Chapter 2

            Paperwork: By lunchtime I had had enough of it. I didn’t even want to bother any more about the Britannias, it was that bad. Then came deliverance. Why hadn’t I thought about it before? In a day or two I was due for an afternoon off. So why not take it to-day instead? Of course, it wasn’t a day off in the usual sense. Every so often Dozie was to keep an afternoon, sometimes a whole day, clear of meetings and appointments, so that I could go traveling along and around the Region. The idea was that by regularly traveling on our trains, goods as well as passenger, riding on the footplate with the enginemen, visiting signal boxes, talking with stationmasters, goods guards and shunters, and arguing with the Union shop stewards, I would keep in touch with how the railway was really running. I am not sure if it actually worked out that way but it was a good theory and I certainly enjoyed doing it. So why not make this afternoon one of those afternoons and go and pay a call at Vinley? I had a reasonable excuse for it. They had been having some trouble there recently with cattle traffic. I could talk to them about that, and at the same time, maybe find out a bit more about this guard business.

            Doing it was easy enough. A quick word to Dozie, and a little rearrangement of my afternoon’s schedule. An equally quick lunch in the refreshment room on no.4, and over the footbridge to No.6, where the 2.12 semi-fast was loading passengers. I walked along to the engine to have a chat with a small, wizened-faced man in footplate overalls and grease-top cap, though also with collar and tie, to show a proper understanding of his position in a respected profession- Bill Walker, one of Nottingham’s top engine drivers. I had just said hello to him when I saw another familiar figure come out of the Nottingham South signal box, over at the end of Platform 4, and pick its way carefully across the tracks to where I was, alongside the engine of the 2.12. My wife, Joan.

            There was nothing unusual about her visiting a signal box. During the war she had actually worked as a signalman, or signalwoman rather, in that same signalbox, Nottingham South. Indeed, that was how we met and married, me being myself in the railway service. She no longer worked on the railway but she always kept up her contact with it. It was a shared interest between us, except that it went a bit further than that. Joan often looked in to signal boxes and places like that to say hello, or maybe just to breathe in the atmosphere. It was, naturally, all very unofficial, but the men seemed to like her and she never got in the way or outstayed her welcome. She was certainly well known all over the railways around Nottingham and was regarded almost as a kind of  mascot. It certainly seemed to create a bond between her and the railwaymen, who saw her as not just the wife of a senior officer, but also as someone who had worked in a signalbox, learned her trade, exercised her skills, and earned her wages the same as they did. I was always happy to discuss technical and administrative topics with her, and her contacts with the realities of the men on the job often proved a real help to me.

            Right now, she came trotting up the platform ramp with a welcoming smile for Bill Walker, who recognized her with a just perceivable nod and a finger raised to touch the peak of his cap. We got no further, because the guard blew a warning toot on his whistle and hurriedly we piled into the first coach, as the train got off to the invigorating acceleration of one of those rapid starts which were a Bill Walker trademark, and for which he was justly famous.

            As we clattered out of Nottingham, Joan smiled.

            “Bill’s giving her the steam, isn’t he?”

            “He sure is, Joan. You can tell, can’t you?”

            She then pointed upwards.

            “You see?”

            After a moment I did. The sun was already breaking through broken clouds, vindicating Joan’s undying faith in the predictable infallibility of the BBC Weather Forecast. Laundry drying would not be a problem. As we rolled along I filled her in on the story of the late Ulsterman.

            “The guard just fell out? How? What was he doing?”

            To the best of memory that was at least the third time that question had been asked and we were still no nearer to an answer.

            Joan continued, by giving voice to what we all thought.

            “I haven’t often- I think, never- heard of a railwayman falling off a train. Passengers, yes, but not a railwayman. After all, they are trained and professional people, and for the most part, sensible as well.”

            “Quite,” I agreed, “and in this case none of it seems to be covered under any of the guard’s duties as set out in, Rule 130, I think it is, isn’t it?”

            Joan looked a little doubtful. I pulled out of my pocket a small but thick black book, with the title on the cover: British Railways. Rule Book. 1950. I flipped the pages to Rule 130, and there it was. “Every Guard in charge of a Passenger train MUST-“, and there followed a whole series of duties, ranging from checking that there was a first aid kit in the van, to help in “detecting fraudulent traveling”, i.e., without a ticket. But there was nothing that would lead him to fall out. Indeed, rule 130 (ii) even said that he must “see that the doors of the carriages and other vehicles are properly closed and fastened,” which is surely a clear prohibition of having one open and falling out through it.

