SMOKE: The Ghost Train
Originally published: 8 July 2005
Ghost Trains. Excellent, man.
What happened to them? Do they still exist?
For all I know there are more Ghost Trains now than there ever were, clogging up our carnivals and fairs and bazaars and fêtes with their scary ways - the last time I went to any sort of outside event at all (other than my own wedding) was the Constantia Fair back in '87, and they sure as hell didn't have Ghost Trains.
Mind you, come to think of it - I've never, ever in my life been on one. How screwed up and unacceptable is that?
You're never going to believe this but I sat down to write this Smoke about Ghost Trains, fondly reliving my memories of them - but the moment I started trying to remember them I realised I didn't have any memories of them at all, since I've never been on one in my life.
It's what my sister was talking about - memories we have which aren't real.
Many's the summer I spent slumming it in Brighton and Hove, licking sticky ice cream cones and listening to the barrel organ operator with his pet monkey on his shoulder and watching the pierrot or harlequin perform silly tricks with his monocycle on the pier.
Yet I've never been to the UK, much less to Brighton or Hove. And frankly I don't have the faintest damn clue what the bloody hell a barrel organ is, or why there's always a monkey involved.
But my memories of it are all quite vivid, I assure you.
Whoah. Pause. Serious freak-out, man. Is that my dead brother staring at me from the ceiling? No - I don't have a brother. No, that's not right - I do have a brother. But he's not dead. Musta been an acid flashback.
Sorry - this article isn't going where it was supposed to go and now I'm cracking and paranoid about memories I have that aren't real, so let me rescue the situation by reverting to a very familiar memory of something that really did happen to me - involving a Ghost Train.
Back to safe ground. Things got a hairy for a minute back there - I trust you're all OK? Right. On we go.
It was my Ghost Train. Since my memories of Ghost Trains are so vivid I must have read a lot of books and seen a lot of visuals of them - I think there was a period in the 80s when quite a few movies with Ghost Trains came out, and I probably saw one of them.
So I decided to make my own one at home, with my sizable family as my audience. We were always encouraged to be creative as kids and many's the play or nativity that was staged for parents and siblings to much merriment and mirth.
So there was nothing unusual about one of us wanting to create a Ghost Train. What was unusual was the train itself.
Like so many of my childhood inventions and projects my train was doomed from the start, largely due to lack of cash flow and quality materials to construct it with.
I was also stymied as creative director because I couldn't think of anything frightening - even at that tender age I knew that one small kid leaping out of a cupboard wasn't going to scare anyone.
So I hauled in my younger brother and sister to assist and we set about converting their bedroom into a Ghost Train.
There were two beds without legs close to the floor, which we arranged to make a kind of pathway. I gave up on an actual carriage running on rails quite early in the process. I was a massively optimistic kid but I was learning from a very young age that sometimes the only option is simply to give up.
I'd had a birthday sometime previously and a rich kid had come round with a walking robot as a present. It was the grandest thing I had ever seen, although by today's standards even a dog would scoff at its inefficiencies.
It was about knee high and walked forward slowly. It was garish red, yellow and blue, and its head had a light which flashed on and off brightly.
I had my first scream-monger.
I also had a stick horse - a broomstick with the head of a horse on the end. My horse's face was bright red and I rigged the swine up to a tripwire so that it would fall onto you as you passed.
Finally I got my little sister, stuck a sheet over her head and gave her a torch to light under her sheet so that the whole thing would light up in a ghostly way.
Just before opening time I threw an old pair of toweling underpants which belonged to my brother over the head of the robot, and set him in place at the far end of the room.
It was dark. The key players were in place. The audience was shuffling nervously outside, many of them wishing they could just turn back rather than face the hellride.
I was the Ringmaster. I was Doctor Death. Come in, my pretties. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
I flung open the bedroom door to find my mother standing there struggling to hold her body together as she shook with uncontrolled laughter - and she hadn't even taken the ride yet.
My father was standing discreetly behind her with a more composed, serious expression, and my older sister - who had been excluded from the train organisations - was peering excitedly around the pair of them, craning forward to see.
In the most evil 10-year old voice I could muster I warned them all darkly about the perils they faced, and as per our agreed cue my little brother in the room hit Play on the old tape recorder, and my dad's Bird Calls of Southern Africa started to play.
I have no idea why - I just found birds quite dark and dangerous (I'd read the Hitchcock book and seen the black and white movie), and it seemed appropriate to have some sort of soundtrack to our spooky affair. Even if it was just a bunch of birds tweeting and burbling.
Then I grandly led the way in, urging them to shut the door quickly so that they would be in complete darkness. They did so and I instructed them to follow me as I started down the first corridor, on the far side of the room.
My brother was waiting with his underpant-headed robot, and as he heard us coming (it really was pitch black) he set the switch to ON and the robot started walking towards us, flashing through the undies.
The suppressed guffaws behind me had to find release somehow, and they did - my mother nearly screamed the house down with laughter. Not just laughing, you understand - that pent-up kind of forbidden laughter that you know you have to suppress but which you just can't.
When you finally decide to just go with it it's a thing of beauty, and that's what happened to my mother when she saw that ridiculous robot and its toweling underpants.
Not quite the reaction I was wanting, so I hastened them along to my next piece of work - the Ghost. My little sister managed to switch her torch on and there were renewed bellows from behind, but my sister - like my whole family - leans towards the dramatic, and she raised her arms and started gently cooing: "Ooooooh. Woooooo."
And her finest work was this utterly pure and genius utterance: "Woooo - I'm a goat."
She was only five, you understand.
A number of things happened very fast from there - my mother reached her finest hour and roared into the night, and this time my father joined in with bellows of joy. The huge noise confused the goat somewhat and she took a step backwards, triggering the Red Horse Head of Death.
At that precise moment her sheet fell off and the Red Horse Head of Death fell onto her and she screamed and tried to flee, but caught her shin on one of the low beds and collapsed with a howl of pain and terror.
Everyone just fell down onto the beds in a heap, shaking and crying uncontrollably. Somebody switched the light on and we all just laughed and laughed and laughed, as the stupid robot with his underpants bumped into the far wall and stopped there, knocking his head repeatedly.
I was a little devastated that it hadn't gone according to plan, but I had the bonus of having genuinely terrified my sister - my own employee - with the Red Horse Head of Death.
So it wasn't a total failure.
I guess that's why folks have families. It's the sort of inspired madness only a family can know, and I'm sure as hell glad I had one.
That shit's special, man.
All Smoked Out,