Chapter 11

            I don’t want to tantalize you too much, so I’ll make it clear now, nothing much happened on the way up to London. The arrangement was that we would meet on Platform 5, the main up platform, and go up together to Mountroyal on The Cumbrian, with lunch on the train. There were three of us, myself, Mike Sullivan, and Joan. Mike, of course, was going up with me for a meeting with The Powers That Be, in the hope of snaring one or two Britannias out of them (forlorn hope!).

            Joan was coming along because she always enjoyed a trip up to London, and while we were locomotive-hunting she would be doing the London shops. She always said that Nottingham was, perhaps surprisingly, good for shopping, but, for her at least, shopping in London had a kind of extra zing to it. On this occasion, she said, she would be looking for wallpaper. We were going to re-do our living room, and she had resolved on wallpaper instead of just painting it. Thank goodness she wasn’t going to buy it there and then, so we wouldn’t all be staggering back to Nottingham with umpteen rolls of wallpaper under our arms. The idea was, she had got one or two good addresses of decorators’ shops where she could look through the pattern books and then get it ordered through the shop back home.

            In the meantime, there were she and I waiting on The Cumbrian, and where was Mike? Joan pointed back along the platform, where he was talking to a young man, rather a scruffy one if the truth be told, the sort that nowadays would be part of the jeans-and-backpack brigade, but then were dolled out in a worn sports coat and very baggy trousers, as indeed this one was.

            “Oh, he’s with somebody.” Nothing like stating the obvious. Joan straightened me out.

            “Yes, Frank, that’s his son. He’s called Ian.”

            The train, on its way up from Carlisle, was rolling in, the engine, as usual, was a 2AP – “Sir Robert Peel”, this time – it slowly swept by us and came to a rest at the platform.

            Joan caught my eye, and I could just guess what she was thinking: “Trust you to be looking at the engine and not to think of the family! Men!”

            Back down the platform, Mike waved good-bye to the young man and hurried forward to join us all piled aboard, slammed the door, and settled down “on the cushions”, urged on by the guard’s warning whistle. Almost immediately we started. I glanced at my watch. The train had been seven minutes late arriving and now we were only four. Very good station work. He was allowed five minutes at the platform and they got us away in just two. Good! It wasn’t quite a Bill Walker start, though, not the same display of energy, but then he had a heavy train to get moving, fifteen coaches- Oops!

            I’d done it again, and from Joan’s look it was clear what was passing through her mind.

            Family! Warm human values! I took the unspoken hint.

            “Mike, I saw you with your son back there – John, isn’t it?”

            “No, Ian, actually.”

            “Ian, of course, that’s what I meant.”           

            It didn’t really make much difference. Mike was enormously proud of his son, and just a mention of him set Mike off. And once he was off he could hardly stop. As it was, Joan, as she so often did, came to the rescue.

            “Ian was just visiting you then, was he? Where is it he’s at now? Dublin, isn’t it?”

            Mike blossomed. “Yes, he’s at Trinity College, Dublin. He’s just in his first year.”

            I had another go.

            “How’s he getting on?”

            “Oh, he’s enjoying it to no end. And he likes Dublin.”

            “Still,” I mused, “it’s a pity he didn’t get into an English university, somewhere closer to home.” 

            “Ah, he couldn’t. All the English universities seem to be still almost full of ex-servicemen, returning from the war, so it wasn’t so easy for, let’s say, ordinary students to get in. But Trinity, Dublin, is a good university, apparently, and there are no ex-servicemen in Ireland. Ireland wasn’t in the war. So there it is, and it looks like he’s doing well.”

            As usual, I put my foot in it.

            “So maybe we’ll be seeing him back on the railways, then?”

            “Oh, no, he’s reading history. Right now he’s into the French Revolution. Not many railways in that, though what with committee work I sometimes wonder if maybe they weren’t on to a good thing with the guillotine.”

            There wasn’t too much to be said after that. I fell back on ground where I felt secure.

            “So how’s he getting back to Dublin, then? Derby and Crewe I suppose, but then Holyhead or Liverpool?”

            I almost got a “shut up!” from Joan, who got things back into the main channel by asking Mike for more about his son’s adventures at university. She got it, too. We all did, all the way through Vinley, Leicester, Dunstable, right into Mountroyal. The truth of it is, once Mike got started on Ian he became like a runaway train, no way of stopping him.