            There was no arguing with that, so we carried on talking about other things, mostly domestic, till a rattle of the wheels announced that we were running over the Blaxthorpe level crossing, where the line crosses the A 60. Earlier in the morning we had gone over it in the car, going along the road, and now we were, so to speak, on the other side of the gates. And they were big, heavy, wooden gates, white-painted, not like the flimsy, single-pole barriers you often see nowadays. No, I’m not digressing, you’ll see the point in the gates being big and heavy when I get to that bit later on, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. So, in the meantime, we crossed the A 60 at Blaxthorpe crossing and Bill brought the train to a grinding stop at Blaxthorpe platform. Blaxthorpe is our local station, so Joan got out, and, with a cheerful “Bye-bye!” slammed the door, as Bill got the 2.12 (Fridays only) moving again. As he did so it struck me that here we were, both taking the train, and so I’d have to go back and pick up the car. Bad management: Particularly as it had not been easy parking it. There is a long siding running alongside our office building, and somebody had left on it a goods brake van almost overlapping my parking space. I had to squeeze my car past it, without scratching it on the van’s overhanging buffers. The van had been there nearly a week now, with a red card fixed to its underframe, meaning it was a cripple, due to go for repairs, and I didn’t want to get my car in the same state, backing out in the dark.

            Twenty minutes later I alighted on to the up platform at Vinley, and went across to the down side, where the stationmaster’s office was. I thought the stationmaster, whom I knew slightly, would be a good place to start, but he had a better idea.

            “Why don’t you talk to the platform inspector? He was on the platform last night when the Ulsterman came in, and would have saw anything that there was to be seen. He’s on late turn this week, two till ten, so he’ll be there now, just going on duty. He’s your best bet, I’d say.”

That sounded like good sense, so I went off in search of the inspector and ran him to earth just coming out of the Buffet. We sat down on one of the platform seats, and in reply to my questions he was very forthcoming.

            “First of all, the Ulsterman came in right time, to the down platform. We had some stuff to load into the guard’s van and I went along to see to it and give a hand if necessary. Parcels mostly, and P.L.A.- Passengers’ Luggage in Advance. Except that van was empty. No guard. So we went looking for him and couldn’t find him.”

            “You didn’t think maybe he had just gone along the corridor, down the train?”

            “No way! For one thing, of course, his place was at the van during a station stop. And anyways he couldn’t have got along the corridor. The corridor was blocked.”

            “Blocked? You mean the corridor door was locked?

            “No. It was a passenger. He was a member of the Nottingham Symphony Orchestra. He’d got aboard at Leicester, where he’d been to a concert, and he had his instrument with him. It was a cello. He couldn’t get it into the compartment so he left it in the corridor, and it blocked it. As it happens, he was in the last compartment of the train, next to the van, so nobody could get in or out of the van without climbing over the cello, or asking him to move it; and nobody did. I asked him about that.”

            I had to agree. That did seem to be conclusive. Between Leicester and Vinley, the section of the run where it all happened, the guard’s van, or the brake, as we often call it, was sealed off from the rest of the train by the cello.

            “The next thing,” the inspector continued, “was that I saw that on the far side of the van, away from the platform, the door was hanging open. Evidently it had been that way while the train was running and the guard must have gone out through it. Certainly he didn’t get off on our side as the train came in, and Leicester say they saw him get into the van when the train left Leicester, so that open door must have been how he got out.”

            I pressed further. “But surely he was then run over by a trip goods train. Didn’t that fix the where and when he fell out?

            “Oh yes, but we didn’t know that at the time. Of course it was dark, and they only found out that something had happened when the train got to Blisbourne Colliery, under the lights. When the fireman got down to uncouple the engine he discovered, well, to be blunt about it, he discovered bits of George Carey on the front of it, wrapped around the guard irons. That raised the alarm, and we closed the main line to all trains- oh, except the Oxford parcels, that had already gone through-, while we sent out search parties. They found, shall I say, the rest of George Carey just this side of Blisbourne Junction, near the Soar River viaduct. And that was it. The men on the goods never knew they’d run over anything, let alone seen it. As I said, it was dark.”

