Tommy Hartford ran the trains, and had done so his entire life.

As had his father, and his father, and even his grandfather before him.

He was 16 when we worked on his first locomotive, a giant gleaming heap of metal and steam capable of such grand speeds as 100 mph. He proudly sat at the helm of the train every day, pulling that horn thing.

Helm? Cockpit? And what’s that horn thing called? It was a vintage-y thing, y’know? One of the chain things where the lever goes back and it goes, like, WAHHH-WAHHH.

I don’t really know. I’ve always despised trains. Ever since he died, I’ve tried to go everywhere by bus or by boat or by car, just not by goddamn train. But ultimately, it wasn’t the trains that killed him.

I like to think a psychotic break killed Gramps or something, the result of working 70 years on the tracks without any kind of retirement plan and all his money slowly being panned away into alcohol. Every week, nine bottles of Highland Whisky in the recycling bin.

But I know it wasn’t that. I’d rather it was that, if I’m honest. But it wasn’t.

Because he was also so chipper when he first started, you know? And he loved trains so much. He knew all the makes, the models, the engines, steam, diesel, electric-diesel. My grandfather could have told you the exact colour palette of the buffet cars, along with the person that likely made the decision.

I remember being five, sitting in a dining car and pushing train food around my plate when my grandfather looked down and me and said, “Cerulean 8. Chosen by Hans Zellwig, who often picks out the decor for British Trains, especially LNRs out of the big four.”

He didn’t have dementia. His liver or kidneys never failed, despite his drinking. I mean, he drank so much water you’d be surprised he didn’t drown.

Depression wasn’t it, either. Although, perhaps it kind of was.

The day after it happened, I was in the attic rummaging through a bunch of old stuff. I hoped to find an odd souvenir or two. Sounds awful, but I was hoping for a cool medallion or some sort of neat signet ring. Girls like guys who wear those. Like tribal tattoos or piercings or stuff.

I know I should feel bad, but Grandpa always acted oddly towards the end of his life, and none of us really enjoyed travelling over to his little home, even though it was only two streets away.

Besides, he wasn’t the grandfather I grew up with and loved at the end of it all.

Anyway, I’m rummaging through this stuff and I find a bunch of fairly recent stuff that Tommy had hidden. Science-y stuff, you know? Charts, maps, data graphs. And it looks really boring until I realised he’s made all these notes and indentation in the margins.

Something was happening to him, clearly, and he was trying to make sense of it all.

There was a lot of boring stuff. Surveyor maps, information focusing on train speed, the changes to tracks over the years, but there were a few pieces dotting the otherwise drab stuff that made me perk up a little bit.

In particular, an almost unknown university publication from the mid-80’s about transportation and space-time: “EXPLORING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DISTANCE AND TIME IN COMMERCIAL AND PRIVATISED VEHICLES THROUGHOUT URBANISED HISTORY.”

Thrilling stuff, I thought. But as I continued reading, there were paragraphs roughly circled that my grandfather seemed to have developed an obsession about.

Temporal displacement, on an individual level, could arise by the stacking up of thousands of milliseconds if an individual were to run or jog for the duration of their entire life without stopping. Obviously, whilst this is impossible, there may be some evidence that it could occur. Strangely, no temporal phenomena has been observed in pilots or astronauts. The existence of a “time-layer” in the upper atmosphere has been debated by secular scholars for decades, but something between the atmosphere and the ionosphere, precisely 32,000 feet above sea level, seems to negate any time dilation. (The level of a commercial jet, coincidentally.)

There was a few notes that Grandpa had made in the margins, but little of them made sense. They kept going on about speed and time, speed and time.

“Faster and faster, towards the hole!” was one such note, alongside the speed of the upcoming electric rails in many Japanese, Russian, U.K., and U.S. railways.

He wasn’t well close to the end. He was not mentally well at all. And I hoped it would be some sort of thing whereby he’d cracked the Enigma code, but I gave up when I realised that the numbers likely meant nothing. Just the pennings of a man who routinely walked out of his own home without his trousers.

There was another circled section on the next page:

Depression, self-harm, and even suicide is notoriously common in long-haul truck drivers and train conductors compared to pilots or sea captains. Bizarrely, most truck drivers and train conductors claim a higher quality of life compared to their sea or airborne counterparts.

Below that:

:) :( On the other side! On the other side of the journey, it’s good, though!

Grandpa always came in absolutely beaming from ear to ear after a long day of running back and forth on trains.

But when he went off to work in the mornings, it was if he was being sent on a death march.

Around 2009, he had a strange episode where he spent all his time on the train and didn’t seem to come home very much. I must have been about 13 back then, and I just remember Mum and Dad getting pretty worried about him.

They worried it was a repeat of 2008. He came home happy and content, but over his case of Stella Artois (this was before he went heavy, and way before we moved him out to his own rotten bungalow), he happily told us all how he’d seen a legion of men in suits, all checking their watches or merrily swinging their briefcases, walk onto the tracks.

