The Cancelled Train

25 March

Another day was starting at Hanbury CID, and detective sergeant Elias Tarrant switched on his PC with a sigh. By the time he came back from making his coffee, it was just about ready to use. The usual pile of emails, mostly from his boss DI Jansen: updates required regarding the spate of break-ins on the Marlowe estate; updates regarding the so-called “Citizens Vigilance Committee”; and a terse reminder that he still hadn’t completed the latest diversity training. I need hardly remind you that this training is both compulsory and necessary to ensure the Police Service is fit to serve the diverse communities of today. Blah blah bloody blah, he thought. More woke bollocks.

“Morning Eli.” Tarrant looked up to see his fellow DS Pamela Reade. “Raring to go?”

“Oh yes, can you tell?”

She grinned. “I could sense your overwhelming keenness from the corridor!”

“You’re mistaking me for someone else!”

“The Queen not in yet?” Reade nodded towards Jansen’s office.

“Stuck in traffic on Langton Road, overturned lorry apparently. Thinking I might call Traffic and tell them to take their time.”

“Now now, that’s no way to talk about the boss!”

Detective Inspector Ettie Jansen had been head of CID for about 18 months and was widely loathed. A product of the graduate fast-track scheme, she knew how to “talk the talk” to the top brass and was equally adept at shifting blame onto others. She has to be, Tarrant thought, she’s fucking useless, and hid her incompetence behind bullying and bluster. Someday they’ll see through her; it had become a mantra. I just wish they’d hurry up and toss her out on her ample arse.

He sighed and started sifting through the burglary cases. Nothing new. All had occurred at the smarter end of the Marlowe estate: indeed, the poor sod at 55 Mercer Road had been turned over twice. There were no leads and little forensic. What DNA had been recovered was not on the PNC, and no one had seen anything. No one ever saw anything. What little CCTV there was on the estate was frequently vandalised. He doubted if any would get cleared up and knew most of the victims thought the same. They only reported it to comply with their insurance. No Police Camera Action! or Police Interceptors here.

He looked at the files and wondered how many burglaries were not reported. Just how big was the iceberg that lay beneath this mound of paper? He pushed the thought aside, it was too depressing. It was hard enough dealing with the reports they had without imagining the unreported ones too. And working through these files was still preferable than to attend the “training”. Even so, he felt a growing sense of futility. He’d been idealistic when he joined the Police, but that seemed a very long way away now.

And now there was the “Citizens Vigilance Committee” to deal with. Supposedly formed by residents of the Marlowe concerned about rising crime levels on the estate, it had grown beyond neighbourhood watch. Members now patrolled the streets. A few days ago, a drug addict, who dealt to fund his habit, had been found beaten up on Mulberry Street. A statement on the Committee’s website, while not claiming responsibility, nonetheless approved of the attack in guarded terms. People are fed up, it said, so this sort of thing is not surprising when the Police can’t or won’t act. Members of the Committee were interviewed, but there was nothing to link them to the attack. The addict had not cooperated with the Police either. Tarrant sighed.

Hanbury had seemed such an attractive place when he first came here. Historic Market Town was how the signs proclaimed it, though hat was a bit of a stretch even then. The stone cross in Market Square still stood, though it had eroded to an obelisk, while the market hall had burned down in the seventies. It had been replaced with a drab concrete box with a flat roof that leaked whenever it rained. It was also riddled with asbestos. Nineteenth century industry – coal and cotton – had led to expansion of the town, but when these had vanished in the 1980s, nothing had come to replace them. As elsewhere, town planners had cleared old housing and thrown up new estates, places that were now run down and crime ridden.

He got up to go to the gents and found a new file on his desk when he got back. His heart sank. Not another burglary, he thought and picked it up.

North Midlands Police, Missing Person Report, 02/0895A6, 24 March, 21:00 hrs.

Taken by PC 841, Brian Kelleher

Name: Timothy James Fowler

Age: 42

Description: 1.8 metres tall, slim build, brown eyes, greying hair cut short

Address: Flat 2, 14 West Parade, Radley, lives alone.

Marital Status: Single, no children

Occupation: Train driver with Midland Counties Railway Co Ltd

Details: Reported by sister and n.o.k. Emma Jane Fowler. Ms Fowler stated that her brother was due to come to her house for dinner at 17:30 that day. When he failed to show, she called both his landline and mobile phones and got no reply. After calling his mobile several more times, she drove to his flat. There was no answer to her knock so she let herself in to find the place empty. She then decided to report him missing. Ms Fowler stated that it was very unlike her brother to do this: he would always call if he was delayed.

Photo circulated to uniform patrols. Also phoned Radley and Langton hospitals, but no patient matching name or description had been admitted.

Train driver, thought Tarrant, train driver… Something he’d heard or read last night, now what was it? Then he remembered and opened Facebook. Yes, there it was: on one of railway groups he followed, someone had commented that a train from Hanbury to Radley had been cancelled after the train driver had disappeared. He’d apparently driven the inbound service, then left the station and not returned. He logged in to realtraintimes.org and it stated that the train had been “cancelled due to lack of train crew”. A not uncommon reason for cancelling a train these days, but the lack arising from driver disappearance was surely unique.

Tarrant called both of Fowler’s numbers, both going to voicemail. He left messages then rang the hospitals, but neither had a Timothy James Fowler as a patient. Next, he went to call the railway company, but that wasn’t straight-forward. He remembered being able to call a railway station direct back in BR days, but that didn’t seem possible anymore. The website gave a customer service number; for information press one, you are in a queue, your call is important to us, thank you for your patience. Fuck that, he thought and dialled another number.

“British Transport Police Radley, Sergeant Sutton speaking.” Tarrant smiled. He’d known Sutton for years.

“Eli you old reprobate!” Sutton said, “how’s life in CID?”

“Too many burglaries, not enough time!” Tarrant said, and explained the reason for his call. Sutton knew about the disappearing driver: a passenger at Radley had accosted him just before the journey to Hanbury. It had got heated and he and a constable had attended.

“It was nasty,” Sutton went on, “this guy was screaming at the driver. All because the train was 10 minutes late.”

“God what a jerk! What’s the driver’s name?”

“It was Tim Fowler, he’d only been back at work a couple of days, and this happened.”

“Back?”

“He’d been off sick for a few months. Why the interest?”

“He’s been reported missing.”

The chatted shop briefly and Sutton gave him the number for the rail depot manager. “Keep in touch,” he said and hung up.

Tarrant went to make coffee. There was free instant coffee available by the bucket load in the kitchen, but he wouldn’t touch the stuff. A self-confessed coffee snob, he brought his own. He filled the cafétière and waited for the coffee to draw, enjoying the smell. Since travelling around Europe after university, and having excellent coffee even in small cafés, he now drank nothing else. Instant coffee was Satan’s piss as far as he was concerned.

Back at his desk, he made notes of his conversation with Sutton and pondered his next move. He glanced around CID. Reade was working through more burglary files and there was still no sign of Jansen. The DCs were out on house to house.

“Join the Police and drown in paperwork!” sighed Reade and leaned back in her chair.

