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Chapter One

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« on: November 20, 2023, 10:09:37 am »

“Where are we now?” asked Sarah. She had been asleep a while, lost in one of those uneasy dozes through which the sound and movement of the train had penetrated and become muddled up with her dreams. As she stretched herself she was aware that the boy in the opposite corner had been watching her in that queer, disturbing way she had noticed throughout the journey: he looked away quickly when she woke up, as though he felt guilty that it wasn’t fair to stare at a girl who went to sleep in the train.

“Are we nearly at Paddington?” she asked, turning to the window. The glass mocked her with her own blurred image against the blackness of impenetrable fog outside. The boy turned to his own window and rubbed its misted surface.

“No. We haven’t got to Reading yet,” he answered. “I think we’re somewhere between Newbury and Reading---but we might be anywhere. It’s pretty thick, isn’t it?”

“Beastly,” agreed Sarah. “London will be a poem. How late are we?”

He looked down at his wrist watch. “Nearly an hour late---and it’ll get worse nearer to London.” He hesitated, and then asked in that gentle, diffident way which made him so likeable: “Does it worry you? . . . Perhaps somebody’s meeting you at Paddington, and waiting on a platform in a fog is pretty dreary.”

“No. Nobody’s meeting me,” said Sarah crisply. “I think meeting trains is a mug’s game. And it doesn’t worry me, either. I can get home by tube, nearly all the way. It’s just that it’s a bore being late.” Then, feeling that she had been rather brusque, she added: “It’s been such a nice journey: it’s a shame to have it spoilt by fog at the end.”

She saw his face lighten, and a smile flicker on his mobile lips. “Yes, rather. It was grand along the coast and up the Exe estuary. I’m sorry about the fog---but it’s been a good journey.”

He turned to the window again and stared at the opaque glass, and Sarah shrugged back into her corner and closed her eyes again. She had finished her book, finished the Times crossword, and she didn’t want to talk. Above all, she didn’t want to watch the boy opposite her. She had liked him so much as they had stood in the corridor and watched the pale December sunshine over the sea at Teignmouth, the sand hills at Dawlish Warren and the shining estuary at Starcross.

His name was Richard: he had told Sarah that, though whether Richard were his Christian name or surname she had not enquired. He was about her own age (Sarah was nearly twenty-one) for he had told her that he had just finished his military service. His home was in Devon, somewhere near Plymouth. Sarah’s home was near Kingsbridge, and she and Richard had talked happily about their favourite holiday haunts in Devon and Cornwall. She had liked his voice, and his slow, pleasant speech, which sometimes quickened in eagerness and developed a very slight stutter. If only the journey had ended punctually and normally, Sarah would have remembered Richard as that nice boy in the train. But when the mist had closed down on them near Taunton, she had become aware of a sense of constraint. She had a queer, inexplicable feeling that he wanted to tell her something and couldn’t get it out, so that his easy speech had broken down into abrupt disconnected negatives and affirmatives and he had tended to stare out into the mist, go silent, and then try to talk again.

It wasn’t a sentimental sort of crisis, thought Sarah, who was a very clear-headed young woman. She had experienced that sort of thing---the stuttering embarrassment of an impressionable youth, and the odious eroticism of elderly philanderers. It was more as though the boy were making a desperate effort to remember something and appealing to her for help.

“Damn,” said Sarah to herself. “It comes of working for a psychiatrist and typing out case histories. I’m getting case-minded. Can it, do . . .”

She took refuge in verbal memory, concentrating on familiar lines, for she could always lose herself in poetry: and then she could have boxed her own ears, because her mind produced “To be or not to be . . .” and Hamlet’s soliloquy imposed itself on the slow grind of train noises in a fog.

“Goodness! Have we really got somewhere?” asked Sarah as the train bumped to a standstill and a blur of light brightened the misted windows.

“Reading---thank God!”

The abrupt remark came from the middle-aged woman who was the only other occupant of the compartment. She sat in a corner seat, back to the engine, on the same side as the boy, and she had been writing steadily ever since she got in the train at Exeter. With a large, businesslike writing block on her knees she had been writing with a speed and ease which seemed to Sarah almost miraculous, undeterred by bumps or swaying. Her voice was very deep, and Sarah repressed a desire to grin, having already observed that the writer’s physiognomy was non-committal, in as much as it might as well have been a man’s face as a woman’s.

“It’s not quite so thick here,” said the boy, and then the carriage door opened and cold fog swept in, heralding two more passengers---both men---who sat down on Sarah’s side, facing the engine. The writer glared at them both, as though their entry were a personal affront, gathered her sheets of paper together, and began to read her script with the same appearance of concentration which characterised her writing.

