Cripplegate Junction is an installment tale which is part of a regular challenge involving the use of three given prompts
and a word limit of 100 found at The Prediction, a weekly flash fiction challenge.
CLIVE BAILEY (Episode 1)
As the engine chugged to a halt, Clive Bailey lowered his newspaper and peered through the window of the carriage. This was an unusual occurrence. The train was an Express and not scheduled to make any stops. Irritation invaded his face. He would now be late for his appointment with the Board, where he was responsible for delivering the annual report of assets, liabilities and the comparison of same to the accountings of competitors.
"You there," he called to the Conductor on the platform. "Why have we stopped?"
"Cripplegate Junction, sir," came the brisk reply. "End of the line."
Clive Bailey's watch had apparently stopped working.
MARMALADE, THE STATION CAT (Episode 2)
"What's the damn time?" he asked the Conductor, "and why did we take a detour?"
"Time is not measured in the traditional sense here, sir," replied the Conductor, ignoring the second question.
A rotund ginger tabby with magnificent plumed tail emerged from the sentry box by the turnstile.
"This," said the Conductor, "is Marmalade, Cripplegate Junction's cat. He is distantly related to the renowned Skimbleshanks."
Marmalade twitched his whiskers and regarded Clive through gold-glinted eyes.
"He has exhausted all nine lives," added the Conductor, "which has made him very wise indeed."
Clive Bailey pushed against the turnstile as Marmalade snaked between his legs leaving wisps of fur on his pinstripes. The Conductor indicated a stone wall some distance beyond the end of the platform.
THE RAILWAY ARCHES (Episode 3)
"Operational hours over there."
The posted sign was below a rusty peg holding a brass keyring and flanked by two large gated tunnels.
"Impossible to read from here," complained Clive.
"Yes. Unfortunate that," agreed the Conductor.
Settling his spectacles more firmly, Clive inspected the masonry above the high twin arches with their spiked iron barricades. He could just make out the etched words:
"Please, sir, you are behaving like a lunatic," reprimanded the Conductor, disengaging from Clive Bailey's violent shaking of his lapels. "Have a nice cup of tea at the Crossing Canteen and calm yourself."
THE CROSSING CANTEEN (Episode 4)
Turning, Clive frowned. What in creation? That hadn't been there before!
He peered through the window. A smiling waitress beckoned from behind a silver urn and at a corner table, two children played "Snakes and Ladders." The boy glowered at the rolled dice. He slid his red counter through the mouth of the serpent down to the tip of its tail while his small blonde playmate giggled.
Beneath a glass dome on the counter, a display of teacakes bore the invitation: "Free! Limit One Per Patron." However, immediately capturing Clive Bailey's attention was a door at the rear of the Canteen marked "Asylum"
CAKES AND CAUTIONS (Episode 5)
"Don't be hasty," cautioned the waitress, named Violet according to her tag. "Words often have two meanings." She delivered a buttered cake to the small blonde child, now alone at the table.
The girl accepted the treat and beckoned Clive closer. "Play with me," she wheedled as she took a bite. "My cake is free every time I win," she confided proudly. "Every time."
Clive Bailey reached for a game counter.
PROMISES AND PROSPECTS (Episode 6)
"Not that one, sir," said the Conductor. Clive had not seen him come in. "It's her favourite colour."
Marmalade purred in agreement.
The door jangled as a Porter bearing boxes from "Elsie's Organic Dairy" entered the Canteen.
"I can make more cakes!" announced a delighted Violet.
"And milk for Marmalade" insisted the child.
The cat's eyes glowed iridescent green, gold and amber at the delicious prospect, but Violet seemed reluctant.
"Do not antagonize him," advised the Conductor. "Remember last time."
The little blonde tugged on Clive's sleeve. "You promised to play with me!"
The Porter nudged his delivery trolley toward the back of the Canteen and through the door now marked "Pantry" instead of "Asylum." Beyond the threshold, indistinct shapes loomed large and silent but within the shadows, Clive Bailey thought he spied a pinpoint of light.
SHADOWS AND SECRETS (Episode 7)
"Rear exit?" he asked.
"Well," began the little girl.
The Conductor tutted. "Now, what did Miss Constance say about telling tales?"
The child pouted and averted her eyes to a purring Marmalade lapping milk from his crystal dish.
The Conductor turned his attention to Clive.
"The blue counter! Wise choice, sir." He paused. "Or maybe not."
Clive Bailey watched the snakes slither in figure eight formation across the game board. His vision blurred and his temples pounded, indications of an impending migraine. He retrieved an enameled pillbox from his breast pocket but the Conductor stayed his hand.
AFFLICTIONS AND ADDICTIONS (Episode 8)
"We cannot tolerate drug violations, sir," he said. "The authorities must be notified."
"Beastly habit," muttered Violet primly.
"It's prescribed headache medication," protested Clive.
"Cripplegate Sanitarium offers excellent innovative treatments for such afflictions and addictions," comforted the Conductor. He tucked the confiscated contraband into his ticket pouch. "Don't worry, sir. We can have you there in a jiffy!"
"Miss Constance," cried the little girl, upsetting the game board as she dashed toward the diminutive young lady on the threshhold of the Canteen. She was stopped short by the handle of a lavender parasol.
MISS CONSTANCE (Episode 9)
"We act with decorum, Alice," reprimanded Constance.
The child's mouth trembled.
"Tears? Nose in the corner!"
Bootheels tapping, Constance glided to Clive Bailey's table. The Conductor hurried to escort her but was impatiently waved away. Plucking a stray thread from the lapel of Clive's pinstripe jacket, Constance whispered through lips that appeared not to move.
"Take heed. It is my belief you are being monitored."
"Be still," snapped Constance, irritated by Alice's fidgeting. She frowned. "Where is Christopher?"
COUSIN CHRISTOPHER (Episode 10)
The little girl shrugged.
"Willful and rebellious child," sighed Constance. "We shall have to deal with that later."
She turned to Violet. "I assume he lost the game?"
Nervously crumbling a tea cake, Violet nodded. The Conductor moved to the exit and, hopefully unnoticed, slipped outside. Skulking low, Marmalade followed suit, tail twitching.
Constance tapped her parasol on the table. The vibration sent sharp spikes of pain coursing through Clive Bailey's temples. She removed one of her lace mittens.
"Alice, what have you done with your cousin?"
The Conductor hurried along the platform. Marmalade followed leisurely, lured by the aroma of frying fish emanating from the Dining Car.
OFFICE OF LOST AND FOUND (Episode 11)
A Grande Dame lowered the window of her First Class Carriage. "When will our journey commence, young man? The wait has been interminable." The ice-blue eyes behind her pince-nez matched the colour of her elegant coiffure
"British Railways humbly apologize for the delay, Madam," said the Conductor as he entered "Lost and Found."
"I am looking for Christopher."
The Custodian opened a ledger with yellowing pages and ragged binding.
"Missing is he? Which game did he lose this time?"
The old station clock had not chimed since Marmalade lost his eighth life. It was thought to be his last, but there was a miscalculation and with twitching whiskers, the tabby revived. Violet was suspected of poisoning the cream in Marmalade's jug - no love was lost between the pair - but nothing could be proven.
THE OLD STATION CLOCK (Episode 12)
Now, after several years, the chimes announced the disappearance of Cousin Christopher. In her carriage, the Grande Dame noted the regular breathing of the small boy asleep in the seat across from her, crumbs of a buttered teacake still lingering on his grubby fingers.
With a theatrical flourish, the Station Master entered the Canteen. An adoring Marmalade followed on his heels. He noted the mountain of freshly-baked teacakes.
THE STATION MASTER (Episode 13)
"You have sufficient there to feed an army, Violet," he boomed.
The simpering waitress reached for one of the special blue-and-white china mugs bearing the Cripplegate crest. "Tea?"
In the corner, Alice continued to sniffle. The Station Master regarded Constance with some severity.
"You are too harsh with the child. You will break her spirit."
His long stride carried him to Clive Bailey's table.
"My dear fellow. What a pleasure to finally meet you in person!"
"How fares the migraine?" asked the Station Master seating himself at Clive Bailey's table. "I understand the pain is exquisite." He massaged his temples before slowly refocusing. "Excuse my reverie."
REVELATIONS AND REVERIES (Episode 14)
He removed a pillbox from his waistcoat pocket.
"My medication," declared Clive but the item was beyond his reach.
"Everything has its price," said the Station Master. "Does it not Constance? Violet? Alice?" He scratched Marmalade's ears. "Even felines must pay." The tabby acknowledged this with a low purr and rippling tail.
"The cost to you, old chap, is to reveal everything you know about our dear little Christopher's disappearance."
"Silence is poetically golden, dear chap," said the Station Master, "but is unfortunately so often futile."
THE GOLDILOCKS PRINCIPLE (Episode 15)
Clive Bailey's febrile eyes, bloodshot and glazed, tried unsuccessfully to focus.
"May I suggest the Goldilocks Principle?" asked the Station Master with a polite air "A happy medium, so to speak. Reveal the whereabouts of Christopher and your medication will be returned."
