Epilogue: Ten' o'clock
John Swanson's car made a horrible screeching sound as he roared into the staff car park, skidding through mushy ice and snow that had already seen plenty of traffic that morning, but the shunter did not care. He had raced here as soon as he had seen the news report that morning, talking of a visiting engine that had crashed the previous night during the snow storm. After ignoring the rest of Duck's trucks, John had spent the evening tucked up with his family under a warm woollen blanket, enjoying countless hot drinks and watching all the typical Christmas specials that he had seen before, savouring these pleasant holiday memories.
Yet it all seemed a waste now. John scrambled hastily out of his car and slammed the door, still thinking of the shocking news bulletin that had put him in such a worry: Sources from within the railway suggest that it was a series of delays across the railway that could have contributed to this near collision, but official representatives declined to comment.
It had not taken long for John to think of the train he had not dealt with properly, and he had realised even quicker the role he could have played in the crash. Maybe I caused this all to happen, this could all be my fault! The report showed Henry near the crash… I would have delayed Duck, which would have delayed him… John could not shake these thoughts, and he raced to his car and sped to the station, knowing he had to find out if he was going to receive any of the blame.
It had finally stopped snowing and the sun had come out, and John quickly felt hot as he ran across the yard, wearing far too many layers for the weather. Ironically, Duck was pulling into the station as John raced towards the platforms, joining the other engines mingling around waiting for passengers or for the lines ahead to be cleared. To think a few couplings could cause such damage to these machines, John thought, staring at a bright yellow tender engine who had not been around long.
"Hey John, Frank's looking for you," a familiar voice yelled from the sidings, and John turned to see a fellow worker, Adam, pointing towards the worker's hut. "He was going to give you a call; doesn't sound happy mate."
Oh brilliant. "Thanks for the heads up!" John called back, wearing a smile so everything would seem alright, and he quickly manoeuvred his way towards the little wooden shed. His nerves were all over the place now, and John could only wonder what Frank was going to say, but if he was personally looking for, that was not going to be a good sign.
He stepped inside and found the heater overpowering rather than comforting, wishing that he could turn it off. John found it was oddly quiet, which was unusual for this time of day, and he wondered where everyone was. However, as he moved past the lockers, John saw that there were half a dozen workers inside, halfway through preparing coffees or putting on jackets, some chatting in the corner, others having a snack before starting work. All of them had frozen in what they were doing and had turned to look at John; their still faces a mixture of emotions: some looked surprised, others joyous, one of them furious. John was stunned to find himself the centre of attention like this, and he paused as well, wondering nervously what was about to come his way.
"All of you, out!" A rough voice boomed, and it was as if a spark had gone through the room; John's colleagues quickly pushed past and rushed outside, almost in fear, leaving only him and the speaker behind. Frank had been sitting with a weary look on his face in the corner with his feet up, hidden away by everyone else. John felt his heart slip into his stomach and he slowly walked forwards, dreading what was about to happen.
"Before you start Frank, just let me say –"
"I always speak first John," Frank grumbled, "You know that! Now bring me a coffee and sit down!" John nodded like an obedient dog and quickly poured his manager a cup and rushed it over, before turning a chair around and facing him. Frank did not speak straight away as he took several moments blowing his hot drink before taking a few cautious sips, and John only got more and more nervous, wondering what was taking the stout man so long, wishing he had never come here after all.
"I was not surprised last night when my time as Santa was interrupted," Frank began, resting his cup on the table besides him. "Something always needs my attention, but it is a pain having to tell the kiddies my reindeer need feeding, then I have to rush off and sort it out in under five minutes or we have mass tantrums on our hands, from both the kids and my employees!" John thought it was a joke and chuckled, but Frank gave him a serious look and he quickly fell silent.
"So, after your little foot stamping yesterday, I was already expecting you to bugger off and leave the train unattended," he continued, and John looked down at his feet, feeling like a five year old getting scolded by his teacher. "In fact, I am glad in a way that you did some of the work in the first place; it made your mess much easier to sort out. But," he added, and leaned dramatically forwards, "you still left a mess."
"I know sir, I am very sorry, I had no idea it would lead to an accident, and –" John began, but Frank held a hand up and he fell silent, a bead of cold sweat trickling down the back of his neck. Frank finished the last of his coffee, drinking it as slowly as possible in order to torture John and show off the power he had.