            Eventually into sight came Mountroyal itself, a great Gothic pile that made St. Pancras seem modest and unpretentious. That freed us from Mike’s son, and a quick glance around Platform 7 reassured me that I couldn’t see any men in white coats trying to hide behind the rows of luggage trolleys, poking their binoculars round the architectural gargoyles along the roof, or even any Russians peeking over the top of the big Train Departure Board. So far so good.

            At this point we split up, promising to meet again on the platform to go home again all together on 6.52 Bradford. In the meantime Joan was off into the wilds of the metropolis, while Mike and I continued our Britannia hunt by fearlessly confronting the British Railways administrative HQ on Marylebone Road, a prospect enough to chill the heart of even the boldest.

            And so it proved.

            I will not bore you with the meeting. It looked like Hugh Bradshaw, our Chief Mechanical Engineer, had got it right when he thought getting the Britannias was a lost cause, which was why he hadn’t come with us. As for Mike and I, we were soon outside again, facing each other on the pavement.

            “Well,” I said, “that’s that!”

            Mike put it more clearly.

            “The fix was in!”

            For indeed, of the whole fleet of Britannias, one was going to the Southern Region, who would use it on the Golden Arrow, one was going to the Western, who didn’t even particularly want it, and all the rest to Liverpool Street.

            We now had hours of time to put in before rejoining Joan, and were looking round for a decent pub to spend it in, when Mike had a bright idea.

            “Frank, would you like to have a look at a Britannia, a real one?”

            “A real one? But there isn’t -”

            “Yes, there is. I heard it just the other day, somewhere. The first engine off the production line, Britannia herself, has actually arrived at Stratford. They’re using her on the Hook Continental, the Harwich boat train.”

            I thought a little.

            “The Hook goes out from Liverpool Street at 8.30, doesn’t it? So at Stratford they’ll be preparing the engine round about now, won’t they? Hell, so what are we waiting for? Smart man, Mike!”

            I’m not too sure how high Stratford ranks in the real estate market, – well below that other one, the One-on-Avon, I should imagine – but at least it was close and easily reached. We caught one of the Shenfield electrics out of Liverpool Street, and before you knew where you were, you were there. We made a beeline off the station and headed for the locomotive shed. The first job was to find the running foreman and check in with him. Admittedly we were both senior officers, but this was Eastern Region, while we were Central, and you don’t muscle in on somebody else’s turf without the courtesy of looking in to say “Hello.”

            I asked about Britannia. Yes, she was there all right. Should be down around the coaling plant about now, coaling up for her evening run. Sure, by all means go and have a look. We’re all proud of her. Brand new, too! Only arrived a day or two ago. Biggest engine we’ve ever had here – even if she does tend to slip a bit when you’re starting with a heavy train. Probably just needs careful driving.

            I think he would have gone on non-stop, but Mike and I tactfully broke away and continued our Britannia hunt. Stratford is a big depot and it had just about got dark, so I think it would have taken me some time finding her. I did not know Stratford very well. Mike did, or said he did, so he led the way round and through the long lines of parked engines, big ones, small ones, clean ones, filthy ones, ones hissing steam and ones as dead as a doornail. Round the ash pits and by the water cranes. Everything only partially illuminated by the orange glare of sodium floodlights, and at least Mike seemed to know where he was going.

            And then we saw her. Only a dark silhouette against a dark background, but though I had never seen a Britannia before I know roughly what she looked like, from the drawings in the specifications, and her lines were so distinctive you couldn’t make a mistake. After all, a railwayman recognizes the different types of locomotive as if they were human faces. Naturally Mike spotter her too, with a resounding “View Halloo!”

            The engine was actually on the move, going away from us, but at a very slow speed, maybe a walking pace. To get to her involved a sort of hurdles across the tracks, shunters’ huts, dwarf signals, and other similar obstacles, but pretty soon Mike was trotting alongside the moving engine, and I was not far behind him. The serial number 70000 painted on her side of the cab in big figures confirmed our catch. This was Britannia herself, the first of the series, and for some time we both loped alongside her, noting various features of the design and appearance. Maybe we’d be invited up on to the footplate for a look around, but not yet. Maybe after she had coaled. Anyway, the driver’s seat was at the other side – the Britannia’s were left-hand drive – and the frequent flaring blaze of flame in the cab told us the fireman was busy shoveling coal into the firebox, and therefore not looking out admiring the scenery on our side either.