He dangled the pillbox with an encouraging smile but Clive found himself unable to respond.
"I do believe, old fellow," said the Station Master, scratching the ears of a purring Marmalade, "that the cat has got your tongue."
In the manner of a lavender wraith, Miss Constance moved toward the door of the Canteen. The tension was akin to that of an unexploded butterfly bomb and she did not care to be present during detonation. Her brisk bootheels tapped along the platform. On silent paws, Marmalade followed.
TRAIN OF THOUGHTS (Episode 16)
From the window of her First Class carriage, the Grande Dame watched the Conductor leave "Lost and Found," his expression enigmatic. She consulted the ornate watch pinned to her ample bosom and tutted. The sleeping boy was becoming restless and news of the verdict really should have reached her by now.
"Uncooperative," said the Station Master regretfully. "Only one course of action remains."
MESSAGES AND MISSIONS (Episode 17)
Through the rear door of the Canteen labeled "Pantry," the Porter from Elsie's Dairy emerged. He pushed a padded trolley with thick leather straps. The letters comprising "Pantry" performed an erratic alphabetical jig before finally settling on the word "Asylum," as indicated once before.
A scrap of paper fluttered through the window of the Grande Dame's carriage. She read the message before depositing it into her carpet bag. Apparently, her vigil was at an end. She violently shook the sleeping boy.
"Wake up. It is time to go."
The Conductor made his way along the platform, past the Paynes Poppets vending machine and the ticket counter with "Closed" taped to its grille, until he reached the Left Luggage Office.
THE LEFT LUGGAGE OFFICE (Episode 18)
He opened the door with a brass filigree key and illuminated the interior courtesy of a lantern plugged into the stone; however, instead of steamer trunks and hat boxes, there was metal shelving holding assorted whatnots.
He opened a large wooden keepsake box containing photographs of Cripplegate in bygone days. One image depicted the Station Master wearing an ominous smile and a mackinaw which bore the insignia: "Sanitarium Governor."
In the Grande Dame's carriage, the sleeping boy was jarred to consciousness by the sharp rap of a chatelaine across his knuckles. Pitiful caterwauling reverberated the length of the platform as he was transported by his ear toward the Dining Car.
CATERWAULS AND CHATELAINES (Episode 19)
Marmalade paused, whiskers quivering, one paw raised in readiness for the next step. He sniffed gingerly at the air, sensing a perfumed presence at his side. He cast glowing green eyes upon a neat pair of boots and the hem of a lavender gown.
"Christopher," murmured Miss Constance, absentmindedly twining the cat's weaving tail between her gloved fingers.
"Where are you taking me?" asked Clive Bailey as he was loaded onto the porter's trolley like an inert sack of dry goods.
TEA TIME (Episode 20)
"My dear fellow" said the Station Master, securing the straps around Clive's wrists and ankles. "Do not pretend to be clueless. You have known your ultimate destination since you exited the train."
With a wary eye on the door for the reappearance of Miss Constance, Alice tiptoed from her corner. She patted Clive's limp hand.
"Don't worry," she comforted. Her eyes brightened with fond remembrance. "Be good and they'll give you Marzipan Fudge and Tizer for tea."
The Grande Dame propelled Christopher into the empty Waiting Room at the end of the platform. She deposited him upon a wooden bench and bade him turn out his pockets. It was the usual schoolboy fare: a few elastic bands, some pieces of string, a red game counter, a fuzz-covered gobstopper and one item that did not belong.
POCKETS AND POSSESSIONS (Episode 21)
"Where did you get this?"
Christopher jerked like a puppet whose string had been violently tugged.
She leaned forward, breath sweet with the scent of Parma Violets.
"I will repeat the question only once, child. Where did you get this?"
"Allright if I take the load off until the next Express arrives, missus?" asked the Tommy entering the Waiting Room with his spit-polished boots and olive green kitbag. A rolled-up cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, another tucked behind his right ear.
THE TOMMY (Episode 22)
The Grande Dame visibly bristled at the vulgar greeting. Her frustration at his rude intrusion was apparent.
"That train doesn't stop at this station," she snubbed.
The Tommy took a seat anyway and winked at Christopher.
"Sure?" he asked with a cheeky grin, adjusting the frayed bandage swathing his forehead.
The Grande Dame was appalled.
The Tommy pulled a dog-eared edition of "The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes" from his kitbag.
THE BAD PENNY (Episode 23)
"Don't get this forensic stuff," he scathed. "The stories are real pukka though."
As the Waiting Room door opened, he scrambled to his feet and fidgeted like a chastised little boy in the presence of the diminutive figure clad in lavender standing on the threshhold. He fumbled in the pocket of his battledress blouse and extracted a seed pearl necklace.
"Don't imagine you were expecting me any time soon," he said, presenting the peace offering to an astounded Constance. "Bad penny, huh, Sis?"
Ignoring the proffered necklace, Constance eyed the bloodied bandage.
HEROES AND VILLAINS (Episode 24)
"Part of the job. Fighting dragons. Saving virgins," her brother shrugged. "Not named George for nothing!"
Her attention turned to the item being held by the Grande Dame.
"Where did you get that?"
The Grande Dame tensed like an over-tightened tuning peg.
"Impudence! How dare the likes of you question me!"
With an expression that would obliterate most displays of defiance, Constance beckoned Christopher to her side. The Grande Dame, however, was neither impressed nor intimidated. Her clawed fingers dug into the child's shoulder.
"The boy remains with me."
Violet wiped smudges of scarlet from the rim of a chipped white mug.
COMPLIMENTS AND CONFINEMENTS (Episode 25)
"Revolting," she grimaced.
The Station Master propelled the loaded trolley toward the rear of the Canteen.
"Those who possess natural beauty have no reason to employ such shameless methods of enhancement," he told the waitress with an approving wink.
Violet's cheeks flushed, matching the smears left by the offending lipstick.
Clive Bailey struggled against the restrictive leather straps. He sensed the presence of indistinct shadows lurking in the doorway and as the old station clock struck the hour, the cloying stench of pitch assaulted his nostrils.
Marmalade heeded the chimes of the station clock. It was a sad reminder of the evening years before when his littermates vanished.
MARMALADE'S MISSION (Episode 26)
The painted sign had read "Free Kittens," but Marmalade didn't know that, aware only that one-by-one his tiny siblings were spirited away at the hand of the Canteen's waitress. He recalled Crows and Ravens chittering hungrily from atop the Signal Box and later, Violet protesting she would be "vindicated."
All Marmalade knew was that the culprit had gone unpunished. Before the expiration of his ninth life, he would most certainly find a way to rectify that.
Marmalade followed his nose until he reached the Dining Car. Through the window, he saw the Conductor talking to the Head Cook, an irascible fellow with a personality as sour as his pickled beetroot.
THE CAT THAT ATE THE SAVELOY (Episode 27)
Slithering like Cleopatra's asp into the bosom of the galley, Marmalade eyed the dish of saveloys next to a steaming pot of pease pudding. Moments later, there was one less sausage.
The Conductor, who was witness to the theft and contemptuous of the Cook, would say nothing. Of that, Marmalade was certain. He decided this must be his lucky day and promptly filched a second helping.
"I will take that Queen and any other chess pieces you may have stolen," insisted Miss Constance.
THE CRIPPLEGATE GAMES COLLECTION (Episode 28)
George whistled. "Barked like a true Sergeant Major, Sis."
The Grande Dame was indignant and insulted. "Mind your manners in the presence of your betters. This Red Queen is rightfully mine."
"It is part of the Cripplegate Games Collection," said Constance.
She turned to her brother. "I will fetch the Station Master. Do not allow her to leave."
George snapped to attention with a smart salute. His fingers brushed the formerly dry bandage swathing his forehead and came away speckled with fresh blood.
Clive Bailey's extremities were turning purple. The bonds restricting his wrists and ankles seemed to tighten with every passing moment. He had been propped against the back wall of the Canteen while the Station Master peered over Violet's shoulder as she balanced her books.
SUGGESTIONS AND SUBSTITUTES (Episode 29)
"Rather large deficit in that column," he remarked.
"Price of butter," stammered the waitress. "It has risen considerably since..."
"Then we must buckle down," encouraged the Station Master. "Cut corners, if necessary."
His breath was hot on her neck. "Find a cheaper substitute," he cautioned. "Or I shall be forced to find a substitute for you."
Miss Constance adjusted the peplum of her jacket and adopted a neutral expression. It would not be wise to display an abundance of either elation or triumph in the presence of the Station Master.
THE RED QUEEN AND THE ROOK (Episode 30)
"The Red Queen has been found," she announced upon entering the Crossing Canteen.
The eyes of the Station Master narrowed with suspicion. Alice's eyes widened with apprehension. Violet's eyes remained firmly fixed on her accounts. The nib of her pen scratched like sandpaper as she continued to tally the ledger.
"And the Rook?" asked the waitress querulously. "What about the Rook?"
