The Night Shift by David Stephens
The winter of 1970 was desperately cold, and at the age of nineteen, with my prospects as bleak as the weather, I worked pitiless12 hour long night shifts loading and unloading light goods trains in a railway siding. Now, as I look back on those grim days, few experiences come back to me as real, for the rest, as with much of my life, it is as if it happened to someone else.
The decaying railway station had been the town’s main means of transport. It had been the only way out if any distance was involved, a situation that remained true even as I came to find myself cast adrift there, long years ago now. By the time I washed ashore, the station had decayed to a light freight and parcel centre, devoid of passengers. A new station had replaced it. No thronging masses anymore, no holiday trips, demobbed soldiers, or men going to work in the nearby city. Like me it had fallen on hard times. It was stranded at the end of the line, and so was I.
The platforms were poorly protected by the wooden roofing of the old canopies, one for the upside, and one for the down, so on clear nights like this we were exposed to the bitter cold. As the carriages rolled in, we kicked out the trolley cages filled with boxes that were strapped inside, hooked them together and attached them to an electric tow truck or forklift, whichever was available to us. Amongst all the clatter, there was hardly a word spoken in the night air, only the steamy grunts of men working. Sometimes the carriages were loose-loaded so we formed a human chain to disgorge them of brown paper parcels and heavy cardboard boxes, but it was an unmusical, unfunny, version of pass the parcel as we loaded the lines of empty trolley cages brought up to us for the purpose. Once the train was offloaded, we made our way across the footbridge or behind the buffers, to a fenced sorting area, ready to relocate the parcels by postcode to more empty trolley cages, each marked with postal areas. These in turn were placed along a loading bay for trucks and vans to carry them off to all parts of the town. When the vans and trucks came in, roaring, flashing red brake lights and filling the air with diesel fumes, we loaded them. When the sequence was completed, we repeated it as the next train slept-walked in the darkness along the downside rails to clang to a stop, waiting our attention. However, at fifteen minutes past midnight, after about two hours of drudgery, we had the permitted break.
There was no canteen. The main waiting room, built eighty years earlier, was equipped with long wooden tables with wooden benches to match, at which we could eat our meals as if in the refractory of a monastery or an army barracks mess hall. The ceiling of the room was very high, so it was difficult to warm the place. Through a double doorway at one end of the room were the lockers. On the opposite side of the room, through a wide opening, was a kitchen area. There was no-one officially employed to prepare food or make the tea, but the Chargehand, our official supervisor Charlie, had singled out a man due for retirement to ensure there was always tea available at the right time, that the heating was on and cups and cutlery always clean. Apart from this, the old man would sweep up and generally take on menial tasks. He was quiet and kindly, but seemed unwell and tired out. Not tired by physical effort in the cold like the rest of us, but worn away; waiting for death. I had been there for about three months when at the end of our food break, the station manager, a suited man I had never seen before, held us back to witness the presentation of a gold watch to this man whose name I can’t remember, for fifty years of service to the railway. He had been only 15 years of age when he started in the carriage works, graduating to become a footplate fireman, then eventually a main links driver. Now he was seeing out his final days here, refusing to go early, showing no loss of dignity for his loss of status from the glamour of the footplate, to this role of tea boy. That presentation must have been during one of the few day shifts I worked because the station manager did not work after five in the evening. We all said well done, but did not mean it. Two weeks later, a week before his official retirement, he walked in front of a train on the main line near his home and was killed. I see him now, leaning on his long handled brush, wavy blond hair touched with grey, a sad, lonely man who came to work only for such company as we were. None of us had been drivers on the old L.M.R, or as he was, been presented to the Queen during her visit to the station twenty years earlier. No, we were his last and poorest connection to memories of a traditional working life.
In that winter, the meal breaks were longed for. We took sandwiches, pork pies, tomatoes and cake. The married men opened their boxes to see what their wives had prepared for them. Those men still living with their parents, as all did until marriage called, looked to see what their mothers had made. I always knew what I had because I relied only on myself. I shared a flat with a friend, three rooms in a converted old house in a forlorn part of town, so I had none of the comforts of my work mates, but more freedom then than any of them had ever known or would ever enjoy. They must have talked about me on those few occasions they were at home and awake at the same time as their mothers and wives, because sometimes one or another would produce two pieces of cake or an extra piece of pie and push it over to me, asking me to do them a favour by eating it. It was as close to personal kindness that they dared to venture, and all the more touching for being so coy.
We were a mixed bunch and although I did not realise it at the time, we were each of us misfits, shunting ourselves into this dead end job from desperation or to escape the various problems of our separate lives. Only about half a dozen would have considered themselves railwaymen, the rest of us were casual workers who had taken the work for cash, with no notion of how long it would last or how long we might stay. Each shift had a uniformed manager, a supervisory grade who once had enjoyed the title ‘Assistant to the Station Master’. These were all true railwaymen. They had joined as boys and each one of the three I grew to know were well into late middle age. They wore the uniform proudly and properly with a silver whistle on a fob watch chain tucked into a waistcoat. They distrusted us, mostly un-uniformed and scruffy, and generally despised us too. Their notion of giving instruction was a military one and probably reflected the paramilitary nature of the old railway life. They controlled all the knowledge- the rotas, the train timetable, the lists of special deliveries. This gave them power because only they knew when and where to deploy us and they used this information sadistically, letting us think that because we had unloaded a train early, we could ease off for the last half an hour of the twelve hour shift. They would let us slink into the echoing mess room and make some tea, only to whirlwind in after ten minutes to announce they had authorised another train, held in sidings, to come in early to allow us to make a start before the day shift arrived. On such occasions, the whistling of Colonel Bogey would break out in a pathetic and merely token defiance.
The first and most notable of these martinets I had the misfortune to cross was Don. Standing no more than five feet four inches in his highly polished shoes, he had a voice loud enough to drown out a megaphone and indeed, shouting was his principle means of communication. His face would swell to a dull red as he blasted out invective and orders. Although I did not realise it at the time, he actually did try to organise the staff by matching the younger, fitter workers with more senior and experienced colleagues, a sort of brain with brawn, not that there was much brain ever in evidence. However, when a rush job was needed, such as loading a delivery truck at short notice, the older workers were overlooked and it fell to the younger of us to dash about under his watchfulness to complete the task. Gradually and very grudgingly, eventually he would decide he had to leave us unsupervised as he had other work to do. Even then, he tried to keep us on our toes by reappearing out of the night, bellowing and bullying. After a couple of weeks of getting to know our way around, we learned how to set a lookout for him and ease off when he was out of the way. This battle of wits became central to our working life and meant that instead of working steadily, we operated at two speeds; fast and dead slow. His management style created the shirking that he tried to prevent, but he never had the intelligence to realise this.
Well into the middle of a night shift, about four in the morning, three of us were sent to load boxes into a huge furniture van. There were about a thousand of these boxes, each about three feet by two feet by two feet in volume. Don pointed at us, then the boxes, then the van.
‘You, boxes, van, no more than twenty-five minutes. The driver is having his break and I want him off straight afterwards. When you’ve done that, get on the downside; the train is coming in.’ He looked at his watch, turned and took two steps away; no one moved as we had now learned the routine.
‘Don’t stand there you useless Pratts, bloody get on with it and look like you are earning the money. My God, when I think of the staff I used to have and now I am given you lot. Not one of you is worth what we used to have. Bloody get on with it.’ He stormed off still ranting.
The three of us looked at each other and each felt welling within us a comradeship born of a hatred for a common enemy. Within a minute, the smallest of us, a little ferret of a lad who was probably much older than he looked, was put on lookout. The other, about the same age as me, took my lead. We built a wall of boxes across the middle of the van so that it had the appearance of having been loaded solidly. We loaded in front of this steadily until the three-quarter mark was reached and then stopped. We had worked hard for about fifteen minutes and now intended to do nothing until Don returned. My co-conspirator had realised that the delivery was to another railway sorting depot and hoped that the staff there would be like us. When they unpacked the van, they would understand what we had done and would not give us away. They never did and thus our reputation for speed at loading the van was so established in Don’s mind, that we made the job our own and in nights to come took to taking newspapers with us, which we attempted to read by the dim streetlights that overhung the station wall.