            Mike too seemed to get tired of the great six-feet driving wheels and high running plate, and sprinted ahead to a yard or two in front of the engine. The view from there, of the oncoming engine, must indeed have been striking for he acted wildly, as if he was at one of his rugby games.

            “Frank! Frank! Come and look at this! Come on, run, you can do it!”

            Well, if he said so. I broke out into a kind of lumbering half-trot to get ahead of the moving locomotive, when my foot caught against something and down I went, flat on my face, parallel to the rails and those six-foot drivers, as the engine groaned, clanked, and hissed along past me, maybe three feet away. Slowly, because I was still halfway out of it, I pushed myself up to a sitting position, spat out a mouthful of clinker and gravel, and watched the Britannia fade on into the gloom along the track. Mike came running back.

            “Frank! Are you all right?”

            He held out his hand and helped me up. I seemed to be all right except that my left foot was twisted around something. I reached down to see what it was, and, sure enough, it was a point rod. I had tripped over a point rod in the dark. Point rods are the long, steel rods that enable a signalman in his signal box to pull a lever and thereby push over a set of points, changing the direction they face. Often the points are some distance from him, so you have this long rod, a hundred yards or more, connecting the two. It runs alongside the track at ground level, supported by little pulleys every now and then. That’s what I had tripped over, and I should have known there might be one there. I was lucky I didn’t fall against the moving wheels of the locomotive and get mashed to a pulp. As for the engine, that was by now far away from us and continuing on its way, and I for one wasn’t going to chase it. I turned back and headed for home. Pity! Not what anybody could call an exciting or interesting trip.


Comment by the Murderer

            Damn! Damn! Damn! Wouldn’t you know it? I was getting him nicely lined up in front of the engine, and a smart push in the back would have done it. No witnesses. We were on the right hand side of the engine and the driver was on the left, while the flaring blaze of flame showed that the fireman had his firedoors open and was building up his fire for the run to Harwich instead of leaning over his side of the cab. No witnesses, except me. And of course I would have sworn that Frank had tripped over the point rod, fallen in front of the Britannia, and, naturally, got chewed to bits. A pure accident! Who could say otherwise? And then what actually does happen? Believe it or not, he really does go and trip over the point rod, just before I am ready to push him over it, and falls alongside the engine instead of in front of it, where he doesn’t get hurt at all; while if it had been in front, it would have been the end of him.

            Of course, none of this was planned in advance. I suggested we go to Stratford because, like Frank, I was genuinely interested in the machine, and in any case, as you have noticed, Frank has a thing about Britannias and it’s easy to get his attention diverted on to them away from, let’s say, more serious matters, like murder. So I just got us down to Stratford as a sort of healthy diversion and suddenly saw a golden opportunity, right before my eyes. Didn’t Frank or somebody tell you I was by nature impetuous? Anyway, it didn’t work, so there was Frank walking alongside me, happily chatting about this and that, and not having the slightest idea I was in the process of trying to kill him. Well, he was getting a bit too close to how I killed the guard, Carey, and now Larry Fineman, of all people. So it would have to look like an accident. We couldn’t have a series of coshings, one after the other. That would be just asking for trouble.

            So we headed back toward Mountroyal Station, with Frank still babbling on about the turn-round times and rate of water consumption of Britannia, and me wondering if there was still no way he could have an accident. A push in the back? Fall in front of a tube train? Happens all the time, doesn’t it? And it was rush hour. Crowded platforms. Certainly Oxford Circus, where we were changing from the Central Line to the Bakerloo, that was crowded enough. I managed to get Frank on the front of the platform, with myself right behind him, when came the rush of air from the open tunnel that announced a tube train was coming. Get ready!


            Now –


            No, it wasn’t me. There was no mistaking that voice.

            It was Joan.

            And there she was, pushing through the crowd till she was beside Frank, and then even…God help us! She slipped her arm through his.

            That did it. There was no way I could push both of them under the train, both at once.

            So I made the best of a bad job and called out “Hello, Joan! Did you get your wallpaper?”

            I don’t think she had noticed me before. I got a nice smile, and then we all three piled in through the opening doors of the Bakerloo train.

            So there we were, all lined up for an enjoyable two hour trip back to Nottingham with me sitting next to Frank, the man I had twice failed to kill, and chatting away about this and that in the most cheerful manner possible, while Joan was wondering about wallpaper patterns. I wondered if I would be up to it. And if you haven’t yet realized my name and who I am, all I can say is you haven’t been following the story very closely, for I haven’t made any great secret of it.

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