Chapter Three: Snakes Eggs
By 2:15 every pisshead in Wigan had been kicked out and the ‘King Street cabaret’ was in full swing. The police were fighting running battles the full length of the road but not quite keeping up. It would be chaos until about 3:00 and then the town would finally fall quiet. George and me had a laugh for twenty minutes watching the Bobby’s come a poor second and then we made our way out in the direction of the garage.
When we got there I let us in and gave the van keys to George. He drove it out onto the road and waited for me to lock the gate. I couldn’t help thinking how loud the engine sounded and how obviously suspicious we would look to anyone that might happen to be passing by.
He craned his neck out of the van window and grinned, “Have you locked up Spartacus? They’re thievin’ bastards ‘round ‘ere”.
As we drove away George finally started to explain the plan.
“Did you know my uncle”?
I shook my head.
“Well, he worked at Howrich Loco’ before they shut it down, he was a welder. He used to build trains ‘n shit, fuckin’ good money too. Well, one day I went along with him for... what shall I say? - call it a seminar. He took me in the wagon shop and showed me a little magic trick".
George was obviously enjoying himself – he kept stealing sideways glances every so often to check my reaction.
“Y’ see Spartacus freight wagons have fuckin’ great big steel ball bearings and he showed me how to get ‘em out. It’s fuckin’ dead easy when you know how. All you do is twat ‘em with a lump hammer in a certain place and they just fall straight out – it’s a fuckin’ miracle they stay in at all".
“And then what”?
“Each one’s worth about a three quid, I used to shift dozens every month. I’ve got a mate at Billy Bethel’s scrap yard who’ll take ‘em off us”.
I remembered George’s reaction when he’d been accused of thieving the subs.
“George, I’m sorry mate but there’s no other way of putting this; that’s theft pure and simple and to be honest I’m not sure I want in”.
“Is it fuck theft”.
“George, it’s theft”.
“Spartacus tell me, who owns those train wagons”?
“Exactly, it’s only theft if you’re nicking off an actual person. Now correct me if I’m wrong but is British Rail a person?
“No George” I said “British Rail is not a person...”.
The railway sidings which George had in mind were formed from a massive, remote loop in a branch line that in turn connected to the London to Glasgow main line. They formed one boundary of an area commonly known as “The Flashes”. Each Flash was a vast expanse of open water that had appeared following the subsidence of old mine workings and the oddly named “Scotsman’s” was the biggest of the lot. Over time this desolate industrial wasteland had become reclaimed by nature and it was the nearest thing to countryside for miles around. George drove the van along a narrowing, pot-holed track.
“It’s fuckin’ pitch black Spartacus - just perfect; as long as we don’t end up in Scotties”.
The thought of anything happening to the van had been a constant worry but it was pointless saying anything. Just after we had begun to think that we had lost our way the sidings came into view. We drove as close to the fence as we could and then parked up. George eased the handbrake on.
“Ok, you get the hammers and the chisels while I bolt crop through this fuckin’ fence”.
By the time I had got the tools out of the back of the van George had made a large hole in the fence and was half way up the bank, disappearing into some straggly trees like a cat.
And there a couple of yards beyond, waited the object of our trip. Lying in a great hulking silence was the outline of an immense line of freight wagons each one piled high with a pyramid of coal. The train’s silhouette stretched out of sight into the blackness around a shallow curve in the line.
“Won’t it be obvious the bearin’s have been nicked?” I whispered.
“These fuckin’ wagons ‘ll be in Carlisle by the time anyone realises, that’s the beauty of it. Now come ‘ere and I’ll show you what to do”.
Without any further explanation George crouched down and disappeared under one of the freight wagons, then his head popped out, “Come on then, we haven’t got all fuckin’ night”.
Now scrambling under a train was not something that I’d ever done before and I don’t mind admitting to a natural reluctance but there was nothing else for it. The size of the wheels and the axels was amazing. “They’re fuckin’ massive aren’t they”? George nodded at the wheels. “But don’t worry the bearings are manageable; now watch and learn Spartacus”.
He positioned the bolster carefully and gave it a solid bang with the hammer. A shiny steel ball about the size of a baby’s head fell out onto the stones between the sleepers.
“You ‘ave a go”.
I copied what George had done and sure enough another steel ball fell on to the ground.
“See I told y’, it’s like shelling fuckin’ peas, the hardest part ‘ll be loadin’ the van when we’ve finished work”.
We slowly dealt with the opposite ends of each axel, working our way forwards methodically towards the front of the train, missing out alternate wagons on George’s instruction. Behind us lay a trail of ball bearings that looked like the eggs of some giant metal snake. We’d been at it for about half an hour and were just moving between wagons when I froze and grabbed George’s sleeve.
“What’s up”? He hissed.
“There’s a bloke up front near the engine”.
“Fuck. Quick, follow me”.
I instinctively joined George under the wagon and lay down next to him listening to the blood pounding around my head.
“I think it was the fucking driver”.
“What d’y mean ‘and’? Train drivers normally drive trains George and unless you haven’t noticed we happen to be lying under a fucking train, a train which it wouldn’t surprise me, is about to be driven off by its fucking driver”.
The sheer deafening wall of roaring noise physically engulfed us like a tidal wave as the engine screamed its way into life. I desperately looked around for an escape route but the wagons had started to move and dodging between the massive wheels would be suicidal. I stared round in desperation and saw that George had flattened himself onto the sleepers the centre of the track in the same sort of position that an Olympic diver gets into at the last second. I scrambled in front of him and did the same. Letting the wagons roll over us was our only option. The clanking, grinding shriek of tons of metal and the visceral roar of the engine caused the ground to shake like the start of an earthquake. The train gathered speed and as each wheel and axel rolled past us the sleepers on which we lay visibly sank a few inches into the ground. I had no idea what the design of the underneath of trains was like and just hoped that nothing hung down too close to the tracks.
We lay still long after the sound of the train had disappeared into the night. When we finally glanced at each other we looked like two miracle survivors of a bomb blast. We were covered in sweat, grime and fine black dust but neither of us had suffered so much as a scratch; we staggered to our feet and grabbed hold of each other by the shoulders and burst into hysterical laughter.
“Well Spartacus no-one could ever accuse us of not havin’ any balls”.
And still grinning like lunatics we turned our attention to loading them into the van.