Chapter 12

Narrative of Joan McMullen

            So there you have it. The three of us, Mike, Frank and myself duly left Mountroyal on the 6.52 Bradford, and they weren’t a lively bunch. Their meeting had evidently not gone well, and wifely compassionate understanding could only go so far, though I did my best.

            All of this scarcely made for a cheerful dinner in the restaurant car, and when we drifted back to our compartment after the meal I tried to change the subject by getting back to the never-ending topic, Guard Carey and his dive on to the up main track. The 6.52 Bradford made the same stops as the Ulsterman, so as we pulled into Leicester I suggested we consider the course of events, in a sort of mental reconstitution or reconstruction.

            “There! We’re standing now at Leicester, Platform 2, and the murderer is getting into the guard’s van at the rear. George Carey is helping him in and getting ready to wave his green land lamp to give the Right Away. Right!…Right?”

            “Right!” agreed Frank, smiling indulgently. Mike looked bored so I decided to shake him up a little.

            “Come on, Mike, wake up, you’re involved in all this. You’re just out there” – I gestured through the window at the empty track of Platform 1 next to us – “You’re out there, establishing your alibi on one of the engines of the Oxford parcels train, which is standing next to us.

            “And now,” our train jerked forward, “we’re off. The guard and the killer are both on board, back in the van, and you, Mike, are being left behind in Leicester station, on board the parcels. By now the killer is probably feeling for his fishplate, and Klunk! There it goes! The foul deed is done!”

            I kept on with this kind of cheerful prattling as the Bradford ran on through the night. Frank chipped in from time to time with jocular comments but Mike was resolutely silent. I might have thought he was being surly except that I supposed that perhaps his conversational powers had been drained by his earlier – and, let’s face it, long-winded -chatter about the great things to be expected from his son, Ian, over in Dublin. There came a rattle of points and crossings interrupting the regular rain beat under the floor of our coach.

            “That’s Blisbourne Junction. Now, out goes Carey on to the other line. Whomp! He’s gone!”

            It may have been a tasteless performance but at least it got Frank grinning. No reaction at all from Mike. Indeed, he still looked rather sullen.

            Then came a ringing metallic clatter. The Soar River Viaduct.

            “Door opens this side. Out go the parcels into the river. Splash! Door closed. Door hanging open on the other side.”

            Frank was still grinning. “You’re taking this seriously, aren’t you, Joan?”

            “Well, I suppose it’s the closest we can get to that reconstruction of the crime that you get in the last chapter of your mystery novels.”

            Then followed a dull, echoing roaring, and, from under our feet, a rasping, grinding sound. We were in Vinley tunnel, and the brakes had gone on for the Vinley stop. When we had come out of the tunnel speed had already been greatly reduced, and I was able to offer the last act in my reconstruction.

            “Hop! There he goes! The murderer jumps out through the open door. We’re slow enough for it now. He fades off into the night, and so the deed is done.”

            And, to my surprise, as we came to a stop at the platform, Frank stood up.

            “Joan, you’ve inspired me. I’m getting off here, I’ll ask around a bit. Maybe somebody at Vinley has seen something or thought of something more since I last visited them. That was immediately after the event, so maybe, just maybe, something has turned up. You never know. You go on, and I’ll see you back at the house.”

            “No way, Frank, if you’re getting off so am I.” And we both stepped down on to the platform and slammed the carriage door. Mike stayed in the train, showing no signs of interest. In a few minutes there were the usual whistles, doors slamming, the platform staff signaled the Right Away to the guard, who waved his green lamp, and soon we were standing together on the platform watching the red tail lamp of the 6.52 Bradford disappear out the far end of the station and into the night.

            Frank looked at me doubtfully as he prepared to set about his inquisition of the local staff. I could understand why he did not look too happy about it. Any of the station staff might well feel somewhat inhibited if they were approached by the Traffic Superintendent and his wife. Frank would probably do much better by himself. For that I had an easy and welcome solution.

            “Frank, why don’t you take me over to the South signal box? I can amuse myself there while you are “Pursuing Your Enquiries.” Of course I did know all about working signal boxes since I had myself done it during the war. I hade even, as had all signalmen, passed an examination on The Rules, a thick bound volume that was the railwayman’s Bible on what you had to know, what you had to do, and when and where you had to do it.

            Frank looked relieved.

            “Sure! Great idea!”

            We made our way down the sloping platform ramp and picked our way across the various tracks to where a dim light shone inside the box. Climbing the stairs up to the box, Frank looked in through the door.

            “Oh dear! It’s Jeff Farrell.”

            I vaguely knew the name and what Frank thought of him, as being a very awkward customer to deal with, especially in any dealings concerning the Union. “A real bolshie’s” was his usual description of him. At the moment, as Frank pushed open the door, Jeff was at the far end of the box with his back to us, talking on one of the phones. It was worth hearing.

