Peter James,

my Brighton peer



Hands on hips, Frank Pike stood on the platform at London Bridge station and ran an approving eye over his locomotive. He had been a driver for almost two years now but it was the first time he had been put in charge of the Brighton Express, the fast train that took its passengers on a journey of over fifty miles to the increasingly popular town on the south coast. Because it did not stop at any of the intervening stations, it could reach its destination in a mere seventy-five minutes. Pike was determined that it would arrive on time.

A big, sturdy, shambling man in his thirties, he was a dutiful and conscientious employee of the London Brighton and South Coast Railway. His soft West Country burr and gentle manner made him stand out from the other drivers. Pike was a serious man who derived immense satisfaction from his work. Arriving at the shed an hour before the train was due to leave, he had read the notices of speed limits affecting his shift then carefully examined all the working parts of his locomotive, making sure they had been properly lubricated. Everything was in order. Now, minutes before departure, he felt a quiet excitement as he stepped on to the footplate beside his fireman.

‘How fast are we going to go, Frank?’ asked John Heddle.

‘We keep strictly to the recommended speeds,’ replied Pike.

‘Why not try to break the record?’

‘It’s not a race, John. Our job is to get the passengers there swiftly and safely. That’s what I intend to do.’

‘I’ve always wanted to push an express to the limit.’

‘Then you can do so without me,’ said Pike, firmly, ‘because I’m not taking any chances, especially on my first run. Excessive speeds are irresponsible and dangerous. You should know that.’

‘Yes,’ agreed Heddle, ‘but think of the excitement.’

John Heddle was a short, skinny, animated man in his twenties. He had a mobile face that featured a bulbous nose, a failed attempt at a moustache, a lantern jaw and a permanent gap-toothed grin. Having worked with the fireman before, Pike was fond of him though troubled by Heddle’s impulsiveness and lust for speed. They would be glaring defects in the character of a driver. Pike had impressed that fact upon him a number of times.

After a final check of his instruments, Pike awaited the signal to leave. It was Friday evening and the train was filled with people who either lived in Brighton or wished to spend the weekend there. One of the passengers, a clergyman, suddenly materialised beside them.

‘Good evening to both of you,’ he said, amiably. ‘Do excuse me. I’ve just come to bless the engine.’

‘Bless it?’ said Heddle with a laugh. ‘It’s the first time I’ve heard of anyone doing that, sir. What about you, Frank?’

‘It’s been sworn at before now,’ said Pike, ‘but never blessed.’

‘Then you can’t have driven the Brighton Express,’ decided the newcomer, ‘because I travel on it regularly and always bestow a blessing on the engine before departure.’

He closed his eyes and began to offer up a silent prayer. Driver and fireman exchanged a glance. Pike was mystified but Heddle was highly amused. The clergyman on the platform was a diminutive figure of middle years, jaunty, dapper and good-humoured. He had long, wavy, greying hair and a goatee beard. Even in repose he seemed to be bristling with energy. Pike was afraid that the blessing would go on too long but the clergyman knew exactly how much time he had at his disposal. Opening his eyes, he gave them a broad smile of gratitude then stepped smartly into a first class carriage near the front of the train. Thirty seconds later they were in motion.

‘There you are,’ said Heddle, nudging the driver. ‘You’ve got the Church’s blessing now, Frank. You can go hell for leather.’

Pike was circumspect. ‘We’ll maintain the speeds advised,’ he said, solemnly. ‘Then we can be sure to arrive in one piece.’

The Reverend Ezra Follis was comfortably ensconced in his seat. He was on nodding terms with two of the male passengers and recognised another, Giles Thornhill, a tall, spare, beak-nosed man with pursed lips and an air of supreme arrogance, as a Member of Parliament for Brighton. Having severe reservations about the man’s suitability as a politician, Follis had never voted for him nor tried, on the few earlier occasions when they shared a carriage, to engage him in conversation.

Two people caught Follis’s attention. One was a big, solid, red-faced fellow with mutton-chop whiskers decorating both cheeks like ivy spreading across the walls of a house. When he realised that he was being scrutinised, the man gave a loud sniff of protest before disappearing behind his newspaper. Diagonally opposite Follis was an altogether more interesting subject of study, a slim, attractive, auburn-haired young woman, impeccably dressed and well-groomed. What diverted the clergyman was the fact that some of the other men in the carriage were pretending to read or stare through the window while shooting her surreptitious glances of admiration. Smiling tolerantly, Follis opened his Bible and searched for the text on which he would base his sermon the following Sunday.

Driving an engine was a test of concentration. Since the footplate was unprotected, Frank Pike and his fireman were exposed to the elements and to the clouds of thick, black smoke bursting rhythmically out of the funnel. As well as listening for any defects in the operation of the engine, the driver had to keep a wary eye on the line ahead for any potential hazards. Even on such a clear, warm summer’s evening, visibility over the engine from a juddering footplate was not ideal. There was an additional problem. Those who designed locomotives had somehow never thought to provide seating. Both men had to stand throughout the entire journey.

The route took them almost directly southward across the grain of the Weald. It was undulating landscape. When they steamed through Norwood, they had to climb a seven-mile rise towards a gap in the crest of the North Downs. There was a long cutting through the chalk before they plunged into the Merstham Tunnel, over a mile in length. Emerging back into the light of day, the train had over seven miles of down grade, easing the strain on its engine and effortlessly gathering speed. After shooting past Horley, they began another gradual climb to a summit pierced by the Balcombe Tunnel.

Pike knew every station by heart, having stopped at them regularly when in charge of slower trains. Stationmasters and porters gave him a friendly wave as he rattled past. He felt an upsurge of pride at being on the footplate of the Brighton Express. When it was first built, almost the entire line passed through open country with only a few cottages punctuating the scene. Signs of habitation had slowly increased now as people sought a rural escape that was yet within easy reach of a railway station. Cows, sheep and crops, however, still dominated the fields on both sides of the line.

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