Artwork by Enrique Cropper
On Sundays, with fine weather, our family loved to make the half-hour trip out of Bruxelles to Rebecq. The kids were always thrilled to hear the steamy hisses and the clunks of the pistons and see the billowing black smoke from the funnel of the tiny red steam loco, as they took their ride on “Le Petit Train du Bonheur”. The volunteers who had restored the old mining engines, who had re-laid the narrow gauge rails and who now attended to the public, as they queued for their tickets for the trip to Rognon and back, were a friendly bunch. “Nous sommes comme une famillle” repeated the jolly, coal-smudged driver, when he found himself a few minutes alone with the public, and thought he should reveal to them some of the passion for railroads he felt within.
The idea of setting up and running a pleasure train on the route of the old line to Braine l’Alleud, closed by government cuts in the 1970s, had transformed the quartier de la Gare, giving a new focus and sense of community to the neighbourhood. Families from Bruxelles had moved in and recovered several, semi-abandoned houses in the station square; the newsagents on the corner of rue du Pont had been restored to full splendour; and the old railway yard had been handsomely re-landscaped as a park.
Such rejuvenation reflected in how welcoming the place, and how friendly the staff and the locals had become.
But, of all those associated with “Le Petit Train du Bonheur,” none were quite as friendly as young Matthias. Matthias, you could even say, had specialised in public relations. He was certainly the self-appointed welcome officer: he would never tire of saying hello to visitors, even greeting the same children two or three times in an afternoon. Though sometimes he could be a bit rough and scare the children a little, such that the parents felt they had to intervene, he was always in the same excellent good humour. His acrobatics would delight the youngsters, giggling and calling out and asking for more. And so he flitted from group to group.
After all, Matthias, to be clear, didn’t always realise that he was a parrot. A bright-green parrot. A friendly, entertaining bright-green parrot, but a parrot all the same.
His owner, if that term can rightly be used to describe a person living with a parrot “en pleine liberté” in a village in the middle of Belgium, lived in the same quartier as the little red train and, save the coldest days of the year, would leave the top window of his front salon open, so that Matthias could squeeze his way out and come and go as he pleased.
And very pleased Matthias was to fly all around Rebecq, alighting on his favourite window ledges, tapping insistently on the glass until his human “friends” would open up to ask him “Tu veux un morceau de pain?” before they gave him a titbit of grain or fresh fruit, and away he went.
With the greater influx of children on Sundays, Matthias became as happy as a trapeze artist in a travelling circus. Whenever he got fed up of sitting on someone’s shoulder or got a nudge after nibbling the ear lobe of another, he would fly off and go swooping and squawking around the station building, obliging the spectators to twist and crane their necks to follow his tortuous flight path.
But his very favourite trick of all was to land beside the picnic benches of the park at lunch hour and “beg” for food by rolling over in the grass and screeching “Petit déjeuner!” Once he had swallowed the morsel, he would give a sign, bobbing his head up and down expectantly, which the kids had learnt one from the other was time to give him his next instruction:
“Voler, Matthias, voler” And with a rapid flap of his wings, up he rose and away he flew, looping the loop and making double axel twists before seeking out the smoke trail from Le Petit Train, to the delight of passengers as they passed over the bridge spanning the Senne river.
In the end, the kids found Matthias as much, if not more, of an attraction than the trains they had originally come to see. Then, one Sunday visit, in late September, just before the little trains of happiness were put away in the railway shed for the winter, something seemed very wrong, as we drew into the car park.
“Où est Matthias?” the children asked the lady in the ticket office. Her glassy eyes reflected the effort she had made all that afternoon to hold back her tears, in front of the visitors.
“Nous avons eu des très mauvaises nouvelles“, she replied, her chin drooping in sadness. The day before Matthias, swooping down to greet a child in the street, had failed to get out of the way and had been run over by a car, in the Rue du Pont.
“Mais il est parti comme il aimait le faire” she added consolingly, “en saluant ses amis, les enfants, en plein vol.“