Tarrant smiled. “I do sometimes wonder why we bother,” he said, “just going through the motions.”

“Don’t let the Queen hear you say that!”

“Fuck her.”

“What a disgusting thought!”

“Aye, that’s put me right off my dinner!” They both laughed.

“Glad to see you’re both enjoying yourselves!” a voice boomed. They looked up to see DI Jansen waddling past, looking flushed. “Need updates from both of you, ASAP!” she roared, went into her office and kicked the door shut.

“And a good morning to you,” Reade muttered.

“Manners maketh man,” Tarrant said.

“But what about aliens?”

They laughed again and he looked back at the Misper file. He’d known Pamela Reade for as long as he’d been in CID and had learned a lot from her. Fifteen years his senior, her kids were grown up and she’d left her philandering husband years ago. She wasn’t that far off retirement and he knew she was looking forward to it. Like him, she didn’t understand the ever downward spiral in attitudes and behaviour in society. “I may sound like an old git,” she’d said once, “but when I joined the Force, people respected us. Not like now.”

They became firm friends and often socialised outside work. She was always there for him, in work and out, and he tried to do the same for her. And then, one night a few years back, they ended up in bed. They had been out for a drink to mark the end of a difficult case, and she suggested a night cap at hers. Tarrant smiled at the recollection. It has been so unexpected. And so wonderful. She’d said she didn’t want anything serious so they remained “friends with benefits” as modern phrase put it, which was fine by him. Like many workplaces, Police stations were a hotbed of gossip, so they had kept it quiet.

He reached for the phone and called Fowler’s sister. She answered after two rings and Tarrant introduced himself.

“Any news?” she said.

“I’m afraid not. I’ve re-checked the hospitals and he’s not been admitted, and we’ve not had any sightings as yet. I will need to check his flat, can I borrow his keys?”

“Oh Tim would hate that, a stranger going through his things.”

“I can understand that, but sometimes it’s necessary.”

“I’m sorry, I know you’re just doing your job. Of course you can have the keys.”

Tarrant said he’d collect them within the hour. He reached for the phone again.

North Midlands Police. Interview with Martin Milner, Driver Standards Manager, Radley Traction Maintenance Depot, Midland Counties Railway Co Ltd. Conducted by DS Tarrant, 25 March, 10:30 hrs

Police: What can you tell me about Mr Fowler?

MM: He’s been a driver for over 25 years, started back in BR days. Very experienced, diligent and responsible. Loves the job.

Police: So would you say his walking off the job was out of character?

MM: Completely. I can hardly believe it.

Police: How does he get on with his colleagues?

MM: Very well. He’s a quiet, private sort of guy, but good company when you get to know him.

Police: I understand he’d only recently returned to work?

MM: That’s right, he’d been sick leave for six months.

Police: What was the matter with him?

MM: He became very seriously depressed after his partner died.

Police: That’s very sad.

MM: Yes, the poor feller was in bits.

Police: When did he return to work?

MM: Last month. He had to get re-certified on all the routes and traction. I went out with him. He’s only been out on his own for two days.

Police: How did he seem?

MM: Better than he was, still like a ghost, though the old Tim was starting to re-emerge. His driving was still top notch and he seemed glad to be back on the footplate. He’s always loved the job.

Police: What can you tell me about the incident yesterday before he took the Hanbury train?

MM: I only found out about it this morning as I was out instructing yesterday. Apparently a passenger got angry that the train was late and lashed out at the first railway official he saw, which was Tim. It got heated and the platform staff called in the BTP. Tim refused to take the guy and insisted he was thrown out of the station.

Police: Can’t say I blame him really.

MM: I suppose you get a lot of that in your job?

Police: Far too much, unfortunately.

MM: Don’t envy you that. I’ve never seen Tim lose his temper, not once in all the years I’ve known him.

Police: I gather that after the train reached Hanbury, he left the station?

MM: Yes, he told the conductor he was going to the chippy opposite the station. Train crews often do it on that turn. The owner even keeps the place open if the train’s a bit late.

Police: But he never came back?

MM: No. The conductor went looking. The chippy guy said no one had come in but did see a railwayman heading up Station Road. We had to cancel the train and put the passengers in taxis. The train and conductor were stuck there until we could get a relief driver out there by road.

Police: Up Station Road, as in up the hill towards London Road?

MM: I believe so, yes.

Tarrant asked for CCTV footage of Station Road to be checked and for the shops on the street to be canvassed. He picked up his coat and headed out of the station. The clocks had just gone forward, but it was still cold. He drove out of the car park and was about to head for the main road when he remembered there were roadworks. Miss Fowler lived on the south side of the town, so he took a twisting, turning route through the back streets. The house was immaculate, minimally furnished, even Spartan, but Tarrant liked it. Scandinavian style, he thought, and made to take off his shoes.

“No need for that sergeant,” she said with the ghost of a smile. He could certainly see a family resemblance. She was a striking woman, pale skin, long brown hair and the most amazing dark eyes he’d ever seen. She was wearing a dark blue dress, rather old fashioned but it suited her. She smoothed it under her bottom as she sat, gesturing for Tarrant to sit. Concentrate you pillock, he thought.

North Midlands Police. Interview with Emma Jane Fowler, sister of missing person Timothy James Fowler. Conducted by DS Tarrant at 17 Eastham Way, Hanbury, 12.00, 25 March.

Police: I’m sorry to trouble you, but I do have to ask you some questions about your brother.

EJF: Go ahead.

Police: You reported him missing at 9pm yesterday. What made you concerned?

EJF: He was due to have dinner with me at 5.30, after his shift. He was always punctual, and if he got held up he’d always call. I mean always. It just wasn’t like him.

Police: So you called him?

EJF: Several times, on both numbers.

Police: And then you went to his flat?

EJF: I’ve already told the other officer this.

Police: I know, but I need to clarify the situation. Please answer my question.

EJF: I went over, but he wasn’t there.

Police: Did you have a good look around.

EJF: Obviously. He wasn’t hiding under the bed!

Police: Was there anything missing from the flat?

EJF: Missing? Like what?

Police: A bag or case, clothing, that sort of thing?

EJF: Not that I could see.

Police: So, all this is out of character for him?

EJF: Yes, completely, though he hasn’t been himself for a while.

Police: Is that because of his illness?

EJF: Yes, all because of that fuc… that bloody bitch!

Police: What do you mean?

EJF: Sorry, I don’t usually swear, but she ruined his life.

Police: Do you mean his partner? I gather she died.

EJF: Yes, her. She killed herself. Save your pity sergeant, she was evil.

Police: That seems a bit harsh?

EJF: I probably sound like some bitter old spinster, jealous of her brother’s girlfriend – and that’s exactly what she thought I was – but I stand by what I said.

Police: OK

EJF: She was manipulative, controlling and pathologically jealous. She hated me because I I’d known him longer than her. They were forever splitting up and getting back together. He was often on the phone to me about it. He was besotted with her, he wouldn’t see sense. I know he’s an adult, and it’s his life, but she played him.

Police: Do you know why she killed herself?

