In the drab morning light the rollercoaster resembled a pile of scaffolding, hastily assembled and left to rust by the river. But to the brakeman it was a work in progress, something yet to reach its potential, rather than the functional but dilapidated structure other staff members saw. While they were boarding trains to get to work he and the operator were already there, sipping squeaky cups of coffee and having a quiet smoke while inspecting the machinery. Preparing the ride for customers was like rousing a great bony beast; the escalator chains rattled to life, the hydraulics warmed and sputtered, and the cars, their covers prised off like quilts from a drowsy child, clattered unburdened around the track. The brakeman and the operator surveyed their progress with the absorbed concentration of new parents.

Twenty minutes before opening their co-workers arrived. Two of them, just young blokes, lounged on the turf beside the control panel. Sylvia sat down on the wooden ledge where soon customers would be waiting. The sleeves of her shirt (jester’s pattern, to be ironed daily) were casually rolled up over her arms, and her trousers (black, jeans strictly forbidden) tight around her thighs. The brakeman wore his uniform with disdain; lean and sun-crisped, he liked to tell people that the creases matched his wrinkles. He crouched by the belly of the red car.

‘Reckon the dog and the mushroom need a bit of work,’ he said. ‘Some elbow grease. Lately she’s been flying around.’

The operator, a short man with glasses and a limp face, knelt down to examine its components.

‘Maybe this arvo,’ said the brakeman, wiping his hands on the oily rag. He undid the blue car’s seatbelts by inserting the tip of his little finger into the pinhole on the belt buckle. Lately it was running slow.

‘Get some weight behind it,’ he said, and nodded for someone to climb in. Sylvia volunteered, and the brakeman took his position. On the unloading platform he was almost as inevitable a presence as the splintering beams placed at intervals along the brake run. Standing by the lever that controlled the second, and main, brakes immediately in front of him, he watched as the blue car took off from the starting planks. It struggled on the labyrinth and inched its way over devil’s peak. Sylvia shrieked and carried on even as it timidly negotiated the twist and the brakeman struggled to contain his contempt. She was panting and sprawled out on the seat when the red car made a premature stop on the first brakes ten metres along the platform. He adjusted the rope that controlled the minor brakes, hooking it taut over a nail beside him. Then he pulled the car free, and walked it around to where the others stood on the turf.

‘Take it off,’ he said, ‘It’s gunna stall up there.’

With practised synchronicity the brakeman and the operator flipped a latch with their feet and slid the first section of the main track underneath the wooden ledge. Into its place they extended the detachable half of the small oval track that sat behind it on the turf. The blue car with the lazy eye was transferred onto the maintenance track, exiled from duty.

The trickle of people advancing through the turnstile soon became a torrent. In an age of steel coasters a wooden railway was considered quaint, with thrills provided by hairpin bends rather than full loops, but among the small collection of rides by the river it was the most popular attraction. The brakeman kept his eyes flickering between the oncoming cars and the growing queue. Kids on the ledge were still fighting over the red car, the ‘mean one’, when a small boy clambered in.

As the car accelerated up the rise his face was suspended precariously between fear and joy, easing into defiance once the car levelled with the brakes one and a half minutes later. Then he pulled on his hat before the car came to a complete stop. The brakeman leaned forward and began to explain the consequences of inadvertently activating one of the track’s sensors, and was greeted by a petulant flash of tongue. Sylvia smiled indulgently as the boy scrambled to get out of the car. Instinctively the brakeman reached for the lever. Its smoothness was familiar, the varnish worn off mostly by his hand; it was the flagpole that marked his territory.

‘Those sensors are electronic,’ he blurted out as the boy fled down the stairs that exited onto the midway.

‘These new models all have computerised brakes. They get machines to do the work.’

Behind him, one thumb jammed in her ear for the noise, Sylvia rested her arm on the crossbeam. It was the only thing separating them from devil’s peak, and the sharpest drop of the ride, to their left. The brakeman didn’t have to turn around to know that she’d be restlessly tapping the pin against the rusting wood.

‘The other day, when I worked up here with-‘

‘Who?’

‘The other guy who sometimes does the brakes. Can’t remember. But he stops the cars side-on so he can still have a conversation.’

‘This way you can see everything,’ said the brakeman, still facing forward and trusting that his voice would carry. ‘There’s a lot that can go wrong up here.’

‘This must be the most boring job,’ said Sylvia. ‘At least on the loading platform you’ve got someone to talk to.’

He fixed his eyes on the black car rolling towards them, calculated the amount of resistance needed to ensure its smooth passage over the brakes.

‘That looks pretty easy,’ she said.

Then he pushed the lever forward so the brakes were at full capacity, positioned his feet.

‘Harder than it looks, but.’

‘When do you think I’m going to learn the brakes?’