            “…so watch out, Phil, they’ve just rung through from the platform to warn me that the old bugger and his bitch are on the prowl somewhere, I don’t know where they are.”

            It was Frank’s moment. He raised his voice.

            “The old bugger’s here!”

            Modestly I repressed the urge to add “So it’s his bitch!”

            Jeff slammed down the phone, his face a picture of guilty outrage. Frank moved in to the attack.

            “Hello, Jeff, this is my wife, Joan. I’m leaving her here for a bit. She used to work in a signal box, and she’s passed the Rules, but don’t let her do anything she shouldn’t. Just keep an eye on her, right? Joan, I’ll see you later on the platform.” And he was gone. I turned to face Jeff.

            “Hello, then. Bobbie.”

            His name wasn’t really Bobbie, but this was meant as a friendly gesture. On the railways, signalmen are often called Bobbie. It’s a term of respect, like calling a sea captain “Skipper”. I believe it comes from the early days in railway history, when the passage of the trains was regulated by men called policemen- hence, of course, a policeman is called a Bobbie, and the name stuck to signalmen. This time, though, it didn’t work. The only response I got was a grunt. So I just stood there, drinking in the familiar atmosphere.

            There was the long row of brightly colored levers working the signals and points, red for signals, black for points, blue for locks to lock the points firmly in place, yellow for the distant signal at the far end of the tunnel, white for spare ones not yet connected to anything. Above them hung a long shelf carrying a row of instruments showing on their brass dials which tracks were clear and which occupied, and tapper keys for sending telegraphic messages to the signal boxes on either side to regulate the safe running of the trains. By the door, under a hooded light, was the train register, a ledger for logging all messages and train movements. At the far end a coal stove, a large teapot, and a wicker armchair that somebody had illegally smuggled into the box added a domestic touch. Ah, the atmosphere! I felt really at home here and again tried to establish diplomatic relations.

            “Bobbie, were you on duty the night the guard fell out?”

           ” Huh. Mebbe. Dunno.”

            That wasn’t much better than a grunt. In despair I was almost turning to go when a thought struck me. It was a long shot, an impossibly long shot, based on vague rumours I had heard while working at Nottingham South, but I might as well try it.

            “I’d like a cup of tea.”

            “Uh! Haven’t got any.”

            I picked up the teapot and swirled it around.

            “Oh, here’s some. The teapot’s nearly full.” That got a response all right.

            “No, no! That’s cold!” This in tones almost of panic.

            “Just how I like it!”

            I lifted the pot again and found a cup nearby. Jeff, alias the Bobbie, was at the other end of the box and he hurried over, to try and stop me. He was too late. I poured out a cupful, clear and golden, and raised it to my lips. Jeff stopped, his eyes signaling something not far short of terror. I took a deep swallow, and smiled at him over the cup.

            “Ah, Mazawattee, I think? I used to be able to recognize different brands of tea, and I’m sure that’s it. I’m right, amn’t I?”

            Wordlessly, I got a nod of his head. And on the instant the whole atmosphere in the box changed. Driven by the teapot incident co-operation now became the order of the day.

            “Er…ma’am, you were asking if I was on, that night. I was, but I didn’t see anything unusual with the Ulsterman. Sorry I can’t help.”

            Well, that was a step in the right direction. I followed up, as innocently as you please.

            “What have you got coming through now?”

            Jeff raised an eyebrow.

            “There’s a freight coming through on the up main.”

            My hand hovered over the tapper key.

            “Shall I offer him on? For a Class H freight the code is 4-1, isn’t it?

            Jeff raised his other eyebrow.

            “I can see you haven’t forgotten the drill. Sure, 4-1 it is.”

            Of course, he knew I had once worked in a signal box. Rapidly I tapped out four beats, pause, one, to the next box up the line. On the instrument before my eyes the needle, which had been pointing to the printed words “Line Blocked,” flicked over to indicate “Line Clear.”

            I looked along the row of levers.

            “Signal 28 and signal 11?” I asked.

            This time Jeff actually smiled and offered me a chamois duster.

            In a well-kept signal box being given the chamois is the equivalent of the Lord Mayor giving you the keys of the city. Through the chamois I took a good grip on the polished handle of the bright red lever 28 and pulled it back, then the same for lever 11. The signals were now clear for the oncoming freight. And you always use the chamois for gripping the levers because that keeps them brightly polished and clean.