EJF: No, but she did have a history of mental problems. Which she never told him about. I know it makes me sound horrible, but I was almost glad when she died. But he still wasn’t free of her. It shattered him. It sounds silly, but it reminded me of that bit in the Terminator film where the metal one was shattered into a thousand pieces.

Police: That doesn’t sound silly, quite the reverse. I’ve seen how bad depression can be.

EJF: Thank you. Sorry I was short with you earlier.

Police: No problem.

EJF: Thank you.

Police: Can you think of anywhere he would go?

EJF: Not really. The places we liked in childhood are miles away. And his car is still at his flat.

Police: Is there anywhere local that’s important to him?

EJF: I don’t know. We did sometimes go walking by the river, but there’s nowhere I can think of.

After collecting the keys to Fowler’s flat, Tarrant set off for Radley. His talk with Emma Fowler had given him plenty to think about. He could see there was closeness between the twins, but clearly Timothy had some secrets. A fiery relationship, and a partner and sister who hate each other. An outwardly reserved man, but there were passions burning away below.

Tarrant didn’t really like driving, but he did have a soft spot for his current car – a 15 year old Honda Civic auto, rather battered now, but she could still go like a rocket when needed. He knew it wouldn’t be that long before he’d have to replace her: the list of MOT advisories was longer every year, but he wasn’t ready to part with her just yet. She, of course she was a she – he called her Harriet – was one of the few cars he’d ever enjoyed driving. He turned on the CD player and the opening bars of Shostakovich’s fifth symphony filled the car.

After the usual crawl along the valley road, he was glad to reach the Langton bypass and put his foot down a bit. “Radley 15” the sign said. A white van had been tailgating him the whole way and it was satisfying to see it disappear in the mirror. As he passed the rail bridge, a train obligingly crossed. He smiled, and remembered his excitement as a child whenever this happened. No trains today, he’d said one day, only for a train to appear, much to the amusement of his grandparents.

14 West Parade was an end terrace close to the town centre. It had been converted it into two flats and Fowler lived in the upper, larger one. He parked behind Fowler’s dark blue Nissan Micra, rang the bell for flat 2 and getting no reply, let himself in. There were two doors in the hall, to the right, flat 1 with flat 2 at the foot of the stairs in front of him. He was turning the key when he heard the other door open.

“The fuck are you?” a man said.

“Police!” Tarrant said, “do you live here?”

“Yeah, what’s it to you?”

“Do you know Mr Fowler?”

“Of course I know him. He’s my fucking landlord isn’t he?”

“Seen him lately?”

“No, he works shifts.”

“When did you see him last?”

“Last week. What’s this about?”

“I’m afraid Mr Fowler has gone missing.”

“Oh shit. I suppose if he doesn’t come back I’ll lose the flat.”

“You’re all heart,” Tarrant said and slammed the door.

Fowler had gone for cosiness rather than the Scandinavian minimalism of his sister. The front room had a large comfortable chair with a small dining table and chair against one wall. The fireplace was a vintage cast-iron and marble affair, and contained one of those fake coal fires. In an alcove sat a TV and in the other, shelves of DVDs. On the rear wall, a small table with a compact hi-fi and shelves bursting with CDs. Fowler clearly loved his music and had eclectic tastes: Abba, a-ha, Clannad, Black Sabbath, Cream, The Doors, Tangerine Dream, Led Zeppelin… Tarrant nodded approvingly; Duran Duran, oh well, nobody’s perfect. There was plenty of Classical music too: Beethoven, Pärt, Bach, Vaughan-Williams, Shostakovich… Thou art a man of taste Mr Fowler.

The bedroom was small, the bed made. A wardrobe, chest of drawers, nothing unusual in them. The suitcase on top of the wardrobe was thick with dust and empty. The bathroom was tiny, with scarcely enough room for a shower and basin. The shelf was stacked with boxes of tablets, some of which he recognised as anti-depressants. The box room next to this was fitted out as a study. An old style teacher’s desk in front of the window with a laptop on it, and shelves filled with books: fiction, travel, history and poetry.

He sat and opened the laptop. There wasn’t much on it. Fowler mainly seemed to use it for banking and browsing the web. There were few files on it and the Google drive had only photos. Some of his sister, and more of another woman who he presumed was the partner. So this was the woman who aroused such strong passions. The two most important women in your life and they hated each other, even Job would find that hard to deal with. As an only child, Tarrant had always been puzzled by the dynamics between siblings and struggled to understand it. Here he had twins, the most complex dynamic of all. It seemed clear that Timothy’s partner couldn’t understand it either.

He closed down the machine and went through the desk. Pens, paper, envelopes, the usual sort of thing, and a diary. He leafed through it. Not many entries until recently. Back to work today. Scared but it felt good to be back on the footplate. He found more diaries on the shelves and took down last year’s. Again, few entries near the end of the year, then he came across a page where he’d written She’s dead over and over again. And pages filled with despair: How can I go on? I can’t live without her, why did she have to leave me? I miss her so much, what do I do? Going further back, descriptions of the day’s work, which routes and trains he’d driven, and types he liked and disliked driving. He seemed to have a particular fondness for the Hanbury branch, writing frequently about the countryside and seasonal colours. There were occasional political observations and lots about his partner: the arguments, the break ups, the sex, the trips out, especially in the woods.

His style was mostly matter of fact, but would often lurch into the florid: oh the woods, the sunlit joy beneath the boughs, such quenching amid the glorious green arbour. Then he would revert to his usual style: A round trip to Stanton with a 170 to start, and finished with a rounder to Hanbury on the hired-in 150. As a young enthusiast, I never liked these, but I really like driving them now. Who’d have thought it? It was curious.

It was past 4pm when he got back to the station. He brought the diaries with him, intending to read them at home later. On his desk, CCTV stills showing Fowler walking up Station Road, away from the station; and two reports from the canvassing: the chip shop owner recognised Fowler but stated he hadn’t been in on that day, and Ian Murray, owner of the off-licence, stated that Fowler had come in and bought a bottle of whisky. He saw him cross the road and go into the churchyard, where he’d lingered by one of the graves for about several minutes.

Back at his flat, Tarrant made dinner then sat in his old comfy chair and started working his way more carefully through the diaries. The impression he’d already started to form of an intelligent, well-read and sensitive man was reinforced. He clearly loved his job. It appeared he’d wanted to drive trains ever since he was a teenage rail enthusiast. Tarrant could understand this passion, having become interested in railways himself at a similar age.

The entries concerning Fowler’s partner were different. They were passionate, but there was something else, something less controlled, almost unhinged, even extreme; as if Fowler’s feelings were running away with him. The relationship was clearly fiery, an emotional rollercoaster. The arguments and breakups were recorded in detail, as were the calmer, love filled moments. Drives and walks in the country, especially the woods. There were lots of references to “Ruckert Woods.” Tarrant was familiar with the countryside around Hanbury, but couldn’t recall any woods by that name. Nonetheless, it was vaguely familiar, something he’d seen recently. He paused and thought, but the memory remained elusive.