The wheels of the approaching car came into contact with the slats of wood adjacent to the track, and the resulting friction halted the car. Guiding the lever as it bounced in his hand, the brakeman stepped back with the car as it rolled off the brakes, stepping on Sylvia’s foot in the process.

‘First thing you can learn to do is to give me some room.’

The day grew hotter. A lack of clouds made the silty river look clear and refreshing. Music boomed faintly from the dark innards of the dodgem hall below. Down on the midway the line for the Ferris wheel reached all the way to the carousel. The smell of fried food and curdling sweat was remarked on, and then forgotten. Passengers now began to complain about the scorching leather seats as well as the fact they thought they were going to fall off the ride.

‘It’s a trick,’ explained the brakeman. Behind him Sylvia chipped away at the wood.

‘The cars are deliberately built too wide for the tracks,’ he said, a magician revealing his tricks to an unwilling apprentice. ‘Gives a feeling of instability.’

Black after orange after yellow after red after green, the cars came dashing along the straight. Painted in the space where the headlights should have been, the eyes gave each one a different personality. It was a gimmick, the brakeman suspected, cooked up on Level Three to distract attention from the neglected state of the rides. Like the Ferris wheel gondolas that became ever more garish while inside the seats crumbled and peeled.

Through spaces in the tight crosshatch of pillars the brakeman watched a gondola ascend, but as it rose out over the water the wheel came to a whining stop. The brakeman stood on the balls of his feet to get a better view. A couple, both portly and dressed in brown, gesticulated through the bars before the wheel creaked into reverse and deposited them back on solid ground. Troublemakers – the brakeman could spot them immediately.

‘Shit!’

The yellow car was barrelling down the straight. He braked it clumsily, causing it to erupt with pasty elbows and knees as the riders were thrown forwards. The yellow car nudged the red car in front of it – Sylvia had failed to unload it in time. Still standing, the passengers were telling her about how they nearly spewed and it was so freaky and they thought they were going to be tipped out into the river when they fell backwards into the car. The impact silenced the two girls. After a moment they rose and stepped out onto the landing, resuming their chatter before running down the stairs. Tossing their fraying straps aside, the riders in the yellow car climbed out muttering about whiplash.

‘Watch it!’ said the brakeman. ‘You’ve got to keep them moving.’

‘But they kept talking,’ said Sylvia.

‘You’ve only got fifteen seconds to get them out before the next car comes.’

‘By the time they find their bags and put their sunglasses back on’-

‘Just tell ‘em it’s the rules.’

The brakeman sized up the orange car as it thundered down devil’s peak. This time he was taking no chances. Sylvia sat down on the landing. Her bun was slipping down her head like a scoop of ice cream melting in the humidity.

‘I heard someone say you’re the best climber in the business.’

‘You wanna be careful about sitting down, they can see you from Level Three,’ he said.

Sylvia turned the pin over in her hands. The brakeman unhooked the rope to provide more resistance as the orange car swooped over the twist.

‘Used to be the best climber in the business,’ said the brakeman. ‘Put me back out though. Then they got me to put in a safety railing, and I buggered me knee too.’

He followed Sylvia’s eyes to the control panel. The operator, rocking back in his chair he scanned the ride, had caught her attention.

‘Anyone can push a button,’ said the brakeman, ‘the real skill’s in stopping the things.’

He jiggled the lever back and forth, watched the slats rise and fall.

‘It’s not something you can pick up just like that.’

The operator had just gone to lunch when the brakeman heard the clip-clop of heels on the exit stairs. An arrival from Level Three hopped the tracks and strode out onto the turf. Sylvia and the brakeman walked over to join him once all the cars on the track had completed the circuit.

‘Looks like it’s getting busy out here,’ he said.

The brakeman watched him survey the crowd, the impatient faces shiny in the sun. Then his eyes registered the blue car on the maintenance track.

‘What’s wrong with that carriage?’ His tapped his foot; the shoe was angular and buff.

‘It’s out of action.’

‘A mechanical problem? You can’t fix it, get it moving?’

‘Doesn’t make a difference anyway,’ he said. ‘The cars can only go every fifteen seconds. Getting another one on the track won’t clear the backlog.’

‘Anyway, it’s too slow,’ said Sylvia. ‘The dog and the mushroom….’ she shrugged.

The brakeman knelt by the car. He spun its wheels, looked it over, stood back.

‘We’ll get the blue car on,’ he said. A flurry of feet, and he’d maneuvered the blue car back onto the main track, ignoring the sceptical glances exchanged between Sylvia and the boys.

‘Just put your couples, your heavy people in,’ said the brakeman as the escalator chains started up again.

