Peter Johnson was a tall man. Very tall. He was also very fair-skinned. And spoke perfectly weighted English in that oh-so propah accent. If he hadn’t peppered our first conversation with random bits of “ShaniyaNe”, “PunNaku” in guttural Madras Tamil, I would never have know that he was from Arakkonam.
Peter Johnson was a train driver. He liked to be called that and not the new, slightly upmarket term “loco pilot”, the Indian Railways likes these days. “Boy”, everyone was a boy to him, even his 10-yr old niece, “Listen to me. These fancy terms are for sissies and panzies. Loco pilot, it seems. Pfft. Our bloody engines don’t even have the power to get off a station, let alone fly.”
Peter Johnson liked his booze. Single Malts to be more exact. I asked him about it once. Over the loud clackety clack of the rails and the low hum of a traction motor inside a locomotive doing a steady 107kmph he explained. “My father was a bit of a rebel you see. He liked to piss my grandfather off by doing things that weren’t approved off. Expensive alcohol was one of them. Cheap saRRaKu, yes. But MacDugan Highland Malt? Strict no! I simply followed in his footsteps.” A mischievous wink sealing the conversation.
Did I mention Peter Johnson was tall? Yes. “Bloody designers, haven’t they come across anyone who’s 6’4”? I mean look at this control stand”, he pointed out at oddly shaped protrusion that held the brake lever. That box containing relays and electronics was making life difficult for him to stop the train properly. “Every time I try to apply the brakes, I feel like I am masturbating. Frankly ridiculous, boy, frankly ridiculous.”
Peter Johnson was also one of the most caring people I knew. When you ride the footplate as much as I did, you are bound to encounter a run-over or two. So it was on my first ever trip with him. On the Coromandel Express to Vijaywada. Approaching Ponneri, on the outskirts of Chennai, a middle-aged man in lungi and garish pink shirt, shuffling along the tracks, dragging his bicycle decides to cross. We honk continuously. 300 meters. The staccato blasts from the horn, loud and clear seems to have no effect on him. 200 meters. Inside the cab, I instinctively move back a few inches. 100 meters. Peter Johnson holds steady on the controller. “Get off the track, you deaf bastard”, he yells. 10 meters. The last millisecond the pink shirt turns, his eyes locked onto mine. Fear. Confusion. Death. The dull thud a fraction of a second later. I am stunned. Throat is dry and there is near instant vomit.
“Don’t you dare puke in my cab, boy, don’t you dare.”
“Aren’t you going to stop?”, I control the rising nausea and ask.
“Bollocks. What are they going to find? All I’ll do is report it to the station master and get on with it.”, the voice cold, calculated and experienced.
“As for you, boy, let me tell how to deal with it. First, get over the fact that we are guilty. Second, what you saw was real. So don’t put it in your dreams and think about it endlessly. It is cold, plain fact. Someone died 5 min ago. That’s all. Now, go to the rear cab, shove your head out the window and puke your guts out. It helps. Cry if you want to.”, a weird commanding genteelness has taken over his voice.
Of course, one doesn’t forget these things in a hurry. I cried a lot, puked a lot and didn’t eat very much for the next three days. He kept calling every six hours. “Boy, are you OK?” “Boy, do you want help?”
Five days later I meet him for dinner. He gives me a big hug. “You’ll be alright, boy, you’ll be alright.”