He turned back to the diaries. There was definitely a pattern. When talking about the railway, Fowler wrote clearly, the language economical, but the passion still showed. However, when talking about his partner, his language was florid, oblique and often obscure. Tarrant was puzzled. Why write like that, so different from your normal style?

* * *

26 March

Tarrant was tired. As he rubbed his eyes and sipped his latest cup of coffee, he ruefully conceded that this wasn’t unusual. Unusual would be feeling refreshed in the morning, bright tailed and bushy eyed. How long had he been feeling like this? He couldn’t remember, but it was a long time, too long. Once away, he could sleep through an earthquake (and had in fact done so, twice), but waking seldom brought any refreshment. His days were yawn filled. He had lost count of colleagues saying things like are we boring you? Yes, he often wanted to say. And it was an especially bad look to have in court.

A few years ago he’d been diagnosed first with an underactive thyroid and then with depression. Any hope that the medications for these would help the tiredness soon came to naught. Perhaps this is normal now, he thought, a sign of getting older in a stressful job?

He realised he’d given voice to the thought and looked around him. No one seemed to have noticed and Jansen was ensconced in her office with door closed and blinds drawn. His coffee was cold now and the grey office walls seemed to sneer back at him.

“Oh fuck off,” he muttered.

“That’s no way to talk to a senior officer!” Tarrant looked up to see the divisional commander, Chief Superintendent Forrest looming over him. He was grinning.

“Morning sir,” Tarrant said.

“Morning DS Tarrant. I hope that wasn’t me you were telling to eff off?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it sir!” Tarrant grinned back. Forrest had been in charge of CID when he first made detective and they had always got on well.

“I should think so too!” Forrest chuckled. “Is Ms Jansen in?”

“I believe so sir.”

Forrest nodded, knocked on the door and squeezed into Jansen’s tiny office.

“Have fun,” Tarrant thought. He’d long suspected that Forrest had little time for Jansen either. He was old school and disliked what he called “the bean counters”, and was sceptical about the fast track programme. Tarrant had a degree, but he’d followed a normal career progression, and worked his way up. He’d often wondered who would replace the chief. Like Reade, Forrest was looking forward to retirement. He’d miss the old man, he was a good boss. He’d always give praise when it was due, and if a bollocking was needed, it would be to your face and in private. He would never stab someone in the back. But the future seemed to lie with the Jansens of this world, God help us.

He pondered Fowler’s diaries again, and the unusual language he used. He only used it when talking about his relationship. Was it euphemistic? Perhaps, but there were entries where he’d described sex frankly and explicitly. Was he so carried away by the recollection that he forgot himself? He reached for the phone and dialled Emma Fowler’s number.

“Is there any news?” she asked.

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“So what do you want?”

“I have some questions about your brother’s diaries. I know this is unpleasant, but we do sometimes we have to invade people’s privacy.”

She sighed. “I know. Sorry.”

“That’s OK. Now, did Timothy ever mention Ruckert Woods?”

“Ruckert? No, I’ve never heard of the place.”

“He mentions it numerous times, but I can’t find it anywhere.”

“I can’t help you with that I’m afraid.”

“I noticed that he often resorts to flowery and oblique language.”

To his surprise, Emma laughed. “He still does that?”

“What do you mean?”

“It goes back to our childhood. We thought our step-mother was reading our diaries, and we really hated that. Tim used language to try and disguise what he meant and I decided to trap her and wrote that I was pregnant. Dad was furious with me, and then with her when I told him. Looks like Tim carried on with it.”

So it was a sort of code, to obscure what he was saying, should anyone else ever read the diaries. So what was Ruckert code for? Where was it? He still couldn’t grasp the memory. He was convinced he’d seen it somewhere. He turned back to his PC and wrote an email to Jansen with regard to the burglaries, nothing new to report, enquiries ongoing, following by a summary of the Fowler case so far. He clicked send and started to reread the file. Had he missed something? It was always a possibility. The altercation at Radley station, did that have something to do with it? Sgt Sutton had sent statements from the platform staff and the train’s guard, but there was also a passenger who had tried to help: a Michael Lees, who lived near Checkley. He reached for his coat as Jansen came out of her office.

“Where are those updates sergeant? I’ve been asking for them for days!” she yelled.

He let his breath out slowly. “Should be in your inbox, ma’am.”

“Well it’s about bloody time! Fine example you set to the juniors!” She went back into the office and slammed the door.

Tarrant stood stock still for several seconds and breathed slowly and deeply Ignoring the embarrassed glances from the others in the room, he walked into Jansen’s office without knocking.

“A word, if you please.” Jansen looked up. “I do not appreciate being shouted at in front of everyone in the office,” he said through gritted teeth. “With all due respect, it’s bang out of order. If you’ve got a problem with me, then speak to me properly and not like you’re talking to a fucking toddler. I’ll be speaking to Mr Forrest about this.”

He could hear Jansen shouting after him as he left the office, but he ignored her. He went upstairs to the chief’s office, but he was out so left a message. He then sent a text to Reade as she was the station’s Federation rep. Rule 1, he thought; always get your retaliation in first.

Checkley was a few miles from Hanbury, on the way up into the moors. He’d often driven this way when he needed to clear his head. The “B” road climbed out of the town and wound its way up. Tarrant had always loved this sort of landscape. Many thought it bleak, but that was the attraction. The few trees, the vastness of the space made him feel small and insignificant. He’d never found this oppressive, quite the reverse. It was especially true on a grey day like today; it deepened the atmosphere of the place somehow. He could almost imagine men on horseback emerge out the mist and ask his business. He felt the anger at Jansen begin to evaporate. She was undoubtedly complain about him to Forrest but that could wait. She wasn’t important.

After the road passed through a wood, he turned off onto a lane. This went under the railway line then started another steep climb. Lees’ house was a short way up here, in what looked to be a farm. He bumped along the drive and a man came out to meet him. Tarrant introduced himself and explained why he was there.

“Ah yes,” Lees said, “nasty business that was. Do come in.”

The house was a solid stone built affair. The front room had a large fireplace at one end, mismatched furniture and overflowing bookshelves. This gave the room a cosy feel which Tarrant liked it immediately. Lees explained that he’d bought it after a lottery win: he and several of his colleagues at the Langton Asda had netted several million each. Tarrant remembered. It had made the local news when most of the checkout staff didn’t show up for work one morning.

“We all had a good laugh about it,” Lees said with a smile. “It still tickles me now!”

He’d had most of the outbuildings demolished and rented the fields to local farmers. Tarrant nodded in appreciation. He’d often had a similar dream. Except he’d never played the lottery. Perhaps it was time to start.

North Midlands Police. Interview with Michael Lees, conducted by DS Tarrant at Underwood Farm, Checkley, 1105 am, 26 March.

Police: Can you tell me about the incident you witnessed at Radley Central station on 24 March?

Lees: I was on my way back from town. I’m near the station here so often take the train and it’s a nice run. I hadn’t been on the platform long when they announced the train would be about 15 minutes late as it had been delayed on the incoming run. OK, I thought, these things happen. Then one of the other passengers just lost it, started shouting and swearing, for fuck’s sake, fucking trains, always late if you’ll pardon my French.

