The internet had killed the mail-order business and I was broke. I had to go back to Big Frank Metcalfe and beg for a job.
“You know I can’t use you David,” he said. “You’re a loose canon. A maverick.”
“I’ve changed,” I promised him. “No more fancy stuff. Nothing avant-garde. I hardly care about perfection at all these days.”
“You were the best railway modeller I’ve ever seen.”
“Times change. These days it’s all computer simulations and Thomas the Tank Engine. Nobody’s interested in the craft anymore.”
He stroked his chin.
“Well, there is this one job…”
Harry Silver was an East End boy made good. He’d built his fortune in the seventies and eighties the old-fashioned way – by importing and selling illegal hardcore European pornography. After his fifth marriage collapsed he’d started on his dream project: a thousand-foot-square, ‘OO’-scale model railway layout running the length of his eighteen-bedroom stately home in the Cotswolds.
Everyone in the modelling community knew about it. An exact recreation of the entire London East End railway network on one particular June evening in nineteen-fifty-five. Every line. Every station. Every street. Every house.
Some of the biggest names in the business had been working on the thing for months.
“The man’s insane,” said my new room-mate, Jimmy ‘The Fingers’ McIlroy, as I unpacked. We’d been given a third-floor room in the mansion’s east wing, with a spectacular view of the estate’s fifteen-hundred-acre landscape. “He just keeps demanding more and more details. It’s impossible.”
Every railway modeller has their speciality. For some it’s crafting anatomically-correct trees, or geologically accurate topography, or architecturally exact buildings. For Jimmy it was fine detail work – as long as he was drunk enough to stop his hands shaking.
And for me it’s creating fake water. Ultra-realistic streams, rivers, canals – which Harry Silver’s East End layout had a number of – made from clear resin and paint. Applied layer on painstaking layer. You could get lost in the unknowable depths of one of my model lakes, or see your entire childhood reflected in the surface of an artificial puddle I’d fashioned.
It took less than three days for Harry Silver to decide I was indispensable.
Despite what you might suspect, the railway modelling community is a broad church. Among the usual parade of beautiful misfits and misunderstood geniuses, our team included retired wing-commanders, former bare-knuckle boxers, even a maths teacher who was transitioning from male to female.
“We’re the last practitioners of an utterly absurd art,” was how Jimmy put it, during one of his rare lucid moments. “We’re the keepers of a sacred trust.”
And so together we spent our days working with epoxy and flock, balsa-wood and wire, polystyrene, putty, and plaster, all in pursuit of a perfect, miniature universe. In the evenings we’d sit out on the veranda drinking beer and trying to re-adjust our eyes to the scale of the real world. The purple sunsets over the hills looked like the most beautiful background paintings we’d ever seen.
“The tiny sublime, gentlemen,” was what Harry Silver kept telling us. “What we’re after is the tiny sublime.”
I’d heard all about the daughter before I met her. Juliet. How Silver had adopted her shortly before his second divorce. How she hadn’t left the grounds of the estate in over thirty years. How she drifted through the house in the middle of the night like a ghost, randomly frightening innocent members of the modelling team.
The first time I saw her she was wearing a torn ballgown and aiming a bow and arrow at me from the far end of one of the second floor corridors.
“Wait,” she shouted.
I did as I was told, expecting her to lower the bow. Instead she let go an arrow. It stuck in the wall behind me with a ‘thunk’.
“Was that necessary?” I said.
But she’d already gone.
A few days later I was working on some particularly tricky surface water detailing when she appeared behind me. “I need your help,” she said, and walked out of the room. It turned out that the lid on one of her ancient jewellery boxes was sticking. I got my tools and sat down at the desk in her study. The walls were lined with first editions of children’s’ books.
“Pretty stupid way to make a living,” she said, watching as I worked at one of the hinges.
“I’m not the one in a pirate costume who hasn’t left home in thirty years,” I said.
“My whole life is an act of artistic creation,” she said. “I’ve had to make sacrifices”.
A catch released somewhere and the box sprang open. Inside was a sealed envelope.
“A treasure map?” I said.
She took the envelope and turned it over. There was nothing written on either side.
“A clue,” she said.
By three months into the job we were all pulling twelve-to-sixteen-hour days. The pressure was getting to everyone. Decades-long grudges between aficionados of obscure modelling techniques and long-forgotten track gauges were starting to show. There were arguments and veiled threats. Tiny, obscene graffiti was found scrawled on railway sidings and bridges.
Meanwhile Jimmy was getting through two bottles of amaretto a day, and the mysterious Juliet’s behaviour was becoming more and more challenging. Pre-dawn ambushes were now a regular event, and a number of team members – who found women terrifying at the best of times – were threatening to quit.
I went to talk to Mr Silver. He was on his balcony hitting golf balls toward the lake.
“This whole landscape was man-made, you know,” he said. “The lake. The river. It’s all fake. They dug it out by hand in the seventeen-hundreds. Took thirty years. Nearly bankrupted the owner.”
I considered this for a while.
“What do you think he was trying to capture?” he said. “What was so important to him?”
I said I didn’t know. Silver turned and looked at me then, as if noticing me for the first time.
