Mr Brandt is sitting up in his bariatric hospital bed, the head-end elevated so he can watch TV. Given the display cabinets of train models, a railway scene puzzle half completed on a cantilever table, framed photographs of trains, train manuals, timetable collections and almanacs, shelf tidies with colour-tagged railway magazines, rack upon rack of train DVDs, and a lower shelf crammed full of hardback, glossy coffee-table books about the trains of the world and so on – it’s not a surprise to see that Mr Brandt is watching a programme about trains. A team of hard-hats are standing around trying to figure out how to get an old steam locomotive onto a low-loader.
‘Look at that lot!’ says Mr Brandt. ‘Bunch of jokers! The Pere Marquette’s about two hundred tonnes. The forty-one model, anyway. And they’re gonna move it with that Tonka toy hoist? I don’t think so. D’you?’
‘You seem to know a lot about trains.’
‘There’s a lot to know.’
‘Did you work on the railways?’
‘Nah. I was a bus driver. But I dunno. I just liked trains.’
‘There’s something about them.’
‘I know what you mean.’
He raises a hand and makes something like a fey karate chop.
‘Pee-owww!’ he says. ‘Straight there.’
‘Not if there’s something on the line, though,’ he says, frowning. ‘There’ve been some terrible accidents.’
‘Of course – you know what the worst ever rail accident was?’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘Near Gretna Green.’
‘Full marks, that man!’
I’m running late, so I’m reluctant to ask what he obviously wants me to ask. But he’s looking at me in the same way my pet lurcher Stanley looks at me when he wants a duck stick. Impelled by the same, sudden lack of will-power, I’m driven to say:
‘So – what happened at Quintinshill?’
‘May, Nineteen fifteen,’ says Mr Brandt, letting out a huge and luxurious sigh, like a publican pushing back his plate after a particularly big dinner. ‘A troop carrier packed with Scottish soldiers heading south en route to Gallipoli. But the railway company’s short on rolling stock, so they’re in old, wooden bodied carriages lit by gas from tanks slung underneath.’
‘That sounds dodgy.’
‘It was worse than dodgy. It was positively lethal. So what happened was – there’s a complicated bit of track at Quintinshill. I could explain it to you but I can see you’re pressed and anyway you wouldn’t understand.’
‘You’re right there.’
‘All you need to know is there’s a track going north, a track going south, and two loopy side bits of track either side. The signalman temporarily reversed a northbound local train onto the southbound track, then forgot about it. So it was hit head on by the troop train heading south. And then the wreckage was hit by a northbound express. And the whole lot went up in flames when the gas tanks exploded.’
‘That sounds horrendous.’
‘An absolute inferno!’ he says. ‘Two hundred people died, more or less. I think it was hard to tell in the end. Worst ever railway accident in the United Kingdom.’
‘Both the signalmen went to prison for a year or so. But you have to think they were scapegoated. I mean – come on! it was shocking how badly trains were being run up there. And those old gas-lit carriages? A disaster waiting to happen. The men made a mistake, of course they did. But the company was equally at fault. And you can tell they knew it, ‘cos when the two guys come out of prison they give ‘em jobs straight back on the railway.’
‘Yeah. Just not as signalmen.’
On the TV, the low-loader crew are making good progress dragging the old locomotive onto the flat-bed of the low-loader.
‘It must’ve been terrible,’ he says. ‘Them two signalmen, standing at the window of the signal box, knowing what they’d done, watching the whole thing go up in front of them.’
I take a breath and shake my head.
‘I can’t imagine.’
But something else must be happening on the TV at the foot of the bed – some fast jump-cuts or adverts or something – because suddenly the light from the screen changes rapidly, and just for a second I’m conscious of the flickering reflections on the lenses of Mr Brandt’s large, steel-rimmed glasses.
‘Or – I don’t know,’ I tell him. ‘Maybe I can.’