Police: I’ve heard far worse, please continue.

Lees: He just ranted on. The rest of us just looked at each other in a “what can you do” sort of way but were otherwise very British and said nothing. A railwayman then walked up. I recognised him as one of the local drivers, and we nodded to each other.

Police: That was Mr Fowler? [Shows Mr Lees photo of Timothy James Fowler]

Lees: Yes, that’s him. I hadn’t seen him for a while and wondered if he’d been ill as he looked pale. Anyway, as soon as the ranting man saw him, he got right in his face and started yelling at him. Mr Fowler looked startled and stepped back, but the guy just went on shouting. He pushed Mr Fowler, so I tried to get between them and said to the guy that he should calm down; it wasn’t the driver’s fault. The platform staff rushed over to help and they called the Police. They took the guy off to try and calm him down. Mr Fowler looked really angry by then.

Police: How do you mean?

Lees: He’d gone really red-faced and he was shaking. He looked ready to punch the guy. He said he wasn’t having the man on his train. If he was allowed on, he’d refuse to drive it. The guy lost it again and started yelling. I don’t care, Fowler said, that arsehole’s not coming on my train. Nobody speaks to me like that. He was adamant.

Police: So what happened next?

Lees: The Police took him away. The train came in and we all got on. I was glad when it left, it was really unpleasant. It was good to get going, though the journey was a bit odd.

Police: In what way?

Lees: The train almost overshot a couple of stations. I thought we were approaching a bit fast, then the train braked very hard and we came screeching to a stop. That’s never happened before. I only heard later that the driver had disappeared. I hope you find him.

As Tarrant was getting up to leave, he noticed a map pinned to the wall. On closer inspection, it was of Hanbury and the surrounding area. He studied it.

“Before 1890 I’d say,” he said aloud, “the current railway isn’t built yet.”

“It’s from 1875 I believe,” Lees said, “I found it in one of the old out buildings here when they were being cleared.”

“I saw a similar one in The Miners’ Arms recently. Yes! Of Course!”

“Is something wrong?”

“Quite the reverse! Something from a case that’s been bugging me. Ruckert Woods.” He pointed to the map. “Ruckert Woods!”

“Is that important?”

“It could be. Ruckert Woods. It’s called Chelham Woods now.”

“Oh, OK. Chelham was a mine owner back in the day. I think he bought the woods and named them after himself.”

“Thank you!”

Tarrant drove back to town. He stopped at a café on Station Road where he had a lunch of grilled halloumi, olives and sweet potato chips. All washed down with a large cappuccino. Next, he walked the short distance up to Murray’s off-licence.

“Just a few questions,” he said, showing his ID.

“OK,” Murray said.

“According to your statement, after Mr Fowler bought whisky, you saw him go into the churchyard?”

“That’s right, yes.”

“How long was he there?”

“About 20 minutes.”

“Do you see where he went next?”

Murray thought for a few seconds. “Yes, he headed for the side entrance, by the trees.”

Tarrant thanked him and walked over to St Anselm’s church. He wandered round the churchyard until he found the grave: Angela Green, aged 45 years. A plain, dark stone with one of those metal flower holders on front of it. He looked closer and saw that the holder wasn’t sitting quite straight. He gently prised it up and there was a piece of folded plastic beneath it. He put a pair of rubber gloves and carefully unfolded it. It was one of those A4 document pockets. He smoothed it out. There was a piece of paper inside. My Darling, he read, I miss you and will be with you soon. All my love, T.

Tarrant felt a chill go through him. It was Fowler’s writing, he was sure of it.

He carefully refolded the sheet and put it in an evidence bag. He looked around, then walked to the side gate. Beyond this was a narrow line of trees and a footpath. To his left, it went downhill to some steps that led onto London Road, while to the right, the path climbed steadily, parallel to High Lane. He took a few steps along it then stopped. It was overgrown and muddy and he wasn’t really dressed for it. As he turned back, he noticed a boot print in the mud, facing up the hill. It might not mean anything, but he took a photo of it with his phone.

He returned to the car and unfolded the local OS map he kept in the glovebox. Who the hell keeps gloves in them now, he thought idly. The path by the church ran up the hill and through Chelham Woods. Chelham, Ruckert, Chelham, his bad feeling was stronger now.

He drove up onto High Lane. After Junction Road, which led to Hanbury Junction station, the road passed the site of the long gone colliery. There was a winding gear wheel by the roadside, but the place had been landscaped years ago. The larger spoil tips had been removed after the mine closed, with the smallest one left in situ after stabilisation. Even this was being removed now, and there were earth movers on site. A new mining scar, albeit a temporary one.

He saw Chelham Woods come into view and pulled into a rough layby. He changed into his wellies, donned a high-vis coat and took the footpath. After a couple of hundred yards, this was joined by the path coming up from London Road. More boot prints, which he photographed. He carefully followed the path into the woods. It was dense, with lots of thick undergrowth either side of the path. He vaguely remembered reading that it was an old wood, had been here since Medieval times. It certainly felt like it. He would normally have liked such a feeling, but today it felt oppressive, like Tolkien’s Mirkwood; the holder of many secrets, most of them dark and unpleasant.

After half an hour slowly picking his way between the trees, he reached the far side of the wood. The daylight was a relief, and he could hear traffic passing along Ellers Lane. There had been no more bootprints. He paused awhile then turned and retraced his steps. The skies had cleared a bit and he wondered if the sun might put in an appearance. Perhaps that was what made him notice what he’d missed earlier: another boot print, partly hidden by leaf-litter, pointing off the path. He pushed his way through some tall ferns and found a narrow path, which looked unofficial. He crept gingerly along it, keeping to the side where he could. It was just after 4pm, and started to rain.

“Oh great,” he thought, “just fucking great.” He pulled up his hood.

After a hundred yards or so, he came to a small clearing. The rain was drumming hard on the leaves and ran off his hood into his eyes. The coat was old and he soon felt cold seeping into his shoulder where the waterproof lining had worn.

“Oh no,” he murmured.

In front of him, a man was hanging from the branch of a tree. At his feet, a backpack with a railway company logo on it. Next to this, a bottle of whisky, partly drunk, and a box of pills with an empty foil. He reached to check for a pulse, shocked by just how cold the body was. There wasn’t one, of course there wasn’t, it was far too late for that. The face was distorted, but it was Fowler. There was no doubt about that. He bowed his head and stood quietly for a few moments.

There was a log behind the tree, and Tarrant wondered if Fowler had fixed the rope, taken some pills and whisky, and stood on the log. As they took effect, he would have slumped forward into noose. Eased his way, perhaps, but it also meant he was serious. This was no cry for help. He meant it.

“Damn,” he thought and carefully picked his way back to the car in the failing light. No phone signal up here of course, so he reached for the radio.

“DS Tarrant to control.”

“Control, go ahead.”

“I’m on High Lane, about half a mile above Junction Road. I’ve found a body in Chelham Woods. Am pretty sure it’s the missing train driver. I need forensics and a block on the road.”

