January, 1942, was a hard month in London. Friday, January 16th, was one of its bleakest days. Snow had fallen on the Wednesday and Thursday, rain during Thursday night. Enough snow had been left by the rain to form piles of slush in gutters and side roads. Early in the morning it had frozen; the slush had become hard rutted cakes, and a thin film of ice had formed on the roads and sidewalks. Some, but not much, of this had been melted by the dull red sun which shone for a little while through the mist in the middle of the day. By 4.30 the sun was obscured by clouds; soon sleet began to fall, and a strong, bitterly cold wind sprang up. By six o’clock, when the darkness was pitch-black, the thermometer touched the lowest point yet that winter.
On this dreary day probably the dreariest place was a railway terminus. Those who were hurrying to catch the 6.12 at Euston may have thought so, if they had any thoughts to spare from their aching ears and fingers. One of them, Councillor Henry James Grayling, a thin man looking about 50, cursed the station and the railway company aloud. Entering from the side, not through the grotesque, vast, black Euston arch, he had slipped on the frozen cobbles nearly in front of a lorry coming out in the darkness. He had fallen on his side and only been saved from injury by young Evetts, an assistant in the chemist’s department of his own firm—a man whom he did not like or trust. He had not known Evetts was near to him; he did not like the officious way in which the young man pulled him to his feet and ran his hands all over his clothes. “I’m all right. Thank you. Disgracefully dangerous place. Confound the company,” he said, ungraciously and reluctantly.
To evade his rescuer, as much as for any other reason, he crossed slantwise towards the refreshment room, picking his way in the faint blue light which was all that black-out rules allowed. He pushed through the swing doors, and then through the light-trap—a curtain—into the tearoom. It was brilliantly bright, close and hot after the dark and cold platforms.
Grayling stood for a moment, dazzled by the light and blinded by the film of steam that formed on his glasses. Waiting for it to clear, he decided that he might for once break a habit and really take a cup of coffee or tea before the train left. It would not be an indulgence, he reasoned; he was extremely cold, he had definite catarrh, and the price was low. But when the room cleared into his sight, he hesitated. The place was crowded, and it would take some time to get served. The cakes on the counter looked stale and unattractive. The tea would be served with tinned milk, if any milk were served at all; it would be scalding hot, and he had but five minutes to spare. His grey eyes, reddened at the corners, rested on a group of sailors who had been drinking beer and were shouting. One had a whisky in his hand. Grayling was a teetotaller, and envy or principle made him scowl; then, almost at once, he saw another thing which made up his mind for him. Near the door, in the crowd through which he had just pushed his way, was standing the square dark figure of a German refugee doctor—so-called—whom he knew and viewed with personal dislike and political suspicion. He turned sharply and walked through the door, pushing fairly rudely against the doctor on his way. In his belief the German jostled him deliberately in return—a fresh offence.
The month before, a large number of trains had been taken off because of fuel shortage. His favourite 5.57 no longer ran. There was a crowd thrusting on to the platform where the 6.12 would come in; Grayling took his place in the queue and pushed past the barrier with the others.
The platform was already filling up; he had to thread his way to reach the far end, where he always waited for the train. To be at the end saved him perhaps a minute on arrival at Croxburn; besides, the carriages near the end tended to be less full. Inside the station the wind did not blow so continuously and hard as outside; it eddied and whirled. But it was cold enough for him to press his attaché case close to him and to fold his hands across his chest; with his case held in front of his breast he looked oddly like a man with his gasmask at the “alert.” When he reached his chosen place he stared out into the greater darkness from which the train would come. It was just possible to make out the edge of the station roof, a great dark arc against the darker sky. In the picture which it framed, the only visible things were the signal lights, red and green. They were of an unimaginable brilliance—unimaginable, that is, to those who only knew the pre-war station, whose brilliant lighting reduced the signals to unimportant glitters. Now they shone out from the thick, almost furry blackness with strong, unwinking cones of light. There seemed to be hundreds of them. Even Grayling, little accustomed to reflect on what he saw around him, wondered at the strength of the green lights. It wasn’t safe, he reflected. A plain signal to German aircraft.
The train was now five minutes overdue. The platform was getting crowded. Among the people standing near, Grayling recognized, or thought he did, men with whom he travelled up every day. He was quite certain of one—the young man Evetts had reappeared. He began to edge away from him, still further up the platform, hugging his case. There was about £120 in that case, in pound notes and silver; he was not taking any risks.
