Chapter 13 (continued)
After they’d entered the depot, Don Barnett had helped put the water hose into the tender and had raked through the fire and pulled more coal forward, then he’d climbed down from the engine without a word to James Peplow and had disappeared. James stayed on his engine, fussing with the injectors, having a look at the fire and raking it further himself and was still occupying himself when the Canton foreman approached him and shouted up,
“Driver, your fireman’s reported sick. You’re lucky, I’ve an experienced spare man for you. You’ve plenty of time, the storm is in the Irish Sea as well and the Rosslare ferry berthed over an hour late. The Fishguard’s been reported 90 late at Whitland. You can leave your engine - I’ll see it’s properly prepared. You’ll find Trevor Thomas in the messroom.”
“What’s wrong with Don Barnett? He didn’t say he was ill. He was just inexperienced with a fast service like the Newspapers.”
“Didn’t ask him. He looked genuine. He’ll go back on the cushions.”
Trevor Thomas seemed affable enough and made no comment when they rejoined 5008. James could only surmise that Barnett had said nothing to him about the outward trip. He watched his new fireman going about checking and topping up the fire and satisfied himself that he looked competent. They left the depot an hour after the scheduled time off shed - the Fishguard was still 90 late at Carmarthen - and ran through the station and set back into the siding beside the Central Hotel, where Trevor Thomas busied himself keeping the engine quiet so as not to cause complaints from the hotel’s residents.
It was nearly a quarter to seven before the Boat Train ran in behind Carmarthen’s 5039 ‘Rhuddlan Castle’ and the engine change was enacted quickly. The London guard was waiting for them as the fireman coupled up and James was pleased he couldn’t hear as the guard told him angrily not to repeat the excesses of the down run. The platform was fuller than usual with passengers - some waiting for a later Swansea starter took advantage of the late running train to get an earlier arrival in London. A couple of men watched him as he was doing the brake test and he noticed one had a notebook and heard him ask the guard the load - they had 11 coaches for an estimated 400 tons, that’s what the guard had reported to him anyway. As the whistles blew, he saw the men jump into the first carriage, but thought no more about it as the fireman climbed back into the cab and checked water level and fire. The pressure was a full 225psi and the safety valves were just starting to lift as they got the ‘right away’ accompanied at that precise moment by a startling flash and instantaneous crack of thunder which appeared immediately overhead. He watched Trevor Thomas going about his duties and his confidence in him increased and he began to open up 5008 further. The man continued his duties without comment and James was pleased to note as they approached Severn Tunnel Junction - at a circumspect speed this time - that steam pressure was still at 225 and the water gauge showed a full boiler.
As soon as the rear coach cleared the junction and the engine dipped its nose down the gradient towards the tunnel mouth, Peplow opened the regulator wide and adjusted the cut off to 25%. The engine responded at once and accelerated its train rapidly. The fireman continued to fire as they threaded the darkness under the Severn - a good sign - and James noted how precisely he was placing each shovelful of coal despite the substantial rocking and swaying movement of the engine. As soon as he felt the gradient change in the middle of the tunnel, James dropped the lever to 30%, and as they left the tunnel into the rainswept dawn, he increased it to 35%. His engine was responding charging up the gradient at well over 50 mph, not a trace of a slip on the wet and shining rails. They thundered through the single bore Patchway Tunnel, fast enough to avoid the worst of the smoke and fumes coming into the cab, and emerged to another vivid flash and peal of thunder audible above the noise of their own engine. 42 mph at the top of the gradient pleased James, as did the fact that the boiler pressure had stood the test of all the hard work and the fireman did not look put out in any way.
And then James Peplow did something quite out of character.
“Give me the shovel, you take a turn at the regulator. Keep her hard at it. I’ll fire to Badminton.”
The fireman gave a shrug and handed James the shovel. He began to place round after round into the firebox, carefully lifting the firehole flap by the chain with his left hand as he fed the fire placing the soft Welsh coal into the corners ensuring an even fiercely burning cauldron of white flame.