During one of these nights, when the ferret was on watch, smoking a cigarette and hiding behind a parked forklift, Ricky told me he had decided that he had to make his career as a professional footballer. He was goalkeeper for a local Sunday league team and thought he could make it. His mother had written to every top football team asking them to watch him, but had no reply. Obviously having given this some thought, his mother had suggested to him that he ask me to write. I was surprised at this because I had never met his mother, never seen him play football, and from my knowledge of the game, he looked on the short side for a goalkeeper. He was stocky enough and probably daft enough to dive at a giant forward’s feet to make a save, but I had strong reservations about his ability. He did not. The reason he thought (or his mother thought) the clubs would take notice of me was that Ricky had seen me with a book during a food break. Watching someone read a book was a new experience for him. It was by Albert Camus and to excuse my pretentiousness at reading a book in front of the men, I remarked that Camus had been a goalkeeper. They all then assumed it was a book about football, but an odd one without pictures, and left me alone to read at meal breaks. That single incident made me an expert on football and an undoubted intellectual in Ricky’s mind. Clubs would heed my advice without question. He told his mother about me. It did not seem strange to Ricky or his mother that so eminent a football theorist and intellectual should be working in a dead end job in a railway siding. I realised that I could not let him down lightly and agreed to write a letter for him to his favourite club, Manchester City. I have no idea why he inflicted his loyalty on that particular club as he did not come from the city, we were nowhere near the place, and the team was not particularly fashionable, although there were good players there and the shirts were a pleasant light blue. So, I wrote a letter commending his skill and bravery. I had no reply but for weeks afterwards, Ricky was convinced that scouts were watching his every game.
On the third night of loading, the ferret was off work and for some reason Don had sent Gee to work with us. We supposed this was because Don knew there was a problem bringing the next train in so we had lots of time. There was no way we could work at great speed with Gee who was an overweight man in his fifties, or even older. He was a steadying influence on us all and the younger workers respected him. Heavily built, if not particularly tall he stood four square and solid, his dark skin adding to the effect of stability. He had left his home in Jamaica in 1959 to come to England to work for the railways. We could not believe he would want to do that, but his children were all born in England and on his only trip back to see his brothers and sisters, he found the heat so oppressive in the West Indies that he longed for the rain of his adopted land. He was a religious, quietly sober man and we did not take liberties with him. Nevertheless, once Don had retreated into the gloom, he put down the box he had been loading and sat on it. ‘Come and have you five minutes, you work too hard,’ he said. Ricky and I obeyed. ‘Don’t you fret yourselves about old Don there, he a big bag of wind and one day someone will shove one of these parcels right up his dirt box.’ He produced a packet of ginger cake and handed generous portions to us. ‘You see, Don there is a sour man who no-one can love. No woman will want to jig about with him. He gets no sex. And another thing, he had a son who was killed and so he needs to be bad to everyone. This is no excuse mind, because he was a most unpleasant, bossy man before then, but we let him have his private reasons same as everyone.’ We listened intently to Gee, but only dimly recognised that what he was saying was that Don was of no consequence in Gee’s life and so did not bother him, but he could see how Don was hated by us and why. He did not excuse Don, but he did not care about him either. For several minutes I felt sorry for Don because of his son. I had a fuller picture of the pain of the man, but Gee was right; understanding his motives did not excuse his behaviour so I went back to hating him.
Then Gee stared over my shoulder towards the perimeter wall. ‘Look for me over by the old gate there. I think someone has just climbed over the wall.’ This was exciting. Who would climb over the wall of the depot at this time of the dark and early hours of the morning, in winter, with staff about? Our collective first thought was that it might be Don. We did not have the ferret on watch, but would Don be so low as to sneak around the outside of the station, climb the wall and creep up on us? Yes, we decided, he was mean enough to do that. ‘Come on then,’ said Ricky, let us go and find out for certain who is hiding behind the old oil drums. Being an experienced local lad, he took the jack handle from the forklift, screwed his woolly hat on tighter and led us into battle. I suspect he had a fantasy of bashing Don on the head whilst protesting he thought we had caught a burglar. The physical work over the time I had been at the station had toughened and strengthened my muscles, I felt fit and quick, and I have no doubt I would have been in there alongside Ricky had it been Don or a gang of criminals. It was not Don. It was not a burglar either.
Crouching behind the oil drums, trousers around his knees, sickly in the moonlight and frost, was a wiry little man emptying his bowels into steaming coils where he squatted. He looked up in horror to see two thugs and a solidly built godfather standing over him. Caught between the need to complete his bodily functions and a desire to run away, he did both, clutching at his trousers and expelling his ghastly cargo as he ran for the wall. We stood amazed as he leapt at the wall and was over it in a second. We three looked at each other. ‘I’ve gone off the cake, Gee,’ said Ricky.
We went back to the large van and got on with the loading. Gee told us a little about Jamaica and how it looked good on a postcard, but how everyone wants to leave because it is a violent place. In the course of the discussion, it was clear that Ricky had no idea where Jamaica might be so I attempted to draw a map of the world in the dust on the platform. This did not help, as Ricky could not identify Britain or Europe either. Gee, though, was interested as he thought I had put Canada in the wrong place, thinking it was somehow to the west of the United States of America rather than to the north. He accepted my geography by saying he had learned something new and had he known this in 1959, he would have gone to Canada and not Britain. Then, with a high pitch of conspiracy in his voice, he told us he had some medicinal rum in his kit bag and that when we went in for our break he would put some in our coffee. This was appealing to me because it was doubly illicit; having alcohol on the premises was a dismissible offence; and none of us knew that Gee took alcohol. Usually, depending on the shift, staff got around the problem of an alcohol ban by taking it into their systems before turning up for work. Some would consume five or six pints of beer and to my mind be too drunk to work properly however well they tried to disguise it. I never knew of one to be sent home though.
The truck driver arrived as we were finishing packing the last of the cargo right up to the roof of his van. Complimenting us on the work, he slammed the great doors shut and climbed into the cab. The diesel fumes fogged over us in the night air as he pulled away, leaving us standing in the dim inadequate lighting on the loading bay platform, waiting for Don to bustle into view, which he did, within a couple of minutes. ‘Right, that load is off to Walsall, so get over the upside and give them a hand to unload the wagons that are just coming in.’ He then called me back by bawling, ‘Not you, whatsyourname, you go and collect up all the empty brutes and couple them to the forklift.’ A brute was the acronym for British Rail Universal Trolley Equipment. These were mesh-sided, metal platform trolleys on caster wheels. They could be coupled by snapping up a hook at the rear of each trolley and crashing the pinion at the front into the rear of another and so on. They were heavy and difficult to control. If they went over a toe, as happened to me several times, it brought tears to the eyes. They were well named. The forklift trucks, battery powered, were used as much for towing these monsters as for lifting them into wagons. Anyway, I thought this might be a nice change and asked for the key to the forklift truck so I could start the job. He nearly exploded. ‘I’m not letting you, you long haired Nancy, drive a piece of expensive equipment you bloody idiot. Johnny is driving and delivering; you run around and collect the brutes so he does not have to keep climbing off the forklift. And do not take more than half an hour. You can have your break when you’ve finished so get the lead out.’ He stalked off shaking his head and swearing to himself, wondering where next to bring light unto the ignorant darkness of the simpletons he controlled. Put firmly in my place, I resentfully trudged along the platform to where I could see Johnny climbing onto a forklift. I would be doing the heavy work; he would be sitting up high, shouting instructions.
For the first couple of weeks that I worked at the station, I assumed Johnny had a supervisory position. He took his tea breaks with the boss in the small and warm office next to our mess room. He invariably enjoyed the status associated with driving the forklift and was fond of organising us, though no one else ever took any notice of him even when he talked sense. He may have been of Italian extraction, or perhaps from the Welsh valleys. He had well-groomed curly black hair, the chest and indeed the girth, of an opera singer. He was swarthy and looked well fed. Hidden amongst his fulsome jowls was a handsome Mediterranean face. Johnny spoke in a quick Black Country accent, sometimes so deep in dialect that I could not follow what he meant. Strangely, he took to me and would be particularly keen to have me share portions of his large meals when he joined us at the main meal break, that being an occasion he was not invited to eat with the boss who ate alone or with the Chargehand, his deputy. I think Johnny must have thought me an odd sort of person too; one unable to understand what to him was Basic English. One very cold night, sitting in the mess room eating our food, he said to me ‘Fancy a bitter biled’, or that was what I heard. When my puzzlement had convinced him I must have led an impoverished life, he pushed over a large chunk of meat. It was boiled bacon. The speech centre in my brain rapidly reinterpreted his question as asking if I wanted a bit of boiled. Obviously, everyone else knew this referred to boiled bacon. He, like many generous people, probably enjoyed giving more than receiving. However, Johnny was not popular which may be the reason for his attempts to make a friend of me, the new boy. He was the butt of jokes more often than not. There were not many on the gang of his age, about 30. The younger of us were between 19 and 23, the older were all in their fifties. This put him out on his own. Some fierce arguments blew up between the proletariat and Johnny, but he never saw that they deliberately provoked him out of fun. His excitable nature made him animated and red in the face, then hurt and sulky. In reality, he was a decent man who could not make much sense of a complicated world. In the mind deadening long night hours, mirth at his expense sometimes overstepped the mark and became cruel and yet he never openly bore a grudge. I guessed he had been treated that way all of his life.