“Understood.”

He leaned back in the seat and listened to the insistent drumming of the rain. So, his feeling had been right. This was Fowler’s sacred green arbour. And he had indeed gone to see her, and soon. This wasn’t the first body he’d seen, and probably wouldn’t be the last, but it was always wrong. I don’t ever want to get used to this, he thought. If I do, if it becomes just another case, it’s time to quit. He felt a strong sense of failure. Most mispers come back or are found alive, but Tarrant realised that Fowler was already dead by the time he’d been reported missing. There was nothing he could have done to avert that, but he still felt like he’d failed somehow.

After uniform had put in roadblocks, another hour went by before forensics arrived and began setting up. A tent round the body, arc lights, people in white suits taking photos and samples. Tarrant was already thinking about the report he would have to write. That’s all we come down to in the end, he thought sourly, paperwork. Certificates, passports, licences, statements, reports; all neatly placed in folders and filed away. What survives of us is not love but paper gathering dust. Paper and the ones and zeros in numerous databases.

A car pulled up next to his. It was Forrest’s dark blue Jaguar, and the chief beckoned.

“Is it your missing train driver?” he asked.

“It looks like it sir,” Tarrant said.

“Ach, that’s a shame. Anything suspicious?”

“It looks like suicide.”

“Poor bastard.” Forrest sighed. “DI Jansen came to see me this afternoon.”

“I thought she might, that’s why I left you a note. Do I need to speak to my Fed Rep sir?”

“Come on Eli, this is me! I know Ms Jansen has all the people skills of a chainsaw. I’ve already spoken to the DCs who witnessed it and they confirmed what you said in your note. That’s the end of the matter as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be speaking to Ms Jansen again.”

“Thank you sir.”

Forrest nodded. “Good. Right, I’ll leave you to it. If you need anything, give me a call. And keep me informed.”

“Will do sir.”

As he went back to his car, he realised how hungry he was. He thought he might call at the chippy on his way home. There was a tap on the window and he saw one of the forensics men outside.

“Thought you’d want these,” he said.

Fowler’s wallet, nylon with a Velcro fastening. The usual credit & debit cards, and a railway ID card; 25 pounds in cash and a photo of Angela Green. I hope you’re satisfied, Tarrant thought. There were also two envelopes, one addressed to Emma, and the other unmarked. He opened it, and took out the paper within. To Whoever finds me, he read, I’m sorry about all the stress and inconvenience I will undoubtedly be causing you. I’m sure you have better things to be doing, but I have to do this. I have lost the great love of my life and I cannot go on without her. Although I don’t know you, please do not think any less of me. I’m sorry for the difficult job you now have because of me. Sincerely, TJ Fowler. Tarrant was stunned. He felt deeply moved and stared at the letter. He had never come across a suicide where the dead person apologised to the person who found them. And who was concerned the finder think no less of them for taking their own life. He refolded the letter carefully, as if it were old and precious, and thought he should perhaps be wearing white cotton gloves.

Just after 7pm, DC David “Dai” Jones relieved him. He drove back to the station and was surprised to find Pamela Reade still there. He was really pleased to see her and gave her a hug.

“You’re late hun,” he said.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, “Mr Forrest was looking for you, then I heard you’d found a body.”

He told her about the events of the afternoon. “Now I’ve got to go and tell Fowler’s sister.”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“Oh, yes please. I hate doing this; has to be the worst part of the job.”

“No doubt it’s him then?”

“None.”

They went in Reade’s Corsa. As soon as Emma Fowler opened the door, her face fell.

“It’s bad news isn’t it?”

“Yes, I’m afraid it is,” Tarrant said. He introduced Reade.

“Tell me.”

“I found a body in Chelham Woods this afternoon, and I believe it to be Timothy. I’m so sorry.”

Even as he was saying them, he felt the sheer, utter inadequacy of the words. It was what you said, but they seemed such poor words for something so huge, so terrible. He’d been assailed by this feeling often during his years as a police officer, but it never got easier. The words if anything seemed to grow more inadequate. He felt a fraud for even saying them, but what other words were there? He hoped he was at least reasonably articulate, but he could think of none.

“How did it happen?”

“It looks like he took his own life.”

“Did he suffer?”

He thought again of the rope, and of the whisky and tablets. “No, I don’t think he did.”

“How did he do it?”

“I can’t tell you any more at the moment, I’m afraid.”

“Oh.”

“Is there anyone we can call for you?” Reade asked.

Emma said nothing for a long time. “There’s only Dorothy really,” she said finally, “her number’s in the book by the phone.”

Reade made the call. Tarrant looked at Emma, who was staring into space. He remained quiet, sensing that she didn’t want to talk. An awkward silence, but it at the same time it felt right.

Dorothy turned out to be a matronly woman of about sixty who immediately took charge. “Don’t worry, I’ll look after her,” she told the detectives and gently shooed them out after taking their offered business cards.

Neither spoke on the drive back into Hanbury. It was still raining and Tarrant watched the wipers swish back and forth. He wondered how forensics were getting on and thought about calling Jones but decided against it. If there had been anything significant, Jones would have already called him.

“Do you want to stay at mine tonight?” Reade said suddenly, “we can grab a takeaway on the way.”

“That’s a great idea!” he said.

* * *

Five weeks later

It was early May, and Tarrant was tidying his desk. A new “clear desk policy” had been instituted by Jansen, to groans from everyone in CID. There was someone who clearly had too much time on her hands. When he’d come into work that morning, Forrest had been talking to Jansen..

“Ah Eli,” the chief said. “I’ve had a letter about you. I’ve just been telling Ms Jansen about it.”

“Is that good or bad sir?”

Forrest handed him an envelope. The paper within was thick and creamy, the writing elegant, in proper ink.

Dear Chief Superintendent,

I write to commend one of your officers, Detective Sergeant Tarrant. As you no doubt know, he investigated my brother Timothy’s disappearance. I found him both highly professional and caring. It’s become something of a cliché to say that someone “went the extra mile”, but Sergeant Tarrant did precisely that. This has been a terrible nightmare for me and he has been helpful and supportive throughout. He really is a credit to the Police Force.

Yours with thanks

Emma Fowler

Tarrant was dumbstruck. While very moved by Emma’s words, he felt he scarcely deserved such praise.

“Well done Eli,” Forrest said, and the two men shook hands.

“Good job,” Jansen said, grudgingly.

Tarrant thought back over the last few weeks. It had been hectic. The post-mortem on Fowler had stated that while the immediate cause of death had been strangulation from hanging, he had also ingested enough alcohol and sleeping tablets to kill him. Then the coroner returned a verdict of suicide. Not surprising, but no less said.

The burglaries continued on the Marlowe estate, and there were further vigilante attacks. One man, returning home after visiting friends, was beaten unconscious and left with a broken leg and five cracked ribs. Forrest stepped up patrols on the estate and ordered raids on houses of more members of the vigilante group. These found baseball bats and other weapons, which contained DNA linked to the attacks. Several arrests were made. Then, in a development no one expected, their DNA was also matched to the burglaries.