Trevor Thomas grinned to himself and kept steam on hard and began to accelerate his heavy train on the easier gradients to Chipping Sodbury Tunnel. James was firing continuously now when he suddenly exclaimed and dropped the shovel, clutching his back.
“Bloody hell!” he exclaimed. “My back’s gone.”
Trevor picked the shovel up and helped James back to the driver’s seat. “You’re too old for that,” he shouted at his mate. “Take it easy and concentrate on getting us to London in one bit.”
James eased himself onto the tip-up seat and stretched. He felt a twinge but it didn’t seem too bad, so he dropped the cut-off lever a further notch and was pleased to be doing exactly 60 at the summit. He watched Trevor work the pick-up gear effectively to completely fill the tender water capacity without any overspill and then they were through and on the downward grade. For the first time since Cardiff, Trevor sat on his tip-up seat after sweeping coal dust from the floor and reached for the billy-can to take a swig of tea. They were travelling now, the old engine rocking and rolling to the tune of the percussion in the skies and James Peplow let her run without easing her even when the riding was at its most lively. He watched the speedometer needle creep up to 90, even 92 before he decided he must ease ready to brake for the Wootton Bassett Junction restriction. He knew that there were no engineering slacks before Scours Lane, just west of Reading station, so he continued to pile on the speed as they roared passed Swindon Works and a row of condemned locomotives at nearly 80 mph. Whistle shrieking, he aroused and thrilled the passengers waiting on the station for their own London train, many looking up from their newspapers to watch the magnificent sight of a gleaming steam engine in full flight with an impressive train hurtling behind.
Down the Vale of the White Horse they galloped, speed edging into the middle eighties and the fireman did not flinch despite the pounding he was getting from man and engine. The first respite was as they passed Tilehurst when Peplow began to brake for the 20 mph slack at Scours Lane and that was short-lived as they saw green lights ahead and roused the echoes through the middle road at Reading, the main platforms full of waiting passengers as audience. And still they had the thunderstorm as dramatic backdrop, going with them all the way, as they entered another downpour crossing the Thames at Maidenhead, speed once more up to 80 mph. The green signals kept coming, he couldn’t believe it. Was everything held back behind them? He took full advantage and they were still wheeling along under easier steam now at 75 as they passed Old Oak Common. They drew up to the bufferstops on platform eight 70 minutes late. They’d regained 15 minutes on what was considered a hard schedule from Cardiff.
As Trevor got up and started tidying the cab, James hung out of the cab watching the crowds disgorge from his train. Some dashed off looking at their watches, impatient, late for their appointments. Others were laden with luggage and young children, tired and fretting from a long sleepless night. A few nodded in his direction - perhaps they appreciated the effort that he and his old engine had expended. The two men he’d seen at Cardiff with the notebook stopped and one asked his name and wrote it down. For a moment he was alarmed - had he missed some speed restriction again? Then the other guy had just said, “Splendid run, driver.” When they had all gone, James finally turned to his fireman, and simply said. “Thank you.” He merely replied, “It’s my job.”
When James Peplow hobbled to book off, the lobby clerk handed him a slip of paper. It was from the Running Foreman and informed him that he had been reported for excessive speed at Stoke Gifford and through the Severn Tunnel on the 12.45 Paddington - Cardiff Newspaper train and that disciplinary action would follow after consideration by the Shedmaster. After the exhilaration of his trip that morning, he’d almost forgotten the events of the ‘down’ trip. Then he realised there’d be reports in all probability from Barnett and the guard and he began to feel sick and angry. He’d been 15 minutes late on the down journey, 70 minutes late back. None of it was his fault, he and 5008 despite all the problems, had probably over half an hour to their credit. But he’d incurred 85 minutes delay, and would probably get a ‘Form 1’ into the bargain. The self-satisfaction he’d felt on arrival at Paddington had disappeared completely and there was a sullen blackness in his heart as he trudged up the long slope to the depot gate, his back now aching, to catch the tube back home. His fate was closing in on him, he would now have to seek out the consequences and take them on board of his own volition or be passive, try to ignore what had happened and reap the catastrophe that he felt was hovering over him should he put a foot wrong and flout his compulsive obsession. He brooded.