“Juliet lost her childhood before she was two years old,” he said. “Is it any wonder she’s spent the rest of her life trying to recreate it?”
After that we started wearing hard hats and protective goggles whenever we had to venture upstairs.
There’s a rare sensation you can sometimes get where you feel nostalgic for a moment in time even while it’s still happening. Call it an epiphany. A state of grace. If pushed I’d say that’s what I’d always been after in my model work. That the trains were just an excuse. That I wanted to recreate the colour of a perfect afternoon, the way the light fell, and hold it forever.
If only I’d been able to stay off the drugs I might have had a chance.
Silver realised we were burning out before we did. It should have been obvious. Rival camps had each taken over a wing of the house, and set up checkpoints and passwords. There were acts of sabotage – points interfered with, tiny plastic figures tied to the tracks – and a couple of fist fights. After a near-disastrous derailment it was decided that no-one should be left on their own with the layout at any time of the day or night.
And I’d spent three weeks on a Ketamine and amphetamine-sulphate bender, obsessively applying and reapplying the sheen on a two-centimetre stretch of fake wet pavement.
In retrospect the last thing we needed was a party.
I had to hand it to him, though, he knew how to spend money. There were marquees. A stage. Circus elephants and firework displays. We raced speedboats and had waterskiing lessons on the lake. There was even a parachute jump from Silver’s private helicopter at dusk. We all took it in turns to be strapped to an instructor and thrown out into the endless blue. Below us the world looked ridiculous.
Jimmy threw up all the way down.
I found Juliet in the maze around midnight. She was dressed in a spacesuit.
“Didn’t you ever wonder what it’s like?” I said. “Outside?”
“What’s it like?” She said.
I thought about it.
“There you go,” she said.
The climax of the party was Silver’s speech. He stood before his assembled team of magnificent rejects and social liabilities and praised us all.
“They say money can’t buy everything,” he declared, “but you’ve proved them wrong. In that house you’ve helped me recreate the landscape of my childhood. You’ve taken me home.”
Then Juliet got up on the stage. She was still wearing the spacesuit. She took the helmet off and stared at her father, as if trying to work out who he was. He waited.
“I’m your daughter,” she said.
“Of course you are,” he said.
“No,” she said, “I mean, I’m actually your daughter.” She handed him the envelope from the jewellery box. “I saw the birth certificate. I’m not adopted. My whole life is a lie.”
Silver took a deep breath.
“In my defence,” he said, “I was going to let you inherit everything either way. So I should get some credit for that.”
“You told me my father died rescuing a trainload full of people from a canal.”
“Well, exactly!” he said. “Who wouldn’t want a hero for a dad? You should be proud!”
“But you made it up! It’s not real!”
“Look at all this,” he said. “Do you think any of this is real?”
And then she slapped him.
“I’ve spent my whole life terrified of a world that doesn’t even exist!”
I was on my way to bed when I heard the trains running. I went into the library and found Silver at the controls with a glass of brandy and a cigar. It was a few minutes before dawn.
“Do you believe in fate?” he asked.
“I’m not sure what I believe in anymore,” I said. To be honest I wasn’t sure whether I was coming down off the acid or up on the MDMA.
“I believe in fate,” he said. “Why did I end up rich instead of in prison? With all the bad things I’ve done? Nah. Our paths are set from the start. I just thought I could give Juliet something better.”
We watched the trains running back and forth along their tracks.
“The only woman I ever really loved,” he said, “I lost when I was fifteen. Died in a train crash on a perfect summer evening. Train went into the Limehouse Basin.”
I got it.
“June. Nineteen-fifty-five,” I said.
“You can’t change your future,” he said. “The only thing you can do is keep trying to rewrite the past.”
As far as anyone could tell, the fire started behind the pie and mash shop. An overheating transformer set the cardboard roof alight and within minutes the whole street was ablaze. The gasworks went up next, sending a shower of molten plastic onto the bus depot and incinerating the queue for ‘The Ladykillers’ outside the Empire cinema. Then the conflagration moved off toward the docks.
It was the blitz all over again.
The last time anyone saw Silver alive he was desperately trying to prevent the fire from spreading across the Mile End Road, uprooting flaming trees and burning buildings with his bare hands, looming out of the toxic clouds festooned with strings of telephone wires and tiny streetlights like a Cockney Godzilla.
Then the poisonous smoke and heat beat everyone back out of the house, and he was gone.
By the time the fire brigade got things under control it was late morning. Juliet was sitting by the pool wearing a firefighter’s jacket and smoking a cigarette, her face black with smoke. Half the house was toast.
“He never had a chance,” I said.
“Nobody does,” she said. “But that’s no excuse.”
“What are you going to do now?” I said.
“Thinking I might see the world. You?”
“Thinking I need to take Jimmy to rehab,” I said. “And possibly myself.”
She got up, flicked her cigarette into the pool.
“Come find me when you get out,” she said.
“Where will you be?”
She thought about it.
“Somewhere imperfect,” she smiled. “Somewhere big. Somewhere where the trains don’t go.”
[Originally performed at the fantastic Liar’s League]