Marmalade padded up the staircase to the Signal Box, nosing open the door. Long abandoned, a thin green patina coated the levers. Here, the cat had been born along with his siblings. He remembered the deep dulcet purring of his mother and the contented mewling of the kits.
THE SIGNAL BOX (Episode 31)
Upon the wall, a sepia picture of children playing Blind Man's Bluff was draped with cobwebs spun by a fat spider who wiggled its eight legs as it scaled a silken thread. At the window, a bright-eyed Rook watched the spider's progress.
Marmalade's tongue licked the air. The bird nodded in agreement.
In the Waiting Room, the situation remained at an impasse.
RED QUEEN REDUX (Episode 32)
"Your sister's judgment is severely clouded," advised the Grande Dame. "To insinuate that I...." Her many chins quivered with indignation.
Realizing he had been overlooked, Christopher furtively relieved the Grande Dame of the Red Queen and crept toward the door which, courtesy of an orange paw, opened silently as he tiptoed closer. Forgotten and unseen, he slipped outside. Marmalade purred a greeting, tilting his head for a welcome scratch behind the ears before leading the way to the Canteen.
The purloined piece safe in his pocket once more, Christopher followed.
"How did you escape?" asked Miss Constance as Christopher entered the Canteen.
RETURN OF COUSIN CHRISTOPHER (Episode 33)
"You were cognizant of his whereabouts?" The Station Master narrowed his eyes. They reflected a threatening promise. He shook his head. "A prevaricating leopard never changes its spots!"
Clive Bailey had ceased the struggle with his bonds. The contours of the Canteen had shifted. He imagined himself to be in his drawing room, listening to "Appointment With Fear" on the wireless. He heard static as Violet turned the pages of "Woman's Own," her voice distant and overly-bright.
"I believe I have found a new recipe for tea cakes!"
Marmalade sauntered toward the Turnstile Kiosk, an establishment with erratic operational hours. Often shuttered for days, its facade merged with the masonry at times, making it difficult to find.
THE TURNSTILE KIOSK (Episode 34)
Poppy, the proprietress, offered no justification for her mercurial work ethic. Most labelled her simply eccentric, but her older sister, Violet, claimed Poppy was, "brainless as the 'Blowbol's Test' March hare."
Poppy's inventory included dolly mixtures, sherbert fountains and Woodbines, along with the "Orange Jubbly Slurry," an unpalatable refreshment of her own creation.
Marmalade was a frequent visitor, ever hopeful for a tin of Kit-E-Kat from the supply behind the counter.
Incredulous that his absence had not initiated a search for his whereabouts, the Conductor took what opportunity remained to visit the Signal Box. The Rook watched as he removed the sepia Blind Man's Bluff picture from its frame, revealing an even older photograph beneath. It was ripped in several places and repaired with yellowing sticky tape.
WHAT THE ROOK SAW (Episode 35)
The Conductor compared the small snapshot taken from the Left Luggage Office with the larger one before him. It was an expanded version of the same scene. There was the Station Master in his mackinaw but now, other recognizable personages were also in view.
Clive Bailey was not sure how he came to be in the passage at the rear of the Crossing Canteen surrounded by Tate & Lyle Pure Cane Sugar boxes and packets of Typhoo.
SHUNTED (Episode 36)
Ahead, a pinprick of light and the harsh judder of disagreement between a raucous Rook and a squawking Popinjay; behind, the distinct rattle of crockery and spoons.
"There you are, my dear fellow," announced the Station Master. "I thought we had lost you!" His fingers were claws upon Clive's shoulder.
"So, shall we join the birds of a feather or is there time for tea?"
With a theatrical flourish, the Station Master produced an engraved postcard from Clive Bailey's breast pocket. The archaic hand-calligraphed announcement read:
BY SPECIAL REQUEST (Episode 37)
"Cordial Invite: Attendance at the grand reopening of Cripplegate Asylum."
"Where did you get this, old chap?"
Clive shook his head and sucked at the stale air, unable to find his voice.
"Do not force me to play Dutch uncle," warned the Station Master. "These were dispersed to prestigious dignitaries only. Indisputably, you fail to qualify as such!"
Teatime commotion from the Canteen began to recede as the Station Master leaned closer.
"On whose behalf are you here?"
The Station Master secured the door behind him, tucking the key into his waistcoat pocket.
BARRIERS (Episode 38)
"Don't want anyone barging in on us, do we my dear fellow? That would be decidedly inconvenient at this junction." He chuckled. "Slip of the tongue. I meant juncture, of course."
The projection of his persuasive tone filtered into the Canteen, where Violet was twiddling the knob of a wireless.
"I'm trying to get the weather forecast, but it keeps bringing me Workers' Playtime," she complained to nobody in particular.
There was nobody in particular to hear her anyway since the Canteen was now empty.
George was beginning to wonder if his sister would ever return to the Waiting Room. The crude bandage around his forehead was now saturated with glistening blood.
WAITING ROOM REVISITED (Episode 39)
He removed the railway itinerary place-marking his book.
"Some detective, that Sherlock Holmes," he said. "Bet he was a dab hand at crosswords and ciphers."
"Where'd the boy go?"
It was getting difficult to focus.
"Is that a train whistle?" he asked. "I thought you said the Express didn't stop here."
With a pompous sniff, the Grande Dame gathered her belongings, sailed past the befuddled George and exited onto the platform.
Violet buttered tea cakes as the young delivery porter cautiously opened the Canteen's rear door. His presence had been forgotten but Elsie at the Dairy would have certainly noted his absence by now.
OH! MISTER PORTER (Episode 40)
He was reluctant to return minus dosh for the supplies. Elsie would not exactly be pleased about that and he would get the sack on his first day!
He didn't want to remain at Cripplegate either. A protesting city gent was strapped to his confiscated trolley and he'd overheard heated exchanges about a Red Queen and a missing child.
The entire situation was a train wreck.
"Ah, Elsie's delivery boy," said Violet. "Hamish, is it?"
WHAT'S IN A NAME? (Episode 41)
"Yes. After Shakespeare's son, I'm sure. He died so young. Such a tragedy!"
She picked up a bread knife with a rose-patterned handle. "I just love Shakespeare." She said with a wistful smile. "'Is this a dagger I see before me?'"
Hamnet took a step backward.
"Did you bring the clotted cream?" asked Violet anxiously. "I'm all at sixes and sevens today and can't find it." Her expression brightened. "The Station Master will remember."
As the Canteen's rear door closed behind her, Hamnet made a bolt for the platform.
Atop the Sentry Box, Marmalade surveyed his domain otherwise known as Cripplegate Junction.
CAT ON A SENTRY BOX ROOF (Episode 42)
He spied the governess with her two young wards. The cat marginally preferred the little girl who, despite her penchant for dressing him in doll clothes and depositing him in a rickety perambulator, was exceedingly benevolent with the Canteen's sweet cream.
A uniformed man emerged from the Waiting Room, the bandage around his head stained red-purple like a coagulating bruise. Marmalade's gold-glinted eyes narrowed. His whiskers twitched. He hissed. He spat. His fur bristled.
The soldier was a disturbing anomaly.
He did not belong on the platform.
The Conductor slipped through a narrow alley which led to the antiquated Loading Dock. The abandoned area was now home to a settlement of spiders and several colonies of brown ants.
THE LOADING DOCK (Episode 43)
Neatly stacked on the disused bay were dusty crates bearing foreign labels and registered codes stenciled on the side in faded black lettering. The Conductor consulted the sepia photograph taken from the Signal Box, but the assignment would have to wait. He had already been missing from his post far too long.
Perched upon the overhead power line, a curious Rook observed his departure.
When apart, Alice and Christopher were fidgety children. When bracketed together, however, Miss Constance believed a diagnosis of St. Vitus Dance would not have been inappropriate. Their ludic playtimes often led to unacceptable behavior, which Constance refused to tolerate and dealt with accordingly.
WARDS AND WATCHERS (Episode 44)
Thus, it was with amazed annoyance that Constance noted Christopher's objectionable agitation as she and her two young charges moved along the platform.
"Look, Alice," said Christopher pointing (yet another reprehensible practice). "That soldier was in the Waiting Room with me!"
Constance was concerned.
If George had left his post, then who was guarding the Grande Dame?
A sheltered corner of the Loading Dock was where the Rook maintained his nookery. The bird's cache consisted of items functional and whimsical: lavender bootlaces, red game counter, decorative labels from bottles of Rioja wine and Andalusian sherry, seed pearls, empty pillbox and a smattering of ha'pennies.
THE ROOK'S NOOKERY (Episode 45)
Also among the treasure trove was an almost-complete pack of Waddington's playing cards, which Marmalade was fond of batting with a ferocious paw when he sauntered by. However, all four Queens were missing and the Conductor, upon examination during his earlier visit, had noted that the Knave of Hearts' image was eerily familiar.
Marmalade was a freelance feline. He fostered no allegiance to any human, save the one who had delivered him from peril the night of his birth. However, those who produced fulsome dishes of delectable dainties were permitted to scratch behind the regal ears and be favoured with an imperial purr.
