Chapter 19

Narrated by Joan McMullen

            In a way, it was the wallpaper again. You see, we had now picked which one we wanted for the living room, and I had gone into town to order it from the shop. It’s still on our living room walls after all these years, though it’s getting a bit tatty now and we’ll soon have to think about re-doing it. But, to get back to the story of what happened, like I said, I was in Nottingham. I had lunch in a little café and then turned up at the station, partly to catch the 2.27 back home, and partly to see Frank. He was back at work, of course, after that…that fight, that case, I don’t know what to call it, in the engine shed. He had to be, he said, since this was a special day, though of course he didn’t really have to be there at all, he just wanted to.

            So there I was, on the famous Platform 4, looking through the magazines at the bookstall, before going over the footbridge to join Frank and get my train. I could see him standing there at the far end of Platform 5 with a small group of people. I turned, and found myself alongside Inspector Barrett, who was just coming out of a doorway on to the platform. I had never met him, but he evidently knew who I was, and introduced himself. We stopped to chat a little, and after a few words about Mike Sullivan and his, well, let’s call it his accident, I asked him how he was getting on with the pub case and the E.R.A. Frank, of course, had told me all about it. The Inspector tapped his overcoat pocket.

            “I have a walkie-talkie here, Mrs. McMullen, and I’ve just been checking up on our dispositions and progress. We’re really closing in on them now. Did Frank tell you all the latest?”

            “No, I’d be glad to hear it, though, of course, I don’t want to pry, if it’s anything confidential.”

            “Oh, Mrs. McMullen, I’m beginning to think of Mr. McMullen as a sort of extended arm of the law, on the railways at least. We’d never have managed as well without him. So I see you, if I may say it, as a kind of member of our family.”

            He uttered a short laugh, to show that this was all a joke. He did, though, go ahead to tell me the latest on the pub story.

            “It’s getting to a peak now. This bunch has finally made its move. Last night they hi-jacked a lorry. Of course, this fellow Paddy is at the moment in the lorry business. Used to be a shunter, I think, but then got tired of it. And the lorry has a full load of propane cylinders, all full ones. I expect they have put some sort of bomb in among them too, to make them explode. It would be an inferno. Just what you need to blow up a pub.”

            What do you say in reply to something like that? I just remained silent, with, I suppose, my eyes popping out. So he continued.

            “More than that, we’ve been following the lorry. A couple of our men are over there right now.” A nod of the head.

            “You mean that this, this explosive lorry, is somewhere round here?”

            “Exactly. It’s on its way to the pub, but at the moment it’s held up at the level crossing, over there.”

            Of course. The level crossing where Nelson Street crosses the Avoiding Lines.

            “And you’re letting them just run round Nottingham with a load of explosive gas? Just like that? You’re not stopping them?”

            “Not yet. We want to grab them when they get to the pub. Then we want to charge them. You see, if we grabbed them now we can only say we believed they were going to blow it up. We need to catch them in the act for the charge to stick. And I think we probably have plenty of time in hand. I don’t suppose they’ll be trying to make their move until the evening, when the pub is full of people. Not much point in blowing up an empty building.”

            I shook my head in disbelief, though I tried to be polite.

            “It seems awfully risky to me.”

            “Not really. The pub is well protected. We have a whole reception committee over there, just waiting for the lorry to arrive. And with luck we’ll then be able to grab the whole gang. I’d like to get my hands on Paddy, and he’s not with the lorry, not right now. But he’ll be at the pub. It’s not as risky as you might think. We have a good undercover man who is with them and who is keeping us informed. And we are out and on the job in full strength. We know what they are going to do, and we are watching them every inch of the way.”

            I was not entirely reassured but I did my best.

            “You seem to have it all thought out then. Though, if I may ask…?”

            He gave me a smile of encouragement.

            “Well, I’m a bit surprised to see you here on the station. I’d have thought you would be with your men shadowing the lorry, or in some central operations room. I don’t see what any of this has to do with Central Station.”

            Inspector Barrett had the grace to look uncomfortable and embarrassed.

            “Yes, of course, I’m really with our boys with the lorry, but as it happens I had to call in briefly at the station. I’ll be on my way back to them now. My car is outside.”

            That seemed strange to me. This was the climax of his whole operation, and he had broken off to make a call in the station. Who could it be that he just had to see, what possibly could have been so important that he had to come over here? I put the question to him.