            Then out of the night, silhouetted against the station lights, it came, a great lumbering brute of a heavy goods engine carrying two headlamps, one just under the chimney and one in the middle down below – the positioning being code indicating a class H goods train. This is what I had cleared the line for. There was a sudden flare of yellow blazing light as the fireman opened the firedoors to swing another shovelful of coal into the firebox, then the engine was swallowed up in darkness as it went clanking on into the mouth of Vinley Tunnel. It was followed by a long, endless stream of coal wagons,one after the other, almost sixty of them, and as the brake van at the end of them clattered past I did remember to look and check that it was carrying a red tail lamp. The lamp is always put on to the last vehicle, so if it is not there it means the train has become divided with a broken coupling, and the second half has been left behind somewhere, blocking a line and you don’t know where. So you stop everything. This time, though, tail lamp OK. I tapped out two beats on the tapper key to the next box in front of the train, and watched the needle on the dial flip over from “Line Clear” to “Train On Line.” Then two-pause-one to the box on the other side of me, indicating “Train Out Of Section”, or, in layman’s language, “Right, mate, the train’s past me complete with tail-lamp, so the line is clear for your next train.”

            We carried on this way for the next half-hour or so, with me working the signal box and Jeff, over in the corner, entering all the various movements in the train register – it had to be all in his handwriting, just in case anyone ever looked at it and wondered why there was evidently some unauthorized person in the box. As it was, Jeff kept an eye on what I was doing, occasionally offering helpful tips (“Signal 31 is pretty far away, you need to pull on the lever real hard”), and I repressed the desire to tell him “You see, the old bugger’s bitch’s hand hath not lost its cunning.”

            Then, during a lull in traffic, which at that hour was pretty light anyway, I wandered along to look at the train register over Jeff’s shoulder as he wrote in the latest entries. Being helpful, he flipped back a few pages to the George Carey night and pointed with his finger. Sure enough, there was the down Ulsterman entered as having arrived right time, and left an hour and forty minutes later. I was about to turn away when my eye happened to fall on the next entry below it, the Oxford parcels.

            Arr. 9.54, Dep. 10.08.

            The parcels had been stopped, standing there at Vinley for fourteen minutes.

            And Mike Sullivan, who had been aboard it, had several times insisted that they ran straight through, fast, “going like the hammers of hell.”

            And as Charlie Fry had said, over my own dinner table, Mike’s alibi depended on the parcels not stopping. But it had.

            So the bottom was knocked out of Mike’s alibi.

            He was either mistaken or lying through his teeth.

            Trying to assume an air of nonchalance I asked Jeff about this.

            “I see you had the Oxford parcels stopped too. What happened there?”

            “Oh, I stopped him at my home signal, just as you come out of the tunnel. Had to. I had a point failure.”

            “Oh? What was wrong?”

            “It was the points giving entry off the main line on to the platform loop. Naturally I had to put them over to bring the Ulsterman in to the platform, and when I went to put them back again to give the parcels a clear run down the through road, they were jammed. You could pull as hard as you liked on the signal lever, with the points facing the wrong way it just wouldn’t move. The signal would stay at danger and the parcels train would stop at it. So for fourteen minutes both trains were there, standing still.”

            That made sense. Of course you couldn’t clear the signal with the points facing the wrong way. Even if you forget, and try to pull the signal lever, it won’t move. The levers are mechanically interlocked under the floor of the box. I went on to the next obvious question.

            “So how did you clear the points, then?”

            “Oh, I went down to have a look at them, to see if I could find what was wrong. It was a lump of coal had fallen between the fixed rail and the point blades so that they couldn’t be moved, and the points were jammed. I lifted the lump out, and that was it. The points were free, I went back to the box, changed the points, cleared the signal for the parcels, and off he went.”

            “So it was just a lump of coal, then?”

            “Yes. Must have fallen off the tender of the Ulsterman as he passed over the points on his way in. They were all right before that.”

            There wasn’t much more that I could ask him, and in any case the door opened as Frank appeared to escort me back to the platform. Silently I beckoned him over to the train register and pointed to the entries in it. At first he got the wrong one.

            “Oh yes, the Ulsterman, he arrived right time. Well, it’s always useful to have that confirmed.”

            I pointed more insistently, to the next entry. He got it right away.

            “Good God! The parcels was stopped?”

            I repeated to him briefly what Jeff had told me about the jammed points and how the parcels was stopped at the home signal. For a moment he and the signalman engaged in a cloud of technicalities.

            “You let the parcels come to your home although you hadn’t got an overrun beyond it? What about the Rules?”

            “Oh, I had an overrun. There’s facing crossover 12. I reversed that, on to the up main. That gave me the overrun. I put it back afterwards, as soon as the train stopped.”

            They might have gone on arguing about it but we got two beats on the bell, for a train coming. Of all things, it was the down Ulsterman – strange how we just couldn’t get away from that train! – and that was the one Frank and I wanted to catch, going home from Vinley. Frank said a hasty good-bye, and so did I, behind Frank’s back gesturing as if drinking a teacup and winking at Jeff as if we were co-conspirators, which I suppose we were.