It was only after the Marlowe arrests that he was finally able to close Fowler’s file. He leafed through it, checking everything was there: Misper report, witness statements, his reports, PM and coroner reports, and the exhibit list. He added a closure form and passed it to be archived. He was again assailed by a feeling of futility: how easy it was to reduce us to words on a form, which can be easily filed and forgotten. That slender file was Timothy James Fowler; his life compressed into a few Police reports in formal language then dumped in a box and forgotten. You’re morbid today matey he said to himself. You need a holiday.

There had been one final thing he had to do. He went to the evidence room and sorted through Fowler’s effects. Most of them were no longer needed so he took them out and boxed them up. The station was quiet as he headed out to his car. The air was warm and birds were singing. Spring was finally here.

Emma seemed to be expecting him and smiled as she opened the door.

“Tim’s things,” he explained.

“You didn’t have to bring them in person,” she said a few minutes later, after she’d made coffee. Proper coffee, hot and strong. Tarrant approved.

“The least I could do,” he said softly, “I’m just sorry it’s taken so long.”

“It’s OK. I imagine you’ve been busy lately, given what I’ve heard on the news.”

“Yes, you could say that.”

“I’m glad you came in person, I’ve been wanting to thank you. For everything.”

“I was…” Tarrant broke off. She looked at him expectantly.

“I was going to say I was just doing my job,” he went on, “but it seems so lame, and such a cliché.”

“Clichés are clichés because they’re true. And you did far more than just doing your job.”

“I just wish the outcome had been different.”

“So do I. I know how she got into his head, and deep-down I think I often wondered if he’d do it. But I’m so angry with him too, and sometimes I hate him for it. Though not as much as I hate her. I know that makes me sound evil, but I can’t help it.”

Tarrant shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“I feel terrible for even thinking it, let alone saying it out loud.”

“I can’t say, and never would say, ‘I know how you feel’, because I can’t. It’s presumptuous in the extreme,” he said, “but I think what you say does make some sense. You must be feeling a swirl of emotions at the moment.” Again, he felt uncomfortable at the inadequacy of the words.

“Yes, I am.”

“How are you sleeping?”

“A bit better than I was.”

“That’s good. And try not to let the hate get too tight a hold of you. It won’t do you any good.”

She nodded. “I miss him.”

“Of course you do,” he said softly. “And I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but I’m sorry I never met him.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I think I would have liked him.”

“Bless you!”

He made to leave. To his surprise, Emma hugged him. “Thank you for everything.”

“Take care,” he said quietly.

How quickly things fade, he thought. It had already acquired an air of unreality. He leaned back in his chair and felt the rustle of Emma’s letter. That was real enough. Police work often affected others, and not always in a good way. We see humanity at its worst, all the awful things we do to each other and ourselves. He’d found a man dead, yet had received praise; praise he felt he hadn’t really earned. Yet someone thought he’d made a difference, and for the better. Perhaps that was enough. He looked over at Pamela Reade. She was real too, very real. She noticed his look and smiled.

“Lunch?” he said.

Vigil

13 December 2021 is the 30th anniversary of the passing of my Grandfather, Frank Thomas Phillips. I wrote this that afternoon in my Gran’s house as my cousin slept upstairs as she’d already been at the hospital for several hours. She woke soon afterwards and we took a cab to the hospital, making it just in time as he died not long after we got there. I haven’t read the poem for many years and reproduce it here as written.

Something Unusual: The Story of a Band

A few years ago I had a rather boring job. It didn’t need much brain power to do it so I passed the time I made up a band, named the members and came up with song titles. As time went on, these grew into albums, and I decided to mock up album covers for them. I carried on with this after I left that job and devised a history for them. They’re rock/post-rock/folk with some dream pop elements thrown in. Got quite into doing it, and it’s a shame it’s fiction, as I’d quite like to hear the music!

In short, they made 2 albums and the making of the 3rd was difficult and one member left. During lockdown, two of the remaining members started a side-project and made their own album. I’ve created covers for them and they’re below. A bit unusual, perhaps, but I’ve enjoyed it.

First Album:

Second Album:

Third Album:

Fourth Album:

Fifth Album:

The side-project:

The Newcastle under Lyme Canal

The Newcastle canal was established by a 1795 act of parliament and opened in 1800. It was closed between 1921 and 1935, drained and filled in. The last part to survive, a short stub from the Trent & Mersey was removed by construction of the A500 in the 1970s. Today there is little to see, but some tantalising hints remain, as I will try to show in the slideshow.

Map of the area 1921

Morecambe Sands

Don’t fool yourself, she was heartache
From the moment that you met her.
(Jeff Buckley)

When I look back on those five years
Spent on someone I thought I loved,
I now know I was walking through quicksand.
Then not walking, but standing,
Then not standing, but sinking.
Ankles, calves, thighs, waist
Towards slimy dark.
I couldn’t move. Some days
I embraced it: a duvet on a cold night,
Others, I fought with the strength
Of the last boy to be picked
For Games.

Until

Finally, I pulled myself out.
I’m not going to be caught here
In the dark like some poor cockler
Trying to race the tide, finding paths
That end in sucking sands.

I’ve never been so relieved
To feel concrete and tarmac underfoot,
To see streetlights, lines on the road,
And signs, chevrons and arrows – This Way.
I followed gratefully, ran.
And I’m still running.

The Open Fire

We only had gas fires at home
When I was small, or
The glow of electric bars,
So when presented with an open fire
At my Aunty Hilda’s Liverpool terrace,
I sat and stared with complete
Fascination at the ever moving flames
That jerked, swayed and leaped so
Insistently. I’d watch
As Uncle Harry tipped on coal or wood,
Fettled with the poker, then
Wait for the flames to re-arise.
I loved the wood’s crackle, the deep
Fierce glow of coal and the
Black curl of paper as flames
Licked, a brief flare then ash.
I had no need of TV
When I stayed with them,
They need only light the fire.

Some Thoughts about Art and Emotion

I remember going into my A Level English classes – which I’d been pushed into doing, it wasn’t my original choice – being expected to write criticism of the various pieces of literature we were studying. And how everyone else in the class had at least some idea of what to do. I didn’t and consequently struggled. I didn’t know the others had acquired this knowledge, and I envied them. I started trying to write my own poetry about this time, but this gave me no insight. This continued into university where one of my subjects was creative writing. Where was the truth of this, where and how could I get it vouchsafed to me? I never really found an answer.

Music and reading have been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Some things I liked and some I didn’t (obviously), but if you’d asked me why, I would have struggled to answer. As I grew older, especially after university, my tastes broadened and I began to think about this more. After seeing an exhibition of paintings by JMW Turner, I was profoundly impressed by them. One in particular struck me: a large canvas of a convict ship foundering in heavy seas, the hopeless prisoners chained to the deck and about to drown. The great seas seemed about to break free from the canvas, and I could almost feel the wind, taste the salt. This was the first time paintings had made such an impression on me, and I wondered at the feeling, and the strength of it.