THE BEST LAID PLANS (Episode 46)
Recently, acquisition of such tasty tidbits had gone seriously awry due to the many annoying distractions: missing items, missing personages, unexpected anomolies. Marmalade was no longer Cripplegate's primary focus. This could not be tolerated.
He went in search of his former protector who would assuredly put things to rights.
Poppy placed her tip jar on the Turnstile Kiosk's narrow counter. Courtesy of generous donations, she would travel to London. Its history, both nefarious and respectable, was fascinating. All this was dependent upon the Booking Office finally reopening and the Express actually stopping at Cripplegate but in anticipation, Poppy had her matching set of secondhand luggage packed and ready.
JAUNTS AND JOURNEYS (Episode 47)
At Marmalade's insistence, Poppy moved a case of Licorice Allsorts so he might have access to the cat flap leading to the passageway at the rear of the station. With a jaunty twitch of his tail, Marmalade strolled into the shadiness.
Clive Bailey battled nausea as the Station Master, feinting abruptly from side to side, rolled the trolley along the cramped passageway. Through an open door at the far end, Clive glimpsed the Cripplegate Asylum garden. It might have been the subject of a Monet canvas.
INSANITY IS RELATIVE (Episode 48)
In the center of an immaculate lawn encircled by red and white rose bushes, two young ladies faced each other across an ornate chess board. Clive could not see them clearly, but their voices were inexplicably familiar.
"I believe that is checkmate, my dear!"
A scornful titter.
"On the contrary, sweet sister. It is stalemate!"
Farthing, Violet's lemon-breasted canary, held pride of place near the Canteen's bow window. In his cage atop a cupboard which stored the bird's Trill and millet sprays, as well as supplies for sticky buns that Violet occasionally made in place of her customary tea cakes, Farthing keenly observed Cripplegate's comings and goings. Unlike others of his species, Farthing had never learned to sing but Violet loved her little bird despite the imperfection.
FARTHING AND THE FELINE (Episode 49)
Marmalade often spent hours watching Farthing, ever optimistic that the feathered fellow would eventually make good an escape.
Marmalade hoped to be present at the time.
As the gateway to the Asylum garden closed, Clive Bailey realized the Station Master had vanished. Whether by accidental or deliberate omission, Clive was now alone...or so he initially believed.
THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT (Episode 50)
Tiny scrabbling paws drew his attention to the floor where, amid a swirl of dust, decaying leaves and brittle rose petals, a mischief of Mice scampered along the passage closely pursued by a Tawny Owl.
There was a "tu-whit tu-whoo," fluttering of wings, crunching of bones and finally, a satiated purr.
In the distance, Clive heard the exasperated denunciation accompanied by a tinkle of teaspoons.
Once more, Clive Bailey found himself propelled along the dusty corridor, sense of direction now a non-entity. North. South. East. West. It no longer seemed important. He was reminded of the Tudor Maze at Hampton Court. All those perplexing paths en route to the elusive centre.
BACKTRACK (Episode 51)
There, many years before, in a moment of anticipatory bliss, he had fallen to one knee and proposed. But euphoria was brief and instantly quashed by a curt refusal. Never again would he test the romantic waters.
Clive's melancholia was jolted by a whispered platitude:
"Faint heart never did win fair lady, old boy."
Turning down the wireless volume ("Billy Cotton's Bandshow" could be obnoxiously loud at times) Violet sifted through recipes in search of a replacement for tea cakes. Granted, her most recent attempts had been disastrous -- stodgy jam roly poly in particular -- but she had to find something to improve trade. Canteen profits were alarmingly low and the Station Master was becoming cross.
SHRINKING VIOLET (Episode 52)
Violet didn't like it when the Station Master was cross with her. He would lapse into his native tongue and although she failed to understand a single word, the hostility of the tone was quite terrifying enough, thank you!
George saw Constance walking toward him. He fumbled in his pocket for the seed pearl necklace peace offering. It was gone, much like the grains of arid sand sacrificed by its creation.
END OF THE LINE (Episode 53)
"Always knew I'd come a cropper in the end, Sis."
"You are indeed a self-fulfilling prophet, Georgie," sighed Constance.
From outside the Crossing Canteen, Marmalade watched white-jacketed orderlies raise the soldier onto a gurney and trundle him through the dark connecting depths of a narrow alleyway.
Tail swishing, the cat purred.
All was as it should be once more.
The disturbing anomaly had been satisfactorily removed.
Arriving at his Sentry Box, the Conductor compared, in minute detail, the acquired vintage photographs. One was cropped but otherwise, they appeared identical. He was not among the gathering.
WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS (Episode 54)
The Station Master was prominent, as were Violet and Poppy, members of the "Temporary Kitchen Staff" according to the listing on the larger picture. Both held carrier bags, presumably containing shopping.
A tiny kitten was curled in a pannier on the arm of Miss Constance and two children, faces indistinct, sat cross-legged on the grass; but it was the image peering from an upper storey window that drew the Conductor's attention.
"Have you seen Dobbin, Miss Violet?" asked Christopher.
TOUCH WOOD (Episode 55)
The hobby-horse was Christopher's prized possession but the shrill "neighing" and "whinnying" that accompanied its playtime gave Violet a splitting headache.
The waitress sighed. She had just put the lid on a freshly-brewed pot of tea and "The Archers" Omnibus would begin any minute.
"Here," she said, handing over three lumps of sugar. "Dobbin will probably come out of hiding for these."
"Thank you," said the boy, slamming shut the Canteen door.
"Barwick Green" began to play on the wireless.
With luck, Christopher wouldn't go anywhere near the kindling box.
The creak of the closing door awakened the "Lost and Found" Custodian from his afternoon nap. Apparently, both postie and the paperboy had made their usual deliveries. He had not seen them. He never did.
INCOMING (Episode 56)
The Custodian hemmed and hawed while sorting through the items. The Station Master only wanted important pieces and it was often far from easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. He put Alice's "Bunty" to one side, along with Christopher's "Eagle," and then noticed the manilla envelope.
"Personal And Confidential" read the label.
"For The Attention Of Clive Bailey, Esq."
Constance opened George's abandoned kitbag containing the usual soldier's fare: tin of tobacco, packet of rolling papers and postcards from foreign shores. And then, she found the medallian.
DERAILED (Episode 57)
A gift to her brother decades before, the obverse bore Saint George's image astride a rearing steed; the reverse, zodiac sign of Taurus and George's birthdate, April 23rd, also the feast day of his namesake. She dangled the pendant between her fingers, remembering her big brother...staunch childhood champion and saviour. She whistled to the Rook perched on the Signal Box.
The bird swooped, accepted the trinket and carried it to his Nookery.
George drifted in and out of consciousness, heeding the distant rallying cry of his Sergeant Major:
BATTLE STATION (Episode 58)
"Sally forth, boys!"
Crawling through the confusing trenches of a disputed no man's land, brambles lacerating face and hands, George tasted blood and blackberries. There was an inexplicable yet comforting scent of lavender in the air.
His eyes fluttered, splintering open to see an imposing figure looming over the gurney. He recognized neither face nor uniform, although the voice seemed familiar.
The Station Master leaned closer, whispering in the soldier's ear:
"Sally forth, boys!"
Sun bonnet framing his pansy face, pink satin bow at the chin, Marmalade endured his role as Alice's baby. A lace-mittened paw swiped the silver rattle suspended from the perambulator's canopy. Alice giggled with delight.
MORE THAN ONE HAT (Episode 59)
An indignation for a feline of Marmalade's status, the cat tolerated much given the promise of fish head treats Alice always procured later from the Dining Car, provided he cooperate.
The Custodian left "Lost and Found," writing case beneath his arm containing Clive Bailey's letter and correspondence addressed to the Station Master. He served as Cripplegate's amanuensis when needed. This might be such an occasion.
Violet's library of Mills & Boon romantic novels was extensive. Within each dog-eared page, females were svelte, desirable, with glossy curls and refulgent (Violet needed the dictionary for that) eyes. The males, (each an alpha, of course, although Violet preferred "dreamboat") were tall, handsome, strong and...Violet blushed at the word...virile.
VIOLET'S VIGNETTE (Episode 60)
Violet knew such a man. The Station Master. Tall, handsome, strong and...Violet blushed at the thought...virile. She relished his visits to the Canteen and erupted into convulsive giggles, resulting in embarrassing hiccups, whenever he called her "Liebchen."
She couldn't find that in the dictionary but it sounded delightfully amorous.
Hamnet knew his job at Elsie's Dairy was a lost cause. He'd probably already been sacked. All he wanted now was to go home. His delivery trolley had been confiscated, he'd seen people hauled away to...who knew where? And been terrorized by a wild-eyed waitress brandishing a bread knife.
ON THE WRONG TRACK (Episode 61)
Thrice he'd exited the station following railroad tracks, only to arrive back where he'd started. Each time had been quite a hike. It was an endless loop and he was totally knackered.