So Johnny drove the forklift and I coupled the brutes in a long snaking line behind him. We made one delivery for a train that was loaded with parcels in exchange for the loaded brutes, which we took back to the sorting area on the down side. We had a problem with one of the empty brutes when it would not uncouple so we stopped for a few minutes to prise it away with a metal pole. There, in the echoing darkness, he asked me if I was married. Before I could answer, he sat down on the damaged trolley and warned me to avoid the situation he found himself in. There was such considered hurt in what he said, and such unexpected insight, that looking down the years I am humbled that he told me, and sad that what he told me I have seen repeated time and again.
Johnny said, without boasting, that he had been a handsome lad and could and did have the pick of the girls in the area where he had lived for most of his life. He eventually fell in love with Helen whom he described as being small and beautiful, like a doll. She was close to her mother and considered by Johnny to be a real catch because of both her beauty and her gentility. I imagined her to be blond and some time later Ricky confirmed this, as he knew her. Showing no false modesty, Johnny explained that being a dashing fellow, he swept her off her feet and they had married when she was 21 and he 27. For two years, this proved from his point of view to be a wonderful marriage. He needed no friends as long as he had her and the relationship was physically very fulfilling. According to him, it was also very tiring. She would plan romantic surprises for him and sometimes insist he should get home for lunch so they could make love. And that was how he described it, ‘make love’. He could not bring himself to talk of her in any way that might be crude or disrespectful. He was thrown a little when she announced that she was pregnant as this had not been planned, but on the birth of their son, Johnny described himself as ‘bursting with happiness’. Then came the fall. ‘Since our little lad was born, she hasn’t wanted to know me. I can’t touch her and she spends all her time with her mother, at her mother’s house. She sleeps in the same room as the child.’ So Johnny took to working the twelve-hour shift pattern to earn the money to buy her affection. It did not. ‘She washes my clothes, keeps the house clean, cooks my meals and that is it. At night she undresses in the bathroom and locks the door. Since the day our baby was born I’ve been a stranger in my own house.’ He looked at me pleadingly, making a defence for himself. ‘I’ve never laid a finger on her, never raised my voice to her.’ I was not sure whether to believe that, given his hot temper, but he did seem a gentle man. Then, perking up from an increasingly miserable countenance he said, ‘So you should see me when I go out. I’m not dressed like a working man then, you know. I have the black suit and dickey bow tie. I go to the casino on the last Friday of every month. She never asks where I’m off to. I don't gamble much, but I always win something. And the women that hang around’ he smirked, ‘they are really beautiful and they think I’m someone important. You can have any woman if you look right. If a woman thinks you’ve got money you are on a promise straight away. That‘s a good tip, always let them think you are important or rich and you’ll never be short of a woman’s favours. Anyway, if I’m not lucky at the end of the night I take one of the prostitutes around to the alley at the back for a standing up bit. They are always gorgeous in the casino, nothing rough. Why don't you come with me one night, I’ll fix you up?’ I do not remember what I said, but the truth of his words about women steal up on me time and again.
‘So you see, for some women having a baby is the end of being a girlfriend or a wife. They wont care much for you again, even when you are good to them. You have to think of the little one and get sex whenever you can from elsewhere. You have to have sex because it is like eating. It’s what gets you close to someone and your body needs to do it. But no-one ever kisses you again, or cuddles up to you in bed. Its as if women have only one drum full of love and when they have used it all up, there is no more. They don't have enough for you after a while. For me, after the baby was born, I had twice as much love to give as before, but not her. I don't suppose we will have any more children. I told my dad what had happened and he said I should knock some sense into her, but I can’t do that. He also told me about women only having one drum full of love. I saw the Health Visitor and she said give it time because breast-feeding affects the hormones especially if it goes on too long. But she didn’t breast feed more than a couple of months. She just lost interest in me. Nothing I do is right. My dad says she just used me and now I’m trapped, but I still love her just the same as always.’ He got up and climbed onto the forklift. ‘Come out with me next time I go to the casino’ he repeated, fully recovered and back in work mode. Yet he returned to the subject of his marriage several times in that winter we worked together. He asked me what hormones are.
The least popular worker on the night shift was a Pakistani called Lal. I did not know at first why he was unpopular, but it was not because of his race; we were a United Nations collection of a Scot, Welsh, English, Irish, Malayan, Jamaican, Trinidadian, Indian and Pakistani. It did not make much difference to us, as the common foe was the management. But Lal stood out although I came to understand his lack of popularity only when I had to work with him. He was the laziest man on the shift, quite prepared to leave as much as the work as possible to others, only picking up a package or parcel if the Chargehand or manager came around. I was stuck with him as my partner only once and on that occasion he simply walked away from the wagon we had been told to unload, leaving me to manage it alone, trusting to our code of silence to protect him.
In the carriage next to the one I was unloading, a couple of the others were tackling one loaded with brutes already full and sorted for their destination. All we had to do was transfer them to the platform. Although we were supposed to set up a heavy steel ramp and walk the trolleys out of the carriage, we perfected a way of lining them up with the door and kicking them out so that they shot out to land four square on the platform with a tremendous clatter. It was quicker than using the ramp, which was a nuisance anyway as it took up too much room on the platform. It blocked the path of the forklift or electric tow-tractor used for pulling the train of brutes we had filled with parcels. Of course, it was essential that no one walked by at the time we heaved the full brutes out or they might suffer a painful injury. Usually it was obvious that we were kicking out because a spare brute was placed opposite the carriage door and used as a buffer in case the expelled trolley went shooting across the platform. On this occasion, certainly deliberately, one of the crew moved the buffer just before Lal slipped off. At a nod of the head, a brute was kicked out of the carriage door as Lal went skulking past. He sprang to one side, hearing it coming, so that it missed him by an inch. He understood well enough what had happened and in a rush of temper, he shoved the trolley into the wall just as Don came along the platform. The air turned blue as the two exchanged insults, one in Punjabi and one in local dialect, Don convinced that Lal had pushed the trolley at him; it was a contest Lal could not win. Don could send him off site and so stop his wages. Lal had to back down and return to his work with me. For the next hour he worked in silence; slowly. When the break came he sat apart from everyone and scowled. That was not the last of it for Lal, though. He did not change his ways and so came to experience a much worse fate than nearly being flattened by a flying brute.
A couple of weeks after the incident that had lead to him nearly being crushed, Lal was with a group of us left to finish loading a carriage with mattresses. These were awkward to handle, and once inside the wagon had to be piled up neatly and tied in to stop them spilling over with the movement of the train. It was a very cold night with snow lightly forming on the uncovered parts of the station. Lal clearly had had a drink or two before coming into work, it being a myth that Pakistanis did not touch alcohol. It may be forbidden for Moslems, but that did not mean they were any less hypocritical than the rest of us about which bits of religious practice to accept and which to ignore. The drink had a soporific affect on Lal, who decided that instead of wandering off down the platform as usual, he would lie on top of a pile of mattresses we had stacked in one of the goods vans. He then pulled another mattress over the top of him and to our surprise, fell asleep. Once the others realised that he really had fallen asleep there was a short debate about what to do with him. Ricky came up with the answer. As we were nearing our break, we blocked up the exit with mattresses and left him there to miss the break. Don must have wondered why we were so quiet as we trooped back to the mess hall on the down side. The reason was that we did not want to wake Lal. Once we were in the brightness of the warm room, Ricky told everyone what had occurred. Stan, one of the older men, looked up from his mug of tea. ‘It’s better than you think it is’ he grinned. ‘Listen’. So we listened and what we heard was the sound of the train we had been loading leaving the station. ‘Don thinks you have loaded that one and wants to bring in another from the siding’. I was the first to react, ‘So where is that one going?’ wondering at how disorientated Lal would be to wake in the nearby siding. Stan grinned again, ‘Bradford. It should be there in about six hours.’ We looked at each other, some already fearing for their jobs. ‘Just say nothing, lads. He fell asleep in the carriage and he can explain that when he arrives the other end. Don probably won’t notice he has gone if no-one says anything.’ The silence in the room was broken by Gee chuckling to himself.