            Picking our way over the tracks, we had just got to the platform when our express, the Ulsterman, appeared out of the tunnel and slid in to stop, doors opening, passengers milling around, and porters pushing barrows full of luggage. We did not immediately board, but stood on the platform, at the back of the train. It seemed as if hardly a minute had passed when there came a whistle, as per regulations, and out of the tunnel burst two engines followed by a string of six or seven vans. The Oxford parcels was on time and disappeared down the through road, overtaking the Ulsterman as per schedule. Frank and I settled down in an empty compartment and presently the train started, now following behind the parcels. Frank, naturally brought up the whole scenario that I had unearthed in the Vinley signal box.

            “As you say, that completely destroys Mike’s alibi. And I’m not very happy about that lump of coal falling off the Ulsterman’s tender. Certainly coal can fall off tenders, if they are filled right up to the top, but the Ulsterman would have left Mountroyal with a full tender and by the time it got to Vinley the level would have fallen quite a bit as it got used up. So it wouldn’t readily be falling over the sides. On the other hand, just think. If you wanted to stop the parcels without anybody suspecting anything out of the ordinary, what better way than to drop a lump of coal into the points.”

            “Frank, are you suggesting that it was not accidental? That somebody planned it, and brought along the lump of coal on purpose?”

            “Well, it could be that way, couldn’t it? And if our Mr. X wanted to get back on to the parcels without anybody knowing, just think. The parcels is double-headed, so when it stopped at the Vinley home signal the pilot, the leading engine, would be just clear of the tunnel, under the Mill Street bridge, while the train engine and the rest of the train would still be in the tunnel – like a rabbit just poking its nose outside its burrow. And with both firemen having been building up their fire for the climb out of Vinley, the unexpected stop would result in steam pressure in the boiler building up, resulting in the safety valves lifting and blowing off clouds of steam. And with the tunnel filled with clouds of steam and smoke Mr. X could easily board the train without anybody seeing him or where he came from.”

            I stated the obvious.

            “You say ‘Mr. X’, but it has to be Mike Sullivan, doesn’t it? That’s what this is all about?”

            “I don’t like saying it, but that’s the way everything is pointing, isn’t it? It would even explain why he was so withdrawn coming down to-night on the Bradford, when you began to reconstruct the crime. If what we’re thinking is right, he naturally wouldn’t be happy about it. I’ll have to see Charlie Fry to-morrow morning and pass all this on to him. And you, Joan, you certainly got Jeff Farrell eating out of your hand. That’s a miracle. I can’t imagine how you brought him round. You must have been very tactful indeed. I could never have done it.”

            I just smiled and shrugged. I had no intention of telling Frank about the teapot.

            But I won’t keep stringing you along. The whole point of the teapot business was very simple. I poured myself a cupful and drank it, and told Jeff what brand of tea it was.

            But what was in the teapot wasn’t tea at all.

            It was beer.

            And Jeff knew that I knew it, and if it was known that he had alcohol in the signal box while on duty, he was for the high jump. And when I went along with him, saying it was tea, then he knew I had him over a barrel but wasn’t going to let on. Hence the sudden friendly co-operation. In effect, it was an unspoken agreement between us. And I would be willing to bet that the moment Frank and I left the signal box the incriminating evidence was quickly poured out of the window. I would also bet that it would be a very long time before there was again any beer in Vinley South signal box. Still, it was just a lucky chance that I remembered those rumours I heard years ago when I was signalwoman about things that sometimes go on, and lucky that to-day my thousand-to-one chance had paid off.

            Still, I’m not going to tell Frank. He couldn’t do anything about it. Firing a union member on the basis of what a senior executive was told by his wife, now that would be a sure way of stirring up trouble. In short, it couldn’t be done. And yet, if Frank knew, he would worry about it.

            That’s Frank for you.

            When it comes to the railway he is very conscientious.

 

Comment by the Murderer

            There! I did say, didn’t I, that Joan was the smart one? Of course I knew about the train register in the signal box, but in the ordinary way, who ever looks at it? Not unless they have some special reason. Maybe if I hadn’t stayed on the train, and instead got off with Frank and Joan at Vinley, maybe then I could have done something to stop all this. Perhaps I could have diverted Joan’s attention from the signal box, though I must admit I never thought of the train register. And I didn’t know about the beer in the teapot, though one does hear rumours from time to time. In any case, signaling is not the kind of thing I am involved with. I am an engineer. My current work is connected with the design and specifications for the bogies of a new type of tanker wagon to carry liquid gas.

            So, just my bad luck again. And even if it destroys my alibi, all that does is create suspicion, not proof, or even evidence. Just the same, I wish it hadn’t happened. I don’t like the way they are all getting their teeth into this thing. Too bad about Larry Fineman, but I wish they would just let it go. After all, in a week or two it’ll all be over, and in another month it will be completely forgotten.

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