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The Deadman’s Pedal

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Photo by Widerbergs.

Wednesday 4 April 1973

Each man’s right hand was stained black with glossy wet muck. Elliot the Englishman had been wiping so hard at his own fingers using a hanky that he almost drew off his signet ring. He put the muddied handkerchief away and then extended his bizarrely large golfing umbrella.

Standing beside the Englishman at the far end of the long gravel pathway were the two Ians – big Ian Mhor and Wee Ian – alongside Lawless. Erchie Hannan was there too. All of them watched John Penalty’s slow approach.

‘Penalty’s leg is no looking very good at all.’

‘Eh?’

The noise as the rain hit the wide umbrella and the fine gravel around them made it difficult to hear.

‘He’s saying, John’s leg’s no looking good.’

‘He’ll be next at this rate.’

‘Don’t go saying that.’

‘We’re all thinking it.’ Hannan wore a black mac gone all shiny; his clean hand moved his wet hair up into a conglomeration of spikes and loosed drops dribbled down over his eyebrows. He blinked then held out his other dirty hand into the rain. ‘Saturated but it doesn’t clean this off, does it?’

The Englishman said nothing.

The two Ians wore matching Harris tweed flat caps which seemed to absorb the rain without reaction, though the men’s shoulders hunched as the large spots came down.

Hannan smiled at the Englishman. ‘Now’s the time for you to be thinking about your bloody wet and dry people.’

‘Just so, Mr Hannan. It’s a fact. There are the wet people and dry people in Scotland, and all you west coasters are dry people. It seems to bounce off you.’

Lawless didn’t look at him. ‘I’ve never telt you, Elliot. But here’s the secret to keeping dry. I walk up to the engine inside the fucking carriages when it’s raining. Ya don’t need to be a genius, ya Sassenach diddy.’

‘Oh.’

The other men all laughed.

‘But you arrive on the engine dry even on the midnight freight, when we’re way out in that yard.’

‘He crawls underneath the wagons. Blind drunk out of a lock-in at the County.’

‘We’ve heard your theory, Elliot. It goes well with our theory. That all Englishmen are daft. Mind him, boys, Percy Thrower here, stopping the midnight mail yon night in the cutting up the Tulloch Bank just so’s he’d could lean out with his bloody secateurs and snip off yon bramble branch that was bothering him so much. A train driver coming to his shift with a pair o bloody secateurs.’

‘English secateurs in Scotland’s green garden. You’ll be kept busy, man.’

The others all chuckled.

‘Can you no tell yet us west coasters get born with a wee layer of wax on us – like a duck?’

‘That’s just all your Brylcreem, Lawless.’

‘Fuck off.’

‘The Jerry Lee Lewis look.’

‘The wife likes it.’

‘The wife gives you shampoo for Christmas but you keep fucking drinking it, ya cunt.’

‘Despite your waterproofing, are you sure you don’t want to share this? One of you?’

‘That’s the kind of brolly they issue at Toton Depot, is it?’ Hannan licked his tongue around his wet lips.

Big Ian smiled. ‘Red Hannan thinks the umbrella is a sort of bourgeois conspiracy.’

There was laughter.

Lawless nodded. And out came the hip flask. With the top still screwed tight, he mimed tipping a little bit onto his balding scalp and using the other hand to massage it in.

‘That explains why he’s baaldy,’ said Wee Ian.

Hannan said, ‘Explains why he’s still got some fucking hair.’

John Penalty was still slowly coming up that pathway towards them – alone – The two Ians wore matching Harris tweed flat caps which seemed to absorb the rain without reaction, though the men’s shoulders hunched as the large spots came down. cigarette in the corner of his mouth despite the rain, and true enough, the gammy hip was making him fairly roll to the left that morning. Penalty’s right hand was also black with muck which they could tell he had not tried to wipe away in his distress; lumps still clung between his short fingers. They’d all witnessed how long Penalty had taken, stooping to the earth and getting himself back up again to drop the handful of wet muck – with a slap – down on his co-driver’s coffin.

Lawless offered the flask across to the Englishman, who frowned.

‘We’re backshift.’

‘Aye. Too right we’re backshift. And it’s eleven on a pishing-down morn.’

Hannan announced, ‘By now, Legless Lawless is banging the door of the County desperate for opening time.’

‘It’s been known for fucking closing time when the train’s late in on a backshift.’ Lawless quickly screwed off the top and offered the flask.

Hannan took the flask and spun round to take a swig, facing away from the congregated crowd up by the graveside.