There are two additional parts to the story of Lal, at least two that I came to know. The first was that he apparently awoke as the train was leaving us, but could do nothing about it. He did indeed arrive in Bradford where he was arrested by the British Transport Police until his story that he worked for the railway was checked. He was then put on a scheduled passenger train back home. There was an enquiry into this and Don was sent for. We do not know what he said, but it must have been something about thinking Lal had walked off the job as he had been officially warned about doing that some months earlier. No doubt Don quickly ensured the records showed this before the inspection team could check why he had failed to exercise proper supervision of his staff. The more we speculated, the more we thought this must be so because Don never mentioned it to us at all. He may have tried to make our lives more miserable, but he was already such a bully that we failed to notice. About three days after the escapade, Lal returned to work but not to our shift. He was on a final warning, having claimed he had been looking in the carriage for his lost watch when the doors were suddenly closed and the train sent on its way. Then, shortly before Christmas, the local police arrived during our shift, looking for Lal. They had the wrong shift, but told us anyway that he was wanted in connection with a stabbing outside a pub in the town centre. It was a fight between two men from the same village in Pakistan over a woman they were both seeing for sex. We did not know if this was a matter of machismo, village honour, or a crime of passion. However, when the matter did go to Crown Court, Lal pleaded guilty to the stabbing and was sent to prison for two years. The press reported that he had a wife and two children living locally. In the press photograph his wife looked very young and frightened surrounded by Lal’s family. Strangely, attitudes towards Lal amongst the shift then changed. People felt sorry for him and his young family and we wished we had not treated him as we had once thought he deserved. No-one thought of the victim of the stabbing, but a couple of the lads visited the pub where the stabbing had taken place to get sight of the woman who had been the object of Lal’s affection. According to them she was unremarkable, a white woman verging on middle-age, apparently divorced and obviously uncouth, but likely to give Johnny ‘a turn’ in exchange for a drink. She had another young Asian man in tow by then. Johnny, they said, seemed a little too interested.
Chapter Two: Johnny
Johnny took two buses home. When he came in for night shift he could manage on one bus, but the single bus schedule did not start until 7 am and he would not wait an hour after work just to enjoy the convenience of a single journey home. It was the same when he left home for the early shift at 5 o’clock in the morning, so two buses it had to be on at least one leg of each journey. He could never manage a shift when there would be one bus in and one bus back. Everyone at work knew this because he complained to everyone at work about it, to everyone at home about it, to anyone at all except the bus company. On this winter morning, it was so dark as he left for home that he sometimes stumbled on the Victorian cobbled, poorly lit street on the way to the bus stop. He then waited fifteen minutes for the bus and was the only passenger at the stop. He stamped his feet to keep out the cold and clapped his hands together, big, podgy hands. He pulled his coat around him tighter. Once on the bus he paid his fare and counted the stops to his change point. He had to count the stops because it was too dark to make out the scenery and the lights inside the bus reflected back only his own, tired face. He alighted at the cross roads, ready for his next bus which, as usual, was already parked and waiting for its scheduled departure time. He crossed over to this second bus and was let on board by the driver who whilst waiting had the engine running and door closed to keep in the warmth. He took the first available seat which was the first seat and half acknowledged one of the two other passengers on the lower deck of the bus. He was cold, hungry and weary. Had he been more alive, he would have started a conversation with one of the other two passengers or even the driver, hunched in his cab, for whenever he had choices Johnny chose to be with people. As far back as his memory allowed he had wanted to be part of the group, one of the boys, a member of the works social committee, a good friend amongst friends, but he never was. Because he was not accepted he took the position of hanger-on, the butt of jokes, so he might at least give the appearance to the casual observer, and especially to his mother, that he was one of the gang, but he never was and he always knew it. What it was about him that made him an outsider was hard to say. Perhaps it was his need to be needed that had made him unpopular amongst boys and later the animal, machismo world of working men. If so, it was this same vulnerable need that had made him popular amongst women; that and a quickly acquired ability to lie about himself so they saw in him just what they wanted to see.
To the minute the Town Corporation bus pulled away on its route around the sleeping/waking housing estates. Some houses had lights on in upstairs rooms and these he could dimly make out as the bus growled by. As was expected of all bus drivers, the vehicle raced between the stops, slewing to a halt at the request of a waiting passenger only by severe application of the brakes. To drive smoothly and steadily along the route was not in the driver’s capability. This way of driving caused Johnny to lurch forward and back in his seat as each stop loomed out of the darkness and kept him awake. More lights were on in the houses now and, as always, he fantasised that the lights would be on in his own small house that his wife would be in her dressing gown in the kitchen, making sure there was hot food and a cup of tea for him to come into. The baby would be asleep and so they would talk in whispers as he shut the front door ever so quietly behind him. She would take his coat and his empty flask and sandwich box which he carried in an old shopping bag, one with a broken zip fastener, kiss him on the cheek and move silently about their cramped with baby things kitchen whilst he pulled off his boots by the bright electric fire. Sometimes, as on this cold morning, his fantasy allowed him to quickly wash and then climb into bed, warm from her occupancy during the long night, he now warm and fed, and she would snuggle up next to him and gentle him into sleep.
The bus jerked to a halt and Johnny pulled himself to his feet. He swayed with the lurching of the bus to the door and was barely out of it when the bus set off again, like all of Johnny’s acquaintances, forgetting him the moment he left, or they left. He strode out in the sharp, chilled air, down the street, along the alleyway, into the next street and up to his own front door. He carefully placed the key in the lock and opened the door, stepping inside from the outside world of anonymous darkness to a lonely darkness all of his own. He eased the door shut behind him and made his way into the cluttered kitchen where he put on the light, turned on the electric fire and put the meal his wife had cooked before retiring to bed, into the oven to warm. He did not leave it long enough; he never could, and ate it greedily before either he or it was properly warm. He made himself a cup of tea, pulled off his boots, and then, as he always did, he set out the breakfast table so his wife would have something welcoming to get up to. He put everything ready for her and the baby and then made his way to the spare room where she had him sleep when he came in on these early mornings, so as not to disturb the baby. He fell unwashed between the sheets and slept, accepting his fate; a large man in a single bed.
Helen, Johnny’s wife, awoke when she heard the key turn in the lock. She was a light sleeper. Her heart pounded and she began to sweat, as she did every morning when she heard the key turn and felt the inward rush of cold air as her husband ghosted into the house. Her eyes searched the darkness and her hand instinctively reached for her child, who lay deep asleep in his cot next to her. She lay silently afraid whilst she heard Johnny moving about downstairs, terrifying her with his quiet movement. She lay as still as death when he climbed the stairs to the spare room, hearing herself breathe again only once she knew him to be asleep. Then she slipped out of bed and dressed, placed the sleeping baby in his carrycot, and took him downstairs where the room alone had warmed to Johnny’s presence; the fire glowed and the breakfast table stood with welcoming pots and cups. She made herself a cup of tea and drank it, relaxing a little. From under the kitchen sink she took a mug containing her toothbrush and toothpaste and cleaned her teeth at the sink. It was still dark outside. She boiled more water on the stove and washed up the cup, placing it next to the plate Johnny had washed earlier so the two dishes stood in the drying rack, silent and white, not touching. She collected together the clothes she needed for her child and placed them in a bag ready not for when he woke, but for when she bathed him at her mother’s house. All her movements were quick and fearful, whilst the man she had married, who lay exhausted and silent above, remained unaware of her fear or her reason for it.
Outside, the world was moving. A miserable winter dawn had broken and she drew back the curtains. Workers were on their way to work, the newspaper delivery boy was whistling down the street. The whining and humming milk float rattled its bottles as the milkman ran up and down pathways, leaving milk on doorsteps. Cars were coughing awake. The clock refused to hurry for her, just as it refused to slow for them. As the night passed Helen’s fear subsided; Johnny would sleep for hours and later, when she returned shortly before he was to set out again for work, she would be able to talk with him and see the confusion in his big, gentle face. She would let him talk about the people at work, or something he had heard on the news and this would pass for domestic harmony, but both would see the sadness in the other’s eyes though neither would recognise it nor know what it meant for them. If she were careful though, she would return only after he had gone. The baby stirred and opened his eyes. She moved over to him and smiled her first smile of the day. Recognising her face, her smell, her warmth, the baby gave up a big, dribbling gummy smile to her, completing a circle of happiness that excluded all others.
