Chapter 9

            The next thing that happened was Thursday, the famous Thursday. It was famous not just because it was Joan’s birthday, but because of the various rituals associated with it. One was that since I was of the same age but my own birthday fell a month later in the year, for that month she was older than me, and claimed all the benefits and privileges of seniority. Once or twice she had insisted that we go over to the Nottingham goods yard on holiday, when there was only a skeleton staff around. She would then fulfill an ambition by climbing on to one of the shunting engines and drive it around the yard, shunting the wagons off one or two trains and sorting them out on to the appropriate sidings, while I cowered in the yardmaster’s hut with my hands over my ears, waiting for the big bang. It never came. The men rather enjoyed it all. They would ride on the engine supervising her, and grinning from ear to ear. Another of her tricks was to visit a signal box and help the signalman work the levers controlling the signals and points, while tapping out the traffic messages on the instruments, all of which she had learned while working in Nottingham South Box during the war.

            But, more immediately, there was the impending ritual of the Birthday Dinner. This happened every year, and it was entirely Joan’s idea. The principle was that we invited to it, in our own house, a judicious selection of my senior colleagues from the station. No wives, believe it or not. That was a law laid down by Joan. Her motive was to keep in touch with the milieu of my professional work and the people I worked with. I must admit that I found it an agreeable and sometimes profitable way of having an informal gathering where everybody was more relaxed than at work, and the dinners went well. In those days there was a strong feeling of personal loyalty to the Company that gave us a common bond. Often it amounted almost to a sense of dedicated vocation that sometimes manifested itself in becoming a family tradition running through the generations, in the same way that you get with service families. Indeed, my own father and grandfather had both been officers on the London and Northern. In my more pessimistic moments it would strike me that people might think that explained how I got my own job, though in fact when I was a trainee the London and Northern insisted, as they always did, that I should spend time as an apprentice in all the branches of railway work, shunting, signal boxes, firing and cleaning engines, issuing tickets and balancing the books, and so on, so that I would know the job from the bottom up and be able to talk to the staff on their level and in their own language.

            I did appreciate Joan’s initiative, and did my best to repay the anomaly of having a wife’s birthday attended only by her husband’s male colleagues. My way of getting round it was to have my own birthday celebrated by a similar dinner to which Joan invited various girlfriends – women only, no husbands. When Joan and I ever talked about it, we tried to justify it as a way of keeping in touch with each other’s friends. Well, it was a nice idea, and Joan was very insistent on it. Remarkable woman, my wife Joan. At least she didn’t insist on doing the cooking for her own dinner. The daily help was promoted to cook for the occasion.

            As Birthday Thursday got going, we all took our places round the table. The placing was a bit haphazard, for Larry Fineman, the General Manager, did not turn up. Evidently he was still chasing around somewhere in France. By now he was overdue several days, and, with memories of his “nine till five” greeting to John Halliday, I was looking forward to welcoming him back from France with something like “Good day, Mr. Fineman! The London and Northern vacation is fourteen days!” I wondered if I would have the courage to do it. Maybe I might, at that.

            The main course, as always on these occasions, was roast beef, very traditional, but it as also accompanied by plenty of good wine, so the relaxation became even more relaxed. After the dessert (trifle!) there was brandy along with the coffee, so relaxation continued apace. Given the company, the conversation began to run on predictable lines – the lines, that is, of the Central Region of British Railways. Naturally we got round to my quest for the new Britannias. Hugh Bradshaw, the Chief Mechanical Engineer, who had come up from Sheffield for the occasion, was discouraging.

            “From what I hear, they’re having trouble with them. The driving wheels are coming loose on their axles, which is not a good idea, and they’re all being towed back, dead, to Crewe. Crewe says they can fix them.”

            Surely, I thought, that couldn’t be the kind of thing the KGB would be interest in? No! Ridiculous! But before I could say anything, Mike Sullivan cut in.

            Mike was the Assistant to the CME (Chief Mechanical Engineer to you, Hugh Bradshaw to the rest of us), and in every sense a tough nut. He played rugby, and the word was that if you were in his way when he was racing with the ball for a touchdown, then if you were smart you tackled high, which is not effective, or, even better, “accidentally on purpose” missed tackling him altogether. If you really tried to stop him you wakened up in hospital. I’d watched him from the touchlines and seen it happen. As I said, he now cut in, about the Britannias.

            “If Crewe says they can fix them, then they will fix them, and they’ll be all right. From what I’ve seen of the specifications they’ll be good engines and just what we need. If we get them, that is. I think we’re going to have to fight the Eastern Region for them. They want to run them out of Liverpool Street.”

