Chapter 15

            After all this I don’t suppose you’ll really be surprised at what happened next. I saw the Eccleshall Yardmaster and we talked over various possibilities, such as increasing general efficiency, adding two or three new sidings, or even diverting through freights, like the Hartlepool – Cardiff, via Derby and let the London Midland Region deal with it. It was dark and past seven when we finished. I had a quick snack in the canteen and then, since both the Bradford and the Hartlepool were, according to the Yardmaster, running late (as they often were), I walked over to the reception sidings, my shoes crunching on the ash and clinker underfoot, and watching out for moving wagons being shunted. I got there just in time. The Bradford goods was there, the fireman down behind the tender in the act of uncoupling the engine, which would be going off to the engine shed. When it did it would take with it Driver Singer, and my chance of talking to him. Right now he was up in his cab and looking for his fireman to reappear from behind the tender. I waved to him and climbed up into the cab, just as the fireman did from the other side. Fortunately Singer still couldn’t go ahead as the yard engine doing some shunting blocked the track in front of him.

            I had to push on hard with my questions, before the engine was ready to move off, but Singer proved very approachable and co-operative.

            Oh yes, he remembered that night very well. Not only had they got stopped at Vinley for a very unusually long time, but also it stuck in his mind because they were shown the lump of coal. This was news to me. What was the story about that?

            “You see, when the Bobbie cleared his points by lifting the lump of coal out of them, he actually walked over to us and held it up for us to see. He said “There you are, driver, that’s what stopped you.” Something like that wasn’t it?”

            The fireman nodded his agreement. So I put the vital question.

            “What did Mr. Sullivan say, then? He was on the footplate with you, wasn’t he?”

            “No, he wasn’t there. He was on the other engine, all the way from Leicester. He was always changing around, you see, from one engine to the other. In fact, he must have seen the lump of coal too, as well as us, for the Bobbie then took it back to show to the other driver, Driver Bryce I think it was. He was on the train engine and we were in front, on the pilot. Then he, the Bobbie that is, went up into his box and pulled off his signals clear for us, and off we went. He seemed awfully proud of his lump of coal. I wouldn’t be surprised if he took it home with him and had it framed.”

            I had got what I wanted. For the vital period, from Leicester to Vinley, Mike was not on the pilot engine. Was he on the other? I might have gone on with some small talk but at that point the shunting that had been blocking the line ahead was finished and the shunter was impatiently waving us on. I climbed down as Driver Singer opened his regulator (that’s the thing that the newspapers call ‘the throttle’), and his engine slowly moved off on its way to its home shed to be coaled, watered, greased, oiled, and generally serviced in readiness for its next turn of duty. A quick glance at my watch and I hurried over to the through road, along which the Hartlepool – Cardiff would presumably be arriving.

            Under one of the lamps I could see two men in footplate overalls and grease-top caps, standing, waiting. Presumably Driver Bryce and his fireman. I made myself known.

            “Are you relieving the Cardiff fitted?”

            “That’s right…” There followed a stuttering pause and I guessed he very likely had been brought up short by not knowing whether to address me as ‘mate’ or ‘sir’; and neither would really do. So I ploughed ahead.

            “I’ll be coming along with you as far as Nottingham.”

            I got a nod, Bryce had evidently decided to avoid actual spoken speech where possible, as offering too many ambiguities and challenges, though he was not actively hostile.

            “You were on the Oxford parcels, weren’t -”

            Bryce suddenly breaking silence cut me off.

            “Oh Gawd!”

            For now I faced two setbacks. The first was represented by two flickering, bleary-looking oil headlamps slowly advancing towards us through the shadows. The Hartlepool – Cardiff fast goods was coming in. It was a setback because I had intended to talk to Driver Bryce in peace and quiet while we were waiting on the train. Now it was already here, and from now on he would have his mind on other things, like driving it.

            As the engine drew nearer I met my second setback. It was introduced by another explosive comment from Driver Bryce.

            “Gawd! Strewth! It’s a bloody Charleston!”

            He had seen and identified the outline of the oncoming engine before I did. It was what the men called a ‘Charleston’, officially known as a class 3KMT 2-6-0. That was a type of engine originally built and put on the rails in the 1920’s, and fast enough for general service, but was known rather for its rough riding. Being on one of those things was like being on a bucking bronco. The 1920’s, when they first appeared, also saw the arrival of the Charleston, the notably energetic dance. Somebody said it looked like the locomotive was dancing the Charleston, and the nickname stuck. Hence Driver Bryce’s reaction when he saw what it was he would be driving to-night, all the way to Oxford, where they would be changing engines and crews. I would only be going as far as Nottingham but that would be enough and plenty, since amid all the noise and ‘Charlestoning’ I would be trying to conduct a murder investigation. Hercule Poirot never had to cope with that or even, I expect, Inspector Barrett.