            That did seem to clear up a lot of it, and the line being closed did help to explain a lot of the accumulated delays; it had not been mentioned on the summary time sheet I had seen. Hah! Just wait till I see Dozie again! But there were still one or two things that worried me. If the train had been running from Leicester to Vinley with a door swinging wide open, how come none of the signalmen had seen it? They are supposed to watch each train as it goes past, and if they see anything out of place send a bell signal to the next signal box, “Stop Train and Examine:” and they are usually good about doing it. Even in the dark an open door on a train that is lighted inside could hardly be missed. Then I ran through in my mind the signal boxes the train would have passed between Leicester North and Vinley South. There were six of them, and, as it happens, all six of them were on the down side of the line, while the open door was on the other side of the train. So nobody could have seen it. That was one worry explained, but there was still another. I put it to the inspector.

            “So you found a door of the brake open and it was on the off side of the train- that is, the right-hand side facing forwards. Right?”

            “Right.”

            “Which door was it?”

            “I’m sorry…?”

            “Was it the guard’s ordinary door, or the big double doors for loading luggage?”

            The inspector did not answer for a moment.

            “No, it wasn’t the double doors. It was the ordinary door, and…” he hesitated, “You know, I wondered about that. That door opens inwards, not outwards like all the others, so how could you fall out through it? Even if you fell or leaned against it and the latch wasn’t closed, it wouldn’t open.”

            That was exactly what I had been thinking myself. That door had been worrying me all along. On a British train of the 1950’s all the doors open outwards except for the guard’s door. That always opens inwards, because often the guard liked to wave his green flag to start the train while standing on the platform, and then hop aboard while it was actually on the move. So he needed an open door for that, and one that did not have the door itself hanging open outside the train while it was moving. And that means that if you pushed against it from the inside, even by accident, it wouldn’t open. You’d need to pull, which cannot be accidental. I offered this thought to my co-operative inspector.

            “It looks, then, as if George Carey opened the door himself, and knowingly. But what would he do that for?”

            “Don’t ask me. Maybe he thought there was something wrong with the train, say, an overheated axlebox, something like that, and he was leaning out to see if he could see anything.”

            I objected.

            “He’d do that by poking his head out of the window. He’d only open the door if he had to crawl on the floor on his hands and knees and stick his head out over the side. No, that won’t work. And he was alone in the brake, thanks to that cello, so whatever he was doing there were no witnesses and nobody pushed him into doing it.”

            There followed a long silence. Neither of us wanted to speak the S-word, suicide. After all, even if that was the answer, it seemed a very unlikely and messy way of doing it, let alone that he wouldn’t have know the goods train was coming; so what he was risking was surviving the fall to face the rest of his life disabled or paralyzed. Not a good idea. In fact, an odd situation all around. Whatever was I going to tell Henry, our PR man, when I got back? The answer was “Nothing,” and I was going to keep as far away from him as I could. In this tangled puzzle, no news would be good news- good at least for me. Much better to immerse myself in the allocation of the Britannias.

            Anyway, I had done everything that could be done on this visit, and in any case, apart from anything else, I did have to go back to Nottingham since that’s where I had left my car. So I caught the 4.43 back, resisting the temptation to ride on the engine, something I generally liked doing, and instead settled into a First Class coach, prepared to enjoy a trip “on the cushions”, as railwayman put it. Pulling out of Vinley I found that for a short time we were running on the next track parallel to a branch train on its way over to Derby, and as its coaches slowly passed my window I could see the passengers in it. Inevitably, I suppose, since I had just been dealing with sudden death, my mind slipped back to one of my favorite purveyors of relaxation, Agatha Christie. In her book “The 4.50 From Paddington” a friend of Miss Marple’s sees a murder being committed in somewhat similar circumstances. Now that would be a wonderful way out, if only we could get Miss Marple on the job. She would soon straighten it out! But it was worrying too, for, as we ran on towards Nottingham I began to get the feeling that if I wasn’t careful I’d soon find myself trying to slip into Miss Marple’s shoes, and I wasn’t at all sure I could fill them. Oh well, all right, given the gender criterion I suppose it would be Hercule Poirot, but I didn’t think my little grey cells would on his level either.

