MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (Research for “Nick Of Time”)

Outside entance to National Archives, Kew England

“Mission impossible? Of course not!”

With great enthusiasm, we bounded off the aircraft. Well okay, a wee bit stiff, but isn’t that expected after a nine hour flight? Our feet, somewhat swollen, touched down on England’s terra firma; okay, concrete. Some- where under all those floors and train tunnels that comprised Heathrow Airport lay a solid bed of limestone.

Toting our brand new, 360 degree swivel-wheeled luggage, we eagerly exited the terminal and stepped out into the embracing English air. Ah, nothing like the smell of diesel as courtesy bus after courtesy bus whizzed by. Undaunted, we searched beyond the covered racetrack. Through weary eyes, we spied the rental car bus stop.

Stepping off the curb, or kerb as they say in Jolly Olde England, reality jumped up at us. Written in bold yellow letters, LOOK RIGHT.

Right?!  Right. When in Rome do as the Romans do. Come to think of it, England is probably where this cliché originated. Why in the olden times (when didn’t Great Britain have olden times?) Romans roamed and built ruins (why didn’t they build solid buildings?) all over the country.

Safely seated behind the driver, we headed out towards the car rental depot. “Hold it! Something is wrong.

Why is the driver sitting right in front of us? Yes, literally right in front of us, and we are definitely sitting on the right hand side of the bus. Whoa! Look at that guy; he’s driving on the wrong side of the street.”

An hour later, having spent a rather long time in the check-in line (oops, queue as they say in England) we found ourselves alone in the concrete jungle of rental cars. We scrutinized our Peugeot (Peugeot? Obviously a result of The European Common Market) for nicks and dents. Odd, the left front and back tire rims were severely dented while the right ones remained unblemished. Taking note of this phenomenon, we prepared to drive to the exit gate.

“Hold it! I’m not driving, you’re driving. —- So, why is the steering wheel on my side?”

One more perusal around the car (obviously for the benefit of any native who might be watching us) we got into the right side of the car or is it the left side?

“Just get into the damn car!”

Not five minutes on the road and we understood why the left tire rims were scarred. Scrape — Bang — ##!! “You’re driving too close to the curb, kerb!”

The next morning unrefreshed, we headed out on the first day of our long awaited vacation. The bad news: our three star, pre booked motel near the airport turned out to be a dubious, two star establishment conveniently located within yards of the main runway. The single glazed windows afforded a great view of the undersides of the approaching jets. Another novel idea, tire tracks imbedded in the ceiling.

The good news: we were on the M25, the ring road (or Orbital Road as they call it in England) around London. If we missed our exit, we could just keep driving and eventually come back to it. Besides, the freeway had no kerbs, and all the six lanes went in the same direction; no fool driver on the wrong side of the road.

At 10:30AM, we drove into our cousins’ driveway in the quaint Kent village of Edenbridge. Running across the dew laden lawn, finally, our feet touched the mother soil of our ancestors. We embraced our relatives.

“Pauline, do go and put the kettle on. They must be parched after their long journey. That’s a love. Nothing like a good cup of tea to revive the weary.”

Refreshed, we strolled into the ancient village where once Henry VIII courted Ann Boleyn and smugglers ran their booty. In the town square, a marker pointed out the rail station’s importance in the 1840’s link between London and Dover. My heart started to beat faster. A stop at the local museum, and my mind took a fantasy moment. We had come to England to do some research on my next novel. To my surprise, it started in this tiny village of Edenbridge.

Leaving our dear relatives waving goodbye, we drove off on our quest for knowledge. Not far down the road (my gosh, these roads are narrow. Why must there be a car parked every hundred feet? And, always on a bend? Whatever happened with a nice leisurely stretch of straight road?) we pulled over to regain our composure and buy some stamps. Might as well park like the natives do.

“Where are you from? —- I say. Off to the coast then. Do stop in at Winchelsea; lovely little place.”

Back on the windy road and map in hand, “What did the postmaster say the town was called? Windchester?

Can’t find it. Oh well, do you want to stop in Battle? It’s just this side of Hastings.”

Hours later, “We’d better find a place to stay; it’s getting late. Spent too much time walking the battleground of Hastings 1066. Too bad Hastings’ streets are so congested and narrow. Rye it will have to be.”

“Winchelsea! Turn here! Left —- No sorry, right!”