Yet another mystery was, even though he'd waded through channels of petichor-scented rainwater, Cripplegate Junction itself remained perfectly dry.
"Cucumber sandwiches and pot of lapsang souchong," said the Grande Dame. "Don't fob me off with an inferior blend!"
TEA AND TIFFIN (Episode 62)
The waitress, former Lyons nippy and unsure of that specific tea's availability, anxiously prevented confrontation. "Yes, Madam."
Observing a distant rainbow, the Grande Dame adjusted her pince-nez. What was that mnemonic aid she'd learned as a child? Oh yes!
"Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain."
Remembering "indigo" still caused her trouble. Odd name for a colour.
Despite the obviously recent shower, the platform outside the Dining Car window was bone dry.
The Grande Dame sighed. That came as no surprise.
Marmalade often visited the Dining Car, playing cat and mouse with the Head Cook, an irascible curmudgeon who loathed moggies and supervised everything from preparation of French Toast for breakfast to Black Forest Gateaux for special occasions.
THE COOK, THE CAT AND THE DINING CAR (Episode 63)
The Dining Car presented a challenging voyage to Marmalade, demanding a skillful cunning necessary for navigation of the carriage while avoiding detection. The feline had perfected such talent. It was a personal triumph.
Marmalade's afternoons invariably ended atop a tall utensil cupboard. Hidden from sight, curling nose to base of tail, he catnapped in a chafing dish engraved: "Property of the Orient Express."
The Conductor was revisiting the vintage group photograph found in the Signal Box when the Station Master materialized at his side. Efforts to hide the picture came to naught.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND MEMORIES (Episode 64)
"I was assured all such ancient memorabilia had been destroyed," said the Station Master. "How very disappointing not to have been told the truth."
Relinquishing the treasure, the Conductor did not respond.
"How many faces do you recall, dear boy?" taunted the Station Master. "Most if not all, I fancy!"
He tapped the image peering from an upper storey window.
"And that one in particular, I'm sure, jogs your memory."
The Station Master's inquiry was clearly articulated.
ALL CHANGE (Episode 65)
"Who would be sending communications to you here, old boy?"
Clive Bailey focused on the official-looking envelope and shook his head. The action intensified the pounding in his temples.
"Let's nip this pathetic evasion in the bud," said the Station Master. "I am aware of its contents."
Consulting a clipboard, he smiled indulgently at Marmalade encircling his legs.
"The Incident Report is complete. You will now be transported to the Sanitarium."
With a swish of his regal tail, Marmalade led the way.
Marmalade halted a few feet shy of the open door at the end of the passageway. Ears twitching, he listened to the faraway mewing of kittens before disappearing stealthily into the shadows.
CONNECTIONS (Episode 66)
To his amazement, Clive Bailey found he was no longer bound to the trolley. Indeed, the trolley itself had been conjured away. The Station Master was also missing.
Ahead, the rattle of teacups and females chit-chatting about chess moves. Behind, the rattle of teacups and children squabbling about climbing up ladders and slithering down snakes.
He hesitated, unsure which way to go.
Clive Bailey peered around the door leading to the garden. In the center of an immaculate lawn, two young ladies played chess. A lone individual wearing an army uniform, forehead swathed in pristine bandages, traipsed the perimeter of the terrace. Seemingly penned by an invisible barrier, he never swerved from his appointed patrol.
VISTAND VISIONS (Episode 67)
But, it was the figure at an upper storey window of the building that captured Clive's attention. There was something familiar about the features and the structure itself was an exact duplicate of the orphanage near the home where Clive had lived until the age of eighteen.
The carriage between the Dining Car and Caboose was unique in many ways. With its corrugated tin roof, it resembled a Nissen hut and appeared to serve no useful purpose.
AND WHO DO YOU THINK WERE THERE? (Episode 68)
The door lacked a handle, keyhole, lock and could not be opened from outside. It was also windowless. However, the exterior sported colourful decorations taken from a specific nursery rhyme.
There were three men in tub, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick-maker and depictions of their wares.
Alice could not pass the carriage without reciting "Rub-A-Dub-Dub" at least seventeen times in monotone before resuming her skip along the platform.
From the day the little Zebra Finch (presumably an escaped pet) fluttered outside the Canteen's window, Violet provided a daily serving of Trill. Farthing was always excited by the visits. Violet would have allowed him some unfettered frolicking -- after all, a cage is a cage regardless of elaboration -- if Marmalade indicated he would mend his predatory ways. Failing that, she feared for the Canary's safety.
BIRDS OF A FEATHER (Episode 69)
The Finch, however, had been taken under the Rook's wing. Courtesy of an unspoken agreement between the black bird and the cat, it seemed the Finch was at no risk.
For now anyway.
Second only to Dobbin, his recently missing hobby-horse, the red engine was Christopher's prized possession. The metal wheels had left many a cicatrice in the station carpets resulting in several scoldings; nevertheless, the locomotive inspired the small boy to become a train engineer.
DRIVING MISS POPPY (Episode 70)
Munching on Pontefract Cakes courtesy of Poppy at the Turnstile Kiosk, Christopher relayed his dream of driving the Cripplegate Express to parts beyond the Junction one day and the adventuresome Poppy vowed to be his first passenger.
They seldom spoke of this in the Station Master's presence. His disapproving frown on such occasions was rather unquieting.
"Tough as your army boots, old chap," the Station Master had assured.
STATIONED (Episode 71)
George was skeptical.
The inception of his commission to patrol the Sanitarium's perimeter seemed weeks past. He hadn't been relieved of his post since then. The aroma of steak and kidney pies baking in the galley sharpened George's hunger.
With each march by the gated entrance into the garden from the platform, the solider believed he observed a figure lurking just beyond the threshold and from a second storey window, the image of a pale individual slowly waved a black feather.
George wondered if he might be hallucinating.
The children always looked forward to Miss Constance reading Lewis Carroll's classic, especially the fair-haired Alice, who considered her namesake to be a grand heroine.
THEREBY HANGS A TAIL (Episode 72)
Marmalade was also exceedingly fond of the tale, jockeying for prime position on the little girl's lap and eagerly awaiting any chapter featuring the Cheshire Cat.
He greatly admired the fictional feline's ability to disappear leaving only a lingering ear-to-ear grin and worked diligently to imitate the amazing feat.
Thus far, Marmalade had only been able to erase the tip of his tail but he was not a cat to be so easily thwarted.
A member of the upper class, the Grande Dame was loathe to associate with riff-raff. Sometimes, however, there was little choice. From her carriage window, she summoned a timid youth cowering in a side alley. His apron read "Elsie's Dairy."
CONFRONTATIONS (Episode 73)
"I have lost a valuable chess piece," she told him. "Find it and you will be rewarded."
Over a checkered board in the Sanitarium's garden, two young ladies continued their squabble.
"Lame move," remarked one, dabbing a lace napkin at the buttered teacake crumbs lingering on her mouth.
"I think not," her sister returned as she captured the Red Queen.
"Inappropriate to lurk much longer in the shadows." The Station Master advised Clive Bailey. "Our Georgie-Boy will use you for target practice if you don't make a move soon. Diligent soldier. Lives only to guard his post!"
DESTINATION (Episode 74)
He consulted his pocket watch. "Stopped!" He gave a genial smile. "Let you into a little secret," he whispered. "It never did run!"
Ahead, in the garden, chess pieces from an overturned board tumbled to the ground.
Behind, in the canteen, sultana tea cakes baked in the oven.
Becoming impatient, the Station Master sighed. "Time and tide, old chap. Time and tide..."
Seeking an alternative escape route as yet untried, Hamnet made his way to the turnstile. A notice, confusing in its message read:
TRAINS, PLANES AND SHANK'S PONY (Episode 75)
"Orderly queue to the right or to the left."
But there was no queue.
Hamnet squinted at the arches beyond the exit. The twin passageways were cavernous, foreboding, yawning like the mouths of languid ogres. The turnstile, initially stubborn, grudgingly relented a smidgen at Hamnet's insistence.
From his Sentry Box, the Conductor launched a paper aeroplane fashioned in part from a vintage sepia photograph. It landed at the youth's feet.
What Hamnet did next would prove crucial.
From the Cuttings formed through excavation, Cripplegate Junction's King of the Beasts (a/k/a Marmalade) patrolled his domain. It was a daily exercise during which, time failed to function.
A MATCH MADE IN CRIPPLEGATE (Episode 76)
No smoke from the train's chimney. No chugging of the engine. All personages as posed mannequins for duration of the surveillance, with one notable exception. The Station Master.
Careful to do nothing that might exacerbate an often temperamental mood, Marmalade followed the Station Master along the platform, offering satisfactory purrs when everything was as it should be and hissing when things were obviously out of sorts.
It was a mutually agreeable partnership.
Clive Bailey didn't know how much time had passed since the Station Master's ultimatum. Minutes? Hours? Days? Should he go back to the Canteen or forward into the Garden?