Sarah turned to the boy. “Will you lend me your book---if you don’t want to read it yourself?” she asked. “At the rate we’re going it may last me till Paddington.”

“Yes, rather, of course,” he said hastily. “It’s jolly good. I’ve read it before, so you can keep it if you don’t finish it.”

The book was a Penguin edition of Josephine Tey’s Franchise Affair, and as he handed it over, Sarah grinned at him. “Thanks a lot. You can have mine. Oh . . . we’re off again. Here’s hoping!”

She settled down with the book---which she found entrancing---and managed to forget her sense of discomfort for a while. Then the train drew to another halt and she glanced up. The boy was not looking at her this time; he was staring at the two men who had got in at Reading, and there was something in his strained, concentrated stare which made Sarah shiver.

“Oh dear,” she thought, “there is something odd about him. He looks as though he’s going through absolute hell . . . or as though he’s going to have a fit. Heavens above, not a fit in a fogbound train. . . . It’d be just too grim.”

She tried to read again, found that the words meant nothing, and decided to go along the corridor and have a wash. Anything was better than sitting there, trying not to watch that unhappy, strained face opposite. She stood up and reached for her grip on the luggage rack, pulling out sponge bag and towel. As she did so she glanced at the two men who were sitting on her own side of the carriage. One was a heavy, middle-aged fellow, a prosperous businessman, she guessed, like thousands of others. He was reading an evening paper, his chin sunk on his chest, his eyes downcast; he might be reading or dozing, but he was taking no interest in anybody else. The second man was young, with dark brows and slicked-back hair, wearing clothes that had a cheap smartness and a tie that made Sarah think “Spiv,” an odious youth. He glanced up at Sarah with bright, calculating eyes, at once bold and furtive.

She turned away, thinking “If he isn’t a bad lot I’ll eat my hat. Cosh boy or the equivalent . . . something revolting about him.”

She walked along the corridor, found that both hot and cold taps functioned---rather grittily---and washed away some of the railway grime. Then she stood for a while in the corridor, thankful that the train was at least still trying and that the greater frequency of blurred lights meant that they were nearing the suburbs. She smoked a couple of cigarettes, and did not go back to her seat until she was pretty sure that the train was approaching Paddington Station: detonators and signalmen with flares seemed to indicate the last lap---and quite time, too. It was nearly nine o’clock.

The boy was sitting very still, staring at the floor between his feet, and he took no notice of Sarah, who began to pack up her scattered belongings, get on her topcoat and gloves, and make a final attempt to read as the train ground on, more and more slowly, and eventually came to a standstill.

The writing lady gave vent to another sepulchral “Thank God!” let down the window, and blocked the door with her massive, tailored bulk. The platform was on her side and she alighted with surprising celerity, considering her bulk, to be followed by the two men who had got in at Reading. The boy was standing up, but he made no offer to help Sarah lift her suitcase down: he almost leapt at the open door, calling: “I say, wait a minute. Haven’t we . . .”

His voice was lost as he jumped on to the platform.

“Well!” thought Sarah. “Manners not ingrain---but he didn’t have a fit. For these and all Thy other mercies, etc. What a night! I hope to God the tube hasn’t given up. It really is about the ultimate limit.”

>> 3
Constable Buller, on duty at Paddington Station that same foggy evening (and exceedingly fed up with the job, for his relief hadn’t turned up), had just helped to sort out a private car from a taxi in the station approach. There had been a lot of bad language, and much roaring of engines and exhaust fumes as the two vehicles disengaged their bumpers and contrived to creep off under their own power into the murk ahead. Buller was just turning for another patrol across the arrival end of the station when he almost bumped into a pair of louts who appeared out of the fog from the Praed Street end of the carriageway. Buller was an observant fellow and he recognised the taller of the two toughs; the chap had been hanging around Number One platform and Buller suspected “intent,” the intent being connected with any suitcase or gear left unguarded for a moment in the fog. Immediately on seeing the policeman’s uniform the pair took to their heels; bolting like rabbits, they disappeared into the fog in the direction of Bishop’s Road. Buller’s immediate reaction was that they weren’t carrying anything; if either of them had had a parcel or suitcase he would have given chase, but the very fact that they had bolted made him suspicious.

