was a few minutes after twelve when the train left the station and
cornered, turning South towards Doncaster. The carriage wasn’t
particularly full, after all one must expect all those who venture
down South to take the early morning express rather than the
lunchtime one, and as it was both cheaper and more convenient we took
the quieter train instead. It wasn’t long before a stout and rather
greasy old woman rattled down the carriage, dragging behind her a
small trolley of tea and luncheon options.
‘Wha’ you wantin’ my dears?’ She said sliding the compartment door open with surprising strength.
‘I’ll just have a tea.’ I answered holding out my money.
She took the note and poured a small but, and I must admit, rather delicious cup of tea.
She turned to Alf and stared, for his eyes were transfixed on the quickly flowing city.
‘He’ll have a tea too. One sugar.’ I said smiling at the woman. She poured another cup and gave me my change before going on her way.
I looked out of onto the passing landscape, the plumes of smoke and seemingly endless red brick shooting by and slowly being changed into scrap yards and overgrown line sides.
‘Here,’ I said to Alf passing him the tea. ‘It’ll be getting cold.’
He chuckled heartily and took a sip.
‘It’s a great shame.’ He said almost to himself.
‘Redfern you mean?’ I asked.
Alf nodded and took another sip.
‘How old was he?’
Alf contemplated for a moment and shook his head.
‘He retired some six years ago though; we did meet up a few times too. He was a marvelously funny chap.’ Alf said placing his now empty tea cup beside him.
‘Yes, I can’t say I knew him personally as it was only really you who dealt with him.’ I returned.
Alf’s brow furrowed.
‘I didn’t deal with him Malcolm. It is just that he entrusted me more than the others simply because I had been under his teaching for a few years. He knew I’d get the job, whatever it be, done.’
‘Not that you’re blowing your own trumpet!’ I said laughing.
‘I shall miss him greatly. He was a good teacher, he’d been on the force for,’ Alf thought for a moment. ‘At least sixteen years before I joined him.'
I was astonished, that meant that the man must have been quite old even when still in service.
‘And how long all together then?’ I asked.
‘Twenty five years, twenty six or something like that. He served his time so he did.’
I sipped the last of my tea and said no more.
We were an hour into the journey, the hillsides rolling past like the rivers. The express tumbled along at a steady rate, with only the one stop at Doncaster, until we came up towards Grantham. Grantham was a large city, crowded and cramped with spires of smoke rising like a burning phoenix into the greying sky. The old woman returned and I stopped her to ask why we had stopped.
‘Change o’ locomotive my dear.’
I nodded and she left.
There was a blanket of white speckled grey smoke that wrapped itself around the carriage; busying people became ghostly apparitions with no distinctive features.
Alf unfolded his copy of the paper and studied the headline:
Haig Pit Disaster leaves at least twenty five dead
He tutted and turned the page.
‘It’s a Victorian barnacle welded to the side of quickly moving ship.’ I said.
‘It keeps families fed.’ Replied Alf.
The platform was now empty and the train began to slowly heave it’s self from the station. The rhythmical heartbeat began slowly building up.
‘But surely one must be aware of what happens in those…’ I began before being cut off.
‘If it weren’t for those chaps down there then we would currently be barely thirty miles or so from York. Be thankful for what they do, it allows you to criticism them.’
‘I am not criticizing them but what they do!’ I protested.
‘Then you must become aware that families keep a tradition long after it has become surplus and, as you put it, a barnacle. Whatever that means.’
‘I simply mean that the job is outdated, look at the world now. We are a far cry from when this first started.’
‘And we're no doubt a long way from it stopping too. The world, as you say, may continue to change, but you cannot hope to keep this country going after ripping up its roots. Anybody with half a brain would acknowledge that these countries roots are firmly cemented amongst the coal and ironworks industries.’
I let the argument go, it wasn’t worth the hassle, not for the next two or so hours.
‘How is Joyce?’ Alf asked after a lengthy silence.
‘Better than she was. Her fear was that she had caught something, but it seems to be nothing more than a heavy cold.’
Alf frowned before returning to his paper. He put it down a second later.
‘Mr Witherspoon, what do you make of him?’
‘The new vicar?’ I enquired.
‘He seems a decent enough chap, a little forth going at times but still quite nice.’
‘A little older than I anticipated.’ Alf admitted.
‘He was the only one who would take it on after what happened. Nobody wants to be associated with such a place now, that’s why the Claxon’s sold up last week.’
‘Some businessman apparently.’
‘Always is, isn’t it. But I suppose it’ll blow over soon enough.’
‘Of course.’ I replied.
Soon we came at last to London. Our journey had been long and arduous but at last we were here. We disembarked from the express and made way towards the cobbled streets, not of course before we had been given our bags. I had brought only a small overnight bag in which was enough clothes and suchlike to last me two days. However, Alf had brought a larger bag, his would have been enough for a man holidaying for a month or more!
‘Why have you brought such a large bag?’ I asked.
‘It isn’t a bag, it’s a case.’
‘Sorry Mister Shakespeare!’ I returned.
We made way towards the street.
‘No, I have brought it just in case we are in need of staying here longer than we anticipated.’