TUNNEL VISION (Episode 77)
Agonizing over the decision, he realized the walls of the alleyway were glimmering like the rich lodes of a diamond mine. But it was merely visual distortion heralding an impending migraine.
Soon, peripheral perception would be obliterated, vision would be telescopic and excruciating pain would begin.
"I believe this is yours, old boy," said the Station Master offering, just out of reach, the enameled pillbox containing Clive's previously confiscated medication.
Before Hamnet could retrieve the sepia photograph aeroplane, the Rook, never chary regarding potential treasurable opportunities, carried it aloft. Snagging a convenient wind current, the bird floated beyond the Arches toward the Sanitarium Garden. A pale face, anxious and fretful, watched the aerial junket from a second storey window.
TAKING ADVANTAGE (Episode 78)
Arriving at his nookery, the Rook deposited the prize amid other recently acquired valuables, including a miniature brass bell from the reins of a hobby horse and metallic gray torch flame lighter engraved with a military emblem.
Nearby, eyes glinting speckled gold, Marmalade assessed the growing cache and purred his approval.
"Don't want to put that noble proboscis out of joint, dear chap," said the Station Master, the very essence of compassion. "But since you remain wishy-washy reaching a decision about your destination, one has been made for you."
HE WHO HESITATES... (Episode 79)
Placing a hand on Clive Bailey's shoulder, the Station Master steered him toward the Canteen. Clive didn't know whether to be devastated or thankful that the choice was now out of his hands.
"Violet will make a nice cup of tea," the Station Master reassured. "But best not to dilly-dally over drinking it."
On occasion, the Station Master was fond of reduplication.
Even if Clive Bailey wanted to change his mind, the Station Master was adamant they continue to the Canteen.
MIBSTERS (Episode 80)
Violet, adding another pinch of nutmeg to currant marinade for the Station Master's favourite Eccles Cakes, didn't hear them enter until the request came for tea.
On the floor, Christopher sorted marbles.
"I had a collection like that when young," said Clive. "I played Ringer with my school chums all the time." He sounded like a small boy. "One afternoon, I won a rare Agate Flame with my Tiger Eye Shooter."
Christopher dribbled marbles into a net pouch.
"I remember that!"
Watchword of Marmalade's day: Mischief.
MUCH ADO ABOUT MARMALADE (Episode 81)
He unraveled the crochet bonnet of Alice's doll, pilfered chicken livers from the Dining Car and shredded a tassel on Miss Constance's lavender parasol. Since none of the victims were appeased by Marmalade's charming (albeit disingenuous) contrition, he removed himself to the Canteen.
Christopher sorted marbles while Clive Bailey and the Station Master sipped tea. Violet spooned currant and nutmeg mixture into puff pastry cases, unaware the door to Farthing's cage stood open.
Marmalade hacked. Twice.
"Lodged hairball?" asked Violet, before noticing her little canary was missing.
"Oh dear," said the Station Master. "Possibly feathers!"
At a desk in the corner of the Waiting Room, Alice practiced penmanship beneath the watchful eye of Miss Constance, who was far from sanguine at the little girl's potential proficiency.
FAUX PAS (Episode 82)
Sloshing her pen into the inkwell, Alice turned to an unblemished page in her composition book and immediately dripped purplish blots. She grimaced and, pressing too hard, promptly splayed the nib and tore the paper.
Luckily, Miss Constance failed to notice the blunder. Through the window, she was watching an indiscreet Marmalade saunter along the platform with a lone yellow tail feather tucked jauntily behind one ear.
"Want to play?" asked Christopher.
THE CRIPPLEGATE CONNECTION (Episode 83)
"Indulge the boy," urged the Station Master. "Don't be a spoilsport!"
"I have no marbles."
The Station Master rattled a moss green jute pouch.
"These are yours. The little sack has your initials."
Clive Bailey recoiled from the influx of memories.
"The little sack has your initials," said Clive's father. "Mother embroidered them even though she has not been herself of late. You can thank her when she is better."
"Ready, Mr. Bailey?" asked the doctor. "The Sanitarium orderlies will meet us at Cripplegate Junction."
Clive took the pouch.
"So," persisted Christopher. "Want to play?"
Alice had a talent for making doll clothes. Dressmaking was a skill she learned from a patient at the Sanitarium whose embroidery work was considered quite exquisite.
A STITCH IN TIME (Episode 84)
"I'm a good sewer, aren't I Miss Constance?" asked the little girl.
The innocently proud question breached, for a moment, the rampart of Constance's customary austere demeanour and her cupid bow lips pursed in a barely disguised smile.
"You are becoming a fine seamstress."
Constance watched Alice ply the needle with nimble fingers. She found the action both fascinating and disturbing. Not unreasonable emotions given the governess' history.
Anticipating Hamnet's return with her lost item, the Grande Dame alighted from the carriage. Miss Constance, at the Waiting Room window, noted the brooch pinned to the ample bosom.
THE TEST OF TIME (Episode 85)
"That monstrosity," she thought, "could dwarf the Cullinan diamond!"
Her nose wrinkled. Ostentatious! Vulgar! Perfect description of the disagreeable matron herself actually.
Constance consulted the Marcasite fob watch gifted by brother George on the eve of her eighteenth birthday. Attached to the bodice of her lavender dress, it communicated nothing related to passing hours. But then, she did not expect it would.
Like the Station Master's timepiece, it had never worked.
The Station Master was in the mood for a chat.
EYE OF A NEEDLE (Episode 86)
"What led you to a pecuniary profession, dear chap? COGS, CAPs and PVs are symbolic of a dull existence after all."
Clive Bailey was stunned.
"Surprised?" asked the Station Master. "At my command of the jargon or my awareness of your chartered accountancy? Of course, money provides finer things in life, but it IS the root of all evil."
"The child would show you her embroidery project," said Miss Constance entering the Canteen with Alice.
"Such extraordinary talent," said the Station Master. "Much like the one who taught her."
He regarded Clive with a smile.
"Wouldn't you say, old boy?"
Marmalade watched the Rook approach the nookery. Worms dangled from the bird's beak, glistening like wet spaghetti. The cat's pink tongue protruded in disgust. He refused to witness the ritualistic feeding. It was time for his daily policing of Cripplegate anyway.
WHISTLE-STOP (Episode 87)
His whiskers twitched as, in the distance, a train whistle could be heard. Marmalade was disconcerted. No arrivals were expected. The shrill first grew stronger, then weakened and finally ceased to exist altogether.
Emulating the prowl of a Serengeti tiger, Marmalade began his patrol.
Another crisis averted.
Mewling miserably, Marmalade slunk through the door into the Crossing Canteen. Alice knew immediately what was wrong but aware of Miss Constance's aversion to the use of "belly" and thus, "bellyache," the concerned little girl remarked, "I think he's eaten something that upset his tummy."
PRESUMPTION OF GUILT (Episode 88)
The waitress dished out no kudos for that assumption. Looking forlornly at the vacant cage where her dear little mute Farthing used to hop merrily from perch to perch, Violet hoped the despicable moggie's ailment got much worse before getting any better.
Outside the window, a small lemon-breasted canary burst into song.
Nobody noticed delivery of the potted plant. Quite simply, it was suddenly there.
PLANTS, PEARLS AND PRESUMPTIONS (Episode 89)
Even absent a card, the waitress knew it was for her. The Viola Sororia, known as "Freckled Violet," could be intended for no other. The name alone indicated as much. On the brink of euphoria, Violet was convinced the gift came from the Station Master.
Miss Constance was skeptical. Beneath the heart-shaped foliage and supple stalks, she spied lustrous seed pearls, identical to those composing a necklace once in her brother's possession.
From a nearby table, the Station Master, expression enigmatic, neither confirmed nor denied Violet's assumption.
Vaulting the turnstile, Hamnet sprinted toward one of the Arches. The Conductor made no attempt to stop the youth's desperate escape. Meddlesome behavior was never prudent.
OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS (Episode 90)
On the Sanitarium lawn, two sisters argued the merits of sorbet and sherbet.
"More refreshing," insisted the younger, dressed in white chiffon.
"Less creamy," replied the other in red georgette.
Amused, the pair watched Hamnet stumble through the privet hedge and trample the hibiscus border.
"That was reckless!"
"Matron will have his guts for garters!"
From a second storey window, a pale face, eyes feverish, melted into its own reflection.
Poppy, proprietress of the Turnstile Kiosk and avid devotee of American detective novels, was about to kill time until closing by rereading Dashiell Hammett's "Maltese Falcon," when fremescence indicative of a fired boiler echoed along the platform.
TEMPUS ESSE (Episode 91)
This was a most unexpected occurrence since there had been no mention of the train's departure. However, the locomotive gave only a single violent lurch before screeching to a halt a few feet from its original location.
Acting on instinct, the Conductor blew his whistle and called, "All aboard."
It was an announcement he immediately regretted.
Sternly reprimanded by the Station Master for being a spendthrift, Violet wept for hours. After drying her eyes, she modified her baking rubric. Determined to regain approval, she fretted over how to be more frugal and began with the Bakewell Tart, a staff favourite at the Sanitarium.