            As the engine groaned to a stop beside us, Bryce was now able to read the number painted on it, and, turning to me, offered his considered opinion.

            “Cripes! It’s old ’39! A real bag of bones! The worst one of the whole lot! You’re going to enjoy yourself going to Nottingham to-night, mate!”

            I noted the ‘mate’. We were now recognized equals, comrades in the face of adversity, if not calamity.

            The two Hartlepool men climbed down from the cab.

            “What’s she like?”, asked Bryce of the driver.

            “Sooner you than me, mate! You ever thought of riding a horse in the Grand National? I reckon for this turn they should have issued us with riding breeches and spurs! So, the best of British luck to you!”

            He and his fireman slouched off into the dark and we, all three of us, climbed up into the cab. The fireman – he turned out to be called Johnny – had a look through the firedoors at the blaze within, and said at least they had left us a good fire, well made up. He started shoveling just the same, remarking to me that, with this engine at least, it was best to get the coal into the fire while the engine was standing still, and you could aim straight as you swung your shovel. I thought I might as well start my interview while we could still talk.

            “So, rough ride to-night?” I was trying for a tactful opening but all I got was “Just wait! You’ll see!”

            “Not like when you were working the Oxford parcels, with Mr. Sullivan aboard, eh?”

            Bryce looked like he might be going to reply when the signal in front of us changed from red to yellow, “Proceed at Caution.” Reaching up, he yanked the cord for a short toot on the whistle to acknowledge, looked back to see the guard, in the brake van at the end, waving ‘Right Away’ with his hand lamp, then blew off his brakes and tugged his regulator up and open to give her steam. The dreaded ’39 groaned into shaky motion and we were off.

            Slowly, wheels squealing on the sharp curves out of the yard, we Proceeded with Caution on to the main line. Bryce pushed his regulator lever up another notch or two and we began to pick up speed. Unfortunately for me, this train was a fitted. That is, a goods train with all the wagons fitted with the vacuum brake, so that the driver could apply the brakes all down the train. The extra braking power meant that he could safely run faster, at passenger train speeds. Correction: for ‘could run faster’ read ‘should run faster’, had to run faster for that’s what the timetable told him to do, and it’s what he was paid for. Driver Bryce gave her a bit more steam, and ’39, true to type, began kicking up her heels in the Charleston as we dashed along at about 50 mph.

            I tried to ask a question again about Mike Sullivan’s activities on the Oxford parcels. Bryce cocked an eye at me interrogatively and cupped a hand behind his ear, for ’39’s noisy din quite matched her dancing. I gave up until things quieted down, wondering if I was crazy ever to have thought of doing this. If you have never traveled on a steam locomotive you will have no idea what it is like. The motion is nothing like the rolling, rocking swing of the passenger coaches. It is a rapid, bumping rhythm, from the working of the machinery under your feet, six bumps to every revolution of the wheels in a Charleston. It is often highly irregular in beat, and there is a constant din. That’s what it is like on an ordinary engine. A Charleston was something else again, and I could only admire Fireman Johnny’s skill in continually swinging all his shovelfuls of coal into the firebox without spilling any of it on the floor.

            I soon learned why he was doing it.

            We had just gone hammering through Richam Road station. It had been slightly upgrade till here, but now we were downhill to Nottingham. You might think that would make the running easier. The truth is the opposite. Up to Richam Road we had been climbing, and the drag of the train we were pulling behind us helped, minimally, to keep our engine steady. Now it was running downhill, we were not pulling the load, and if anything it was pushing us from behind. Rapidly the Charleston became something more like the Paris Can Can. The footplate shook and jumped under us, and you grabbed at something, preferably not a hot steam pipe, to hold on. Johnny gave up firing. That’s why he had been piling it on before. As for now, we all three of us got off the engine altogether and stood on the floorplate on the front of the tender, where the riding was no joke but not quite as bad as on old ’39. It was still like sitting on top of a pneumatic drill, combined with jitterbugging. As for the din, the best I can do is rattle-rattle, Clank- squeal, Bonk -clatter- , clatter clickety rattle – thump, bangbangbang, clankity BANG!!

