‘Here I am, mate. In ‘ere. The Top Shed.’
I have to say, Eric looks quite content despite his condition, laid out on the bed long and straight as a railway sleeper, his head elevated on a bank of pillows, his gnarled hands coupled across his belly.
I’m wearing full PPE, so I rustle as I come into the room, waving like a friendly alien.
‘Oh – watch out!’ he says.
If I didn’t know Eric used to drive steam trains, I could’ve made a reasonable guess. It’s not just the memorabilia all around the room, the plaques and models, the faded black and white photos of men in overalls or civic chains, leaning in to shake hands against a background of gigantic engines and so on. It’s that taking him all in – his nineteen fifties black frame spectacles, the gap in his front teeth for holding his pipe, the deeply grooved lines in his face, sculpted by miles of cinder track, years of squinting out of side windows at a hundred miles an hour – well – he absolutely looks like one. All he needs is a neckerchief and a cap. And if it’s true the chassis has been somewhat reduced by age and illness, still it looks like there’s plenty of coke left in the firebox.
‘How are you bearing up?’ I ask him, setting my back down and smiling over the top of my mask.
‘Oh I’m alright!’ he says, cheerfully. ‘It’s you lot I worry about. What a time, eh?’
‘Tell me about it.’
We chat whilst I carry out the examination. He tells me about his long years on the railway, the different places he worked. London. Abroad.
‘’Course – it’s changed a lot now. There’s a lot more women drivers, for a start. Which is a good thing! We always used to have ‘em, of course, but not so many. I remember one ol’ gel. We called her Buckeye Bev. She was funny, she was. And strong? She was stronger ‘n me! She could put her shoulder under a coupling chain, lift it up, and lift the hook with her hands. You should try it sometime. It’s not easy!’
As if to demonstrate, I bend down to fetch something out of my bag. The masks we’ve been issued with are so flimsy and hopeless, it actually unhooks from around my ear and swings free of my face.
‘Oops!’ I say, straightening up again and putting it back in place. ‘Sorry! I’m like some kind of nursing clown.’
‘You’re alright,’ he says. ‘Don’t worry. I don’t reckon I’ve got this thing.’
‘Trouble is, without testing we’ve got no idea.’
‘Why in’t they testing, then?’
‘Who knows, Eric? I don’t think they’ve got the stuff. They test people in the hospital. But so far, out in the community, there’s not much happening. They’re trying to ramp it up. There’s just a shortage of kits.’
‘Poor planning,’ he says. ‘As per usual.’
After I’ve taken his blood pressure he straightens the sleeve of his dressing gown and laughs, a deep and wheezy chuckle.
‘Buckeye Bev!’ he says. ‘Blimey! I hadn’t thought about Buckeye Bev in forty years, and there she is, plain as I see you, uncoupling an engine with her bare hands. I tell you what – she was something else!’
My mask rides up when I smile.