RECIPE FOR DISASTER (Episode 92)
Violet replaced the almond-flavoured fondant and glacé cherry with a sprinkling of confectioners' sugar...and a sparse sprinkling at that. She never knew who came every tea time to collect the tray. They always seemed to arrive when she was busy elsewhere.
However, she did know one thing.
Matron would not be pleased.
In a secluded room on the Sanitarium's second floor, walls hung with classic illustrations from "Wind In The Willows," a woman worked embroidery silks to create a river bank scene.
YARNS (Episode 93)
Meticulously choosing her colours and careful not to pucker the canvas with overly-tight stitches, she recalled a time (an undetermined time) when a small child (her child?) sat on her lap as she narrated adventures involving the preposterous Mr. Toad and his woodland cronies.
She didn't necessarily always remember the name, but thought it might well begin with a "C."
The needle momentarily faltered.
To bruise Marmalade's ego was an impossibility, but his pride could be somewhat injured by the use of derogatory terms like "moggie." Violet engaged in such slander at every opportunity and the cat retaliated by leaving souvenir puddles on the clean Canteen floor.
THE CAT'S MEOW (Episode 94)
He never lingered for the shrill inquisition and public dressing-down sure to follow. The unsubstantiated accusations of a mere waitress were beneath him. After all, his lineage was above reproach and included such prominent characters as Skimbleshanks, Trim, Pyewacket and the revered Pangur Bán.
Marmalade very much doubted Violet could boast a similar pedigree.
Though an avid reader of American detective novels, Poppy's favorite author was Kipling, first discovered courtesy of a bundled anthology entitled: "Plain Tales from the Hills." She particularly relished his stories set in India, distant land of vindaloos, rajahs and the regal Bengal Tiger.
THE CAT AND THE CONFECTIONER (Episode 95)
Unlike Violet, her sister, Poppy enjoyed a close relationship with Marmalade and called him "little Shere Khan." They were often seen, heads together, at Poppy's Turnstile Kiosk, where she munched on pear drops and the cat savored a tin of graciously provided Kit-E-Kat.
Truth be told, the pair gave every impression of a shared telepathic bond.
Alice loved the embroidered satchel made for her by the kind lady on the upper storey of the Sanitarium. The bag held an abundance of things:
IN THE BAG (Episode 96)
Gauze sachets of catnip, the feline aphrodisiac. All Alice knew was it sent Marmalade into blissful frenzy, rolling head-over-tail;
Wrigley's spearmint gum. Miss Constance did not approve: "Ladies do not smack lips like cows chewing cud, Alice";
Game counters, four queens from a deck of cards and an assortment of other objects.
Despite frequently added items, there was always room aplenty.
Alice never questioned from whence these new things came...or how they got there.
George watched Hamnet stumble through the Sanitarium's privet hedge. He considered assisting, but Matron was already on her way.
PERCHANCE TO DREAM (Episode 97)
Strains of "Brahms' Lullaby" escaped from an open window. His sister had attempted to teach him that piece when they were younger. He was hopeless. Couldn't even master "Chopsticks."
"Sad sack!" Constance had teased.
Such, thought George, applied to his entire life, but at least that had been a happier time.
Limbs flaccid and eyelids heavy, he sank to the ground. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept. His lips moved in silent refrain.
"Lay thee down now and rest..."
Contemptuous of humankind in principle, Marmalade occasionally made exceptions. One was Miss Constance. Her parasol sheltered him from showers (he loathed getting wet) and she ensured the shoelaces he played with were minus dangerous metal aglets.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN (Episode 98)
When he found her, countenance melancholy, in the Canteen, the feline sensed Constance mourned the disappearance of her brother George. He empathized. Some time ago, his own littermates had also vanished without a trace.
Violet hummed to a trivial ditty on the radio as she went about her duties. Marmalade's green eyes narrowed with animosity.
The waitress was certainly NOT one of his exceptions.
Since the train had lurched along the platform (albeit a flash in the pan), Poppy's faith in an exodus had risen significantly. She gathered a collection of unread pulps (she preferred "penny dreadfuls") for the journey and made sure her travelling suit of midnight blue (matching her eyes) was pressed and perfumed.
PORTENDS AND PREPARATIONS (Episode 99)
Of course, Marmalade would accompany her. There was a plentiful supply of Kit-E-Kat beneath the Kiosk counter in readiness.
Huffs and puffs of steam from the locomotive's chimney had increased of late, but most ignored the fact.
"Soon," she whispered in Marmalade's ear.
His whiskers twitched with anticipation.
With her customary air of elevated self-importance, the Grande Dame stirred two measured teaspoons of sugar into her cup of lapsang souchong. Raising the fragrant beverage to her lips with extended pinky, she considered her situation with all the concentrated analysis of a forensic scientist.
WAITS AND MEASURES (Episode 100)
Seemingly, the wretched delivery boy dispatched in search of her valuable lost item would not be returning in time, leaving her with only one course of action.
Collecting her carpet bag from the seat, she exited onto the platform and disappeared within the dusty depths of the empty Waiting Room.
All thumbs, Violet dropped the churn and splattered the remainder of the milk.
SPILLED MILK (Episode 101)
Marmalade, lazily recumbent and catnapping, awoke grumpy at the clangor but then perked upon spying pools of deliciousness within reach of his pink tongue. His eyes glowed green and gold. The waitress would suffer harsh reprimand for this mishap.
Since the unreliable young whelp from Elsie's Dairy hadn't delivered supplies in a while, Violet could now make neither tea nor teacakes. She reached for a sign under the counter reading "CLOSED" on both sides. Its condition was like new.
She'd never had reason to use it before.
Clive Bailey's memory of life before Cripplegate was gradually being purged. Childhood recollections remained most vivid.
TRAINSPOTTING (Episode 102)
The front room -- velvet cushions, lace curtains -- watching "Andy Pandy." Playing cricket with his W.G. Grace replicated bat. (He was rather good at the game and made the school eleven one year.) The bank holiday rail trip with George and Constance, maternal cousins. He hadn't seen them in ages now. Not since Mother...but he wouldn't dwell on that!
His sixpenny "I-Spy On A Train Journey" accompanied him during that outing, when he'd finally recorded the engine number of the elusive Cripplegate Express.
Violet had dreamed of trying her hand at a Victoria Sponge one day. Lack of supplies, however, now made that seem unlikely.
POINT OF NO RETURN (Episode 103)
Since the Canteen had closed and she was alone, the waitress felt divorced from what might be taking place elsewhere at the Junction. Then again, she'd always been an outsider -- a lowly mongrel whose heart's desire was to be a member of the elite pack and constantly falling short.
Violet emptied the tea urn and turned it upside down to drain. She exited through the rear door marked "Pantry" (and sometimes "Asylum").
It locked behind her.
On the Sanitarium lawn, the two sisters abandoned their chess match. The Red Queen was missing. Again!
BORED SILLY (Episode 104)
They weren't keen on card games like Whist or Happy Families and lacked sufficient players anyway. Same applied to Ludo.
"I'm bored," said the younger in white chiffon.
"Let's plan a Lewis Carroll party," said the other in red georgette. "Find a Mad Hatter and March Hare. We already have our own Alice and Cheshire Cat...of sorts."
"Don't have a good feeling about that."
"Your irrational premonitions!"
"And where would we hide our Dormouse?"
A momentary silence. Then, in unison.
"Violet's tea urn!"
Marmalade wasn't surprised at the empty Dining Car. With the pugnacious chef and tiresome servers otherwise engaged, there was a wealth of delicious opportunities not to be missed. Any enterprising feline should always be prepared to take advantage.
À LA CARTE BLANCHE (Episode 105)
His whiskers twitched as he sniffed the air. So many enticing aromas.
The jar of pitted olives presented zero temptation. The taste was bitter and offended his discerning palette. Conversely, there was no cover on the smoked salmon parcels and the caviar dishes were undeniably inviting.
Marmalade savored his feast, confident the staff would not be returning anytime soon.
On Sunday afternoons, boarders at Cripplegate Sanitarium congregated in the Conservatory and listened to Caniadaeth y Cysegr, the BBC Home Service's broadcast of Welsh hymn-singing featuring the honey-drenched tenors of an all-male choir.
TRANSMISSIONS (Episode 106)
Vocal participation was encouraged, indeed compulsory, despite the likely language barrier and acute differences in musical range. It was unwise not to comply. Matron took worship and chapel very seriously.
The wireless continued a crackle into life and air the programme on a regular weekly basis even after the assemblies had been abruptly abandoned without reason and nobody, including Matron herself, was in attendance.
Alice hated Mondays. Mondays meant arithmetic, Alice's least favourite lesson.
GREATER THAN THE SUM (Episode 107)
She showed the dog-eared page to Miss Constance. "Are they right this time?"
The governess was sceptical. "How long has it been since you were awarded a gold star for your numbers, Alice?"
The little girl chewed the end of her pencil before replying. "I think maybe years?"
