Trouble on a train…..III

Well, without further ado, let me jump back to the account of Lt Dand MacNeill in handling a troop train. The background you will find in the first two installments of this post, and the point I left you in the last when the R.T.O. is in the middle of telling young Dand of the various pitfalls…. We’ll take it on from there…….

~~~~“The run takes about seven hours,” went on the R.T.O. He stopped and shuffled his papers. He was thinking. “If you hit trouble,” he said at last, “you use your initiative. Sorry it’s not much help, but there you are. You’ve got some signallers, and the telegraph line’s never far away. You’ll be O.K. as far as Gaza anyway; after that there’s more chance of… well, anyway, it’s not likely there’ll be any bother.”

The  loudspeaker crackled again for Captain Tanner.

“Oh shut up!” he snapped. “Honest, it’s the only blasted name they know. Well, look, you’re off in about ten minutes. Better start getting ’em aboard. I’ll get a bleat for you on the tannoy. Best of luck.” He hurried off, and then turned back. “Oh, one other thing; there’s a captain’s wife with a baby and she thinks it’s getting German measles. I wouldn’t know.”

He bustled off into the crowd, and as he disappeared I felt suddenly lonely and nervous. One train, two hundred people – a good third of them women and children – seemed a lot of responsibility, especially going into a country on fire with civil strife and harried by armed terrorist gangs. Two deserters, a worried padre, and possible German measles. Oh well, first things first. How does one start clearing a crowded platform into a train.

“Sergeant Black,” I said, “have you made this trip before?”

“No, sir.”

“Oh. I see. Well, start getting them aboard, will you.”

God bless the British sergeant. He flicked his bonnet with his hand, swung round, and thundered, ” All aboard for Jerusalem,” as though he had been a stationmaster all his life. The tannoy boomed into sound overhead and there was a general move towards the train. Sergeant Black moved in among the crowd, pointing and instructing – he seemed to know, by some God-given instinct, what to do – and I went to look at the engine

I’m no authority but it seemed pretty rickety, and the genial Arab driver seemed to be in the grip of some powerful intoxicating drug. He had a huge laugh and a glassy eye, spoke no English, and fiddled with his controls in a reckless, unnerving way. I thought of asking him if he knew the way to Jerusalem, but it would have sounded silly, so I climbed into the front carriage, dumped my hand baggage on a seat in the compartment marked “O.C. Train, Private” (with the added legend “Kilroy was here – he hated it”) and set off in the corridor to tour the train.

It was like the lower gun-deck of the Fighting Temeraire at Trafalagar, a great heaving mass of bodies trying to sort themselves out. There were no Pullman cars, and the congestion in the carriage doorways was brutal.

…. So I allotted Sergeant Black the rear half of the train, struggled back to my place at the front, checked my notorious pistol to see that it was loaded, satisfied myself that everyone was off the platform, and settled down with “The Launching of Roger Brook”, which was the current favourite with the discerning literati, although closely challenged by two other recent productions, Animal Farm and Forever Amber. The train suddenly heaved and clanked, and we were off.

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