“Up to no good . . . but what scared them?” he asked himself. Pulling out his torch, he walked in the direction the louts had come from, towards the head of the approach footway, where some barrows and trolleys had been pushed out of the way by porters and goods yardmen. Normal traffic was so disorganised that the usual loading and unloading of evening traffic had gone all haywire. Buller flashed his torch carefully around, aware that he felt alone in the world, cut off by the fog from the light and movement of the booking hall, where indeterminate would-be travellers argued about their chances of getting anywhere at all on a night like this. It wasn’t very long before Buller found the explanation of the youths’ precipitate flight. A man’s body lay face-down on the ground, partially concealed by a trolley which had been pushed up against it. Bending to investigate, Buller caught his breath.

“My God . . . it’s bloody murder.”

He was an experienced policeman, but the mess of blood around the shattered head gave him a moment of horrified surprise. He hadn’t expected anything like this. He bent to touch one of the outflung hands, got his fingers round the wrist, and found to his astonishment that the man wasn’t dead. Then he heard the tramp of feet approaching him, straightened up, and heard a familiar voice: “Ruddy night, not half. What you got there, chum? Christ . . . what a----”

It was a ticket inspector on evening duty, a man named Willing, whom Buller knew well.

“He’s still alive,” said Buller. “It’s only just happened. Look here, you go along and get the station announcer to ask if there’s a doctor on the station. There’s still hundreds of folk milling around. It’s a chance. We can’t get a police surgeon out in time, and he’s only a young chap.”

“O.K. I’ll see to it---and I’ll send an inspector along with a first-aid box.”

Willing hurried off, and Buller looked down unhappily at the prostrate form. He knew a bit about first-aid, he’d taken the St. John’s Ambulance course: he could fit a splint and apply a tourniquet, but how to begin on a head injury like that he just didn’t know.

“He can’t be alive,” he thought to himself, and bent again to investigate. But he was alive: faint and slow but steady, the pulse was ticking on.

Buller heard the loud-speaker, every amplifier in the station calling the same message: “Attention, please. If there is a doctor on the station, please go at once to the Booking Hall, to Window A, first-class ticket office. Attention, please . . .”

The response came remarkably quickly: Willing, carrying the first-aid box, then an inspector beside a sturdy, middle-aged man in a bowler hat, carrying a case. A second torchlight was switched on and the doctor bent over the casualty.

“Suffering cats! How the blazes . . .” he exclaimed.

“He’s still alive,” said Buller obstinately, “at least he was half a minute ago.”

“He still is---though he oughtn’t to be,” said the doctor.

Willing opened the first-aid case and in the light of the torches a pad was applied and fixed, a hypodermic filled, and an injection given. The inspector was talking about an ambulance.

“Ambulance be translated: they can’t get an ambulance through this,” said the doctor tersely. “There are busses and cars all over the pavement---my own amongst them. You’ve got a wheeled stretcher, haven’t you? Go and get it. I’ll help shove. We’ll take him to St. Monica’s---it’s only just round the corner. My name’s Maxwell, incidentally.”

“Very good, sir,” said the inspector, and hastened off.

Dr. Maxwell turned to Buller, who asked anxiously: “He can’t live, can he, Doctor?---not with his skull battered like that.”

“You never know; the point is that he’s alive, against all probabilities. I’m hoping Horrocks will be at the hospital. This is just his cup of tea; he’ll do a lovely job if we can only get him on to it in time. What the surgeons can do with brains these days just beats the band. What do you reckon he was hit with, Officer?”

Buller was hunting around in the beam of his torch, and after a moment he replied gruffly: “This. They’ve been straightening the kerbstones: left their gear about, because there was a fog. You can’t trust any of the chaps these days.”

The object he raised was a heavy iron lever, over two feet long, such as is used for raising paving stones and similar weights. The blood on one end of it showed plainly enough what it had been used for.

“One thing’s clear enough,” said the doctor. “The intention was to kill: this isn’t a cosh boy’s trick, it’s deliberate murder---only we may cheat the murderer yet. Ah, here they are.”

Two railway officials, the faithful Willing, and Buller’s “relief mate” came up together with the stretcher. The senior official said:

“I’ve rung the Paddington police, Buller: their chaps are on the way. Strong here is to stand by at this spot. Will you go with the stretcher and get the casualty identified?”

Before Buller had time to reply, Dr. Maxwell cut in: “That’s all fine, I’ve no doubt, but you chaps can lend a hand and let the red tape go. I want these trolleys out of the way and the stretcher beside him---here. Don’t argue. This patient’s alive---just. We don’t want him to die while you’re havering about detection. Right. That’s it. Now who’s learnt to lift a stretcher case? Good, two of you, and me at the head---and his life depends on careful handling. Careful, careful . . .”

