This one is for Judith. Choo-choo!



‘Are you serious?’ asked Dirk Sowerby, eyebrows aloft in disbelief.

‘Never more so,’ replied Caleb Andrews. ‘I’m starting to feel my age, Dirk. It’s time to think of retirement.’

‘But you’ve got more energy than the rest of us put together.’

Andrews laughed. ‘That’s not saying much.’

‘What does your daughter think of the idea?’

‘To be honest, it was Maddy’s suggestion. Now that she’s about to get married, she doesn’t need her old father to support her anymore. She feels that I’ve earned a rest.’

The two men were on the footplate of the locomotive they’d just brought into Wolverhampton station. The engine was still hissing and wheezing but at least they were now able to have a conversation without having to shout at each other. Andrews was not just one of the senior drivers on the London and North Western Railway, he was an institution, a grizzled veteran who’d dedicated himself to rail transport and achieved an almost iconic status among his work colleagues. He was a short, wiry man in his fifties with a wispy beard flecked with coal dust. Sowerby, by contrast, was tall, big-boned, potato-faced and well over twenty years younger. He idolised Andrews and – even though he sometimes felt the sharp edge of his friend’s tongue – was always glad to act as his fireman.

The LNWR train was on its way back to London but it did not have a monopoly on the route. As the two men chatted, a goods train belonging to the Great Western Railway steamed through the recently opened Low Level station nearby and left clouds of smoke in its wake. Andrews curled his lip in disgust.

‘We were here first,’ he declared. ‘Why does Wolverhampton have two stations? We can see to all of the town’s needs.’

‘Tell that to Mr Brunel.’

‘I wish I could, Dirk. There’s a lot of other things I could say to him as well. The man’s an idiot.’

‘That’s unfair,’ said Sowerby, defensively. ‘Brunel is a genius.’

‘A genius at getting things wrong,’ snapped Andrews, ‘such as the ridiculous broad gauge on the GWR. If he’s so clever, why did he get involved in that stupid atmospheric railway in Devon? He lost a pretty penny on that. Yes,’ he added, warming to his theme, ‘and don’t forget the battle of Mickleton when Brunel tried to use force to remove the contractors building the Campden Tunnel, even though the Riot Act had already been read.’

‘Everyone makes some mistakes, Caleb.’

‘He’s made far too many for my liking.’

‘Well, I think he’s a brilliant engineer.’

‘He might be if he stuck to one thing and learnt to do it properly. But that’s not good enough for Brunel, is it? He wants to design everything – railways, bridges, tunnels, stations, docks and harbour improvements. Now he’s building iron ships. You wouldn’t get me sailing on one of those, I can tell you.’

‘Then we have to disagree,’ said Sowerby with a wistful smile. ‘I’d love to go on a steamship to some faraway country. It’s something I dream about.’

‘You should be dreaming about taking over my job when I give it up. That should be your ambition, Dirk. The quickest and safest way to travel is by rail. It’s also the most enjoyable way.’ Andrews glanced down the platform. ‘Unless you happen to be that poor devil, of course.’

Sowerby craned his neck. ‘Who do you mean, Caleb?’

Andrews indicated three people walking towards the train.

‘Look at that prisoner being marched between two policemen. See the look on his face?’ He gave a grim chuckle. ‘Somehow I don’t think he’s going to enjoy travelling by rail.’

The arrival of the newcomers caused some commotion on the platform. Most of the passengers had boarded the train by now but there were several relatives and friends who’d come to see them off. They were diverted by the sight of a prisoner being hustled towards a carriage by two uniformed policemen. The older and brawnier of the policemen was handcuffed to the prisoner. What caused people to stare was the fact that the person under police escort was not the kind of ugly and uncouth villain they might expect but a handsome, well-dressed man in his thirties. Indeed, it was his taller companions who looked more likely to commit terrible crimes.

One of them, Arthur Wakeley, was a stringy individual with a gaunt face darkened by a menacing scowl. The other, Bob Hungerford, had the unmistakable appearance of a thug who prowled fairgrounds in search of easy targets, far more inclined to attack a policeman than become one. Tugging on his handcuffs, he pulled the prisoner along like an angry owner with a badly behaved dog. In spite of themselves, the onlookers felt an instinctive sympathy for the man, wondering what he could possibly have done to justify such harsh treatment and to be compelled to suffer such public humiliation. When the three of them disappeared into a compartment, the small crowd drifted slowly over to it.

There was more drama to come. As the whistle signalled the train’s departure, a young woman dashed onto the platform with a valise in her hand and ran to the nearest carriage. A porter was on hand to open the door and, as the train started to move, she flung herself into the compartment. The door clanged shut behind her. There was a collective gasp from the crowd as they imagined how she’d react when she realised she’d be travelling in the company of two intimidating policemen and their prisoner.

‘Dear me!’ exclaimed Irene Adnam, seeing the trio on the seat opposite her. ‘I seem to have got into the wrong compartment. I do apologise.’

‘No apology is needed,’ said Wakeley, running an approving eye over her. ‘You’re most welcome to join us. Bob and I are pleased to have you with us. I can’t speak for him, mind you,’ he went on with a nudge in the prisoner’s ribs. ‘And I doubt if he’ll speak for himself at the moment. He’s gone very quiet. It often happens that way. Slap a pair of handcuffs on them and they lose their tongue.’

‘Until then,’ said Hungerford, ‘this one was talking nineteen to the dozen. I was glad to shut him up.’

Irene smiled nervously. ‘I see.’

She glanced at the man sitting between them but he didn’t raise his eyes to meet her gaze. He seemed to be ashamed, embarrassed and overwhelmed by the situation. The policemen, however, were eager to catch the eye of such an attractive and smartly attired young woman and they clearly found her a more rewarding spectacle than the fields scudding past the windows. Irene stared at the handcuffs.

‘Does he have to be chained to one of you?’ she asked.

Hungerford smirked. ‘Would you rather be handcuffed to him?’

‘No, no, of course not – it’s just that he can hardly escape when the train is in motion. Besides, there are two

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