She could see outside more clearly. From the front window she watched the street out of curiosity. At the back window she held up the baby so he might see the drab birds feeding on the scraps she had thrown onto the patch of lawn Johnny had laid for her and the baby to sit on come the summer. Once there had been an established kitchen garden, very small but expertly managed by the previous tenant, but Johnny had neither the time nor knowledge to maintain it and Helen did not care to try. She wanted a neat lawn and a border of flowers. She wanted the fence repaired to keep out the intrusion of the neighbours, but Johnny, on his days off, was as likely to be helping the old lady next door in her garden as working in his own. Helen did not like the widow next door, the old woman who was not, in fact, old but was broken by life’s cruelties, who never saw her own children, one of whom had married and moved away to another part of the country and one in prison in Liverpool. She was not a person Helen wished to have much contact with, fearing the contamination of a failed life.
Helen sat by the electric fire, feeding the baby. She changed his nappy and made him comfortable. Then he was placed into his carrycot again which fitted onto a carriage so he could be wheeled to her mother’s house. She put on her coat and shoes, wrapped a scarf around her head and left for the short walk to the familiarity of her mother’s house which had remained unchanged since the day she had left to set up home with Johnny. She closed the door behind her as quietly as Johnny had opened it.
Johnny awoke after his usual six hours of sleep. He was still tired, but the grey daylight was in his eyes and the bed was uncomfortable. He went to the bathroom and then to his wife’s room which he reminded himself was their room before the baby was born. It was in a state of chaos, the bed sheets pulled to one side and hanging down to the floor, the pillows still with the indent of her head, the baby’s cot askew. He pulled the sheets straight and got into the large bed. He placed his face on her pillow and comforted and warm, fell asleep. He awoke again an hour later, checked the time on his watch and saw it was nearly three in the afternoon - plenty of time. He went to the bathroom; shaved, cleaned his teeth, put on clean underclothes wore his stale work clothes over the top, and went downstairs to make his sandwiches for the night shift. He was hungry but did not prepare anything for his meal as he would walk to his parents’ house two streets away and eat the hot meal his mother would have prepared. She had taken to cooking for him again only recently when she realised Helen was not doing so and was lackadaisical about shopping for groceries. Helen was, in truth, both a disappointment and a relief. She failed to care for Johnny, but then she hadn’t wholly taken him away either.
All Johnny prepared for his food break was a clutch of convenience snacks that came readily to hand, two apples and a shop-bought individual portion fruit pie. He put them in his bag with the broken zip. He quickly tidied the kitchen but had not now left himself time to tidy the bedrooms. He felt guilty about this, but pulled on his boots, put on his heavy coat, arranged his cap at a ridiculous angle and left the house for his mother and father’s home. In the cold late afternoon, already nearly dark, he felt snow in the air. This was a bad sign because frost and snow would affect the rail traffic and perhaps stop the trains altogether. He could be sent home on basic pay or as worryingly, have to sit in the mess room half the night with the rest of the crew, playing cards and being drawn into arguments.
A cooked meal sat on his mother’s table in her kitchen. With easy familiarity he let himself in through the back door and dropped straight into conversation with his mother. In one move his coat and cap were off, thrown over the back of a chair and he was sitting at the table. Whilst he devoured potatoes, cabbage, lamb chops and greasy gravy, his mother put his sandwiches and cake into his bag. She let him pay her a few shillings a week for the cost of this, but she would have done it for nothing, for the simple residual nurturing she felt for him. His father would have done the same, but for pity.
‘Your father has been down the allotment all afternoon, although what he can find to do there this time of year is a mystery. Since he was laid off last month he hasn’t known what to do with himself. It wouldn’t hurt you to go fishing with him sometimes, Johnny, and get him out from under my feet.’ But she was not complaining, she was worried not for her husband, but for her son. When he was with his father he was accepted at the British Legion, in the darts club, with the fishing club; all groups his father had slipped into during his working life at the lock factory. Probable redundancy or retirement meant the end of work at the factory but lifelong membership of the social club for him, and for as long as he lived, for his son too.
‘Dad’s not at the allotments, mother, not all this time anyway. He will have called in at the Legion for a pint and a game of dominoes. You know how he is, still thinks he has to keep factory hours, and won’t be back until it is nearly tea time’.
‘Well wherever he is, he isn’t here, but he will make up for it with his untidiness once he is in. Then, changing direction, ‘Did Helen say she would be round with the baby on Sunday?’ Once a week, Johnny’s parents were gifted the baby to look after whilst Helen ‘got on with things’ at home. Originally, it had been Fridays, but the knowing grandparents had manoeuvred the day to Sunday in the hope that Helen would then have to spend time with Johnny and so the distance that had grown so obviously between them would close. Johnny had told his father of Helen’s indifference toward him and he, of course, had shared this with Johnny’s mother, entreating her not to interfere.
‘I expect so’ was all Johnny could answer mouth full of grease sodden potato. He was too naive to see what his parents were up to. Their plan had not worked anyway as Helen usually found Johnny tasks to do about the house whilst she slipped out to her mother’s home. The parental plan also foundered on Johnny’s secret once a month activities at the casino which meant not returning home until the early hours of Sunday morning and sleeping until noon, ample time for Helen to take the baby to his grandparents, complete her limited tasks about the house and be out by the time he was up.
‘Has your father said anything to you about the hours you are working? It’s not good for you Johnny to be working 12 hour shifts month after month. I know the money is good, but it’s all work and sleep, work and sleep. Its no good for you you know’
‘He hasn’t said anything’ replied her son, missing the point.
He finished his meal and slurped from a mug of tea. Pulling his coat on, putting on his cap, he prepared to leave. She handed his bag to him.
‘I’ve put an extra piece of cake in there for the new boy if he wants it.’
Picking up his bag he said goodbye to his mother and left the house as unthinkingly as he had arrived, his mind set on catching the bus to work and starting the next night shift. As he turned out of the street, his father, only half the size of Johnny and sallow skinned, arrived at the far end to see his son moving away from him and regretted not having been ten minutes earlier. He loved his only child, even though in his heart he knew he was not his father. It was a matter never mentioned, but not one physical or social characteristic of the father was in the son. At one time casual acquaintances would remark on it; close friends never did.
Chapter Three: Stan
When Johnny swaggered into the mess room, there were several other workers already there making ready for the shift. In the middle of the room, chewed cigar in mouth and a tin mug of some sort of hot drink in his hand was the squat figure of Stan. Stan was a transfer from the nearby main line station. No-one on the shift had worked with him previously, which was unusual in railway circles. With a fixed grin and twinkling eyes, Stan looked a jovial figure, perhaps in his late 40s; it was difficult to say. It was almost certain that Stan was not his real name because he was Malayan. Stan was his work name and he did not choose to have it otherwise. Johnny was unsure of Stan. He looked around for the new boy, but he was not in the mess room; probably standing out on the platform on his own, thinking, getting his mind right before the shift started. His shadow, Ricky, would be somewhere near him. Sometimes the ferret would join them, an exclusively little group. Sometimes he would be there with Robin, a student drop-out who thought he was better than all of the rest but would occasionally link-up with the new lad and talk about paintings. When the two of them were together, Johnny would see them smoke roll-ups. That was the only time he saw either of them smoke. Johnny looked on, the perpetual outsider. What was it about the new lad, Robin and even Stan that marked them out as different, self-contained, with worlds outside this one?
A whistle shrieked in the night air; a summoning to arms. The shift gathered together in the mess. This was a full shift indicating that trains were coming in fully loaded with the Christmas light freight and parcels traffic. There were twenty men gathered in the bright room, each of whom sensed that Don wanted them to line up in ranks, neatly uniform in a military fashion, and two or three of them would have liked to comply. The shift looked what it was; a disinterested gang who would like to have been anywhere else. The epitome of this attitude, the person who let it be known most clearly, was Stan. He shrugged at every instruction, giving the impression that each task was undertaken knowing it was foolish and pointless. His grin when sometimes confronted by Don for working too slowly would slip to be replaced by a shake of the head. This infuriated Don because it undermined his authority too obtusely to allow disciplinary action. There was also menace in that reducing and disappearing grin. Others saw it too and no-one was sure about it. Was it a clever tactic to unsettle any who challenged him, or a genuine turn towards a truer character, a man who might think nothing of launching himself on an antagonist? Stan added to this uncertainty by occasionally showing a knife he carried for paring fruit; a knife with a heavy six inch blade.
