The vacuum was created, and we were ready for the road. As we waited at Halifax Joint station for the starter signal, I sat down on the sandbox and carried on reading yesterday’s Evening Courier, which a cleaner had left on the footplate of our engine. ‘There are cheering reports of the weather from the numerous seaside resorts, and indications that the Whitsuntide holidays will be spent under the most pleasant conditions. Yesterday was fine everywhere and in every way . . .’
That would have been it, or something like, for the glass had been rising steadily since the start of March. ‘Enjoyable sports at Thrum Hall,’ I read. ‘Everybody was in a happy mood at Halifax Cricket Ground this morning . . .’
I folded the paper and stood up. My driver, Clive Carter, was standing on the platform below. Further below than usual, for the engine that had been waiting for us at the shed that morning was, by some miracle or mistake, one of Mr Aspinall’s famous Highflyers, number 1418. These were the very latest of the monsters, and I hadn’t reckoned on having one under me for another ten years at least.
‘Now don’t break it,’ John Ellerton, shed super, had said to Clive and me that morning as he’d walked us over to it at six, with the sweat already fairly streaming off us.
Atlantic class, the Highflyers were: 58 3/4 tons, high boiler, high wheel rims on account of 7-foot driving wheels, and high everything, including speed. It was said they’d topped a hundred many a time, though never yet on a recorded run. They were painted black, like any Lanky engine, so it was a hard job to make them shine, but you never saw one not gleaming. The Lanky cleaners got half a crown for three tank engines, but it was three bob for an Atlantic, and that morning Clive had given the lad an extra sixpence a hexagon pattern on the buffer plates.
The sun was trying to force its way through the glass roof of the platform, making a greenhouse of the place. Next to Clive was a blackboard on which the stationmaster himself, Mr Knowles, had written. ‘special train’, it said, then came heaps of fancy underlinings, followed by ‘sunday 11th june, hind’s mill whit excursion to blackpool’.
After writing it, Knowles had turned on his heel and walked off. He might have given me a nod; I couldn’t say. I’d nodded back of course, just in case. I’d heard that Knowles had started at the Joint by redrawing all the red lines in all the booking-on ledgers so as to shorten the leeway for lateness, and there he was: marked down for ever as hard-natured. But I thought he was all right. He knew his job. If he wanted a word with the guard of a pick-up goods, he’d be waiting on the platform exactly where the van came to rest. If the brass bell wanted shining he knew it, and just where the nearest shammy was kept.
Clive called up, so I leant out the side and looked along the platform. The clock said just gone five after, and we were due off at nineteenpast. We had eight flat-roofed rattlers on, one with luggage van and guard’s compartment built in. Most of the excursionists were up by now, but a couple of pretty stragglers were coming along carrying between them a tin bathtub piled with blankets and food. ‘You never do know when a tin of black treacle isn’t going to come in,’ said Clive, and there was one, rolling about on top of the bathtub goods. Clive always had an eye out for the damsels. In society you might have said he was a rare one for the fair sex. At Sowerby Bridge Shed, though, which was the shed for the Joint, they called him ‘cunt struck’, and I believe he was the only engine man there not married. He lived by himself in a village I didn’t know the name of, and came into the shed every morning on his bike.
‘Going on all right, ladies?’ he called out, and he began smoothing back his hair. Never wore a cap, Clive; liked to give his locks an airing. I knew that he used Bancroft’s Hair Restorer, but whether it was to stop going grey or bald I couldn’t have said. Even though he was only thirty-five – which made him fourteen years older than me – both were happening to Clive, but in such a way that a fellow looking at him would almost wish to be a little on the grey and bald side himself.
Today he had on a blue suit that was different from the common run of suiting for some reason I hadn’t been able to put a finger on, until he’d explained by saying, ‘Poacher’s pockets’, which was no explanation at all, really. Clive wore a white shirt to drive in, where most settled for grey, and leather gloves, which were very nearly kid gloves, and also out of the common. He was a handsome fellow, I supposed, but it was more a question of dash – that and the natty togs.
‘Care for a turn on the engine?’ he called to the doxies, and pointed up at the footplate. They laughed but voted not to, climbing up with their bathtub into one of the rattlers instead. They both had very fetching hats, with one flower apiece, but the prettiness of their faces made you think it was more. For some reason they both wore white rosettes pinned to their dresses.
I looked again at the clock: eight-eleven.
I ducked back inside and reached across to the locker for my tea bottle . . . but I was vexed by the tin tub. They would be tied together all day carrying it. And what was it for? I took a go on the tea bottle, then threw open the fire doors and looked at the rolling white madness. Nothing wanted doing there. The Highflyers had Belpaire boxes – practically fired themselves.
I fell to wondering about the man who’d built these beasts. The Railway Magazine would always tell you that Aspinall had ‘studied at Crewe under Ramsbottom’, but would never say who Ramsbottom was, and I imagined him as being left behind, sulking like a camel at Crewe while Aspinall rose to his present heights as Professor of Railway Engineering at Liverpool University, and General Manager of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.
I wondered if he ever called it ‘the Lanky’, as we all did.
I stoppered the tea bottle, put it back in the locker. I wanted to be away: to have the benefit of the Flyer in motion – they were said to have a special sort of roll to them – because otherwise I’d be nodding off, with the early start I’d had and the heat from the sun already strong.
Down below on platform three our guard, Reuben Booth – who was generally given to us on the Blackpool runs – was saying to Clive: ‘Five hundred and twelve souls, two...