It was a clear, still night, but cold, cold even for December. Jack was on the night shift at Scarby Box, and on that line the night shift was no light duty, for coal trains ran all night, taking coal to the power stations, and bringing the empties back, occupying the tracks while they were mostly empty of passenger trains.
Even so, there was a gap, from about a quarter to one until just gone two, when there were no movements North or South, and it was then that the signalmen working the night turn felt the loneliness of Scarby box, high up on the moors and miles from any other human habitation. It gladdened Jack’s heart, then, when someone alighted from the guard's van of the last train North, and shouted up to him.
“How do, Jack,” the figure cried as he walked along the trackside to the signalbox. “Happen I thought I’d come and keep thee company for a bit.”
“And welcome, Tom,” Jack called back. “Especially tonight, of all nights.” Tom walked up the steps to the signalbox door, carrying a lantern. He stopped to wave farewell to the guard of the train as it clanked off again, and then dived into the light and warmth of the box.
“By, tha’s got it cosy in here,” he observed, shutting the door behind him. There was a hot fire burning in the grate, courtesy of what ‘dropped off’ passing coal wagons, and the oil lanterns were all shining brightly.
“And well I might,” Jack replied. “It’s a raw night out, for all it’s dry and calm. And what brings you out to these remote parts so late, Tom?” Tom tapped the side of his nose knowingly.
“I’m to take the Trent Valley goods at two-fifteen,” he said. “Happen the guard’ll get a little surprise, like, when he sees me hop aboard.” Jack shook his head sadly. Tom was an inspector, and if he was planning to surprise a guard in the middle of the night it meant the guard in question was suspected of wrongdoing of some sort. Jack knew better than to ask any more questions.
“So I thought,” Tom went on, “rather than hang about some lonely station half the night I’d come and give thee the benefit of my company. And maybe get a brew while I’m at it.” Jack grinned, and set about putting the kettle on.
“And right glad I am to see thee,” Jack told him as he pottered about with the kettle and the tea things. “It’s a black stretch this, from now until gone two. It’ll be a rare change to have some company through it.”
They chatted about railway doings, and people they knew, and who’d been promoted, and who’d retired, and who ought to be, while they waited for the copper kettle, hung over the fire, to boil. It seemed to Tom, who hadn’t been made an inspector for nothing, that Jack was on edge. He kept fiddling with his pipe, but never lit it, and kept taking his cap off, and then putting it on again. Tom noticed that Jack seemed to get more and more tense as the minutes passed, and he was about to ask if there was ought amiss when he thought he heard a train in the distance.
Jack froze, and made no move to go to the telegraph or the signal levers. Tom was greatly puzzled. Thinking perhaps Jack hadn’t heard it, he said
“Is that a train coming, Jack? There’s nowt due, though, is there?”
Jack started, and looked at Tom almost gratefully.
“So you heard it too?”
“Aye, of course I did – there it is again, it sounds like it’s running North, in Rickley Cutting. It’ll be here in five minutes.” He frowned. “Queer. There’s been nowt on the telegraph. Is the line alright, Jack?”
“I tested it just now,” Jack replied, in an odd, strained voice. “The line’s fine. But there’ll be nowt on t’telegraph.”
“What’s going on?”
Jack gestured with his pipe.
“Step outside, and see for yourself,” he suggested. Tom gave him a sharp look, and then strode for the door. Outside the night was as calm and still as ever, the moonlight reflecting off the steel rails. And there was neither sight nor sound of a train anywhere. Tom stepped back inside, and as soon as he closed the door he once more heard the sound of a steam engine, working hard, coming up the gradient toward them.
“Is this some kind of joke, Jack? What’s to do? Have you got a Victrola somewhere, with engine noises playing on it, or what?” Jack shook his head grimly, his knuckles white where he was gripping the stem of his pipe.
“Nay, Tom, it’s no joke. Hark at that, now.” Tom cocked his ear; he could hear another train now, as well as the first. An express, this one, going South and gathering speed on the downgrade. Again Tom stepped outside, onto the landing at the top of the steps, and again there was nothing to be heard or seen. He went back inside, and the trains were louder now, drawing nearer.
“What the hangment’s happening, Jack?”
“What always happens this night, Tom. It’s December the third.”
“Aye, I know that, what of it?”
“Forty year ago, on December the third, the up goods due at one –twenty derailed, just outside the box here. My Dad were on duty that night. He’d been drinking. He’d forgot to reset the points, so when the engine of the coal train hit the point set wrong, it came off the line, and half the wagons with it. And that were bad enough, but the down excursion to London was coming t’other road, running late. And there weren’t time for Dad to stop it, though he did try. It came right into the wreck of the coal train, doing seventy mile an hour, and smashed.” Jack’s voice faltered, and he stopped. Tom, ashen faced and shaken, listened to the two trains heading toward one another.
“I’d heard of it, of course,” he said, almost whispering. “Worst accident there ever was on this railway. Forty-seven people dead. I never knew it were your Dad that … was there that night. I thought it was some chap called Collinson.”
“Aye, that were his name. I changed mine. Never have got took on if I hadn’t. He were never the same after, Dad. His drinking got worse, and he died not long after.”
The train noises were getting very close now. Tom swallowed hard.
“Is there nowt we can do?” he asked, shakily.
“For summat that happened forty year since? Nay, there’s nowt we can do but listen.” Tears were slowly crawling down Jack’s face as he waited. Nearer now, nearer …
Tom tried to forget the next five minutes for the rest of his life, but never quite managed it. In quiet moments, or in nightmares, he’d hear again the sounds of that night. First the crash as the coal train hit the badly set point and came off the rails. Then the shouts, growing increasingly frantic as the crew realised what was about to happen. Then the urgent whistle of the express, followed by a huge bang as it hit the wreckage, and then a long drawn-out scraping, tearing noise, and the sounds of splintering wood, twisted metal and smashed glass. A moment of near silence, and then the screams began.
“It were a children’s party, you see,“ Jack said softly, tears flooding his cheeks, as the heart-rending screams of pain and terror echoed through the night. “Poor kids, orphans, going to London on a trip. Forty dead, and God knows how many crippled …”
Tom jumped up and bolted for the door, desperate to escape into the blessed silence of the freezing night. He leaned over the balustrade of the steps, taking great shuddering breaths. Jack came up behind him.
“How many times have you heard it?” Tom asked him, once he could speak.
“A few. Ten maybe. I’m not always on nights, on December the third.”
“Why do you not go? Swap your shift, or transfer to another box? Muffle your ears or just go outside, for God’s sake! Why put yourself through that?”
Jack shook his head.
“I owe it to them,” he said. “It was my father that put them through that. I’ve done my best, Tom, to be the man he never was. The man he should have been. But I can’t give them their lives back, those children. The least I can do is to be here to listen. To remember. And to hope they forgive.”
“Forgive? Forgive who?”
“Why, Dad, of course.” He looked at Tom, and it seemed that Jack’s eyes had retreated into darkness, and there was a cold, bleak expression on his face. “I hope those poor souls, wherever they be, can bring themselves to forgive John Collinson. For I tell you now, Tom, I never will.”
There was a silence, broken only the faint sound of the wind blowing across the moors. Then Jack spoke again, in a quite different voice.
“Do you want another cup of tea?”