            A loud snort came from the other side of the table. David Ellis, the Signals and Telegraphs Engineer. Not a nice man. We’d been trying for a long time to get him to realign the down home signals at Vinley South, which were very hard for a driver to see as he cam out of Vinley Tunnel. So far, without success. He now offered his opinion on the Eastern Region.

            “That tramway! At least we’ve got a decent main line to run on, and from Liverpool Street you can’t even get outside East Anglia! Down there they think Norwich is the end of the earth.” On reflection he evidently thought this judgment too moderate. “In fact, they probably think the earth is flat, and if you go too far past Cromer you’ll fall off the edge.”

            Even for a brandy-filled evening this appeared a bit extreme, and Joan waded in to keep the peace.

            “At least they don’t have their guards falling out of trains. I don’t suppose Liverpool Street gets burgled very often either, at least not by secret Russian spies.”

            Evidently the word had got out, though at least she wasn’t saying anything about my mile-a-minute chase down the A60. Then her next remark had me on the edge of my seat.

            “Actually, Frank and I did a bit of studying on it. We went to see a Deborah Kerr film about spies, just to hone up on how they work.”

            I suppose that’s what you call putting a spin on the facts for a good cause.

            David Ellis gave another snort.

            “And did you learn anything?”

            It seemed to me that it was time to put a stop to this, so I in turn cut in.

            “That whole idea’s ridiculous. Russian agents wandering round the Central Region’s offices! And as for some officer of the Company being hand in glove with Moscow Centre – Charlie, you’re the policeman, what do you think?”

            Charlie Fry, not being really a railwayman, was a bit out of place at this gathering, but I had insisted on inviting him. I liked Charlie. I wondered why when he spoke.

            “Actually, Frank, the chief suspect was you.”

            “Me?”

            “Yes, you were the top of the list. You still may be. That M15 man told me so. I shouldn’t be telling you, of course, but fair’s fair, I think you deserve to know. I don’t believe it a for a moment myself.”

            “I’m glad to hear it! Me? A Communist spy? Whatever gave him that idea? After all, why would I burgle my own office?”

            Charlie was plainly looking very uncomfortable, but I’m not sure some of the others weren’t relishing it.

            “He thought maybe a cover-up, to divert suspicion away.”

            “But why do that when there wasn’t any suspicion? As far as I know, nobody suspected me of anything, indeed, quite rightly so. I’ve never heard of anything so flimsy. He’ll need to come up with a better answer than that.”

            Charlie was floundering around, trying to find a reasonable answer, or even excuse, but once again Joan helped me out.

            “Oh, come on, Charlie. We all know that if Frank comes into this in any way it’s as Hercule Poirot. Right, Frank?”

            I think everybody knew about my weakness for detective stories, and this did give me a way out in my efforts to get the evening back on to an even keel.

            “Well, as Hercule Poirot it seems to me tat we have here, round this table, a group of all possible suspects. There are two crimes, the burglary, and the coshing of the guard. We concentrate on the second, for it’s the more serious. All we have to do now is point the finger at who did it. It’s just like the usual last chapter in a detective story.”

            “That’s not really Hercule Poirot,” objected Hugh Bradshaw, “it’s more like Nero Wolfe.”

            “Then maybe we should ask Charlie Fry to handle it. It’s his line of work, he’s in the business.”

            Cheerfully, Charlie disqualified himself. “No, if you remember, it’s never the police that solve the murder, it’s always Hercule Poirot. Come on, Monsieur Poirot, we’re all waiting.”

            There was nothing else for it. I fixed Hugh Bradshaw with what I hoped was a steely eye.

            “All right, Hugh, you’re first. The Ulsterman got into Vinley that night at 9.50. Where were you?”.

            Hugh held out his palms in surrender.

            “It’s a fair cop, guv’nor. But I was at home, in Sheffield, every night that week.”

            “Any witnesses?”

            “My wife, Lucy. Give her a ring if you like.”

            I passed on that one. Of course, all this was an after-dinner joke, so I carried on it with it.

            “David Ellis?”

            David fumbled in his pocket and produced a small diary.

            “I was in London, for two days. It was a conference, about the proposed resignalling at Dunstable.”

            That figured. It was a favorite hobbyhorse of his. It was a new experimental scheme that he got interested in when, on a visit to America, he saw it on the New York Central. He was always going on about it, though I doubted if we would ever see it working.

            “And where were you in the evening?”

            “I stayed at the station hotel that night, and I was at dinner with the others at the time the Ulsterman left London, with the guard safely on board, still alive and kicking.”