‘Watch yourself. Lincoln’s just over there.’ The Englishman nodded towards the Area Manager, then he stepped forward and up the path towards old John Penalty where he turned, sheltering Penalty under the big umbrella without a word – the brolly at arm’s length so he himself was left mostly exposed to the rain. Penalty just nodded to the Englishman as they moved together, back towards the other drivers. Penalty wore full uniform: official issue suit, waistcoat and the hat with the zigzagging British Rail insignia in gold and purple backing – showing his length of service.

‘Got the full uniform on the day, John?’ Wee Ian often stated the obvious.

Penalty called back from underneath the held brolly, ‘Old Peter might be down there but he wouldn’t have recognised me out of it.’

‘What about your famous doms nights?’

Hannan interrupted, ‘Is the goods shunted?’

Lawless shook his head. ‘Naw-is-it-fuck. The Tory was up here like a shot. They said the coal yard is greeting already. They just put it all in the fence road. The tanks too. They’ll be shunting it in the fucking dark at this rate.’

John Penalty reached them at last and he looked directly at Hannan. ‘Aye aye. Another vote gone at our branch meetings.’ Penalty was upset but they all had to smile at the tough quip. Penalty patted at his big stomach in the black waistcoat and looked at Wee Ian. ‘Ian, we wore our uniforms to our doms nights as well.’

They all laughed.

‘Some turnout.’

‘Aye. From down the whole road. Even signalmen.’

‘It’s a nice gesture.’

Ian Mhor laughed. ‘They must have left the wives in charge of the signal boxes.’

‘The railway’ll run like fucking clockwork now, boys.’

‘The windows’ll be washed on every box.’

‘They’ll have ironed curtains hung on them by now,’ Wee Ian said.

As well as the rain hitting the earth, now came the sound of the large funeral party crunching its hesitating way back up the gravel pathways as everyone retreated from the graveside.

The entire railway had split into its groups: the six guards in theirs and the signalmen from town and all down the line were clustered in consultations. The clerks from the station and all the conciliation grades had formed gangs too. The many spare shifts had all donned uniforms in their guilty leisure.

Umbrellas were popping up which had been ignored by the graveside. They had all taken the next pathway up, through the chequerboard of graves, walking stooped in the rain. There were staff from the Back Settlement, one man each from Nine Mile House and the Fort Junction. Even the family from Ardencaple passing loop had sent an ambassador from the box. Then civilian figures from the town itself – who almost outnumbered the fifty or so railway persons – even Donaldson the butcher, who one of the drivers moonlighted for. Then there were dead Peter’s two sons and a good show of other aged, retired railway.

‘Some turnout right enough,’ Lawless said.

Five more drivers approached: Jonty with his driver, Shoutin’ Darroch followed by Coll, Hannan’s own driver. Toshack was coming and Duncan ‘The Tory’ was a bit behind. They had all taken the next pathway up, through the chequerboard of graves, walking stooped in the rain.

‘Aye. Sad, John, eh?’ called Jonty.

‘Aye.’

As usual, Shoutin’ Darroch said absolutely nothing. It was known Jonty got a lot of reading done on the engines – even if it was mainly nudie mags.

‘Come along. Let’s get in the cars and down that house.’

‘Aye but, boys, boys.’ John Penalty held up his muddied hand, still sheltered by the Englishman’s brolly. ‘Get our hands washed off of this shite so Bunty and the wee grandkids arnie seeing it.’

‘Toshack has all oily rags and stuff in his car.’

There was no talking.

‘Fucking sad,’ said Toshack.

‘It is. Aye, Tosh.’

‘That’s the end of an era that,’ Lawless announced.

‘Nineteen fucking twenty-two Peter joined the railway. Cleaning out boilers and fireboxes.’

Among the men, nobody said a thing.

‘Nineteen twenty-two,’ Penalty repeated.

‘Some retirement.’

‘Aye, the same story. Four month to go. Didn’t taste a pint of his retirement money.’

Every man nodded without hesitation.

The others were thinking it, but Penalty alone had the authority to state, ‘He did taste plenty of the wage though.’

The others chuckled softly.

‘Want a nip yourself, John?’ Lawless tipped his head back questioningly.

‘I’ve gone and took all ma fucking wee coloured Smarties, haven’t ah? Ach, on you go then.’

Lawless side-palmed the flask and Penalty took it up in his muddied hand. They watched him swallow two full gulps and then pass the flask back with a sour noise. ‘That’s powerful stuff.’

The Tory walked along the path towards them, his brogues crushing the gravel. He gave a look at the flask.

‘Aye.’

‘Aye.’

The Tory stood beside Toshack. He took his glasses off and tried to wipe the rain from the lenses with his clean fingertips. ‘If it weren’t for the circumstances, this would be like a good Hogmanay, boys. It’s no often the lot of us are all thegether at one time.’

