually the driver stepped out instead and tried to see what he could do. I had to get this on camera. I jumped out of the carriage and walked up a small hill to get a decent shot. By the time I’d turned around, the cows had moved. I heard Thomas blow his whistle and watched him drive off without me.
My phone had no signal, so I waited by the track and waited for another train to come by. Eventually I heard a train coming and, looking down the track, saw a green engine with the number 6 on it heading my way. I waved at the train to flag it down and, thankfully, it stopped.
“This is a funny place to catch a train! We’d best not let the Fat Controller know I’m picking people up away from the platforms!” I jumped in a carriage. “I’m Percy, the mail engine. I take mail across the island. I’ve finished my jobs for the day but wanted to go to the steam works to see the new engine…would you like to come?”
I agreed to go. I figured it meant that I could get more pictures of the main Sodor attraction, it’s trains, and, maybe, find out how they made the trains have personalities, faces and character. The closer we got to the steam works, the more I noticed the sunny, blue sky begin to develop in to a smoggy, grey colour. There was a smell in the air that wasn’t usual for an area surrounded by steam engines. The smell reminded me of burning. I grew uneasy heading to the steam works, but couldn’t place why.
As we got to the Steam Works, the noise level grew as did the smell. It definitely wasn’t steam. What was it? It reminded me of something, I just wasn’t sure of what.
“Here he comes!” Percy exclaimed, and started tooting his whistle repeatedly. “Hello! Over here!”
A green and yellow train rode towards us, it had the number 68 on the side. I noticed Sir Topham Hatt was riding in the engine.
“Hello Percy.” Sir Topham acknowledged him, “I’d like to introduce you to our newest engine. This is Phillip.”
I stuck my head out of the window and looked at Phillip the train. The face had the same features as the boy from the day before. Phillip caught sight of me before Sir Topham and smiled before saying, “Hello again! It’s me, Phillip!”
I dropped my camera and stood open mouthed, before two train conductors appeared and pulled me off the carriage I was on. They dragged me towards Phillip, towards Sir Topham Hatt. His face was red and I could see a vein pulsing above his left eye.
“You shouldn’t be here. You should be with Thomas. You have caused great confusion and delay.” He looked at Percy, “You shouldn’t have picked him up. Take him back to Knapford Station and have him wait for me in my office.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” The train conductors lifted me by my arms back on to the carriage and Percy set off.
As we drove away, I heard Phillip say, “Say hello to Mummy for me and let her know I am so happy!”
The two conductors threw me on the seat at Sir Topham Hatt’s desk, and stood behind me, each with one hand on one shoulder each. They had a python like grip, I couldn’t move and if I tried they held me down harder. I looked around the room for an exit. There was one stained glass window looking towards the rail track and the door, nothing else. Then I saw something haunting.
Underneath the window was a small green leather sofa with a briefcase on it. The briefcase was open and inside was what looked like clothing. I had a flashback. The clothing was exactly the same as the clothing on the little girl that entered the office earlier in the day.
The door swung open and Sir Topham Hatt stormed past, sitting opposite me. He was still red. His eyes were as small as I had seen them, and they were practically completely black. His body was shaking but this time it wasn’t through laughing. He was in a rage. He told the train conductors to leave the room. As the second walked out I heard the door lock behind him.
Sir Topham looked at the open briefcase, “So I imagine you’re asking yourself just what is going on here today, yes?”
I nodded, sweat was beginning to run down my face.
“Those clothes belong to a delightful young Scottish girl called Emily. Emily has suffered with a rare form of bone cancer, Ewing sarcoma, for some time. It wasn’t diagnosed early enough and the cancer has spread.” He points his finger at me, “And do you know what is the most incredible thing about Emily? She still wants to go on. She wants to live forever.”
The green dress lay there, neatly folded, in the briefcase. I still couldn’t understand why it was there. Sir Topham banged a green toy train on the desk so hard it made me flinch.
“Emily gave this to me, so I gave it back to her.” He pulled a picture from his jacket pocket, showing him stood next to a green steam engine. The face was identical to the girl I saw yesterday.
“This is madness…how?!”
Sir Topham opened a drawer and pulled out a photo album. He places a picture on the desk in front of me. It’s old. It’s Sir Topham, much younger but still dressed in a black suit with a top hat, and a familiar looking little boy.
“Before I came here, I practiced magic and hypnotherapy. This picture is from 36 years ago, on my first visit to the island. I was putting on a show. The boy, there? Do you recognise him?” Sir Topham glared at me. I couldn’t place who it was.
A whistle sounded. I looked at the stained glass and could make out a blue engine outside on the platform.
“That boy…that boy is my son, Thomas. He, too, suffered with an illness that he couldn’t recover from. He had leukaemia. I was losing him. So, we came here, and I created a magic that would keep my boy alive forever and give hope to more in the same position. You need not lose a loved one in that way, no child needs to die. They can be here, they can live forever. All of my engines, all of my vehicles do.”
Sir Topham put a drink in front of me and called for the two conductors to re-enter the room. They held me down as Sir Topham took the lid off the bottle in front of me. I started to scream for help but nothing came. He forced the drink in to my mouth, a conductor pulled my head back and the liquid ran down my throat. I nearly choked. Some spluttered out. I asked what it was.
“I told you. The secret can never come out. We only offer to a select few. If we begin to fear the worst, if we begin to think somebody will say something, we take action like this.”
I lost all feeling in my body. I was conscious, but I couldn’t move.
“I put the souls, the blood of those children, in to those engines. They remember everything at first but, over time, like all children do, they forget. They drink this potion, like you have, they feel no pain, like you won’t. They go to the Steam Works, we incarcerate the body. I use my magic and we put that in to the new engine. They become the life of this island.”
The conductors open a hidden door under a rug that leads to a tunnel. I try to scream again but I can’t manage it. I can feel my heart beat slowing. I muster enough strength to say, “This…is…wrong.”
Sir Topham removes his hat and crouches down next to me. “It’s a shame you won’t finish that article. I’m sure your pictures were lovely. But, the magic of Sodor isn’t the engines, the magic is me. The miracle of Sodor are the engines. God give life, God take life away. On the Island of Sodor, I am God.”
The conductors pick me up and carry me in to the underground tunnel.
I lose consciousness.
It was a beautiful, sunny day on the Island of Sodor. Thomas was on his branch line carrying passengers, Gordon was steaming past pulling the express and Percy was delivering the mail on time.
At Knapford Station, a new engine called Emily pulled in and blew her whistle, excited to complete her special for the day. Sir Topham Hatt had assigned her the job of transporting some unwanted goods from the Steam Works to the docks, so Cranky the crane could lift them on to a boat and have them taken far away from the island.
The trains were happy, the passengers were happy, and Sir Topham Hatt was happy that his railway was running smoothly once again.