            “Inspector, it seems to me that – ”

            I bit it off just in time. I had just realized why his call here was so important to him. It was that doorway he had just been coming out of when I stopped him.

            It was the Gents.

            Hurriedly I rephrased my question.

            “It seems to me that you have been very well informed on this plot, what these people are up to.”

            “Oh yes, I think we are. We still don’t understand why they are doing it, but we have it all under control. I’ve even been over to the pub to check it out, to see how they could run a lorry into it. It’s that one, I don’t know if you know it, just opposite the university.”

            “It’s ‘The Grove of Academe’, isn’t it? I don’t go to these places all that much myself, but I think Frank has been there. The students took him there after he gave a talk to them. That’s the one?”

            “That’s it, Mrs. McMullen, that’s it. We have it all sewed up really tight, if I may say so.”

            I suppose I ought to have left it like that, but I was still a little uneasy. Only natural, I’d have thought.

            “You seem to have got a very clear picture from your undercover man. You do know it’s definitely that pub, it’s sure, is it?”

            “Yes, Mrs. McMullen, it’s that pub. Our man heard Paddy himself name it, and what they were going to do there.”

            This did seem a bit better.

            “The E.R.A. man actually named it then?”

            “Yes, explicitly. He said ‘We’re going to wreck The Grove. He’ll never know what hit him’. That’s what he said.”

            “I see. That does seem -.”

            I don’t know how to describe it. It was as if a hammer had hit me on the head, as if I was suddenly frozen, paralysed, electrified. I’m not very good at even knowing what I felt, afterwards, not in those terms. I only remember the sudden sharp feeling of shock and horror.

            “Say that again!”

            “I said he was explicit, it was the pub -”

            “No! What Paddy said! The words!”

            A shrug.

            “‘We’re going to wreck The Grove. He’ll never know what hit him.'”

            And this was a former shunter, a railwayman talking!

            Christ in heaven, they were going to wreck The Grove!

            I almost shook Barrett by the shoulders.

            “Quick, man, get on your walkie-talkie, tell your men to grab that lorry, grab it NOW, it’s not the pub they are after, it’s a train they’re going to wreck, at that level crossing, a special train, and it’s due right now!”

            Barrett gaped at me.

            “But what – “.

            “Do it, Barrett, do it! Now! NOW!”

            I turned on my heel and stared up the line. Not in sight yet, but in a couple of minutes…

            Telephone?

            No. They might now answer right away.

            The signals.

            The points.

            Run! Run as you have never run before!

            I kicked off my shoes – high heels – and sprinted along the platform.

            It was full of passengers.

            Dodge round them, in and out.

            Child in a stroller – slap it to one side. No harm done.

            Luggage trolley – skirt up round waist, take it in a flying leap – run! Run! Damn girdle!

            Just ahead, end of the platform, the signal box, Nottingham South.

            Quick glance again up the line. A white feather of steam. The Grove was coming!

            Puff, puff, and blow! Stitch coming in side! Keep going!

            Damn Barrett and his pubs, why did nobody know they were talking about The Grove, the train? Every railwayman knows about it, and Paddy had worked on the railway. On the railways they use a lot of code words, a kind of telegraph address. “juniper” means ‘serious difficulty, ‘cape’ means ‘train cancelled’, and “Grove” means special train, the one train that is the ultra-special of all specials.

            Take the steps up to the box three at a time.

            In through the door.

            Signalman staring at me, thunderstruck.

            Gasp out one word at him.

            “Emergency!”

            Doesn’t get it.

            “Hey, miss, you can’t – ”

            Point back up Platform 4, over my shoulder.

            “Look, man, what you have on the Down Main!”

            He goes out, stares at No. 4. Nothing there.

            Shove hard in the back, thump, thump, he’s tumbling down the stairs.

            Inside, quick, close door, bolt it.

            Thank heaven this is my old box, where I worked in the war. So I know about bolt.

            Signals too.

            Now.

            Far end of the box, a single bright red lever pulled back, apart from the line of the others.

            Red for signals, black for points.

            Signal 15, Down Main to Avoiding Lines – line clear!

            I flung myself upon it, released the catch and threw the lever back to its upright position with a crash.

            The signal in front of the Grove went back to Danger.

            You can’t really rely on putting a signal back to danger in front of a train. The driver has seen it as clear and may not spot that it has changed. He should, of course, but you can’t blame him too much if he misses it. He has already been told he has a clear road.

            So, just in case…?