About this time, I did an introductory arts course. When it came to painting, we looked at two artists: Jacques-Louis David and Caspar David Friedrich. While I could appreciate the expertise of David, and the political points he was trying to make, the paintings left me cold. Friedrich’s landscapes, however, really “spoke” to me, in a similar way to Turner’s. The course did seek to highlight some technical aspects of painting, but on the whole, these escaped me. When we wrote our assignments for this section, everyone in the class chose to write about David. Except me. I chose Friedrich. Really? My fellow students said, that’s really hard. They wrote from a technical perspective, and while I did include some of this in my piece, I wrote from an emotional perspective. And there I think lies the key.

A few years later my Dad gave me a CD of music by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. On the cover was a quote from him: Music is an emotional art. If there is no emotion there is no art. Yes, I thought, that’s it, it’s about the feelings provoked in you. And not just in music, but in all art. Perhaps an understanding of the technicalities can lead to a deeper appreciation, but I’m unconvinced by that. A musician friend has tried to explain some musical terms to me, like counterpoint, major and minor keys and time signatures, but I can’t grasp them. But does it really matter? Not to me. I have music that I love, and my lack of technical knowledge detracts not a bit. The same goes for poetry. I care not for the form or technicals in what I read: I used to go to a writing group but they were far too technical in far too tiny details in their critiques for me, so I left. It’s feeling that counts. I read and liked some of Eliot’s work when I was at university, and while I still like some of it, I find his wilful obscurity pretentious and cold. The prog rock of its day: clever people doing very clever things that only other very clever people can understand. If that works for you, fine, but I’m left cold by it.

Nonetheless, he did have some influence over the poems I was writing at the time and for a period afterwards. I strove for obscurity. Not, I think, because I wanted to appear clever, or cleverer than I actually was, I just thought poetry had to be obscure. Thankfully, I did eventually see through this and no longer write like that. 

That’s how I approach art. I can see and appreciate some technicalities, but I don’t look for them. And it doesn’t matter. No emotion, no art. 

All This Talk of Getting Old: Postscript to “Getting Less Than You Paid For”.

My recent journey around Manchester summed up everything I dislike about the modern railway: crap seats that don’t align with windows, poor ride, intrusive automated announcements, over-expensive fares, unreliability and overcrowding. It’s not just an ageing man’s longing for “the good old days”. As American academic Steven Pinker recently said on Real Time with Bill Maher: “the best explanation for the ‘good old days’ is a bad memory”. Bad in the sense of selective, a recollection where the bad parts are edited out; the donning of the proverbial rose tinted spectacles. I get all that, but while I may recall elements of the past with fondness, I always try to keep the sour times in mind. Nonetheless, when it comes to railways and train travel, I cannot help but look to the past.

Everything I liked about it – principally the rolling stock – has gone. And a lot of that stock was actually better. Better seats, trains with compartments or a view through the driver’s cab, no announcements, and quite often no PA at all. All that has vanished. Heritage lines can give a glimpse of it, but it’s essentially an artificial, and often crowded and expensive experience. Which doesn’t leave me with much.

An interest that I’ve had for 40 years, one that sustained me through some dark times and helped preserve my sanity. It’s now hollowed out, with a shell that is getting thinner all the time. And that makes me sad. I feel its loss.

Getting Less than You Paid For

At the end of September 2021, I made my first rail trip in almost two years. I used to travel by train a lot at one time – I’ve long been interested in railways – but since passing my driving test in 2010, such trips have become rare. To my surprise, I don’t really miss it

The object of the recent trip was to travel on the new tram line to the Trafford Centre in Manchester, and to sample some of the area’s new trains. One of the reasons my railway interest has declined is that I find most modern trains uninspiring at best. The seating is indifferent, they are expensive to travel on and often overcrowded. And don’t get me started on the endless, repetitive and intrusive automated announcements. The new stock I travelled on in Manchester really sharpened this view.

Train companies are very fond of boasting about new trains, how much better they will be, better facilities, but above all that they are NEW. To my ears, these claims sound more and more hollow. Over the past few years, the seating fitted to new trains has been terrible. Whether it’s on suburban trains like the Thameslink class 700s or the Hitachi Class 800s used on Great Western and East Coast services, the seats are hard and uncomfortable. So bad, in fact, the suburban ones have become known as “ironing boards”. “Fire regulations” is the usual excuse trotted out when this is questioned, but that’s all this is, an excuse. One minister even claimed the seats needed more bottoms on them to soften them!

CAF built Class 331 at Manchester Piccadilly

If it really was down to fire regulations, why are buses not similarly treated? While in Manchester, I travelled on a couple of local buses and both had comfortable seats installed. So why not for trains? A more likely explanation is penny pinching.

In Manchester, I tried both of Northern’s new trains: one diesel, one electric, which are otherwise identical. They have the “ironing board” seats – even though the trains work some long distance services – which generally do not align with the windows. (An interior view can be found here). And to cap it all, the ride quality was poor: I felt every set of points as a sharp jolt. And these are the new trains that were trumpeted as replacements for the widely disliked pacers! Frankly, I’d rather a pacer than one of these things. Worse still, similar trains are being built for Wales. Am I going to have to take a cushion every time I travel by train now? These trains may indeed be new, but they are seriously retrograde step in terms of quality.

CAF built class 195 at Manchester Airport. This is the diesel version of the 331.
How it should be done 1: Trans-Pennine’s class 397
How it should be done 2: the very comfortable seats on a V1 bus from Leigh

While the rough riding seems to be a problem specific to trains built by CAF, the seat and window issue seems generic to new trains. It can be done properly – Trans Pennine Express’ excellent class 397s, which while the seats are firm, they do at least line up with windows. In a time of worsening climate change where we are being encouraged to use our cars less in favour of public transport, what is on offer by the railways is poor. You are expected to pay an expensive fare for the privilege of riding on a train with awful seating (assuming you don’t have to stand!) which you will struggle to see out of. None of that will be tempting me out of my car  any time soon.

If buses can provide comfortable seats, then so can the trains. The railways need to do much, much better. And quickly.

No New Trains for the Heart of Wales Line

When the Wales and Borders rail franchise passed from Arriva to Transport for Wales, many improvements were promised. Amongst this was the transfer from East Anglia of 12 class 170 Turbostar units, one use for which would be on the scenic Heart of Wales Line, replacing the class 153 trains. While the 170s would be 20 years old, they would have been a vast improvement on the 153s. These single car trains are cramped, uncomfortable and, with their small windows set high up in the body,(1) are not suited to such a scenic route. The 170s would have been 2 coach trains with larger windows and better seats.

I say “would have been” as this plan has now been dropped: the line is to retain the 153s for the foreseeable future. I suspect this is down to cost, as leasing 170s would probably be more expensive, but it is a considerable disappointment. It’s a great shame TfW couldn’t have retained some of the class 158 units instead, as these have better interiors.

While the rest of Wales gets new trains, the Heart of Wales Line suffers on with these things. I have travelled over the line many times since I was a child, and would love to do so again, but the continued use of these trains will certainly not be tempting me out of my car any time soon. 

 

(1) Source of picture: railmagazine.com