The snow fell in silent menace and Don eyed the conditions with concern. He knew the rail points just outside the station caught a cold draft of air and if the snow packed against them they would freeze, blocking the track. To overcome such problems, mainlines would have gas heaters, but this was a light freight branch line where the cure was a man with a blow-lamp. He needed to go to the signal box and check what was happening, but he did not want the gang to be idle. He called on Charlie the Chargehand to take one group to finish the unloading of a parcels train. He then considered his options for the others. He knew how to delegate and surprisingly did so. ‘Stan, do you know where the first set of points is?’ Stan, himself a former Guard who mysteriously no longer was a Guard, grinned and nodded. ‘Go and check they are free and then see George in the signal box to see if he can still pull the points and signals’. Stan obviously knew what he was about and collected a high visibility jacket and a lamp before trudging along the platform and into the darkness along a set of rails. ‘The rest of you, collect shovels. You are going to clear the snow off the loading bay’. He ignored the groans and complaints.
Don organised the shovel party into an efficient clearage team and then himself went to his office to collect a lamp and walk up to the signal box.
Stan, meanwhile, was not idle. He reached the points and could see they were filling with snow that was freezing. Grinning to himself, he scooped more snow with his boot so that it lodged between the moveable track that made the points. He then stamped on it, compacting it. For good measure, he scooped up more snow against the signal cable so that it too would freeze and prevent the signal from operating. Pleased with himself, he made his way to the signal box where the signalman would be sitting in the cosy warmth of the Edwardian box, coke fire burning brightly, signal levers polished and gleaming. Sure enough, as he clumped up the steep wooden steps to the box, a glass box on top of a 12 foot high brick base, George the signalman was stoking up the coke stove, surprised to see him.
‘The boss sent me over to check on the points’.
‘Ah, well come and get yourself warm. There is tea in the pot’, said the signalman, nodding at the large metal teapot steaming on top of the stove. ‘I’ll give the points a pull.’
‘Boss said you are to try the signals too’.
The signalman, wearing carpet slippers, seemed to be more at home in this cosy, homely room than many might be in their own homes. With practiced ease he heaved at the points lever, but it wouldn’t travel its full length and wouldn’t lock. He looked uneasy. ‘I’ll try the outer home’ he said and easily engaged then disengaged a signal.
‘I’d try the Home signal if I were you’ said Stan, knowingly.
The signalman attempted the levers in sequence, but the signal Stan had tampered with hardly moved.
‘By God that has frozen up quickly’, he said as he recorded his actions in his logbook.
‘Want me to get the Boss and start freeing them up?’
‘No, give it five minutes. Let them freeze up good and hard then we’ll get the engineers down and save us freezing our balls off out there’.
Stan sipped his tea, mission accomplished. The signalman gazed out of the box and could see a lamp swinging along in the darkness and the snow, coming to the box.
‘Here, get your coat back on and take hold of the blow torch, then leave everything to me’ he said in a hurried tone.
Don plodded into the box, cap and shoulders covered with snow. As he opened the door, he saw the signalman taking a blow-torch from Stan, saying ‘Well you tried anyway, but it’s the points and signals that have frozen up. You can’t be out there on your own, but thanks for trying.’
Don looked even more disconsolate. ‘We had better get the engineering crew down to free everything up’ he said. ‘Stan, have a drink and warm up then make your way back. I’ll go and phone. We will probably miss getting the next load in now.’ He left the box and headed back towards the distant station and his office. Safety was ensured because the signals were set to stop. He was concerned that if he could not get the next train in within the next two hours, he would have to send the staff home. He did not want to do that because he knew many were relying on overtime earnings for Christmas. He had to decide soon though because the buses stopped running at 11 o’clock. Walking home in this weather would be rubbing salt in the wounds. He weighed his responsibilities seriously, to the men of course but above all to the railways he had worked for since a boy.
Stan grinned at the signalman.
‘Got anything stronger than this George?’
‘You know its instant dismissal to have alcohol in the box, Stan. But if you take the key from the rack, it will open the padlock on the service gate. Go over the road and knock on the back door of ‘The Western’. Iris will let you in the back room. Tell her that with this weather I reckon we’ll all be over after closing for a lock in’
‘Is her old man in?’
‘I don’t think so. He is at the pigeon club most nights at the present, but he’ll be back at ‘last orders’. Don’t try it on with Iris’ daughter though because there’ll be trouble for all of us if you do. I know what you are like’.
Stan took the key and opened the door to the steps.
‘It wasn’t her daughter I was thinking of.’
Like Don before him, he slumped awkwardly down the steps, leaving a swirl of cold air behind him. George watched him go and took a sandwich from his container. He threaded it on a toasting fork and set it in front of his stove, the front grill opened to reveal the burning coals. He poured himself some tea and readied himself for the visitors to the warmth of the box. They always came when the rails iced-up. He liked the company even if he wouldn’t trust any of them with his secret stash of malt whisky that he sipped only as he left the box, never whilst on duty. In front of the other men he would have a word with Johnny, make a fuss of him, because George and Johnny’s dad had been friends for years, except of course, Cyril wasn’t Johnny’s real father, but no-one ever spoke of it.
Stan found his way across the snow-laced back street to the sooty Victorian pub. It was out of the way now and no longer filled by the workers and travellers who once sought food and drink, warmth and somewhere to wait out the evenings. Stan could see only about half a dozen people at the main front-room bar. He went to the back door and knocked. A dog barked. After a while, as he stood shuffling his feet and trying to get into the narrow porch to shelter from the falling snow, he heard a familiar female voice and called out to her. The bolts slid back and a thin woman, middle-aged, sallow skinned and heavy with make-up ushered him in.
‘We’ve not seen you for a while, Stan’, she admonished.
‘Looks like the line is blocked, Iris. I think you might have a bit of business coming over later.’
‘Its last orders at half ten, so if its going to be late and going on a bit, bring them through the yard to the back door, the way you’ve come. I’ll leave the yard gate ajar, but get the last man through to shut it. I don’t want the police snooping round if we have a lock-in.’
‘Are you getting any food on Iris? It might be worth doing something hot.’
‘I won’t have the time now, except for some bacon it will have to be cheese and cold meat with pickle. I haven’t much bread either and there is nowhere open to send for it at this time.’
‘Anyway, I’ll have a whisky and a flash of your knickers whilst I’m waiting’ he leered.
‘You can have the whisky, but you’re out of luck with the knickers because I’m not wearing any tonight’
‘Can I warm my hands then?’
‘Warm them on your own arse’ she said, joining in the banter with enthusiasm and not doubting for a moment that given the opportunity it would be more than his hands he would be warming. What pleased and excited her was that she really was not wearing any knickers. It was a thrill she kept to herself. All these men around and she could have any one of them in an instant by lifting her skirt…not that she would or ever did, she told herself, not counting a Guard who used to be a regular because that had been a proper affair that had lasted for several years, though the more she thought of Stan, the more flushed she became.
Don bulldozed his way back along the platform and blew shrilly on his whistle. The crew gradually assembled from all around the station. Some looked as if they had been sheltering in the warmth of one of the rooms because their faces were flushed; most were hunched and pinched with the cold.
‘Go in the mess and keep warm,’ Don told them, ‘No sneaking off anywhere. I’ll be wanting some of you to help clear the snow from the road and the gate in a while. Some of you can help clear the track when the engineers get here. At present we can’t get any train in from the sidings’.
There was a dull cheer from some of the group and then a shuffling into the mess where the brightness of the lights after the darkness of the night hurt the eyes. The huge kettle was already steaming and tea was made. The men ranged along one of the long refectory tables and a pack of cards was produced. Charlie the Chargehand immediately reminded everyone there was no gambling, but then dropped a box of matches onto the table suggesting each one be a token for sixpence. The matches were divided and each person knew he had to make good any debt there and then. Charlie passed around an old metal ash-tray in which each man paid sixpence for each match he had in front of him.
‘Right, two bob per man in the kitty and we’ll play ‘Cheat’. Last man in takes the pot’ he said.
The object of the game was for each man in turn to lay cards face down in ascending order, claiming to have put down two twos, then in the next round a three and so on. It is impossible for everyone to be able to put down the appropriate cards as there is only four of each number in the pack. If successfully challenged by a cry of ‘Cheat!’ the gambler would have to pick up the entire discarded pile. If he was not cheating and really had put down what he said, then the accuser took up the pile. It is a game with a potential to run on and on and could create a lot of excitement.