"There is an investigation under way into how the accident occurred, and I already know how it will end," the yard manager continued. "I have seen plenty of crashes and investigations over my time, from within my own career and witnessing my father's work as I grew up. So I know that the investigators will find that the Mainland engine was going too fast, that the weather hindered the driver's vision, they were unable to hear the whistle from the shunter, there were communication errors, all that jazz. They will call for more productive ways of alerting trains during storms, and will recommend changes to prevent delays and how the line is shunted. If you ask me, that engine would have an accident one way or another. My nephew Steve was one of the few witnesses to the crash and he saw it all happen, and that Marco would have carried on at those speeds straight through Crovan's Gate if those trucks had not been in his, and what would have happened then? Arthur was on the line, he easily could have been hit, or if Henry had not been delayed, there could have even been a collision further up the line, one that could have killed the crews and caused one of our own engines to be scrapped." Frank paused, and John quickly let the words sink in and tried to work out what he was saying, and lit up with delight.
"So… it was almost a good thing Henry was delayed then?" John asked, briefly getting excited, but that faded as Frank glared at him and he knew he had said the wrong thing.
"The investigators will be informed that you left several of Duck's trucks unattended to, and this prevented Henry from carrying on. He would have passed Bear by and missed the loads that fell off his train that held him up further, as he should have been through Crovan's Gate before Gordon, Edward or this visitor headed off from Vicarstown. However, it was the fault of Marco's crew and the way the Crovan's sidings work that this accident happened, as well as a fault with the communications that made all these delays worse.
"But just because they will let you go it does not mean I will," Frank said, and he leaned further forward, his tired face becoming wrinkled with rage, reminding John of an angry warthog that he had seen on a David Attenborough show once, and squirmed back in his chair. "You will be working late shifts for the rest of winter, and you will not be allowed to leave until everyone one of your jobs is done properly, with your car keys waiting with whoever is on duty to double check everything. And then, during summer, you will work during the middle of the day every day that I can make you, under the exact same principles. And when it comes to Christmas next year, I will review this case and see if you have learnt your lesson." John was shocked by this punishment, and a foolish question escaped his lips before his stunned mind could comprehend it.
"That every action on a railway has consequences!" Frank bellowed, making the coffee jug shake, and he angrily pointed one of his sausage-like fingers at John. "Everything you do sets off a chain reaction of events, either good or bad, depending on how well you do your damn job. This is the most important thing you need to know in this line of work! Even if you are the lowliest shunter, you are dealing with trains; coaches that carry people, trucks and wagons filled with flammable items. One wrong move and you could be responsible for the deaths of countless civilians. You got lucky this time John, but if anyone had been killed, I would have thrown you under the bus – or, should I say train, without a second though! You make sure you remember that and get the hell out of here! Enjoy your Merry bloody Christmas." Frank looked and sounded disgusted, and John quickly rose from his chair and rushed out of the hut, unable to stand the furious expression any longer. He was shaking uncontrollably, and was pretty sure he was close to tears, but John forced himself to take control and not let it show, especially as many of his fellow workers were lingering around, waiting to see his fate.
You still have a job, be glad of that – you aren't going to jail, John reminded himself, and he knew that it was a light punishment compared to what he could have gotten. He could just imagine what would have happened if there had been passengers onboard the visiting engine: police barging down his door, the whole Island turning against him, life in prison, and the never ending weight of guilt…
The shunter quickly scuttled back to his car through the dirty snow, watching as the bright yellow engine roared past with a large black hopper and a long line of trucks, carrying everything from coal to fuel. John admired the powerful machine and turned, watching it disappear down the Arlesburgh Branch Line, a steely grey snowplough shoving the built up snow aside. It turned a corner, and John wondered what would happen if that engine would derail there, rolling over, dragging all the toxic chemicals off the line with it…
He paused for a moment to calm down, watching the sunlight bouncing off the bright engine's paint, letting Frank's message sink it. John knew that it was one he would never forget for the rest of his life, and knew he would never make a mistake again: when it came to steam engines and when it came to snow, there was no simply no room for error, and over the next year, John would make sure this thought never left his mind.
So there we have it, the final chapter. I hope you all enjoyed this story, I have been surprised but pleased with the amount of positive reviews I've received, which makes a nice change to what I usually expect :P I hope to expand my little Thomas world further over the next year, with two of my next RWS books tying directly into this story via Mike and the Electric Branch Line, and several aspects and themes of this story will come into play in my main story I hope to start near the end of the year. So hope this year's Christmas special was enjoyable, let me know what you think, and see you on all soon on the Peel Godred Branch ;)