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In York Station, the gas lamps were all lit.
It was a wide, grand place. Birds would fly right through under the mighty span, and that roof kept most of the rain out too, apart from the odd little waterfall coming down through gaps in the glass.
I was on the main through platform on the ‘up’ side – number four, although it was the number one in importance, and crowded now, as ever, and with a dark shine to all the polished brass and the black enamel signs, pointing outwards like signals as you walked along: ‘Gentlemen’s Waiting Rooms First Class’, ‘Ladies’ Waiting Rooms First Class’, ‘Refreshment Rooms’, ‘Left Luggage’, ‘Station Hotel’ and ‘Teas’.
No lost-luggage place in sight, however, although I knew that York, as the head station of its territory, did boast one, and that practically any article left on any train in the county came through it.
Wondering whether it was on the ‘down’ side, I stepped on to the footbridge, into the confusion of a hundred fast-moving railway clerks, all racing home towards supper and a glass of ale. A goods train was rumbling along beneath. It was a run-through: dirty, four-coupled engine with all sorts pulled behind. I leaned out from the footbridge to take the heat and the smoke and steam from the chimney: the soft heat, and the sharpness of the smell . . . I’d heard of blokes who gave up the cigarette habit but one whiff of the smoke and they were back at it . . .
Half a dozen banana vans came towards the end, the rainwater still rolling off them, and finally the guard, leaning out of his van like a man on a boat. A telegraph boy came trotting over the bridge, and I put a hand out to stop him, thinking he’d know me as a Company man like himself but of course he didn’t, for I was in ordinary clothes. The kid pulled up sharpish all the same.
‘Any idea where Lost Luggage is, mate?’ I asked.
‘Down there, chief,’ he said.
But he was pointing to Left Luggage – the one on Platform Four.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Lost . . . Lost Luggage.’
The lad took a step back, surprised.
‘Lost Luggage is out of the station, chief,’ he said.
‘Not too far, I hope,’ I said, mindful of the teeming rain.
‘Over yonder,’ he said, putting his arm out straight in a south-easterly direction. ‘Out the main exit and turn right. What have you lost, chief? I’ll keep my eyes skinned.’
‘Oh, nothing to speak of.’
‘Right you are,’ said the kid, who was now eyeing me as if I was crackers, so I said:
‘Fact is, I’m down a quantity of Railway Magazines . . . Brought ’em in on a train from Halifax, then left the buggers on the platform, I think.’
‘Railway Magazines?’ said the lad, ‘Blimey! I should think you do want ’em back!’
Evidently the kid is a train-watcher, I decided, not just an employee of the railways, but keen on ’em too. I nodded to him, then walked out of the station and turned right, going up Station Road, which went over the lines that had run into the old station, the trains proceeding through the arch that had been cut into the city walls. The building of those lines had been like a raid on the city made forty years since, but York was a tourist ground, an Illustrated Guide sort of place; jam-packed with the finest relics of old times. It had its looks to consider, and had fought back against the dirty iron monsters, with the upshot that the new station had been made to stand outside the city walls, with its fourteen platforms, its three hundred and fifty-odd trains a day, the great hotel with its two hundred rooms hard by.
From the highest part of Station Road, I looked at the miles of railway lines coming out of the station to north and south, spreading octopus-like. For a moment there in the rain blur, the scene looked just like a photograph, but then one goods engine out of dozens began crawling through the yard to the south, proving it was not. The engine rolled for ten seconds, then came to a stand. It had been like a move in a chess game, and now the rain came down and everybody on the North Eastern Railway fell to thinking out the next one.
The Lost Luggage Office was on Queen Street, which was half under the bridge made by Station Road. Before it came a part of the mighty South End goods yard, which lapped up to Queen Street like a railway flood, and before that came the Institute, from which came a beer smell that decided me to put off my enquiry for a moment. I turned into the Institute, where I passed by the reading room – where the fire looked restless and the sole occupant slept – and walked through the long billiard hall towards the bar at the far end, reaching into my coat pocket as I did so.
‘How do, love?’ said the barmaid, reading the warrant card in my hand: ‘Be it remembered that we the undersigned, two of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace in and for the City of York have this day, upon the application of the North Eastern Railway, appointed James Harrison Stringer to be a Detective with and upon the railway stations and the Works of the North Eastern Company.’
‘That’s smashing,’ she said, when she’d left off reading.
Only railwaymen could get a look-in at the Institute, and I was a railwayman of sorts, though not the right sort.
I put the card back in my pocketbook, and ordered a pint of John Smith’s. Outside, the raindrops hitting the tops of the windows had a long way to fall. There was electric light in a green shade over each of the tables, darkness in between, and only one game in progress. The blokes playing looked a proper pair of vagabonds.
A copy of the Yorkshire Evening Press lay on the bar, and the barmaid passed it over to me. It was open at an inside page, from which one article had been neatly snipped. The barmaid saw me staring down at this hole, and she pointed to the glass cabinet, where the article had been pinned. It was headed ‘The Twinkling Wanderer’, and gave the news that the planet Mercury would be visible from York between 7.16 and 8.57 that evening, just as if it had been timetabled by Bradshaw. ‘No difficulty should be found in picking out the planet,’ I read, ‘as no other object in the sky has sufficient lightness at that hour . . .’
I turned forward a page, then found the front page and read: ‘Hotel Porter Found with his Throat Cut’. The article ran on: ‘Late last night when the hotel night porter at the Station Hotel at York was called to go on duty, he was found in his bedroom with his throat cut. The unfortunate man, named Mr Richard Mariner, aged about 50, was found quite dead, and a razor with which the wound had been inflicted was also found in the bedroom.’ That might turn out a matter for the Railway Police, I thought – the Pantomime Police, as I already knew they were called throughout the Company.
I looked again at the words ‘throat cut’. The average man could read that and give it the go-by. Not if you were a copper, though.
The date at the top of the page was Friday 26 January. On Tuesday the 30th, I would report to the Railway Police Office on York Station for the commencement of my duties. I’d been sworn the week before at the York Police Court, and collected my suit as provided for in the clothing regulations. Detectives were allowed a plain suit and they could choose it themselves, providing the cost didn’t overtop sixteen bob. I’d gone with the wife to the tailoring department of one of the big York stores for a fitting, and the design that we – by which I mean the wife – had settled on was a slate-blue mix twill; pilot cloth, 27 ounces to the yard, with Italian silk lining. I was now wearing it in . . . and it was sodden from the day’s rain.
Next to the bar were notices in a glass cabinet. The minutes of the North Eastern Railway’s Clerks’ Amateur Swimming Club were posted up there. Membership was not up to its usual standard, the locomotive department having for some reason dropped out. I wondered whether it was to do with the strike: some York enginemen had been on strike for the best part of a month.
I looked above the bar: 5.45 p.m.
I would drink my pint before asking after my magazines, and I would have ten minutes’ study. So I left the Evening Press and, taking from my side coat pocket my Railway Police Manual, I sauntered over to one of the long wooden benches lining the room.
© Andrew Martin, 2006
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