Hannan announced, ‘We’re just no seeing enough of each other, eh, boys? Unless it was a strike call, Duncan? Eh?’ he taunted. ‘It’s going to come soon enough. For the ASLEF at least.’

There was no response until the Tory replied, ‘We’d better get down the house. Lincoln was saying we should go with you in his car and that’ll give you a bit more room, John?’

‘Are yous coming to the house? I thought you’d that goods to shunt?’ Hannan asked.

‘Oh aye.’ The Tory looked at his watch. ‘Oh aye. Popping in to pay our respects.’

‘That fucking ferry’ll be late in anyway. Day like this. Could be you’ll find yourselves twenty minutes down leaving.’

The Tory shrugged and looked up into the sky. ‘It’s more rain than wind. We should have started that twelve twenty-five engine up before we left. The coaches will be cold.’

‘Aye but ya cannie risk leaving the heating on. What is it?’

‘Eh?’

‘What machine is yon?’

‘Sixty-two. Is it, Tosh?’ The Tory looked at Toshack. ‘What machine’s yon we’ve got?’

‘Aye, sixty-two. That one’s all right. Fucking boiler in fifty-seven is no fit to be unattended. The Vital bloody Spark that one is. Even down the bothy for twenty minutes and I’m on tenterhooks. The fucking coil pressure is blowing off every minute. Put it in the book twice but Glasgow done fuck all.’

‘Can you no fix it yourself ?’

‘Naw. Needing dismantled.’

Big Ian said, ‘Look at the railway bodies here. That station must be fucking empty.’

‘Did the last cunt out switch the lights off ?’

‘Folk’ll be thinking that’s the railway closed down, at long fucking last. An end to its agonies and put out its misery.’

‘Aye. They’ll be stealing the fittings.’

‘They’ve closed the ticket office right enough.’

‘Never?’

‘Oh aye.’

‘Another crash in profits. There must be at least six people and a donkey wanting out the villages on a day like this.’

‘Isobel the Ticket just closed the window.’

‘Here’s President Lincoln.’

Lincoln and McGarry the station master came up, grinning grimly against the rain. They both had blackened right hands but they didn’t want to put them into the pockets of their good-quality overcoats. Lincoln’s spectacles were steamed up too.

Nobody said a thing and John Penalty went, ‘Isobel closed the ticket office, eh, James?’

Lincoln shrugged. ‘Quite right too. It’s only for half an hour.’

With his clean hand he awkwardly removed and squinted at his railway pocket watch on its chain.

They all began to walk towards the main gates.

The six guards had come up behind the drivers, each with blackened hand. Hannan pointed. ‘Young Colin, that can’t be you, can it, caught doing the shunting without your gloves on?’

‘More like he’s been busy wiping his arse while a train he’s on is due to leave.’

They all laughed.

‘I hear you havnie shunted the goods yet? There’s a surprise.’

Young Colin just smiled.

Penalty shouted behind, to the guards, ‘Boys, mind. Clean your hands before goan up this house. There’s wee grandkids there as well as Bunty. No fucking queuing up to wash your mitts in their scullery sink, for fuck’s sake.’

Allan Kinloch the guard said, ‘I telt yous we’s should of all brought our coupling gloves to do the ashes-to-ashes with in this weather. Peter would’ve understood. A real railway send-off.’ Hannan shouted, ‘No way young Colin’ll have his gloves with him. He keeps them under his pillow at night so he dreams of the railway and he’s went and forgot them.’

Men chuckled.

Penalty claimed, ‘Nah. With gloves on, we’d have upset poor Peter, looking down on us; he’d be supposin we were keen to get back to our work, and we all ken that’s no the case.’

They all laughed. Even Lincoln.

‘John?’ Lincoln stepped up behind Penalty. ‘Want to go down with us? It’s just, it’s a bigger car.’

The Tory, McGarry and Lincoln were all looking at Penalty.

‘Nah, you’re all right there, James. Thanks all the same; I’ll go back with these bloody monkeys.’

Lincoln nodded and stepped away.

The Englishman took the brolly from covering Penalty and walked to another car. The others all moved to the same cars they’d taken up from the town. Hannan, Coll and Penalty crossed the car park with Toshack to his old Ford Cortina.

As they opened the unlocked doors, the others stood and briefly surveyed across the road – mainly to give Penalty time to painfully lower himself in. The pedestrians continued to come out of the cemetery, the family and railwaymen were distinguished from the townsfolk by each having the black hand of peat muck from the graveside – with that hint of whisky contained deep within the earth’s scent. ■

This is an extract from The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner, which is published by Jonathan Cape on 31 May.

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