All day he wrestled with himself. Then he wrote out his own condemnation. He actually wrote it down. ‘Punishment owed for 85 minutes of lost time and a deserved disciplinary action.’ He took a bath and carefully shaved himself all over. He phoned the number in his wallet and made an appointment. He told the ‘maid’ - a misnomer if ever there was one - that he’d need a session with the ‘Headmistress’ that evening and was fixed for eight o’clock. He’d deliver himself to the rigours of a proper thrashing from the mysterious woman he’d never yet glimpsed but the young prostitute had told him about. He’d stored up that possible experience for when he’d felt he truly deserved the ultimate penalty. Now was that time. He was in dire trouble and he could find himself off the footplate altogether. Only an extreme sacrifice of his own volition could protect him from the consequences, so he believed.
He lay on his bed and listened to the storm now raging round his London home. Although by now mid morning, it was as dark as night. He did not draw the curtains but watched the sky light up, saw the jagged streaks of lightning. Eventually he slept and dreamed. It was unnerving, a vicious dream in which he was involved in murder. He couldn’t tell whether he was the victim or the perpetrator, it was too confusing. He got up and ate a snatched meal, then unusually suffered indigestion. He watched the six o’clock news. Troubles on the Berlin Wall, protests about the actions of the East German guards. A murdered child. The test team for the Ashes announced. Dexter as captain. He went into the bathroom and washed his mouth out, then carefully put on clean underwear and a freshly ironed shirt. He was ready to take his medicine.
At eight o’clock precisely he looked around, waited until no other passers-by were near and carefully made his way down the steps to the basement door of the Georgian terraced house in one of the alleys in Soho. He’d arrived in the vicinity over 30 minutes early and had been walking round the area aimlessly on this stifling night. The thunderstorm had hardly freshened the air and another storm seemed imminent. He was trying to look inconspicuous, wearing grey flannels and an open-necked short-sleeved shirt like most other men out on this humid evening. He selected the button beside the door and announced the name by which he was known into the metal grill. A buzzer went and the door mechanism was released and with a quick glance to the railings above to ensure no-one was watching, he slipped inside.
He fastidiously counted out thirty three notes - the rate he’d negotiated for the full hour - and handed them to an anonymous elderly woman with the bleached hair and the bright lipstick over the chapped lips – he had never fathomed whether she was another servant or the madam – and was ushered straight into the den of the ‘Headmistress’. This time he had written the note because he was too reticent to say aloud what he feared his fate ought to be. He would put himself in her power entirely. She took the note wordlessly and read what he had written.
“I think you had better come into the room I keep for those who deserve the most severe punishment,” she said without looking him in the eye. “Do you not agree?”
“Yes, if you think so.”
“Before you prepare yourself, I need you to sign this.” She handed him a sheet of paper and a biro. “Read that carefully and sign if you are willing. This is your last chance to change your mind. Once you have signed, you are in my power and will obey me at all times until I tell you that your discipline is completed.”
He read the words printed on the document before him. It was very formal, almost a legal agreement. He blanched at this. He was being asked to commit himself to the unknown, hand over control completely to another, and willingly give up any power he might have had to call a halt to the fate awaiting him.
“Get on with it. You are wasting time.”
“I’m not sure. Surely I can stop you if I need to?”
“You want punishment. I decide when you’ve had enough, not you!”
James hesitated for a long time.
“Make up your mind. If you want to back out, get out now and don’t ever come back!”
“No, I don’t think…”
She shut the door in his face. “You’re wasting both your and my time.”
James was turned back to the elderly maid who was waiting to escort him out of the building.
He held out his hand to get his money back.
“What are you waiting for?”
“You made the booking. You’ve paid for the time. You’ve wasted it, not us. The Headmistress is not available for the hour for anyone else. So go and don’t bother us again.”
“Oh yes? Who to? You want to tell the police?”