            As I alighted on to the Nottingham platform my mind was made up on my next step. I was going home to Joan and my dinner, and as for the rest, I’d sleep on it. After all, it was now after five, so even the redoubtable General Manager could hardly have disapproved. I didn’t get away with it, though, for as I was heading for the exit I met someone. An impressive figure of a man, hair going just enough grey to give an aura of authority, and an equally impressive uniform. No, not the stationmaster, though he did dress up, top hat and all, for the important trains. This was Charlie Fry, the police inspector attached to Nottingham Central.

            In a way, he wasn’t a real policeman, not in the mould of the CID or Scotland Yard. He was in the British Transport Police, with two or three constables working at Central Station, and a supervising capacity over the rest of the Region. Mostly his work concerned pilfering in the goods yard and handling the crowds on football specials, but he did have contacts with the Nottingham police, and he was, after all, a policeman. I had always felt comfortable in dealing with him, so I called him over.

            “Charlie, I have a problem.”

            “Oh? Somebody been wrecking your office again?”

            First things first. “Come and have a drink and I’ll tell you all about it.”

            We adjourned to the refreshment room, and behind a couple of pints of Bass- brewed over at Burton-on-Trent, which our Region served, so drinking it was a gesture of local patriotism- I told him the whole story.

            Charlie raised an eyebrow.

            “It does sound like something funny was going on. Frank, are you sure about the way that door opened?”

            I drained the last of the Bass.

            “Come along, I’ll show you.”

            We went outside and walked along to Platform 1, which was occupied by the empty coaches of a cross-country that had arrived ten minutes ago from Peterborough.

            “Now, Charlie,” I explained, “this train is composed of the new British Standard rolling stock, the same as the Ulsterman. The end coach is a composite brake-third, four third-class compartments with side corridor, and the rest of it given over to the guard’s compartment- the brake, or the van if you like. It’s exactly the same as the one George Carey fell out of.”

            I pointed out the big double doors for luggage handling with their large, hefty locking handle, and turned to the guard’s door. I twisted the handle, pushed the door open, and we stepped inside into the empty brake.

            I slammed the door.

            “Now, Charlie, that’s the door he fell out of. Can you open it without touching the latch?”          

            Charlie pushed it, then threw himself against it in the way detectives burst open doors in films. Nothing happened. Then he clicked the latch and pulled the door. It swung inwards, as it was supposed to.

            “Well, Frank, I see what you mean. The door must have been opened deliberately from the inside. How did you get mixed up in this anyway?”

            “I wanted to check that there was nothing inherently dangerous in our coaches, like a faulty door latch for example, that would make the Company liable. I was thinking chiefly of the trade union and what they might say.”

            That seemed to satisfy Charlie Fry. It wasn’t quite true, of course. Mentally I was busy repressing images of Hercule Poirot and Agatha Christie, and concentrating on being the conscientious railway officer.

 

            “Well, Frank, it does look strange. Tell you what; I’ll talk to the Nottingham police about it – I know Inspector Barrett reasonably well – and see if they have heard anything. It’s a violent death, after all. I’ll give you a ring to-morrow.”

            That seemed good enough. He waved good-bye and I went off through the corridor from No.4 to the forecourt to rescue my parked Morris from under the buffers of that crippled goods brake van. Were they never going to move it? Maybe I should mention it to somebody, since it was almost intruding on my parking spot. But not now. Enough was enough, enough for one day. My original intention had been to go straight home, have dinner, and tell Joan about my day’s adventures. Good idea!

            So I went.

 

Comment by the murderer

            Well, I’ll be damned!  I never knew about that cello, blocking the way into the van, just as if the door had been locked. So while the door was blocked on one side by that cello, the same door was blocked on the other side by my rubber wedge, and neither of us knew about the other. You talk about irony! So bang goes my plan of having the whole trainload of passengers as potential suspects. In fact, none of them could have done it. Of course, that was only a sort of emergency plan, just in case it was ever needed.

            As for the door, naturally I knew about that opening the wrong way. I just hoped, and indeed expected, that nobody would make an issue of it. It would just remain an unexplained detail, though I don’t like the way Frank was following it up. He could have just left it alone, and gone on minding his own business, couldn’t he? That’s what he should have done, but, as I said, he’s a bit unpredictable. And thinking of it being suicide, that’s reasonable, and, from my point of view, let’s say, a constructive step in the right direction. After all, there’s no evidence it wasn’t. But I would like have seen Charlie Fry, in full uniform, jumping against that door. Or even, come to think of it, Hercule Poirot! And it’s a pity Frank noticed that brake van. I didn’t think anybody would.

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