Apparently, there’d been an explosion of gore, tendons, and limbs buried under the unrelenting train. A haze of bloodied fog as the slurry painted the entire train crimson.

There’s a September 2013 article printed out and pinned underneath the publication. Just one month before we had to send him out by himself for acting too weird and refusing a retirement home.

“Global Financial Crisis of ’08 Caused 5,000 Suicides”

But he was almost normal sometimes, and that was what made it hard.

Even when we visited, he’d be smiling, completely 100 percent okay. The flat would look cleaner, or he’d done some tidying.

And then, the conversation would start towards trains, and suddenly the entire conversation would derail.

…Get it? Derail? Ah, fuhhgedduboudit.

He’d just start talking about holes, and whilst we were pretty sure he means tunnels, I don’t know now. Dark holes, he said. Black holes?

I stopped wondering because it became more important to look after him. A clean house and he’s smiling, but he’s pouring an entire teapot into a teacup, the mail is in the fridge, and the toaster has been immaculately filled with orange juice without a single drop spilled on the gleaming formica.

It was 2017 when it really, really got balls to the wall crazy.

So he’s been a conductor for his entire life, 80 years of service, complete with shitty rubber pin for his uniform, and goes up to the stationmaster with big dark circles under his eyes and starts rambling about the trains today.

Pretty normal. He always bothers other passengers or train managers or just about anyone who’ll listen what happened to the trains yesterday. Only now he’s rambling about what they’re going to do.

And he just hands him this big block of paper.

Just one big ol’ list of train times, delays, the causes of the delays, and even the exact amount of time each train will be delayed by. In thousands of pages of scrawling.

The stationmaster flicks through the pad, and there’s even other things that are apparently going to happen as the conductors and passengers are itinerant. A carjacking here, someone losing a mobile there.

And the stationmaster laughs. Because he thinks it’s a prank, he takes the block up to his office and forgets about it.

Goes back to it the next week.

Checks the schedule and news.

Has a nervous breakdown and is institutionalised.

It’s one thing to guess an event. Anyone can be a psychic; it’s just guesswork and probability.

He guessed 2,348 events that occurred in a 24-hour period.

And it got weirder. He’d demand tracks were moved and trains were rescheduled and then, when refused, simply sat back as horror unfolded. Sometimes a mugging or a stabbing. Once an entire train derailed, killing 30.

He was let go after that.

But it wasn’t the end of it. He’d keep having weird swings, I’d visit his house, and after scraping three slices of burned toast out of his slippers whilst he whistled merrily and spread jam all over his conductor outfits on the ironing board, he’d tell me snippets.

Once he told me to walk home a certain way, and I would only to find out later that a fence had fallen down, or he’d ask me about people and places long since gone. Once he asked if Clinton was going to be elected.

“Hillary?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “Bill.”

“What year is it, Grandpa?” I’d asked.

“Oh, it’s between 1992 and 2031,” he’d replied, as if I’d asked what day of the week it was and he wasn’t sure if it was Saturday or Sunday.

“Are you sure it’s not 2032?” I asked, jokingly.

And he looked me dead in the eyes and replied: “Of course not. There is no 2032.”

And then he looked down at his jam-smeared uniform and started to weep.

There was no real lucidity, no way to get anything out of him unless he wanted to tell you. I tried to bring it up other times, but he’d avoid the question and once gave me a string of numbers that meant nothing to me.

That was, until I checked the lottery numbers later that week and howled in anger.

Perhaps he was trying to bribe me to not talk to him about it?

It’s impossible to say.

Eventually, he went back to work. Late in the early hours of Monday, June 21st, 2019. 3:03 am.

He walked straight on to the tracks. There’s apparently CCTV footage, but we’re not allowed to see it. Just walked onto the tracks. Sat down. Crossed his legs. Smiled and breathed in the morning air.

He looks peaceful, almost tranquil, as the freighter thunders over him.

I doubt he felt anything.

It’s now October. The leaves are strewn over tracks long since cleaned.

I didn’t want to be here, man. But the bus is out of order, my car has broken down, and both Mum and Dad sold their Civic to pay for funeral expenses.

I’m trying to write an eulogy, but all I can do is write his story.

I can make something up on the way to his burial.

And he was a lovely man. Always had time for you, would happily lend you a fiver if he had it, and he loved us all. When he was good, he once took us the whole family out for a meal at a fancy restaurant and had saved up for months.

On his fridge, there’d always be a list of things I’d asked for Christmas or my birthday and how many hours he’d need to work in order to get them. Game consoles he couldn’t pronounce, toys he couldn’t understand. All for me.

And I loved him too. With all my heart.

I can hear it coming. And, you know, it really does make that sound when you pull the horn thing.

It’s pulling into the station now.

My name is Simon Hartford.

And it’s time for me to catch my train.