Chapter 1

Narrative of Frank McMullen

            I didn’t know it was murder, not at the start. It was reported to me as an accident, and I had no reason to doubt it. It’s not as if I was a detective or policeman. Essentially I was and am, I suppose, a businessman, and murder is not something that comes my way. And the day started ordinary enough.

            Joan and I had breakfast and then, leaving the dishes for the daily help to clean up, piled into the faithful Morris Minor, which was the car we had then, all this being in the 1950’s, and set off in the driving rain along the A 60. Blaxthorpe, where we live, is seven miles or so out of town, and there was something she wanted to do in the Lace Market. I wasn’t going to try driving along its narrow streets and alleys so I dropped her off at Carrington Street. I asked if I could give her a lift back when I was finished work around five o’clock, but she said no, she’d go back home on the train around two, it being laundry day and she had to get back.

            “With all that raining? You won’t get much to dry.”

            “Frank, they forecast it’s going to clear up in the afternoon.”

            Optimism. I suppose maybe a housewife has to be an optimist. Goes with the job.

            So I dropped her off and drove on, to park in my reserved slot at the office. From there it was a quick dive through the rain into the doorway and up the stairs. The building is not in any case one that you would want to stop and admire, for Nottingham Central Station is no great jewel among architecture. Indeed, I think the New Statesman once ran a competition to pick the worst looking railway station in Britain. We didn’t win it, but we made the short list. I suppose that when the station was originally built in the 1890’s, by the London and Northern Railway, it may have looked a bit better, but by now the limestone façade had acquired a thick layer of dirt and soot, since we were still in the age of steam engines. Mind you, the architects called it a patina, but the total effect, especially in the rain, was dull and drab, not much relieved by occasional bright splashes of color from posters advertising excursions to Skegness or Cleethorpes. It’s been cleaned up a bit now, since the diesels came in, but back in the fifties the only word for it was ‘grubby’, not to say ‘grotty’. It was not helped by various straggling additions built on over the years, notably the administrative wing, tailing off along one side until it was stopped by the back wall of the locomotive running shed and could expand no further.

            My office was on the first floor up, along a corridor painted in institutional green and cream, brown linoleum on the floor, the whole badly lit by one or two windows giving a fine panoramic view of the gutters and rainspouts of the roof awning over Platform 4, or rather would give it if anybody ever cleaned them, which nobody ever seemed to.

            When I got to my office I opened the door, and everything seemed in order. That at least was a comfort. I won’t say it was actually a surprise, because it was usually like that, but one day when I came in, a week or so before, I had arrived to find the place burgled, ransacked, with files, letters, apparently missing. Heaven knows why. An office in the administration is not where you would expect to find money or anything worth stealing. The only place you’d expect to find loose money in a large railway station was the booking office, and there it was in a safe. Nor was there any possibility of a mistake. My office door had a nice brass plaque on it, ‘F. McMullen. Chief Traffic Superintendent,’ which is what I was. It wasn’t a job description that was common or typical of British Railways practice, but the old London and Northern was very strong on tradition, always doing things our own way, different from everybody else (and better!), and a lot of it carried over into the early days of nationalization. As for the burglary, what could anybody have been after? Didn’t make sense. This wasn’t even a Whodunit. It was rather a Whydunit. I’d reported it to Charlie Fry, our resident Inspector of British Transport Police, with an office below mine opening off the platform, and he couldn’t make any sense of it either. Anyway, this morning everything was all right, and there was Dozie, my secretary, already installed at her desk in a corner of the room, like a queen surveying her realm.

            Dozie was a matronly, motherly figure, her grey hair done up in a bun. She might easily be taken for somebody’s favorite aunt, until, that is, she directed a glance at you from her steely eyes. Nor did her name, Dozie, reflect her work habits. It was apparently a nickname that her parents gave her and it had stuck. After the usual exchange of “Good Morning’s!” she slid a sheet of paper across my desk to me. I raised an eyebrow in mute interrogation. Dozie obliged with an answer.

            “I thought you would want to see this.”

            Coming from Dozie, that meant, “You ought to see this”, which in turn meant “You’d better see this, or else.” I ran my eye down the columns of figures. It was the running times of all the trains on our main line last night, and it soon became clear what Dozie meant. Our traffic last night had been an anarchic mess, with nothing running to anything like its proper time. Mostly it was coal trains on their way up to London and trains of coal empties coming back, so, in a way, it wasn’t as bad as it might seem. We try to run them at night so as not to get too much in the way of daytime passenger traffic, and their schedules are pretty elastic anyhow. To tell the truth, nobody worries too much about it as long as they keep moving, and sometimes the enginemen are even happy to be late if it means they get more overtime. Passenger trains of course are different. But this time even the Down Postal, which usually could rely on getting a clear run, had got tangled up in the traffic jam of unscheduled horrors, whatever it was that caused it. Normally all this detail would not have come directly to me, but this time there were two reasons for it, as Dozie well knew. First, we were in the throes of a punctuality drive. Second, the punctuality drive had been ordered by Larry Fineman, which meant it had to be taken very seriously indeed.