The game progressed with ten players. Johnny was caught out in the first three rounds as he attempted to put down cards he did not have. In the fourth round, though still looking guilty, he placed one card down claiming it was the required number four. He was again called for cheating but this time he had played the right card and could not contain his glee at having forced one of the others to pick up all the discards. In the next round the young lad was called for claiming to put down three number fives, but he wasn’t cheating. He was called again in the next round for claiming the same with sixes, but was again not cheating. The group now thought his luck must have been running out so they called him again on seven, but yet again he was safe.
‘It’s like playing with the fucking Vicar’ complained Charlie to the laughter of all. Johnnie was absolutely delighted because if he couldn’t win, and he knew that fate never allowed him to win at anything be it cards or life, then his new friend winning was the next best thing. After that call, no-one risked calling the lad again who cheated furiously and outrageously, but always saving a king for the last round play. He knew that in desperation someone would call him then. The call duly came when he claimed to lay a single king and so he won. In the general uproar Charlie handed him the winnings, a whole pound. Taking off the two shillings he had put into the kitty that was a profit of 18 shillings or about nine pints of beer in the Western. A handsome win.
‘No-one wins in a single round’ complained Charlie, but someone had.
Charlie went out to see Don in Don’s cosy cupboard of an office next door. Don had received the worst of all news. The engineering staff would be able to clear the line, but could not say when. That meant he could not send the staff home. He checked his watch, the wall clock and the timetable of listed work. There was no possibility of bringing in another train in sufficient time to unload it before the change in shift. Everything was already in place for the work; nothing for the staff to do. He told Charlie,
‘Alright, tell the men to take an extended break but be ready to be called for 0200. No. tell them 2 am, they won’t understand the 24 hour clock’. He busied himself with some paperwork to help assuage the misery of other people’s idleness.
Charlie, occupying a position somewhere between wanting to be part of management, but having his heart on the shop floor, was troubled by this. Was the message he received from Don a nod in the direction of permitting the men to go over the Western, or was it simply as it was said? He could not work it out and would not go back and ask Don because he was afraid of him. He squared his cap, pulled his scarf tighter and went into the mess hall.
‘And the good news is no work until 2 in the morning so you have nearly three hours to kill.’ He said no more but looked over at Stan.
Stan grinned his conspiracy and announced in a quiet voice, heavy with Malay accent,
‘The Western has shut its doors now, but Iris has left the back door open. We can go over for a couple of hours.’
There was a general shouting of agreement. Gee then advised everyone to be quiet for a minute.
‘Now you don’t want Dirt-box Don in there to think anything is up do you?’ No-one questioned this. ‘What you have to do is leave quietly in twos and threes; Head to the signal box and get the key for the gate from George. Stan has arranged for you to go in the back door because Stan is a sly fox. When you come back, do the same. I will be staying here and cooking some food. I’ll clatter about and put on my radio to make some noise, but if Don comes in, I don’t know nothing you hear me?’
Coats, scarves and hats were pulled on. Stan, the lad, Johnny and Robin the student went first. There was no problem with banging the doors because the toilets were out on the platform anyway so Don would only think someone was on his way there. The four tip-toed past Don’s office to the end of the covered platform and then dropped down into the snow. It was blizzarding by now and they made their way in the cold and silence to the signal box. They all climbed the steps to the box where George was waiting for them.
‘Bloody hell, you lot took your time. Let’s hope Iris is still open to offers.’
‘She will be,’ grinned Stan.
The Room was so warm and the view so redolent of a Dickensian Christmas, that they were almost prepared to sit in the warmth and easiness of the box and doze the hours away. Stan retrieved the key and called them all on. George looked on not in envy, but with pride in his part of effecting their great adventure.
Within a few minutes, white with snow, they were at the back door of the Western. Stan Knocked loudly. There was a scraping and shuffling, the door opened into brightness, lime lighting Iris in all her tired, middle-aged vanity. They were inside, through to the back-room bar with coats off and money jangling. Within a few minutes others arrived and still others. Most of the crew turned up. Iris had thought over the chance of increasing her meagre income by providing a hot hash and she produced this in a large earthen ware dish at the side of the bar.
‘Help yourselves’, she said ‘two shillings a portion’.
At the bar, a sallow barman pulled illegal pints of bitter. Stan had rum and moved over to Iris. She pushed back her hair and smoothed back her dress.
‘Is the old man back yet, Iris?’
‘I expect he’s caught in the snow.’ Then in an over-loud voice she said, ‘Remember the agreement Stan, I said I would keep open if one of you would move these crates in the cellar.’
Stan did not even blink. ‘I’ll do it Iris, my love; the others have just started their pints.’
Looks shot form one man to another, from the barman to the assembled company and no-one said anything. Stan emptied his drink and followed the landlady out of the room to the cellar door. Together they descended to the cellar.
Johnny, sufficiently licentious to start commenting, was insufficiently aware to notice what was going on. The others made do with asides and nods as they consumed plates of food and pints of dark beer. A game of darts began, cribbage by the open fire and general chit-chat. It was a scene stolen from a Christmas card, Scrooge having been thwarted and left curmudgeonly alone in his office.
After a while, someone suggested that Stan seemed to be taking a long time.
‘Never normally has a problem humping’.
At this witticism, Johnny became suddenly aware of what was probably going on and became excited.
‘I’ll see if he needs any help’.
‘You do that Johnny, but watch out because it isn’t only that knife he keeps in his trousers’.
There was uproar of laughter as Johnny made his way to the corridor and the cellar door. The barman suggested he should ‘leave it alone’ but Johnny was flushed by now and keen to see what was to be seen. He went out of the bar area to the cellar door at the back. He pulled it open. The light was out which made it pitch dark in the cellar. He found the switch, pressed on the light and advanced to the bottom of the stone steps calling lecherously ‘Hey Stan, do you want some help?’
Once in the main vault he slowly realised that something was wrong; no-one was there. All at once the door above him banged shut as the light went out. He had been duped yet again. In his fear and shame he yelled at the top of his voice and staggered towards where he thought the steps were. He found them in the blackness by falling forward onto them and grazing his shin. He crawled on hands on knees up to the door and groped for the handle. It wasn’t locked and he stumbled out into the brightness, heat and laughter of the assembled group.
Ricky and the ferret grabbed him by the arms and pulled him into the main bar.
‘You didn’t think he’d stay down there in the cold’ scathed Ricky, ‘he’s in the back kitchen with Iris having a cup of tea’. The laughter resumed at Johnny’s subsequent outburst of profanities. Meanwhile, Stan and Iris, in the hissing, big kettle back kitchen of the pub disentangled each from the other. She pulled down her dress over her hips as he buckled his trousers.
‘I’ve been needing that all night, Stan’ said the landlady.
‘You are welcome anytime Iris my love, you only have to ask.’
He could be most polite at times.
Don looked from his coke fire to the Victorian clock above. He checked his schedule and realised he would be at least one complete trainload behind. This irked him. He liked to do a good and thorough job but the weather was against him and was a more formidable enemy than the workforce he liked to bully. The telephone rang, but never being one to run to a fire, he allowed two rings before answering. The line gang known universally as P-Way, being short for Permanent Way, were moving into position along the track. They wanted a runner, a messenger to operate between themselves and the signalman and not wanting to deplete their own resources, asked for one of the platform crew to be sent along. Don agreed and mentally went through his list of who was available. He couldn’t send any of the younger staff because they had no safety training, but he was unsure about sending one of the older, near-retirement men out in weather like this. He settled on the idea of Stan as he closed the office door behind him and strode the few yards towards the mess hall. Almost at once he bumped into Billy, long-serving as a railman but still only in his mid thirties. Billy was not the most intelligent of men, but had a full range of officially issued equipment and was trained to walk the lines safely. Somehow, Billy was anonymous, easily forgettable and never likely to argue. Taking immediate advantage Don ordered him to the office for instruction.
‘I’m just going to the toilet, Boss.’
‘Well, get in here as soon as you’ve been but make it quick.’
Don was a little surprised that Billy had his big coat fully buttoned and his cap and gloves on for the 30 seconds the walk to the toilets would take. Billy, of course, had been on his way back to the pub having been sent over by his colleagues for another cribbage board; the one belonging to the pub already being in use. He shoved the board into his hip pocket as soon as he saw Don coming; now he didn’t know what to do. He knew he must make pretence of going to the toilets, but didn’t know how to get the cribbage board, a block of wood about a foot long, over to the pub without Don knowing all about the winter migration. This worried him because he worried about everything. Not knowing how to resolve the problem he reported as instructed to Don’s office, a room he only ever entered to clock in or out and to collect his wage packet. Don sat Napoleonically behind his brown leather inlaid desk. At least he was thankful that Don had not continued to the mess where he would have found only Gee mixing an exotic curry and singing tunelessly to himself in disregard of the thin sounds from Radio Luxembourg echoing around the room successfully convincing Don that all were there.