            “Very well,” I said, “Not Guilty. You leave our dining room without a strain on your character. And good luck at Dunstable.”

            “Good,” said David, “Glad to hear it. But in that case I think I can ask- Monsieur Poirot, where were you?”

            A brief cheer ran round the table. Actually I had seen that one coming, and fortunately I had an answer.

            “I was at the University of Nottingham.”

            Another David Ellis snort.

            “Hah! Picking up a degree, eh?”

            I don’t think he had ever come to terms with the fact that, for my out-of-hours hobby, instead of doing something useful, like golf, I had been taking part-time courses at the University, in, of all things, English. So this contribution I simply treated with the disdain it deserved.

            “I was giving a talk to the students of the University of Nottingham Railway Club. It was on timetabling. After that they took me over for drinks to the Grove of Academe, that pub facing the University. We were there till about eleven, and I have fifteen witnesses to prove it.”

            David gave me a derisive handclap. I’d never liked him, and even though that was probably just the brandy talking, I still didn’t. Anyway, he bounced back.

            “So Hercule Poirot is cleared. Great! How about you, Mike? Where were you?”

            Mike Sullivan seemed a little confused.

            “Let’s see, what date was that? No, wait a minute, I’ve got it. I was footplating on the Oxford parcels. I was doing it every night that week, to check up on locomotive performance. As you know, that train is regularly double-headed.”

            Right enough, I think I remembered something about that. “Double-headed” means it had two engines, coupled together in tandem. It’s often done if extra power is needed, but in fact that Oxford parcels was quite a light load. The reason for the extra engine was that it had finished its day’s work at Oxford and had to get back to Nottingham, ready for the next morning. It could have run light, by itself, but the easiest way was simply to attach it to an existing train that was going there anyway. In theory that meant that it would also contribute some useful work along the way, but in practice you never knew. Sometimes it meant that each engine did only half the usual work, sometimes one did next to no work at all, being pushed or pulled by the other one, and giving the fireman an easy and restful trip. Mike, I recalled, had been checking up on this very subject by traveling on the footplate of one of the Oxford’s engines and taking notes on what was going on. He was Assistant to the Chief Mechanical Engineer and so had an interest in locomotive performance. So he had a natural alibi too. Mentally I crossed another name off the list.

            “OK, Mike, that’s-”

            “Just a minute,” David cut in. “You were on the Oxford parcels? As I remember it, that runs on very near the same schedule as the Ulsterman. In fact, then, you were very near the scene of the crime at the right time. Frank, aren’t I right?”

            “Well,” I agreed, “the parcels arrive in Leicester about the same time as the Ulsterman, in fact they are usually alongside each other, Platforms 1 and 2. The Ulsterman leaves first, and the parcels follow him out. Then at Vinley the Ulsterman pulls in to stop on the platform loop, while the parcels overtakes, running past on the through road, non-stop to Nottingham. The Ulsterman then leaves and runs close behind the parcels till they both arrive at Nottingham, one behind the other.”

            “I see,” said David. “That’s what I thought. So on the Leicester- Vinley section, which is what counts for that’s where the guard got hit, the parcels, with Mike on board it, is running, say, five minutes behind the Ulsterman, and at Vinley they change places so that the parcels arrive here first.”

            “Yes, that’s exactly what happens.”

            David took  a close look at Mike, and, with another swig at the brandy, took the plunge.

            “Then, speaking as Devil’s Advocate, I put it to you that not only were you close to the scene of the crime, by your own admission, but you had the opportunity. You could easily have sneaked across from one train to the other at Leicester- they were alongside each other, remember? – and finished off the Ulsterman’s guard.”

            I objected.

            “The guard was quite all right when the Ulsterman left Leicester. The Leicester platform staff say so. The actual murder happened later, when the train was running at full speed.”

            David was not fazed.

            “So he crossed over to the Ulsterman, stayed on board it when the train left on its way to Vinley, and clobbered George Carey en route.”

            This was enough to provoke Mike into entering the fray. I was surprised he hadn’t done it earlier.

            “Big deal, David! So how then did I get back on to the parcels when it was all over? Have you got an answer for that too? When the parcels got into Nottingham I was still on board it, as the driver can testify. I think I even talked to the platform inspector, who saw me getting off the engine. And, as you said, the parcels runs non-stop from Leicester to Nottingham, so there is nowhere I could have got back on to it. Which means I was on it all the time, and couldn’t have been anywhere else.”

            David beat a fighting retreat.

            “And that night did it in fact run non-stop?”

            Mike was categorical.

