Weekend Wreading

Prologue

05:00 Tuesday 15 July

Bristol Temple Meads

Joe Penton was running late. Grumbling to himself, he clambered into the cab of his high speed train, and slammed the door behind him. Joe spent a lifetime running late – and after nearly forty years, it was difficult to overcome the habit of that lifetime. Stabbing the key into its slot on the console, he muttered curses about the Train Crew Supervisor who had delayed him.

““You’re late,” ’e says. “Well I’m even bleedin’ later now”, I told ’im.”

The alarm clock that failed to disturb his slumber also came under a barrage of abuse as he powered up the huge diesel engines with aggravated gusto. The diesel engines grumbled into life behind him, filling the cab with a steady thrumming.

“Bloody stock’s wrong,” he growled. Swearing softly, he placed his tea can on the console and nodded curtly to the guard, Geoff Lawrence, who slumped tiredly in the second man’s seat to his right, watching the performance wordlessly. That was the wonderful thing about coming to work – you got free entertainment thrown in. He waved one hand indolently. “So what?”

“So it’s in the wrong bloody place, that’s what. Bloody incompetence, I calls it. Bloody balls up.”

Geoff shrugged and poured a mug of tea from his can. “Like I said, so what? We’re still getting paid.”

“Huh.” Grumbling to himself, Joe eased the regulator forward in response to the green signal on the end of the platform and the frantic whistle from the platform chargeman. That was the trouble with these youngsters today – too bloody young. They’ll never make railwaymen. No sympathy there – and he was right.

“Yeah, yeah, heard it all before,” Geoff muttered easily, avoiding Joe’s choleric eye. “If you’re under sixty, you’re too bloody young and don’t know what you’re doing – if you’re over sixty, you’re just an old codger who ought to be pensioned off.” He grinned easily at Joe’s snort of derision and sipped tea from the steaming mug. Joe turned his attention to the east gantry signal and ignored his colleague – clearly, trying to get a positive response from that quarter was a waste of effort.

The train rocked gently as it negotiated the ladder at the east end of the station and out to North Somerset Junction. Once on the main line, Joe opened the regulator further and the HST gathered speed, the Automatic Warning System indicator ringing the bell, a jarring acknowledgement to the green signals. Joe jabbed irritably at the cancel button. A quick run to Paddington then back in the set’s proper working and home. Joe’s mood eased as the train thundered through St. Anne’s tunnel and settled in at one hundred miles an hour, oscillating slightly over the rail joints.

***

As the dawn shed its grey fingers of light over the city of Bath, the shadows dissolved, leaving the railway line almost deserted. A Bristol bound Sprinter set rattled past Oldfield Park station, whistled through the cutting and was gone within seconds, leaving only a vortex of disturbed air and a faint smell of diesel fumes in its wake.

It was a mild, clear summer morning. The railway line ran past the station, under the road bridge then along its embankment above the outskirts of the city before disappearing into a cutting. On the road above the bridge the early morning traffic was starting out on the day’s commute. Somewhere a milk float was going about its rounds – a rarity these days. A dog walker was exercising her Labrador before returning home to set out for work and she cheerily acknowledged the jogger running in the opposite direction as she did at this time every morning. Bath was beginning its day as it always did. Everything was normal, ordinary, uneventful, and peaceful. Just another day.

Down on the railway line, it was quiet, eerily so. A fox rustled amongst the undergrowth at the line‑side hurrying home before morning took hold.

The soft scrunch of footsteps was uncannily loud on the ballast as they displaced the stones. The drunk walked unsteadily along the line towards the cutting, picking his footsteps carefully, one at a time. He tripped and stumbled against the track, swaying awkwardly, arms windmilling, thrashing the air, before regaining his balance. Hands held out to help his balance he carefully placed a foot in front of him before lifting the other. Each unsteady step was a struggle to remain upright. He muttered incoherently to himself and occasionally broke into a drunken rendering of “Danny Boy” before lapsing into a fit of giggles. He stopped for a moment as if thinking. “Hey,” he slurred. “Where‘d ya go, then?” But no one was there. Just the silence of the morning and the clinking of milk bottles from the road above. Somewhere a dog barked and a cat meowed. His head pounded and he reached his hand gingerly to it. His hand came away, sticky with half congealed blood.

Quietly at first, but soon growing louder, the rails began to hum with the sound of an approaching train.

***

A soft glow from the instrument panel in front of Joe gradually disappeared as the rising sun cast daylight into the cab. Directly ahead in the eastern sky, it was a dull red orb hanging heavy in the grey dawn, lazily lifting itself into the firmament. Geoff lounged with his feet resting on the fascia below the windscreen and sipping at his mug of tea. Both men were familiar with the route and there was an air of competent relaxation between them now that they were on their way. Joe eased the regulator back and the train lost speed to match the 90mph restriction just outside Oldfield Park. Through the windscreen, the track stretched out in two silvery lines, reflecting the weak daylight, converging somewhere in the distance. The drunk was little more than a fleeting shadow on the line before them.

Suddenly alert, Geoff saw the movement. “There’s someone in the four‑foot!”