            Change the points.

            Blue lever 19, push it back, points unlocked.

            Push back black lever 20, points now lying normal, train cannot run on to the Avoiding Lines where the E.R.A. ambush is waiting for it.

            Pull back blue lever, point lock 19, points now realigned and locked. Even if the driver hasn’t seen the signal and runs past it, he will run straight on into Platform 4, which is clear – isn’t it?

            Quick look – yes, clear.

            That’s the worst over, he can’t run into the ambush, no matter what.

            So -?

            Normally you never delay the Grove, but never, no matter what.

            The road is clear, so pull red lever, signal 14, Down Main to Platform 4.

            Signal now clear to let the driver run through the passenger station. Points set that way and locked, and line clear.

            Now, signalman at the other end of the station, at Nottingham North, has to be told what’s happening.

            Tap out on tapper “Emergency Call Attention.”

            He comes to phone right away.

            “This is an emergency. The Grove is coming to you down No. 4 Platform Line, not, repeat not, round the Avoiding Lines. I will regularize situation on the block.” Hang up quick before he can ask questions, like Who am I, and What’s going on?

            Regularize means lots of tapping bell signals.

            I tap out one I have never used before, one that most signalmen in the country never use at all, in all their life.

            Tap-tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap-tap. That’s four, four, four. “Is line clear for train denoted by code word “Grove?””

            Bell rings back, four, four, four. All clear for the Grove and train accepted. Pointer on the brass dial swings to “Line Clear.”

            Send two bells back. “Train Entering Section.” Here he comes, he’s all yours, mate. Pointer swings to “Train on Line.”

            It’s done.

            I opened the door and walked out on to the balcony. The signalman was still there, down at the bottom of the stairs, with, I suppose, a twisted ankle or something.

            And here comes the Grove. Thank goodness the driver had been making a very slow approach, since he expected to be sent round the curve on to the Avoiding Lines, speed limit 20 mph. But he had seen the signal clear for him to go through the station instead, on the Down Main, so he kept going. And here he was. I went out on the balcony to watch.

            The engine wasn’t one of ours, but a B2 off the Eastern Region. She had brought the train through from King’s Lynn, via Peterborough and Vinley. So that any railwayman would know what coming, she carried four white headlamps, unlit, the only train to carry four. As always, she was beautifully turned out, everything about her polished and gleaming, even the buffers, and shining under the bright afternoon sun. There was her number, 61671, and on her curved nameplate her title, Royal Sovereign. Slowly she slid by, coasting along with steam shut off, and there was her cab, with a small crowd on the footplate: Eastern Region driver and fireman, an inspector, and a Central Region pilot man to guide these visitors through the unfamiliar tracks and signals of Nottingham Central. The pilot man I recognized. It was Bill Walker. I waved him on and gave him the thumbs up, to reassure him that the unexpected diversion was all right, and he gave me the thumbs up back. So he recognized me too. A lot of the men round the Central do.

            Behind the engine came the train. Washed, scrubbed and polished teak, and in the middle of it, the big saloon, the one with a bow-girder underframe, you can’t mistake that.

            Her Nibs herself was even looking out through the window. I was still holding out the thumbs up and I think I made eye contact. I think she thought the thumbs up was for her, and she started smiling graciously and waving regally, the way she does from her car to the crowd, when she is driving through a town. I waved back, and – Oh, God! I still had my skirt up and was standing there in my girdle!

            The passengers on Platform 4 got a wave too, and of course none of them had the slightest idea what was coming; but I like to think that first wave was to me personally. Well, I’m sure my girdle struck her. Quite an experience. No sign of the corgis, though. She must have left them at Sandringham, where the train was coming from.

            I watched the two tail lamps disappearing away down the line. The little dial on the shelf clicked over from ‘Train on Line’ back to ‘Line Blocked’, its usual heading. She was gone, safely. Only one thing more left. I lifted the phone giving a direct line into the central Traffic Control and reported: “Grove down the main at 2.07.”

            The job was done. Thank God!

            I staggered down the steps, where the signalman was standing up with difficulty. Inspector Barrett was hurrying along the platform to see me, and, scrambling across the tracks from Platform 5 came all that little group, led by Frank and Warren Taylor, the stationmaster. All of them, of course, had turned out to watch the Grove go through and see that everything was all right. Little did they know!

            Frank was the spokesman.

            “Joan, in heaven’s name, what has been going on?”

            So I told him.

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