            Bryce and I both knew what that last one was. We were running through Twickley station and in its wild gyrations the engine had hit the stone edge of the platform a glancing blow. We looked over the side but could see nothing, either right or wrong, but we were still on the rails and running. Bryce looked at me and spread his hands in a ‘What else did you expect?’ gesture. I thought talking was impossible, but cupping his hands he fair bellowed in my ear.

            “‘Fore God, I’ll get this bastard condemned before she kills somebody! See if I don’t!”

            I nodded, and wondered how I could ever have intended to question him or discuss the Oxford parcels and a murder alibi. Pure madness! Insanity on my part.

            Ahead of us shone a single yellow light on a signal.

            Yellow. “Caution: you may have to slow down or stop ahead.”

            Bryce thumped the regulator shut, shutting off the steam, and I heard the hiss of air going into the vacuum as he put on the train’s brakes. Our speed dropped immediately, and the cab of our engine again became habitable for ordinary humans.

            Ahead, a single red signal, and to one side of it a small green.

            We were being sidelined, into a loop line, like a lay-by on a main highway, as the signalman got us in off the main line so as to let past something bigger and better than us. We swerved into the loop, ground to a stop, and slowly I came to life again. With us stopped and reasonably quiet, now was my chance. I opened up again on the question of what had happened that night on the Oxford parcels.

            Oh yes, he remembered that night all right. It was the night they were stopped by a lump of coal. “The Bobbie brought it over and showed it to us, handed it up to us in the cab, he did, and we all had a look at it.”

            I noted the words. ‘We all’, not ‘We both.’

            “So Mr. Sullivan was there and had a look at it, did he? He was on your engine?”

            “Yes, he was. He was always on one engine or the other. And, well, I reckon it was our turn. He was on our engine all right, for all of this affair.” And the fireman, Johnny, nodded.

            Eureka! Mike was cleared! He was actually on the train engine of the parcels when the guard of he Ulsterman was killed. He couldn’t have done it, and he had two witnesses to prove it. Which meant, in a way, I was off the hook too. As far as I was concerned, case closed.

            Driver Bryce climbed down and walked around, looking to see if his engine had suffered much from its close encounter with the platform at Twickley. On his return to the cab he reported back. The front buffer beam was bent, that’s what had hit the platform, but otherwise the engine seemed undamaged and fit to continue. He sounded rather sorry about that last bit. He’d been hoping to get rid of her at Nottingham. Still, at least he had a bit of time off right now, and filled and lit his pipe as a train came rushing past us on the main line. Instinctively I noted it as the stopping passenger from Barnsley; that’s what the signalman had sidelined us to make way for.

            “That’s the Barnsley?” asked Driver Bryce. In cheerful mood I confirmed it.

            “That’s it, Driver. Now we only have to worry about whether a lump of coal fell off the Barnsley and jammed the points so that we can’t go any further. Like that night at Vinley. It would have to be just the same scenario, wouldn’t it? You even have me here as a high-level witness, same as you then had Mr. Sullivan, for when you were brought to a stand.”

            Bryce responded with what was for him, I suppose, an amiable smile.

            And the fireman, Johnny, offered a remark in support.

            “Of course Mr. Sullivan wasn’t actually with us, on our engine, when we came to a stop. He was on the pilot, the other engine, all the way from Leicester. But he came on board us in time to be shown the lump of coal. He admired it, didn’t he?”

            Bryce nodded, and took a pull at his pipe.

            For a moment I could hardly register what he had said and what it meant. And yet I tried to sound nonchalant.

            “Ah, so he wasn’t actually with you when you came to a stop at Vinley. He was on the leading engine, and then transferred over while you were standing there, and before the signalman cleared the points and came over to show you the piece of coal. That’s it, isn’t it?”

            It was Bryce who replied.

            “You got it. From Leicester on Mr. Sullivan was on the pilot engine, then as soon as we got stopped by the Vinley home signal he got off the pilot engine and got on to ours. Then the Bobbie came and showed us the coal, showed it to both engines, cleared his signal, and that was that. Right?”

            “I thought you said Mr. Sullivan was there for the whole affair. Now, it seems, he wasn’t there, he appeared after you had stopped.”

            “Well, mate,” – it was remarkable how in Bryce’s eyes the shared boneshaker ride on ‘old ’39’ had made us equals, on the ‘mate’ level – “we were talking about showing the coal, weren’t we? That’s what I meant when I said he was there for all of the affair. I meant for the coal. He changed engines before that.”