            Larry Fineman was my immediate boss, and, as General Manager of the Central Region of British Railways, was Monarch of All He Surveyed. Normally he surveyed it from his office, right next door to mine, but at the moment he was away on holiday in France. That left me, unofficially, in charge, as whenever he was away I usually filled in for him as necessary. Larry was a good manager, but he was a great stickler for detail. One morning he met John Halliday, the Civil Engineer and hence a VIP, hanging up his hat at five past nine, and greeted him with the verbal thunderbolt, “Good Morning, Mr. Halliday! The London and Northern hours are nine till five!”. I don’t think John Halliday, a meek little man, was ever the same again since. And when he got back from France Larry would certainly want to know what had been happening to punctuality in his absence, which meant that, in pure self-defence if nothing else, I had better have all the figures, and, in particular, the explanation for last night’s debacle.

            As I looked over the page it soon became apparent what had started the rot. The Ulsterman, the boat train from Mountroyal, our London terminus, to Whitehaven Harbour and the connecting steamer to Belfast, was the guilty party. From the figures before me it was plain that the train had run to time as far as Vinley, a large station between Leicester and Nottingham. It had then stood for no less than an hour and forty minutes at the Vinley platform before continuing its run, now hopelessly late. What with making connections and failing to make connections, the late Ulsterman had affected everything else, as the delays snowballed. So what had caused it all? There was no explanation pencilled in on the time sheet before me, so I turned, as usual, to my private and encyclopedic oracle.

            “Dozie, what happened last night to the down Ulsterman? He was at Vinley over an hour and a half. Was it engine failure?”

            “No, it was the guard.”

            “What about him?”

            “He’s dead.”

            “Dead? What happened?” Instinctively I thought of something like a heart attack. Dozie corrected me.

            “He was killed.”

            “How?”

            “Well, I’ve just been on the phone to Vinley. They don’t know too much about it, but apparently he fell out of the train on the off side, landed on the other track, and was then run over by a trip goods train coming the other way- empty wagons for Blisbourne Colliery. He was very likely killed by the fall, but in any case he was then very much chewed up by the goods. The Ulsterman was held all that time at Vinley until they could get another guard to replace him. I think they got somebody out of bed for it.”

            Good God! I hadn’t bargained for anything like that. The guard falling out and getting chewed up- that’s enough to make any train late. I thought a bit about it.

            “How did he come to fall out? What was he doing?”

            Dozie shrugged.

            “No idea. I don’t think Vinley has either.”

            A thought came through my head.

            “Who was he? Was he a new man?”

            Dozie must have already looked him up.

            “No. His name is George Carey, and he’d been with the Company for twenty years.”

            So he ought to have been an experienced man, not given to falling out of trains in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t understand it. What with burglars ransacking the Chief Traffic Superintendent’s office for God knows what, and experienced guards falling out of trains running at full speed, what in heaven’s name was going on these days on British Railways?

            A puzzle.

            Still, there was nothing I could personally do about it. Of course I regretted the man’s death, but on the railways we do get work accidents, the same as in other industries. We have a thick book of rules to prevent them, but to be honest; all that we can do is cut them down as far as possible. People are sometimes careless, in a hurry, or just plain unlucky. We have an electrified suburban service running out of Nottingham to Sheffield and a few years ago a thoroughly experienced platform inspector actually stepped on the live rail.

              So I mentally pushed the question of George Carey and how he got killed to one side. That may sound weak, or even heartless, but as a realistic reaction it’s all I could say or think. It’s not as if he was one of my own staff or colleagues; I’d never met the man. But then I was struck by another thought. What about the inquest? Would I be called for it? Unlikely, I suppose. Unless the question arose as to whether the accident could have been prevented, either on the grounds of what fault there could have been in the design of the van that let him fall out of it, or in the assigned duties of the guard, and was he doing something he wasn’t supposed to be. All of that seemed unlikely, though it might be different if there was ever a civil action for damages brought by his next of kin. It had happened once or twice in the past that I had had to appear in court as a technical expert on railway practice, in the case of some railwayman who had got injured while on the job and was suing the Company over it.

            Certainly I had often had to conduct an internal enquiry over some minor mishap or breach of the regulations: wagons running into the ditch at the end of a siding because the brakes hadn’t been put on properly, an engine derailed in the locomotive depot, a signal showing red when it should have been green,all traffic stopped because a cow had got loose out of the cattle pens at Rotherham and was strolling around over the main line, that sort of thing, you know? The trade union too would have an interesting anything causing risk or injury to their members that could be accounted to the responsibility of the employer, and this case might well be an issue of safety. If one guard could fall out maybe more could. It was not unknown for passengers to do it, usually because, at night, a train was stopped by signals on a bridge or viaduct, and somebody, half asleep, thought it was their station, opened the door, and stepped out on to the narrow parapet of the viaduct thinking it was the platform. They never did it twice. The truth of it is, passengers do get up to odd things sometimes. But an experienced guard, now, that was different. Still, was there anything I could or should do about it right now?    