“Jesus Christ!” Joe slammed on the emergency brake and stabbed frantically at the horn. “Shit, shit, shit!”

As the drunk turned and swayed in the train’s path, his face was a brief, pale blur before he slipped with a dull thud from Joe’s sight. Sparks cascaded from the wheels sliding along the lines as Joe vainly attempted to stop his train. In the machine’s wake, the remains of the drunk were little more than a bloodied tangle of flesh, blood and bone wrapped in tattered rags, spread along a quarter of a mile of track. The wake created by the train flapped at the shredded clothing. When the HST finally stopped beyond Oldfield Park Station, half a mile or so away, the silence descended once more on the City of Bath.

Faintly the chink, chink, of milk bottles and the whirr of the float lifted above the city streets. Somewhere a crow cawed. The fox crept out of her hiding place to explore the remains.

Here, normality settled once more like a cloak – a shroud for an unknown man.

 

Chapter 1

Tuesday 15 July

That Tuesday started like most mornings. Tuesdays are much like Mondays, except they’re a little closer to the weekend – depending on your point of view. Although with my on-call commitments the weekend can frequently involve working long hours coaxing clients’ computers into reluctant life.

Looking back, I think it started with the Maktub virus when Steve Bishop, the local BMW dealer called me out for a “funny problem” on his computer.

The day started mildly enough.

Turning forty-nine came as a shock to the system. Fifty loomed in the wings and I wondered where all the time had gone. One minute, I was a lanky teenager with a boyish body and the next, everything seemed to be heading south. That said, as I stared in the bathroom mirror critically eyeing the face staring back, maybe things weren’t too bad. No grey yet – well, how would I know? If it was it was well hidden in the artificial auburn. There were lines around my grey eyes these days, but overall, I hadn’t worn too badly.

When I arrived at the office Mo was checking through the overnight emails and answerphone messages and starting to sort out the workload for the day.

Mo answered the telephone as the letterbox flipped. I glanced up at the pile of mail as it flopped onto the doormat and was about to walk across to retrieve it when Jackie appeared from the kitchen. “I’ll get it,” she said, striding purposefully across the office. Crouching down she pushed the blonde curls away from her eyes and swept the circulars and brown envelopes into her arms. Jealously guarding her prize, she retreated to her desk where she proceeded to slit open the precious envelopes. Jackie could hear the flipping of a letterbox at a thousand paces and pounce on her prey almost as it hit the floor.

“It’s Jason, for you,” Mo said, proffering the telephone.

“Stephanie?”

“Mm, what’s the problem?” I asked.

“What makes you think there’s a problem?”

“Apart from female intuition, you’re telephoning me when you should be here.”

“Ah, right. I’m on the train.”

“And?”

“It’s stopped.”

“Why’s that then?”

“Body on the line near Bath apparently,”

“Spread all over it more like,” I said.

“Ugh!” Mo pulled a face and returned her attention to the job sheet she was working on.

“So I’ll be running a bit late,” Jason finished.

“Must you always earwig other people’s conversations?” I asked Mo pleasantly as I replaced the receiver.

“How else do you expect me to gather intelligence?”

She had a point. I wasn’t too sure what to make of it so I let it go. “Anything interesting?” I asked Jackie.

“Dunno,” she frowned, leafing through the envelopes. “I’d have thought Roddy would’ve sent a postcard by now.”

I said nothing. Suddenly realising her faux pas, Jackie apologised. “Oh, sorry,”

“It doesn’t matter,” I replied. “Is there anything there that I should trouble myself with?”

She smiled at my sarcasm and continued leafing. “Circulars, mostly. Do you want function key templates?”

“No.”

“Oh. Right. What about cable management systems?”

I looked about me at the cable free environment.

“Well, just a thought. Ah, here’s something you’ll need to bother with. HMRC – they want to do a VAT visit on Monday the fourth.” She continued weeding through the mail as I returned to the answerphone. Mostly, I could deal with the requests slow time. I made a list and from this prepared a schedule for Jason and myself. Mo answered the telephone while I was still typing out Jason’s job sheet.

“Steve Bishop,” she said, cupping a hand over the mouthpiece. Why, I’ll never know, it doesn’t work.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Something funny with his computer, he says.”

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2 COMMENTS

  1. To be not just good but excellent, this needs some editing. When your writing is so polished, the occasional lapse sticks out like a dog’s tail. For example, the switch of point of view from Joe to Geoff. I liked the well-researched detail of the HST, although what the train being in the wrong place had to do with the story isn’t clear. You set the stage for the Bath scene economically yet with imaginative colour, like the fox. Too many ‘was’ sentences upset the rhythm somewhat. In Chapter 1, it would have been so easy to name your protagonist in the first piece of dialogue. Instead we get Steve, Mo, Jackie, Jason, Stephanie and Roddy thrown at us in the space of a few seconds. That’s too fast to keep up with. The office scene ends without a good punchline. After the railway death we expect another cliffhanger and this is a let-down. More drama, please. Well done. This has the mature, measured gloss of a professional writer.