True short story: The man on the railway track — Mark Roberts

Picasso’s “Le Reve” is auctioned on Nov. 10 1997 at Christie’s auction house in New York. In 2006, then-owner of the painting. casino mogul Steve Wynn, accidentally damaged it, reducing its value by $49m. (PHOTO: Emile Wamsteker/AP file via NBC News).

He sat behind the wheel, head bowed forward, resting gently in his hands. He turned to look at his eighteen-month-old son in the passenger seat, buckled up snuggly, and then stared in front of them. How had he got to this point in his life?

His wife was remarried, happy and in love, while he was reeling in debt, living in a little room. Life had dealt him some savage and vicious blows. Far in the distance, he could hear the train coming as the clickety-clack of its wheels announced the itinerary of its daily approach.

He started the engine as the tears began to flow and looked one final time at the little boy who stared unsuspectingly at his Daddy. Closer, closer it approached, and at the final second, he accelerated… It was the last time any of us saw Fred alive…

Fred was my Sergeant in the Police’s Reaction Force thirty five years ago (what most people today would call SWAT). Hardened men who drank too much in order to bury memories and guilt for the things they had seen and done. Fred drank way too much, we all knew it. In fact, we all drank too much, but to be drunk on duty was taboo and it was slowly becoming a habit with Fred. We were brothers and we depended on the sharpness and alertness of our comrades. We were the best of the best.

Fred had married a gorgeous, independent, young woman who had her own business, and together they produced the cutest little boy named Carl. As the economy toughened in the little town where we were based, her business began to take strain. After a few months, as money problems walked in through their front door, love silently departed through the back.

Downward spiral
Thus started the downward spiral of Fred’s life. In mere months the young, beautiful wife had found another man to comfort and love her the way she felt she needed. At night we hit the bars to forget, and for peace at night, alcohol allowed us to keep the demons locked safely in the closet – that is… until morning. Fred felt betrayed by the fact that she had moved on. He got to see Carl every second week and as they would drive away he would look in the rear-view mirror and see her standing hand in hand with the new man; a broad, happy smile plastered on her face. He felt sick to his stomach.

“Guys, we need you down to the railway yard,” said the Colonel with an expression we couldn’t really make out. “Is there a problem?” asked our Captain with interest. “Do me a favour,” said the Colonel, “just get there and do what needs to be done.” With that he turned away and walked down the long passage of our unit; shoulders slumped.

My blood ran cold as I realised what had happened. The impact was insane. Fred had waited till the last minute and pulled his car onto the tracks. There he stopped as the train collided with the little car, wiping both lives out of existence like a distant memory… There was nothing left except the horrid, nightmarish experience for his friends who picked up the pieces. Literally and figuratively.

That night, we hit the bars again, clinking glasses in a drunken stupor to celebrate the life of Fred… But the reality was that there was nothing to celebrate. It was a tragedy and death was a reality. Our day would come when we would follow Fred. “Best to go out with a bang,” was my Captain’s favourite expression… There was no hope, no purpose and obviously no one cared. I lifted my glass and threw the last tot of Brandy down my throat before passing out. If there was a God who was pure, kind, and good, it was better that He stayed far away from this place. Obviously His powers were limited.

On that day, God had crossed my mind… Why didn’t He stop Fred? This was all God’s fault. Look what He had done!!! Eighteen hours later I woke up with the biggest hangover and as I stumbled outside my barracks quarters there was just silence… I took a drag on my joint and flicked it into the nearby bushes and before turning to walk back in, I stared briefly to the heavens – “Where the hell are You” I said, more with disdain than actual care. It would be a very long walk on bumpy and winding roads before I would reach a place where He actually reminded me of the question I had asked so many years earlier. Broken and defeated, on April fools day, He lifted me up from the pavement where I lay crying in the soaking rain and shouted: “Here I AM”.

Costly fumble
In 2006 Steve Wynn, one of the wealthiest people on earth, happened to own a Picasso painting, valued at 139 million US dollars (insane, I know). He was so in awe of the painting that he was considering naming one of his hotels after it. He was preparing to sell the painting and so he decided to have friends over for the weekend to show the piece off before its departure. Unfortunately, he suffers from Retinitis, a condition that affects peripheral vision. While gesturing to his friends in excitement, he accidentally shoved his elbow through the painting, leaving a gaping hole in the canvas. He tried to restore it, but it was never the same and in mere seconds, through a careless and clumsy act, he had reduced the value of that painting by 49 million dollars.

After many seasons, I have somehow changed the way that I look at life. Some answers I have and some remain mysteriously elusive, but I have seen that the gift we were embellished with at the dawn of creation, we have abused and manipulated. We have constantly re-defined evil and the definition of sinfulness is now taboo to this generation. Every day we create new laws to govern people who have no laws in their hearts and we are left wondering why there is tragedy and devastation around every corner. I have seen stories worse than Fred’s and some Editors have asked that I refrain from capturing too much detail of cases. Sometimes it’s an unsavoury taste that is left in our mouths when we hear and read about these stories. We are avoiding the truth! We have destroyed the portrait of His creation and what He intended for us.

On the canvas of God’s creation, we have taken a fist or elbow and we have thrust it through the canvas in our apparent disgust. The hole that we have left in His canvas has created a vortex or a portal, sucking out all the goodness that was originally intended for us in His narrative, replacing it with our misguided and unqualified rule of self-determination – resulting in self-destruction and annihilation. For a while, we could have blamed our actions on the excuse of Retinitis, but now we do it willfully.

As the world scratches determinedly for answers and solutions, the hole gets bigger and more evil is generated. If only there were some way to plug the hole. At the time of Fred’s death, I wish I had known this illustration as it would have saved me much heartache and aimless wandering.

Yes, we smashed a hole in the canvas of His story and evil entered, resulting in the trains of destruction and despair to collide with us on the railway tracks of our lives. More importantly, the hole created an opportunity for God to directly enter the narrative of His story about us. He entered the vortex or portal as a man, relinquishing Glory for a moment and using everything at His disposal to patch the hole. Even His life.

If you look closely, you will still see His blood stains all over the canvas – the canvas has been restored. Amazingly, the bloodstains have increased the value of His painting despite the terrible damage that we have inflicted upon His creation. One day this painting will serve as a testimony to the universe of what a real Art Restorer can accomplish. Covered with His own blood, patched and restored, it will be the envy of His collection.

If only I had the opportunity to speak to Fred today, I would relay this story and tell him about a God who eagerly entered the portal of chaos in his life and who had the ability to patch the canvas. I believe that God was right with him at that last moment because God entered the painting of His story long ago and He never left. For those who choose to jump or swallow those pills to end it all, please remember: He is on the canvas of your life and He isn’t going anywhere – He’s where He wants to be. He’s in your world and He’s waiting for a call from you to patch the holes.


  1. An absolutely beautiful read.

  2. Our God is an awesome God he
    He reigns from heaven above
    With wisdom, power, and love
    Our God is an awesome God…
    One of my favourite lyrics I hold so dear to my heart – thank you for reminding me of how he is always with us no matter what. Great read ….