            “Yes, it did. In fact, it did every night that week, when I was on it. The only place you are liable to get delayed on that train is at Vinley, if you are catching up too close on the Ulsterman, before he gets into the platform loop and lets you past. But the Vinley signals were always clear for us, and we went through at 60mph, all the way to Nottingham. So I couldn’t have changed back again.”

            David had no choice but to accept it.

            “You can’t jump on to a train that’s going past at 60mph, that’s true. By the way, which engine were you on that night? The train is double-headed.”

            “Both. I was always on one or the other. I changed regularly from one to the other at the station stops. For the Leicester- Nottingham section I can’t remember for sure. I think I was on the pilot, the leading engine. It’ll be in my notes, at the office. And of course I’d joined the train back at Oxford, so there were one or two more station stops where I changed engines. I’d been doing it all week.”

            Charlie Fry evidently thought that enough was enough.

            “Mike, you’re lucky the parcels actually did run through Vinley non-stop. If it had stopped it would have destroyed your alibi, for you could have got back on it. As it Is, you are the prime suspect for you were nearly on the spot, but you are innocent until proven guilty. So, congratulations on your narrow escape!”

            He said it with a friendly grin, but I got the impression Mike didn’t particularly like the joke. I was just thinking about how I could make something constructive out of all this, when John Halliday did it for me.

            John, the Civil Engineer, now a relentlessly nine-till-five man after that rocket he received from the General Manager, was a little, sandy-haired man with gold-rimmed spectacles. He automatically made you think of a bank clerk, if you did not know his responsibilities. His job was to look after all the tunnels, bridges, cuttings, embankments and the like, and to see they were safely and properly maintained, as well as being responsible for the track and having it replaced when necessary (the permanent way being anything but permanent). That meant that it was he who laid down the weight limits on bridges, and the speed limits round curves, through junctions, and over colliery subsidence- we had a lot of that -, so it was actually he who decided how fast you could go to anywhere. But, like most railwaymen, he also had a wide interest in general operation. He now turned to Mike.

            “Mike, you were running just behind the Ulsterman, then, when the guard got thrown out. You didn’t see anything, I suppose?”

            “You suppose right. In the dark I certainly wouldn’t have noticed a body lying on the other track. And anyway those engines are left-hand drive, like nearly all British engines, so I was on the other side of the footplate, standing just behind the driver. I was watching how he was driving. That’s what I was there for.”

            John had another go.

            “When you ran through Vinley and passed the Ulsterman he was standing on the platform loop while you went straight on down the through road. So you were on the right side to see that open door in the guard’s brake. The people on the platform were on the wrong side to see it, but you weren’t. Did you see anything?”

            “No, not a thing. But then, we were going like the hammers of hell, there’s that 1 in 120 upgrade just after Vinley station and the drivers were going hard to get a run at it, the same as they always do, particularly since they now want to keep ahead of the Ulsterman, as he follows them out of Vinley. We didn’t know he was going to be sitting at the platform at Vinley for an hour and a half. So we would have just whipped by that open door in a split second, and, no, I didn’t notice a thing.”

            I intervened to bestow a Traffic Superintendent’s benediction.

            “I see. Makes sense. You don’t have to apologize for going through Vinley fast, Mike. As Charlie says, it’s exactly that that gets you off the hook as a suspect. Congratulations again!”

            As the tension subsided, I in my turn reached for the brandy, both to relax and celebrate an honorable close to a shaky theme. Joan did her duty as a hostess and launched into a long account of how Deborah Kerr and Trevor Howard had outwitted the Nazi spies in the film, getting our minds off the dicey question of whether one of us sitting round her table could possibly be a murderer or even a Communist spy.

            As for me, I could see that this thing had been slowly getting worse and worse, building up and constantly hitting closer to home. It was bad enough that the guard’s fall had turned out to be murder, but now, right or wrong, we were beginning to talk as if one of our own closed circle might be the guilty party. Even if we had been discussing it as a joke, it wasn’t a joke I very much cared for. And what would Larry Fineman make of it when he got back and found what the mice had been playing at while the cat was away? Come to that, he was still in France, with no explanation. What an example to set to his colleagues: the great apostle of punctuality overdue now by several days, getting on towards a week. When was he ever going to turn up?

            I needn’t have worried.

            Larry Fineman turned up the next morning.

 

Comment by the Murderer

            So there you have it. A pleasant enough occasion, and nothing in particular for me to worry about. As for Frank’s efforts at being the Great Detective, I suppose it was good clean fun all round, with nothing too serious about it. No problems, then.

Leave a Reply