            I tried to maintain my nonchalance.

            “You actually saw him get off the other engine, then?’

            Bryce’s lip almost curled in scorn.

            “Course not! When we were stopped by the signal we ended up with the pilot standing under the Mil Street overbridge, and us behind him, still inside Vinley Tunnel. And with us shutting off steam, of course both safety valves lifted and we were blowing off like mad. So was the other engine. And Johnny here had just made up the fire, so lots of smoke as well. The tunnel was full of it. I couldn’t even see out of it, it was like we were in a great steamy fog, a real pea- souper. Couldn’t even see the pilot in front of us, not properly. And Mr. Sullivan just appeared out of the steam and smoke. I couldn’t see him get off the pilot, now, could I? But of course that’s where he came from. Couldn’t have come from anywhere else, could he? Stands to reason.”

            So Mike’s whole alibi lay before me, shattered into smithereens.

            He had crossed over from the parcels to the Ulsterman when both were stopped at Leicester.

            He had killed the guard.

            Then jumped out of the express as it slowed into Vinley.

            Dropped the coal in the points to stop the parcels.

            When the parcels stopped he walked back to the second engine, inside the tunnel, and climbed up into the cab.

            And because of the smoke and steam nobody could see where he really came from.

            Driver Bryce simply assumed he had come from the other engine.

            So there he had it. For the vital Leicester to Vinley section each driver was sure he was on the train, on the other engine, when he was on neither.

            And if signalman Farrell hadn’t made a whole performance of it, showing that lump of coal to both footplate crews, thus fixing the series of events firmly in their minds, after a week or two they would all have been unable to swear that he wasn’t where he said he had been, at any particular time. That was no doubt his whole idea, and why he had spent that entire week traveling with them every night, constantly changing places, so that their memories would be confused and unreliable, except that they would be sure he was always on their train, somewhere, and doubtless would be ready to say exactly that.

            Whew!

            I hardly noticed that our signal had gone to green and Driver Bryce had got us going again, following the Barnsley passenger towards Nottingham.     

            At Nottingham Central there is an Avoiding Line, like a ring road or a motorway bypass, that runs round the back of the carriage sidings and rejoins the main line further on. Goods trains go round by it, so as to avoid the often congested working of the passenger station. That’s what we did now, coming to a stop at the far end of it alongside a water column, a supply point where you can take on water. I climbed down, shook hands with Bryce and Johnny, and left them struggling to put the heavy water hose into the tender to top up its water tank.

            What a ride that had been! I often told myself that getting out and about, such as riding with Driver Bryce on the footplate of a ‘Charleston’ running fast with a fitted freight, gave me an insight into the actual daily running of my railway that I would never have got sitting at my desk or attending administrative meetings.

            True enough, I hope.

            But I hadn’t expected it to give me quite such an insight into Mike Sullivan’s activities on that damn parcels train.

            To think that I originally got into all this because I got worried about what direction the guard’s door opened, and whether it had some design flaw that might interest the Union! Ah well, I suppose that meant to-morrow another of my seemingly endless calls on Charlie Fry, with the latest news. Will I never get out of it all?

 

 

Commentary by the Murderer

            While it’s too bad they caught on to that lump of coal – which who would ever have thought it would become so important and significant? – let’s not go overboard on it. I was just unlucky. And there is still no firm evidence, let alone proof, that I ever did anything wrong to anybody. All I have to say is that I must be mistaken about the date when it all happened. Sorry!

            For all that, let’s face it, Frank McMullen is becoming a real worry. I don’t particularly want to kill him, though, as you know, I did try. If I could only get him away and off the scene! But how? After all, I am an engineer, so you’d think I ought to be able to fix something. Maybe do something to the brakes on his car so that he had a crash? But who is to know just when the brakes fail? When he was going flat out round a sharp curve, or when he was backing into a parking space and got away with nothing worse than a severe bump against the kerb? And any examination of the car would reveal the tampering. And that would be evidence.

            Well then, slip something into his beer in the refreshment room. But what? Rat poison? And would he drink it? Just think of the taste. And I would have to be alongside him, so there would no doubt that had done it. Guns, then? Forget it. I don’t even know where I could get one. Electrocution? I suppose I could rig up a line to the doorknob of his office to give him full mains voltage when he came to open it, but suppose I got Dozie instead? With all the wires still to be taken down and hidden? And the whole thing would just be crying out for an investigation.

            No, forget it. I’ll just have to do some more thinking about this.

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