            My first thought was to go round to the adjacent office and pass the word to Larry Fineman, the General Manager. He’d certainly want to know about guards falling out of trains, especially if it wrecked our punctuality. But then I remembered, he wasn’t there. He was in France. So, what next? My second thought, then, was, what do we say to the Press? Once the word gets out they will be hammering on our doors, even if it is only the local papers. At this point I remembered a cardinal principle of good management: when a crisis threatens, delegate. That is, land it on somebody else’s lap for them to sort out. And in this case, why else did we have a PR officer? For we did have one. His name was Harry Robinson and he was quite young for the job, but at least he had a background in journalism, which helped. Apart from getting out advertisements and publicity material, he was landed with dealing with the press whenever something came up and we wanted them to cover it, or, perhaps, even more, when something else came up, and we’d rather they didn’t. Anyway, his office was just along the corridor, so that’s where I went. He was typing as I entered, but cheerfully turned round to greet me.

            “Hello, Frank. You got something for me?”

            “Yes, Harry, I have. Make what you can of it.”

            Quickly I briefed him on the story of George Carey and his misadventures on last night’s Ulsterman.

            Harry came straight to the point.

            “How come he fell out? What was he doing?”

            I had put the same question to Dozie, and if Dozie didn’t know, nobody knew.

            I put Harry off with a promise to clue him in as soon as we got a fuller story, with luck even before the reporters got on the phone asking him for it. When I left he was looking noticeably leas cheerful than when I arrived. I didn’t blame him. Newspapers love to run stories critical of British Railways, and when they ask questions, “We don’t know!” is an awful answer to have to give. It automatically reserves a spot for a headline on the front page, and not one that I’d like to read.

            Returning to my office I asked Dozie if anything new had come in about the guard who fell out.

            “No, nothing.”

            Well, it was a faint hope.

            “All right, but if anything comes in pass it along to the PR.” I didn’t need to say “to me too, of course.” Dozie would do that automatically.

            In the meantime, there I was with her. I have sometimes felt that if a spiritualist entered my office, he would say she was often projecting some kind of aura or vibrations, and in this case it was projected towards my overflowing in-box. Anyway, she had fixed a cold and hard eye on it, without saying a word. Often she doesn’t have to. I knew where my duty lay, and turned to my paperwork, wondering, as I often did, why a supposedly beneficent God had ever allowed mankind to invent paper, when instead I ought to be out there running the trains. Still, I couldn’t run them without it.

            British Railways were building at Crewe a new class of express locomotives, called “Britannia’s” after the name of the first one off the production line. I had seen the specifications and was trying hard to get some of them allocated to the Central Region, where they’d be just about right for service on our main line. The Chief Mechanical Engineer agreed, but was dragging his feet because he thought it was a lost cause, we’d never get any of them. Maybe not, but for sure we wouldn’t if we didn’t try, and that meant memos, analyses, submissions, phone calls, meetings. You didn’t get something done by just sitting back and waiting for it to happen. And the Assistant Mechanical Engineer, Mike Sullivan, was a great Britannia supporter. He was always telling me how good they were, and how we could make great improvements to our timetable if only we had some: they would need less turn-round time between trips, which would mean we could increase the frequency of services and at the same time save money, for we’d need fewer engines to work them. So, since timetabling, as opposed to engineering, fell on my turf, he usually got an interested and sympathetic hearing.

            Just the same, Britannia’s or no Britannia’s, I could not quite put George Carey out of my mind. Like a bad dream, he kept sidetracking my best intentions, turning my reflections and musings to a point where I was again thinking of nothing else. With a conscious effort I told myself to get on with my work. That’s what my job was, what the British public was paying me for. After all, George Carey and the death on the Ulsterman was not my responsibility, and realistically I would not expect ever to hear anything more about him.

            I do sometimes make mistakes like that.

 

Comment by the murderer

            I never thought the death of the guard would get as high up in the hierarchy as Frank McMullen, even for just a passing mention. It was really all through that punctuality drive, wasn’t it? Normally it would have just been dealt with locally, which was what I expected. And Frank, though he’s a good man, has always struck me as just a little unpredictable. For one thing, do you know what he does as an amusement in his spare time? No, not golf or any of your regular sports. He takes evening courses in English at the University of Nottingham, of all things! Luckily he’s got a good wife, Joan. I’ve always thought she’s actually smarter than he is, though I’m not sure he always realizes it. But at least she does help to keep his feet on the ground, from time to time. As for my own wife, when I lost her a few years ago- well, let’s not go into that, this isn’t the time or place for it. So, to get back to Frank and the dead Guard Carey, there’s still no harm done. Just the same, I wouldn’t want Frank, with or without Joan, sniffing round the affair any more than can be helped. Maybe I should push the Britannia’s a bit more, to give him something else to think about.

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