Don eased into his round-back chair and looked up at his uncomfortable companion.
‘Billy, walk on the downside, about 100 yards past the signal box and find the
P-Way foreman. Tell him I sent you. As they fix the track, they’ll send you to see George in the box to test the cabling. Whilst you are waiting you can also be auxiliary lookout, but there is nothing to worry about as we have nothing scheduled to come down the track and we’ve put a block on it anyway.’
‘How long will I be then Boss?’
‘I have no idea, but I’ll replace you if you are not back here in an hour.’
Billy left, a troubled man. He had to report along the track, but how could he get a message to the boys in the Western?
Meanwhile, Stan was full of himself. So far it had been a good night for him; now he was hungry for the remains of the food. Iris, flushed and guilty, returned to the bar and tried to disguise residual embarrassment with a sharp tongue.
‘Keep the noise down and make sure those curtains are tight across. Any banging on the doors will be the police. You all know the drill by now. You take your drinks and coats with you and get to the cellar until I’ve seen them off.’ She paused for breath and then in a more conciliatory tone added, ‘Put some more coal on the fire.’
She stood slim and straight and Johnny lusted after her, several admired and feared her, and Stan relived the moment as he drew on his pint. He muttered to himself in a language no-one else there shared and then said quietly, what might have been a translation, ‘Iris, I wonder if your little girl is just as sweet?’
There must have been fifteen or so men clustered in the warm bar, eating, drinking and playing cards. Outside the snow still fell in thick flakes and the wind howled in the cobbled alleyways and down the sidings. Charlie suddenly sat up, bolt upright as if prodded with sciatica.
‘Oh bloody hell,’ he hissed, the delivery drivers will be coming back into the yard and won’t be able to get in the gateway because its filling with snow. Don will be looking for us to shovel a way through.’ There was panic in his face. ‘Quick, what shall we do?’
His concern spread to the others as each looked to the other. Iris took command.
‘We’ve had something like this before, so don’t get into a state Charlie. This is what you’ll do. Three of the young lads can go out of the front of the pub and run down to the gate. They can be there so the drivers see them as they’re coming in.’
Turning to the three she had already selected she issued more specific instruction. ‘
One of you get to the store and pick up shovels for all of you. With a bit of luck you’ll be shovelling before Don turns up. Charlie, you take the rest of the men except Johnny up to the signal box. If you see Don leaving the office, a couple of you leg it down to the track and start looking like you are helping, two or three stay in the box chatting to George. The rest of you sneak around the long way round and get into the locker room. Keep the light off and act like you’ve been sleeping.’
‘And Johnnie had better warn Gee about the plan otherwise Don’s going to walk in and find him on his own’ said Charlie, catching on to a plan well beyond his own capabilities.
Iris turned to the wide-eyed Johnnie. ‘You go off first and see Don in his office. Start asking him questions about the delay, shift work, anything to keep him distracted.’
‘Where is Billy?’ asked another. ‘He should have been back ages ago.’
‘No time to worry about him now, get moving.’
Everyone did move, except for Stan. He rocked gently on his heels, his sly grin fixed, his dark eyes darting, weighing his options.
Out along the track, Billy trudged miserably along. He had reported to the supervisor who had sent him further along the track with a paraffin blow-torch to help unfreeze the points. Billy hated this sort of work, standing in the dark, in the cold, all alone and listening for the warning bang of detonators exploding as an advancing locomotive hit them, or the wail of the warning trumpet from the advanced look-out. His anxiety was even higher than its usual awful state because his work-mates had entrusted him to undertake a simple task and he had let them down. He ran excuses and explanations through in his barren imagination, all about how Don had caught him, but he had talked his way out of it and saved the day by preventing Don going into the Mess Hall. It wasn’t his fault. But he knew they would ridicule him, even Johnny.
Meanwhile, unknown to Billy, Robin, the young lad and Ricky raced down the black and white street. It would take too long to run all the way along the perimeter wall so once passed the main entrance they jumped for the top of the gate, shaking the snow from it and making far too much noise as they grasped the heavy wooden structure and heaved themselves over. They dropped into the yard. Ricky turned right and made for the tool shed about ten yards away; the other two ran to the left, leaping off the platform into the loading bay behind the rail buffers. No lorries in the yard. They reached the main gate to the side road where the lorries came in. It stood open but partly blocked with snow. If any lorry turned up now they would ask the driver to hold on until they could dig out the snow and for him not to go wandering up to the office. Depending who the driver might be they would ask him to tell Don he had already been to the Mess hall and asked them to dig him out. The plan was flawed because Don would think it strange that they had agreed to help because no-one in their right mind would simply volunteer to work.
Ricky turned up with the shovels and the three of them quickly cleared the gateway. Now they were confused. Should they wait for a lorry to turn up to put the rest of the plan into action, or should they risk sneaking back into the Mess? It was too cold to stand about thinking it over so they turned for the Mess when headlights from a British Rail delivery van swept along the side road as the lorry chugged in a fog of its own making. They flagged it down but before anyone could speak, Gee came ambling along.
‘OK boys, you can go and get warmed up again in the Mess. We told Don we had been asked for help down here and you three volunteered because you are stupid. He sort of believed that. He said to leave some shovels by the gate so the drivers can dig themselves out if they need to.’ He grinned his broad conspiratorial grin and handing out his supply of rum. All took a swig of the raw liquid and stomped back toward the lights of the old platform.
Waiting for them on the platform, arms akimbo, was Don.
‘Listen you dozy twats. I decide who does what on my shift, not some overpaid delivery driver. I decide if anyone does any digging-out, not them.’ He was barking at them in his usual bullying fashion. ‘Get yourselves warmed up but don’t get too comfortable because it looks like we have the line free now and there is enough time to get another load started.’
The man was obsessed. It was half past three in the morning, snowing heavily and he wanted to unload a train of goods that couldn’t be sent on anywhere because only two lorries had made it into the loading bay. He had Billy freezing along the track and had just sent Johnny to get the forklift truck to start moving unfilled BRUTES into position for loading onto the non-existent lorries. Robin shrugged his shoulders and rolled another one of his unusual, herbal cigarettes. He didn’t speak to anyone, he just sat in the corner of the Mess, avoiding Gee’s comment that they would come to a bad end smoking those things. Generally, though, Gee left him alone and concentrated on the new boy who was the only other person on the shift who had more than a meagre intelligence, some education, and knew how to roll a splif. As the majority of the gang settled down to drinking tea again, adjusting winter clothing, or even dozing, Johnny came in with a swirl of cold air and nodded purposefully at Ricky and the new boy.
‘Come with me will you and give me a hand.’
Somewhat reluctantly and only in boredom they joined him.
‘I just accidentally snagged a parcel with the forks on the forklift and the whole parcel has burst open. Come and see what is inside.’ he was almost joyously happy, hardly able to contain himself. It was obviously something special that had brought a flush to his face.
In an open fronted shed where the electric tow-trucks were parked to have their batteries charged, Johnny had stashed away the damaged parcel. It was full of copies of what in those days passed for a pornographic magazine, nude pictures and lurid stories. It was clear he had spent some time looking through a copy of this publication but it wasn’t the centrefold that had particularly excited him. His fat fingers roughly skipped through the pages to an amateur photograph in the readers' letters section and covering the picture with his hand he held out the accompanying letter to his companions.
‘Read that!’ he said, unable to hold down his voice in its excitement. Robin read out loud,
‘Here is a picture of my lover. He could satisfy any woman and none of your blacks can compete with him.’ Ignoring the possibility of racism in this, they looked at their beaming workmate. Johnny then uncovered the picture. It was a full frontal nude picture of a man and attention was focused on an enormous penis, probably over a foot long in its semi-flaccid state and of incredible girth
‘Christ, its massive,’ said both together.
‘Never mind his cock, look at his face,’ squealed Johnny.
Staring out of the poor quality colour print was the unmistakable grinning image of Stan.
It was obvious that Stan had a life that no-one at work knew much about, though how he found time to indulge it was even more of a mystery. It all became clearer and more sordid just a few weeks later.
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The Night Shift
by David Stephens
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