The brakeman knew it was three o’clock by the churning wake of the last ferry crossing the river. His eyes drifted to the control panel, and next to it the blue car lodged firmly on the planks. Sitting patiently inside was the boy who, earlier, had put on his hat. Irritation briefly contorted the operator’s face before his meaty finger landed on the start button. A blunt hiss, and the planks swung down. The car pitched forward, its wheels connected with the escalator and clunkily the car’s trajectory was shifted so its nose was pointing to the sky. The boy slid back and gripped the handles. Slowly the blue car with the lazy eye began to ascend the rise.

‘Hey!’ Now Sylvia saw the blue car being pulled up the steep incline, and she knew that soon the uncertainty of gravity would replace the whirring chains of the escalator.

‘Hey!’ she said again, trying to get the operator’s attention.

‘Can’t do anything about it now,’ said the brakeman. Through diamond-shaped gaps in the ride’s shuddering frame they followed the blue car’s progress.

‘But it’s too light!’

‘I told ’em.’

They watched as the escalator released the blue car, high up onto the coiled labyrinth.

‘You heard me say it. I did tell ‘em.’

He whistled, gravely drawing his hands apart when the operator looked over.

‘One lapse of concentration, and that’s what can happen. Same goes for here. Last sheila had her foot stuck in the tracks, almost got cleaned up.’ The brakeman swiveled to face Sylvia, and she saw his crow’s feet gather like heavy folds in a curtain.

‘If anything does happen, you stay right where you are.’

At the loading platform, the couple in brown were lowering themselves awkwardly into the red car. The operator waited longer than usual before pushing the button, but soon enough the red car, and its bulky cargo, began to scale the rise in pursuit.

‘What if it catches up?’ said Sylvia. ‘What if there’s a collision?’

‘Impossible,’ said the brakeman. ‘Can’t happen.’

Squinting, he pointed up to the track. The blue car was still placidly snaking along the rickety labryinth.

‘There are circuit brakes here, here, here and here. Put them in meself. If cars get too close to each other the sensors will pick it up and activate the circuit brakes, and the cars’ll stop dead.’

Now the blue car was sliding around the last loose curve before the dip onto the ride’s midsection.

‘A pile-up’s impossible. But have you ever seen a kid try and climb out of a car ten feet in the air? It’s always their first reaction.’

He adjusted the rope, pulling it taut again so the first brakes disengaged. The green car was gliding around the bend.

‘And these seatbelts are useless. I’ve been telling ‘em for years.’

‘So what happens if the kid gets stuck up there?’ said Sylvia.

‘See that ladder?’

She had trouble making it out amid the jumbled mess of wooden beams.

‘It goes right to the top. I climb up meself to help ‘em down.’

He reached for the lever. The green car was so light he almost had to coax it over the brakes. Behind it the blue car was creeping along, ever slower.

‘If it stalls,’ said the brakeman, ‘then we’re all in the shit.’

The red car was steadily gaining ground, its silhouette racing along in the sky, the narrow eyes menacing.

‘It’s getting close,’ said the brakeman. The operator was now looking at the red car with concern. But the boy still remained unaware of any fears for his safety. His face was set, determined, like an intrepid explorer clearing a path through a tangled forest. The brakeman noted every nasty corner where the blue car could stall with what seemed to Sylvia more like anticipation than apprehension.

‘She’s catching up! That’ll put those circuit brakes to the test.’

Comically slow as it crested devil’s peak, the blue car barely made any noise on descent. Behind it the red car tore over the slopes, its metal grille like teeth bared in a grotesque sneer. On the platform they both felt the hot rush of wind as it roared down devil’s peak. The blue car idled over the twist but the danger was passing as the boy got closer to the ground. Rounding the bend, he rested his head in his hands in a theatrical show of boredom. The reflection from the neon canopy made his hair look like a puff of fairy floss. Behind him a red blur hurtled round the twist.

The brakeman tightened the rope slack so the first brake would have no effect. He urged the blue car forward, but momentum finally deserted it halfway along the straight. The boy started to stand up.

‘Stay in your seat!’ yelled the brakeman, running up the platform as the red car skidded onto the straight. He hauled the blue car off the brakes and gave it a shove, turning around in time to see Sylvia standing where he’d just been. Smoothly, a bit too quickly, she brought the lever back parallel to her body, braking the blue car with the lazy eye. In a flash she reached for the pin and undid the boy’s seatbelt while moving it back level with the landing. The brakeman resumed his place at the lever just in time to stop the red car. For the first time that day Sylvia avoided his eyes.

An hour before closing the brakeman heard the clip-clop of shoes on the stairs. Up on Level Three they’d been impressed with Sylvia’s quick thinking. They were going to train her on the brakes, if she wanted to learn.

‘Get some weight behind it,’ said the operator. The brakeman volunteered before he could be nominated, and was a passenger on the rollercoaster for the first time in years. He smiled just once, as the car cleared the twist, and turned his face to the river.

Advertisements