Friday, 1 May 2009

Red Guard - Early Short Story

This story was written in the Spring of 1987 and was based on a real incident. I grew up in a town from which a lot of people commuted to work by train. In those days it was still a nationalised service called British Rail. On one occasion a train stopped a short distance outside Waterloo station for so long that the passengers got out and walked the short distance to the platforms. This was possible in those days because the carriage doors were manually operated by passengers rather than being electric like today. However, it was very hazardous as unique among the railway regions of Britain the South-East (including London) had the 'third rail' approach which meant in contrast to elsewhere in the country power to the trains came not from overhead cables but from a rail which was laid within the other two normal rails. This meant it was easy if crossing a track to step on the rail and electrocute yourself in a way you could not have done elsewhere and the railway staff cut the power to the track. This story was really looking at how many right-wing people in the Home Counties were hostile to anything they saw as 'direct action' when it was carried out by workers or students, but were more than happy to engage in it if it allowed them to get what they personally wanted. I was also influenced by the middle class volunteers who came forward in the 1926 General Strike to drive trains and lorries in an effort to break the strike. The title is a play on a train's guard, the red light of the railway signals and the Red Guards of Communist China notorious for their direct action. Ironically in the mid-1990s I remember witnessing people waiting at Tower Hill underground station anticipating a supposed 'people's train' that was to come as part of a protest about privatisation of that network, though it never arrived. 'Power to the People!' was what the revolutionary 'Wolfie' Smith (played by Robert Lindsay) would shout at the start of an episode of the comedy series 'Citizen Smith' (1977-80) and in one series he was drowned out by the sound of train passing under the bridge he was on. Looking at it now, it can be seen as a metaphor for the rise of a Fascist state, though despite the references to the skinheads (the way supporters of the Fascist party of the time, the National Front used to shave their heads) and the saying about Mussolini that he 'made the trains run on time' but I do not think this was intended when I wrote it. Notice yet more ellipses!

Red Guard

"... we apologise for the delay of this train and for any inconvenience it has cause passengers." The dull, dreary voice boomed out over the station.

The train drew to a halt at the damp platform. There was a variety of travellers along its length, some pacing and stamping, other concealed byhind the thickening condensation on the waiting room windows. With a sigh of relief and desperation, the passengers moved forward to the stationary train.

The lights clicked off and bubbles of conversation broke out along the platform as heads turned and looked along to the front of the train. The driver stepped out and shut the door behind him. He shuffled down the platform. The man nearest hurried in front of him, blocking his path.

"Excuse me." he said in his sickening excecutive's voice.

"Why, what have you done?" the driver asked, brightening his day with sarcasm.

"We're relying on this train, all of us, to get us to town."

Already the others were moving, homing in around the driver. The guard joined him.

"Sorry mate, it's not our job, we stop here." the guard replied.

The man pushed forward. Beyond the two men he turned back. "Get on; a few of you help me with this ting." he commanded.

He clambered into the cab followed by a few others. The lights were switched on and he turned to the controls.

"Stop! Get out." the guard shouted as he jumped in, backed up by the driver.

The man span from the controls and rammed his umbrella under the guard's chin, pinning him against the wall. A youth grabbed the driver and pushed him to the floor. The leader tied the guard's hand with his belt and pushed a handkerchief into his mouth. The two bound and gagged, the leader turned back to the controls. He grasped the speed lever and the train eased out of the station. Soon they were rushing along the track.

"Power to the people!" echoed out of the public address system.

The leader turned to the small group behind him standing over the two railmen.

"Shut him up someone. I'll have no commie idiots on my train. Get someone to announce the stations."

"Right." answered a small, sly-looking man. He went out into the corridor and took two skinheads standing there with him.

The leader smiled. He thought it was not far now, one stop, they they would be there. Order would have prevailed over the lazy British workforce. He slowed the train as they approached the station. A crowd of chilly travellers climbed on. Suddenly a rail official appeared at the side door.

"Get out! You're breaking the law." the official bellowed through the side window.

The leader rushed to the door to hold it shut.

"Throw them out." the leader nodded to the two railmen.

Two youths and a young woman pulled the two to their feet struggling and trying to break free. The leader rapidly jerked the door open and his colleagues bundled the two onto the platform. The young woman slammed the door shut; the train was already moving away.

"Look, you can't do this. Driving a late train is one thing, manhandling staff is another." the other woman in the cab protested.

"We've got to get to work. All the people on this train depend on us. If you don't like it, get off now!" The leader pointed out of the window to the track.

"Look, you fool, red light!"

"Get out, we've got to get through before they cut the power."

The woman rushed back down the corridor. Ahead a horn blared as a train accelerated to shift faster onto another track. The route was clear; the station in sight.

"The train will terminate at this station," came over the speakers.

The leader slammed on the brakes and the train jerked suddenly. The train decelerated to a slow crawl, as it came under the cover. The leader stopped the engine, far down the platform.

"That's it." the leader said calmly.

He and the others scrabbled rapidly back down the corridor to the carriages. The mass of passengers stepped off, slightly annoyed at the vicious braking, but pleased to have arrived. The leader left the train and disappeared into the crowd.

"... we apologise for the early arrival of this train, it is due to circumstances beyond our control."

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