Constance removed the offending object from Alice's mouth ("Nasty habit!") and looked at the unmoving hands of the Station Clock.
"Probably so," she sighed. "Indeed Alice, I fear probably so."
The Conductor missed the mug of spearmint tea Violet occasionally delivered to his sentry box. The brew improved his memory, so often lacking. Still, he wasn't surprised to see the Canteen closed. It always had been simply a matter of time.
TIMETABLES (Episode 108)
He found it difficult now to recall intimate details of the waitress. Eye colour, for instance, and whether or not she wore jewelry. He thought perhaps earrings. Amethyst teardrops?
Chuffs from the chimney of the parked train had become very regular.
Maybe the ticket counter would open soon.
Maybe he would be allowed to purchase a travel voucher.
Marmalade often visited the Nookery now the nest had appeared. He enjoyed prowling around the cowering chicks. However, he wasn't so delighted by their feeding habits.
NOOKERY NURSERY (Episode 109)
Eagerness with which wriggling worms and squirming maggots were accepted into demanding beaks remained a mystery, as did the Rook's devotion to duty. The cat regarded the entire process unrefined.
Regardless, he tolerated the fledglings. Plumage sleek, black and glossy like the Rook (for the most part) but featuring yellow breast feathers, a likely indication of their other parentage.
In retrospect, Marmalade relished the memory of Violet's pet Canary.
Such a dainty little bird.
Clive Bailey now believed himself entangled in some travesty of a theatre production. Perhaps one of those Christmas pantomimes he enjoyed so much as a child.
BACKTRACK (Episode 110)
His father, expression serious but with twinkling eye, would sometimes declare, "Purse strings might not stretch to tickets this year."
And Clive pouted and his mother whispered, "Papa is only teasing."
His current situation embodied the necessary elements in many ways. First and foremost, a wickedly threatening villain. Still, he took comfort in remembering that, by the end of the performance, the guiltless lived happily ever after.
Marmalade watched the fledglings' ineffectual attempts to fly. They fluttered along the ground, clumsy and awkward, barging into each other with irascible chirps. Atop a nearby power line, the Rook observed the proceedings, feathers ruffled and claws fidgeting at the cat's proximity to the defenseless chicks.
DEPARTURE (Episode 111)
With feigned indifference and an elegant swagger, Marmalade exited the Nookery. He later returned to find the nest empty. The brood and their protector had apparently taken wing in search of less perilous quarters.
Tiny wisps of black and yellow down tickled his nose. His whiskers twitched with irritation. He hated lost opportunities.
The abandoned Booking Office was the perfect location for Alice's library. Nobody ever looked for her there. Shelves formerly housing timetables and tickets now held Alice's story collection.
THE BOOKING OFFICE (Episode 112)
She adored fairytales. The princess who kissed a frog and the little duckling who became a swan. Her favourite was the red-caped girl whose grandmother was eaten by a wolf and then materialized unscathed from the beast's entrails after it was slain by a woodcutter.
Alice often wondered what might emerge from the innards of her stuffed animals if disemboweled, but she was fearful and loved them too much to find out.
Christopher's undesirable qualities included perpetual chiming in adult conversations and a tendency to go missing. The latter had occurred again. He had not been seen in awhile.
VANISHINGS (Episode 113)
It was rumoured the Sanitarium sisters were planning a Wonderland theme party and needed a Dormouse to inhabit Violet's empty tea urn. Could this be why Christopher had disappeared? When questioned, however, the sisters' expressions were bland and their eyes vacant.
Marmalade, busy perfecting his own role in the proceedings (fading bit-by-bit à la The Cheshire Cat), likely knew much. But, ever inscrutable, gave away nothing and concentrated on fine-tuning his enigmatic grin.
Marmalade enjoyed solitary expeditions into the wasteground just beyond the Junction -- an unambiguous location where a pint-sized tiger could stalk the vast Savannah. Dangerous territory to be sure, but Marmalade was one fearless fellow.
PARALLEL TRACKING (Episode 114)
He snuffled the Wild Mentha, releasing the mystical scent of peppermint candy canes. He battled with a deadly paw against the Many-Hued Odonata, legendary winged dragons and damels, who observed his movements with hovering interest.
Sometimes, distant caterwaulking of long-lost littermates urged Marmalade to join their ambush. However, Poppy's summons to high tea with anchovy fish paste effectively postponed (for the time being) further investigation.
Forced to abnegate the notion that Cripplegate were no more than a bad dream, Clive Bailey assessed his curious situation. Lately, certain personages had disappeared, but not the Station Master -- permanent fixture and core member of the cast of characters. Clive now looked forward to being in the dear fellow's company.
LAST TRAIN TO STOCKHOLM (Episode 115)
With the Canteen closed, the Station Master escorted Clive to The Railway Arms, a public house near the end of the platform that Clive had not noticed before.
There, he was offered Smiths Crisps and a variety of tipples: gin, whisky, rum.
"So, what's your poison, old boy?"
Clive Bailey sipped a martini, complete with three olives, toothpick-impaled, straddling the rim of the glass. He thought he didn't like cocktails, but the Station Master begged to differ...and was correct.
UNDERNEATH THE ARCHES (Episode 116)
Clive glanced at the railway arches, twin stone guardians of a world beyond Cripplegate that Clive no longer really remembered. The sign below the brass keyring was still unreadable, but the etched words: "Salvation Right" and "Damnation Left" remained disturbingly visible.
"Underneath the arches, where you can dream your dreams away," said the Station Master.
Clive hummed the old Flanagan and Allen tune.
"Let's choose your exit, dear fellow."
The two sisters continued to plan a Wonderland theme party but things weren't going well. Their "Dormouse" kept springing out of the tea urn like a jack-in-the-box, the "Cheshire Cat" was uncooperative and "Alice" failed to correctly follow directions.
TRAINWRECKS (Episode 117)
Additionally, the sister in white chiffon had developed a nasty purple-spotted skin condition.
"The Station Master said it's petechial," she confided.
"Meaning?" asked the one in red georgette.
"I don't know. Regardless, I wasn't about to argue!"
"Hope it's not contagious. Let Matron take a look."
"You know she hasn't been seen since that soldier was removed from the garden!"
Clive Bailey searched the twin arches for a potential scoreboard of safety between the two. There was none and he doubted his ability to make the correct selection.
TUNNEL VISION (Episode 118)
He no longer felt vulnerable in the presence of the Station Master and wondered how he could have been threatened by such a benevolent personage or believed the man, kindly expression reflecting almost paternal concern for his wellbeing, to be a wicked character.
"Choose for me?" he asked in the voice of a small boy, not unlike that of young Christopher.
It was not an unexpected request.
"My pleasure, dear chap."
Steam chuffed from the engine's chimney and spiralled upwards. The train was motionless but Poppy expected no more than a brief delay. Her packed suitcase stood ready on the platform. It contained her prized possessions: dove grey cashmere twinset, matching box-pleated skirt, fully fashioned backseamed silk stockings and seed pearl choker, among other items. There was also a stockpile of Kit-E-Kat for Marmalade.
WHERE THERE'S SMOKE... (Episode 119)
An invitation to join Poppy would be issued to nobody else -- Violet in particular. Poppy had not seen her sister for some time now anyway. The fact hardly left her grief-stricken. No love lost there!
When Alice's favourite doll, Belinda Blue-Eyes, was found partially eviscerated, she immediately blamed Christopher, even though the boy had not been seen in a while. Apparently, nobody had been keeping tabs on him and his whereabouts remained a mystery.
THREE'S A CROWD (Episode 120)
Although not particularly loyal or devoted, Marmalade was fond of Alice. He offered consolation by curling in her lap and allowing her to scratch behind his ears. Upon her departure -- hopefully in search of a rewarding tasty treat -- Marmalade completed his destruction.
Belinda Blue-Eyes had a nasty habit of misdirecting Alice's affection toward herself.
It really couldn't be tolerated.
The Gardener's Lodge, not far from the Sanitarium building, was a capricious structure, approximately one-third the size of a Nissen hut. During its existence, it had undergone many transformations. There had once been a siding that ran from the Junction to a small platform outside the front door. Scintillas of the rails could be seen in certain areas.
SIDETRACKED (Episode 121)
One of its incarnations had been a Wendy House. Evidence of the children who played there remained. Among the items were a "Snakes and Ladders" board, hobby-horse, bag of marbles and collection of Christmas stockings, including three embroidered with the initial "C".
Lately, Miss Constance spent much time thinking about her brother George. He'd repeatedly been subject to obscure imprecation -- that unfortunate hot sealing wax incident at age five and rash of foolish decisions resulting in armed forces conscription at eighteen. The list of indiscretions was virtually endless. Now, he'd vanished altogether. Regardless, he'd always been her childhood companion and protector.
SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (Episode 122)
Constance remembered jaunts to the corner shop, where she would get a sherbet fountain and George, a quarter of those little yellow and pink sweets known as ...
The rustle of a paper bag interrupted her reverie.
"Pear drop, Sis?"