Michael W. Shurgot retired as Professor of Humanities from South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, Washington in 2006. His publications include three books on Shakespeare, a memoir, and a novel, Green River Saga (Santa Fe, NM: Sunstone Press, 2020). His second novel, Raven Mountain: A Mythic Tale, will be published by Sunstone in spring 2023. His website is: www.michaelshurgot.com.
Michael W. Shurgot
The crimson cars of the Night Scotsman slumbered beneath the tarred canopy of Kings Cross Station. Far ahead on track # 13, nearly invisible in the November fog, the sleek, sensuous 4-6-0 Black 5 locomotive panted patiently, hissing white smoke from its six drivers while, as if obeying its own internal rhythm, belching steam and soot that mingled with the fog to thicken the fetid air. Baggage handlers hastily rolled carts full of luggage, handbags, purses and hat boxes down the platform toward the waiting cars, where they unloaded their cargo onto the sleeping cars and first and second-class carriages. Because the Night Scotsman left promptly at 10:25, about 9:30 the ticket manager arrived, stepped into his tiny booth near the head of the platform, switched on a small overhead light, and began perusing his passenger list. He noted the number of passengers who had purchased bunks in one of the sleeping cars, and how many had chosen first and second-class accommodations for the long journey to Edinburg.
By 9:45 passengers began arriving and queuing orderly next to the ticket manager’s hut. They chatted quietly and shuffled uneasily as if they too, like the massive engine, were anxious to begin their journey. Among the queuing passengers were a man and a woman, perhaps late twenties to early thirties, lavishly dressed and obviously enjoying each other’s company. They held hands and leaned into each other as they laughed softly at a private joke. Or was it merely the man softly pronouncing the woman’s name that evoked her giggle and the caress of his cheek? Other passengers, perhaps less effusive, looked down at their shoes, cleared their throats, fumbled in pockets for coins, or adjusted their coats and scarves against the evening chill. The young couple, as if cocooned within their mutual affection, were blissfully indifferent to their fellow passengers. The languid London air, the sleek, gleaming train about to rush them into the Scottish mists, and the romantic lateness of the hour all seemed there to serve only them.
At precisely 9:55 the ticket agent opened the gate. Turning toward the passengers, he announced the order of the Scotsman’s cars: “Sleeping compartments last two coaches. First class coaches 4 through 7, second class first two after the baggage car. Conductors will assist you. All aboard now; move smartly. Departure is 10:25.” The passengers, relieved to be allowed to enter the coaches’ warm compartments, filed past him as they showed him their tickets. Glancing from the passengers’ tickets to his list he called out their coach number and name as they passed. Like ghosts in the enveloping fog, the passengers walked silently down the platform toward the waiting coaches. But not the young lovers. As they showed the agent their tickets they laughed audibly, almost obnoxiously. Sauntering toward their couch, holding hands tightly, they folded into each other as if they would inhabit the seductive air the other breathed. “Darling, here is our lovely carriage, The Nottingham, compartment 3. Let’s board,” the woman exclaimed, her voice piercing the steam and fog of the ancient steel and glass station.
As the platform gradually emptied, a man wearing a long black coat, its collar turned up against the damp night air, and a wide-brim hat pulled down over his right eye, emerged from behind a kiosk near the ticket agent’s hut. No one had noticed him, nor could anyone say how long he had been standing there watching and listening to the passengers as they walked toward the train.
“Going to be on time again, I gather?” he said to the agent, who turned around quickly, surprised that anyone had been behind him.
“Yes, the Night Scotsman leaves every evening at exactly 10:25. We’re proud of our punctuality. It’s among the best in all of Britain, you can be sure,” the agent replied. Curious at this man’s sudden appearance, the agent asked, “Was there something you needed?”
“No,” the man said. “I just wanted to check what time the Scotsman leaves. Friends of mine might take it later this week. That’s all.”
“Well, you could find that information on the timetable. No need to come by. Just ring up the station manager in the morning.”
“Yes, I know, but I was just walking by. Must take the tube back to Russell Square. Well, good to know. Good night.”
“And to you as well sir,” the agent replied. He locked the small hut and strode back toward the manager’s office.
The man walked away and then stopped at a phone booth. He stepped inside, dialed a London number, and spoke softly into the receiver. “Second last sleeper. The Nottingham.” He hung up the phone, opened the door, pulled his collar up, and walked slowly through the dimly lit station.