“If I hear one more horn blow ### Impatient drivers…. Damn tailgaters!” “What a lovely little hamlet. Look, a quaint old inn. We must stay here.”

“Good idea. After we check-in, let’s take a drive down to the seashore before supper. Perhaps you’ll find the perfect sandy cove for your book.”

We found the seashore; not a sandy cove in sight. Miles of straight, rocky shore greeted us. To our surprise, the rocks felt soft as our feet burrowed into the smooth crunchy stones. We later found out the shingle beach is comprised of flint encased in a chalky limestone, as one sees on The White Cliffs Of Dover. The constant movement of the ocean floor breaks its foundation apart. The ocean spits out these discarded bits of shingle onto the shore.

Next day, full steam ahead, we boarded the Kent & East Sussex Railway. I wanted to observe the pastoral landscape and take in the smells and sounds of an old steam engine.

Mission accomplished, next stop Ashford and the old train station. Hustle and bustle greeted us at the sleek modern station. Disappointed that time had not stayed still, we headed for the railway yard. To my great pleasure, the enormous, red brick building which saw many a locomotive built within its walls, still stood. Although now abandoned and derelict, the 1840’s structure took my breath away.

The camera went wild. ……. Snap …. Snap….. Snap ….. “No picture taking!”

We looked around to find a security guard frantically waving at us. “Oh, sorry.” We sheepishly smiled, waved and hightailed it out of there. Camera and pictures intact, we never looked back.

>>>

In York, we spent five hours at The National Railway Museum. I took numerous photos of gigantic, iron wheels, black smoke stacks, lanterns, crossing signs, passenger compartments, post office box cars to “The Stanley Steamer.” Eventually, we made our way upstairs to the research department.

“Oh, I’ve never been asked for a train schedule for 1848. South Eastern Railway, you say. Hmm!  —– I shall have to check in the archives.”

“They are out to lunch; won’t be back for an hour. The earliest I could get the information, if we have any, would be 2:30. Oh, you have to catch a train. — If you’re going down to London, try The National Archives.”

Oh how I wanted to see a schedule. Even though my book is fictional, I want it to be accurate as possible.

Perhaps this mission is impossible.

London, so much to see and so little time. A stroll along narrow Fetter Lane, busy Fleet Street merging into The Strand, brought back pleasant memories of my first book and ideas for the second one. A long walk across Waterloo Bridge led us to the old Waterloo Station and visions of yesteryear. Yes, my imagination was at work.

Our last full day in England, and here we stood in front of The National Archives at Kew. In the spacious, modern foyer, we were directed to a bank of lockers where we left our bags, coats and even pens. No, we were not strip-searched. Upstairs, we enquired at one desk and directed to another. All around, clerks and civilians manipulated computers; state-of the-art technology versus archival beginnings. Somehow, it just didn’t seem right. “Well, the man who is the train historian is off today, but I’ll see what I can do. — Hmm! — No, nothing here.

Perhaps this may help. Give these reference numbers to the desk over there.”

“May I see your registration card? — Oh, you don’t have one. Go into the office.”

“Stand here. Look into the camera. Go fill out the questionnaire at the computer station. When you’ve answered all 21 questions, return here and your card should be finished.”

“Your registration card please. Fine. The archives should have your articles in about 45 minutes. You are assigned desk 22A.”

Since I was the only one registered, I entered the document room alone. Equipped with paper and a pencil,

I waited in an alcove surrounded by plastic see-through cubby holes. A clerk, safely positioned on the other side of the bullet-proof plastic, dropped off a small article into 22A. I reached up on my tiptoes (why must I always get the top shelf) and with trembling hands picked up a small book dated 1853  and an envelope.

I carried them over to desk 22A and sat down. Gingerly lifting the flap of the 3 by 6 inch manila envelope, I found a small booklet. Time stood still as I eased it out of its cocoon. I trembled in amazement. My hands beheld a fragile 2 by 3 inch South Eastern Railway schedule, dated November 1849. Just think, someone sat at a railway station over 160 years ago, lifted this out of his suit pocket and planned his journey. Do I dare turn these pages?

Riding a high at 35,000 feet, I looked out at the specks of floating icebergs on a sea of blue. My heart glowed with the knowledge I had come for. —— Mission impossible? I think not.

And, thus in November 2017, “Nick Of Time” was published. Mission completed…

Yvonne Pont (writer)