Garth has an unusual talent and like all unusual talents, it doubles as a curse. That’s the way it’s meant to work isn’t it?
You see Garth can predict how near something is to breaking. That rusty swing in the park? Still 21,638 arcs left before the iron oxidises enough for that bottom-left link to come away from the seat. That toaster? Only 252 more slices of burned-black toast (that’s the way that Garth likes it) will pop up from that old, chrome warrior.
Garth’s gift wasn’t much use in school, and he wasn’t much use in exams (although it was very handy knowing exactly when your pen would run out). On a visit to the job centre his epiphany struck. It was one of the adverts that had been on the wall for some time, the paper turning yellow like Autumn apples (still three days left to eat what was in his fruit bowl, he reminded himself). Railway engineer. Sure, the pay was crap and the hours crappier, but imagine the work he could do!
It didn’t take long for Garth’s talent to become apparent. After a year, he was counting down sleepers, fishplates, fasteners, and spikes. Safety concerns became a thing of the past on the East Coast Main Line, delays non-existent. Garth’s ability became the stuff of canteen legend, a man whose story was used to initiate new recruits.
Anyway, onto the curse part. Because that’s what you’ve been waiting for really, isn’t it? The other reason Garth works on the tracks is because it’s lonely. Flesh is no barrier to his ability; he can see the life left in a person as easily as he can see the rings in a felled oak tree. It’s quantifiable, and once he has that number in his head Garth finds it difficult to look a person in the eye. No. This way is better. Iron and rust and copper by moonlight.
Garth’s downfall begins with a woman who disembarks on Durham Railway Station. He is tired from checking tracks all night, but when he sees her, big brown eyes, chestnut hair, unsure of what platform she is on, his red-raw eyes feel as though they will pop out of their sockets. He stares for so long that the train leaves without him. It does not matter. He must speak with her. Somehow, he must find a reason.
She is queuing at the enquiry office, her tickets held in front of her mouth, glancing up at the Victorian-style clock every few seconds. Surely, if his count were to go on forever, he would never find such a beautiful girl again. Without thinking, he joins the queue behind her. That is when he notices the count. It cannot be correct. He checks again. Perhaps he is tired – too many sidings examined last night. He rubs his eyes and checks once more. No. The count was not wrong. It never is.
Later on that day, at a lonely stretch of track between Acklington and Alnmouth, Garth feels cool metal against his cheek as he rests his head against the sleeper. If he has timed this right, they will count down together.
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