Just then a flickering yellow light appeared among the reds and greens. The crowd moved, and a sound like a communal grunt of hope appeared; perhaps that was the light on the front of the engine of the delayed train? It jigged tantalizingly, but did not seem to come nearer. At last, but so slowly, it grew brighter, then it swerved to one side, and then, quite suddenly, there appeared behind it the black bulk of an engine, and rattling and panting the train pulled in, dead and dark with all its blinds drawn. As it came in Grayling saw that the company had made some effort to allow for the increased traffic. Extra carriages had been added; and, in common with other cautious passengers he ran forward to where the platform sloped down in a long ramp, in order to get into these additional and probably less crowded carriages. Once again, to his annoyance, he was jostled in the rush, and lost his favourable position by clinging anxiously to his case. When he did enter a carriage he found indignantly that all the corner seats had been taken, one, of course, by the wretched man Evetts. There was no sense in going to find another carriage, and in any case he was being pushed from behind by other travellers. He sat next to Evetts, coughing pointedly from the fumes of the large and foul pipe which the young man was smoking. The hint, if it was one, was not taken. Next to him there sat down with a thump a rather heavy man in clerical dress; he recognized in the dim light of the two lamps that were allowed the Vicar of Croxburn, his colleague on the Town Council. He nodded to him curtly: the Vicar was like himself a Conservative—or Ratepayers’ Association member as they called themselves—but the two were all the same generally in disagreement. He recognized two other persons in the carriage. In the corner opposite was a large-nosed dark little man, just outside the pool of the lamplight; he was fairly sure that that was Ransom, a corporal in the Home Guard platoon in which he was a second lieutenant, and a damned bad corporal at that. A little further along on the same side was a handsome, fair young man with a club foot; he glanced at Grayling, blushed scarlet with embarrassment and looked away. Grayling’s face became harder and angrier; but just at this moment a heavy bulk pushed in between them, and there sat down, dead opposite to him, the refugee doctor. Grayling drew himself back, hideously and openly affronted. But there was nothing that he could do to expel the German. He pulled himself stiffly back and took out his handkerchief, deliberately holding it in front of his nose, as if to protect himself from a disgusting smell. The German took no notice; or, if he did, did not show it.
In the far corner there was a fat middle-aged woman whom Grayling did not recognize; with her there was a small girl of about thirteen, in school uniform and with a running nose. Opposite them were two young working men in overalls whom he didn’t know either. Something appeared to have amused them excessively; they kept bursting into fits of loud laughter and exchanging half sentences, incomprehensible to the outsider, about an event that had apparently occurred at work. Their most frequent word was “bloody,” but they suppressed more coloured adjectives in deference to the company. The Vicar blew his nose with some violence, and Evetts withdrew his pipe to sneeze. Infected by their example, Grayling also blew his nose, and for a moment the carriage was echoing with sneezes, nose-blows and coughs. At that moment the train started with a violent jerk, the passengers were thrown forward and Evetts’ bag, which he had put in the rack, fell on to Grayling’s head. Evetts leant forward, apologized, and pulled it back again; Grayling replied inaudibly.
Thereafter the train ran its usual course, stopping at each station as suburban trains do. After the fourth station, one of the exuberant workmen turned his attention to reading the inscriptions inside the carriage. It was an old carriage, brought back into service for the war period; and its notices had had more than their fair share of schoolboy emendations. The jests were neither very good nor very new, but the reader professed to find them overwhelming. To decipher them, he had to peer very closely, right past Grayling’s shoulder in one case, and to move right down the carriage, which he did without embarrassment. “Please restrain your ticket,” and “Do not leap out of the window” were established jokes; but he appeared never before to have seen the simple injunction: “Before alighting, wait until the rain stops.” On the door itself the advice “To lower window, pull strap towards you” had defeated the inscription writer: he had got as far as “To love widow,” but had then given up in despair. The explorer’s colleague began to offer suggestions but was hastily hushed. The cream, however, was a notice above Grayling’s head, newly put up because of the war. By the simple but grandiose process of turning an “i” into an “o” it had been made to read: “During the blackout, blonds must be pulled down and kept down.” The Vicar was moved to protest at the delighted elaboration of this thesis that followed, and the reader fell into an abashed silence.
Nothing else noteworthy occurred. The passengers were silent, seeming to dislike each other’s company. Most had colds; all were cold. The young man who had blushed so darkly at the sight of Grayling, glanced at him once or twice with a very queer expression, but said nothing.
After three-quarters of an hour, the train pulled into the suburb of Croxburn. Most of the passengers got out, leaving the woman and her child, and the two workmen to go on to a later station. Grayling avoided speaking to anyone of his companions, got first through the turnstile, and was almost immediately hidden in the moonless night.