‘And why should we be here longer?’ I enquired.
‘I would have thought Malcolm, that after so many years in service, you would have answered that one yourself a long time ago.’
‘Ah!’ I replied, ‘But we aren’t in service anymore. We will be here no more than two days. Yes we will catch up with a few old friends but I certainly shall not be missing the evening express.’
It was now that we hoped on board a bus to take us South via City Road until at last we came to Whitechapel.
‘The streets that are so haunted by days gone by.’ Alf mumbled to himself.
‘Ah, well I shan’t be going on any excursions around these streets!’ I replied.
‘Glad to see you enjoying yourself.’ Alf returned.
We got off the bus and made way towards our Inn in which we would be staying for those two days.
The Henry VIII was a marvelously quiet spot, a few customers congregated at the bar but all in all there was a peaceful silence in these walls.
I tapped the innkeeper on his back and he turned around. He was a short and blank faced chap with large graying eyebrows and a wide and bulky build.
‘What you wanting lads?’ He enquired in a Cornish tongue.
‘We are staying here for two nights. I believe that Mister Jump has already arrived?’
The innkeeper smiled and waved us through to the staircase.
‘Third room on your left is where you’ll find Jump. Yours is next door.’
‘And where will I find mine?’ He enquired.
‘Same place his is.’ The innkeeper replied before waddling back behind the bar to tend to his flock of regulars.
Alf made his way slowly up the ramshackle stairway. It was small and barely able to fit two persons across, but then again it was only a small inn and it gave me the impression that those who did stay here were most likely people in the city only for a few days.
‘This way I think.’ I said as we turned off the stairway and into the hallway. Its walls were stained yellow from years of wear and the carpet, of which there wasn’t much left, was red with a white rose motif spiraling across it.
‘Nice décor.’ Alf said.
I nodded unsure.
I searched the room numbers and found mine. They door was wooden and scratched from tip to toe.
‘Well then,’ I said turning the key. There was an instantaneous aroma of smoke; it was a soft but noticeable smell. Within the room there was a dusted cupboard, a small writing desk facing the barred window and two beds, separated by a thin strip of that same carpet.
‘Could be worse.’ I said optimistically.
‘Could be a lot better too.’ Replied Alf, who had obviously become overcome by the smell.
‘I am sure that I have stayed in worse accommodation in my time.’ I said. I sat down on the bed, it was springy and comfortable, and above all it was clean.
‘And I,’ Replied Alf doing the same. ‘Have stayed in better. I do wish that we had booked somewhere a little less…’
‘Does a man not have the right to comfort after a hard day’s work?’ He enquired.
‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘But some men do not get that. That is the crucial point here.’
‘Since when did you become savior of us all?’ Greenway asked.
‘I simply have had my eyes opened. I have become aware of what I have not seen in a long time.’
‘And what brought that on?’
‘Retirement mainly.’ I confessed.
‘Well, look at what we now live with Alf, cottages and summer fairs.’
‘And you miss the grit and dirt of city life?’
‘No, I have had enough of that to last me the until my end days! But I will say that I have not completely cast out what I learnt.’
‘And what exactly have you learnt?’ He asked.
‘To remember where I came from and remember how lucky I am.’
Alf relaxed back onto his bed and, quite unsurprisingly, sighed. He did that far too often for my liking.
‘Perhaps we should go and find Jump?’ I enquired.
Alf nodded in agreement.
‘We’ll leave everything in here I think.’ I said, Alf said nothing.
‘You don’t seem to be enjoying this very much.’
‘I am very tired and it is January in London, therefore the weather isn’t at its finest and I have a terrible stomach pain which was most probably caused by that awful tea from the express!’
‘And you’re still moaning!’ I replied.
I locked the door and we made way down the hallway.
We soon found Jump’s door.
‘Ah, you are here.’ Jump said as he waved us into his room. His was larger than ours and newly decorated. I saw that there was not a speck of dust about the place and the bedding could only have been washed hours previously. However, I didn’t bring this forward as Jump had a certain look on his face, he was straight-faced and stern. Alf, on the express, had told me that Jump and Redfern had been jolly good friends for a long while both prior and post Redfern’s retirement. It had taken Jump aback to hear of his friend’s death and he was paler than he had once been.
‘Please do sit down.’ He said offering us chairs.
‘You seem rather down sir.’ I said. Jump attempted a smile.
‘There is nothing to be happy about on the eve of a friend’s burial.’ Jump replied sitting down on his bed.
There was silence.
‘This is a very nice room.’ Alf said, I hoped he would leave it at that. He did.
‘Gentlemen,’ Jump began solemnly. ‘Tomorrow we will bid a final farewell to one of the finest officers this force has ever had the privilege of knowing. Now, whilst the thing will be, erm, a quiet affair, there is also cause for some celebration. His wife, Evelyn, has acquired a drinking house for us all tomorrow after the burial. We will spend the evening there and we must show our up most sorrow and empathy to Evelyn. The poor mare has had quite enough to deal with this past month what with Stewart being, well, enough idle chatter. Let us go for luncheon.’
I must confess that I had wished for a rather more warm welcome to London.