They got the long-limbed fellow on to the stretcher, sweating in the chill, dank air from the effort to synchronise their movements, and the doctor arranged pads to steady the head before they lifted the stretcher back on to its wheeled carriage. Willing undertook to walk ahead with a police torch, Buller pushed the stretcher, and Dr. Maxwell, with another torch, walked alongside. So they proceeded up the carriageway, while the thickest “London particular” for half a century swirled round them, noisome, poisonous, terrifying: a monster of a fog, strangling all movement in the streets, weighing down the cheerful, terrifying the fearful, dealing death to the frail.

“. . . tons to the square yard . . . carbon deposit, sulphur dioxide, and what have you . . . civilisation? It’s a damned scandal,” grumbled the doctor.

A moment after the sound of the doctor’s voice had died away, when the tramp of the constable’s boots was only an echo in the fog, there was another movement in the station approach, only it was so silent that the newly arrived Constable Strong hadn’t a chance of hearing it: as for seeing it, visibility was now officially nil. Under the arc lamps you could recognise a familiar face a yard from you, but away from the direct glare the fog triumphed. It was a blanket: a fortunate blanket for the man who squirmed like a reptile between the wall and a row of trolleys, not six feet from the place where the casualty had lain. This fellow had been lying on his face under the trolleys, as thin and flat a human snake as ever took cover in a dark corner. He knew he’d got to get out, now, before the other Paddington police arrived; he’d had luck so far. Buller had been preoccupied with the casualty, and the two runaways had distracted his attention. But in another minute the others would arrive. Crawling, writhing, with hammering heart and clammy face, the weedy fellow wormed his way out: only a coupla’ yards and he’d risk getting up and running. No one could swear to anything on a night like this. Clear of the trolleys, he crouched on all fours for a second, heard a woman’s voice raised in nervous protest: “It’s no use, dear. I simply can’t face it. I’d rather sit in the station all night.”

“O.K.,” thought the human snake. “This is where I can make it.” And make it he did, another shadow in the murk, his mind busy with one thought only: “What’s it worth to me. What’s it worth? . . .”

Once inside the great hospital, Constable Buller became a mere cipher, just something getting in the way of busy people. He was used to it. Most policemen have to sit beside hospital beds in the course of their duty at one time or another, generally in charge of attempted suicides. They don’t like it: the nurses don’t like it: the other patients don’t like it, and the bored policemen get their only variety from the cups of tea which are brewed for them in ward kitchens or sisters’ cubbyholes. But Buller hadn’t even got a bed to sit beside. It was his job to wait for the clothes stripped from the casualty in order to examine the contents of the pockets and discover name and address. Dr. Maxwell, on the contrary, became a person of importance as soon as he stepped inside the hospital: he was obviously well known there: Casualty Department leapt to his bidding: the stretcher was wheeled away with the swiftness of extreme competence and happy obedience among murmurs of Operating Theatre Sister, number so and so, housemen, anæsthetist, and Mr. Horrocks, Horrocks, Horrocks. . . .

Buller felt a little cynical. He had been in a number of outpatients departments, and not always had his casualty attained priority. It wasn’t a poor ruddy policeman these nurses jumped for, he contemplated. It was the doctor. “Well, it’s what they’re trained to do, I suppose,” he thought, “but I’d never’ve believed a hospital sister’d hop it like that. They’ll have that Horrocks on the poor blighter’s brain faster than they’d put a stitch in anyone else.”

They told Buller to keep out of the way . . . until somebody (a probationer) said something about the doorman and a cup of tea.

It was about an hour later (or several cups of tea later) that a saucy young thing in immaculate uniform and bright cherry lipstick told Buller he could collect the laundry.

“And there’s nothing in any of the pockets,” she added cheerfully. “Not a sausage. We noticed it at once. And there won’t be any laundry marks, either, because his shirt and pants are quite new. But he’s doing nicely. Theatre Sister says it’s a lovely job.”

“Nothing in any of the pockets,” said Buller. “You shouldn’t have----”

“Oh, don’t get upstage,” she replied blithely. “You’d better go to the office. They want a name of some sort. Yours might do. We’re calling him Waterloo, because you found him at Paddington and he nearly got his anyway, didn’t he? Waterloo . . . it’ll look lovely on his chart.”

Buller collected one raincoat, flannel bags, tweed coat, and waistcoat, new collar, tie, shirt, vest, pants, braces, socks, shoes. “Just demobbed,” he hazarded. “They often grow out of their clothes. Not a . . . what was it she said, the young Jezebel. Not a sausage. That’s a funny thing, that is. Waterloo, indeed.”

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