Hey Mack, open the gates will ya


It happens anytime around 54 minutes past the hour. You ask yourself as you turn the corner, will it be one of the good guys, or will it be that dreaded one in our quaint signal box today? If it is he, will he break his record? So far the longest known period he has kept people on foot or in vehicles waiting at both railway crossings in Rye is 16min 30sec. And, yes, the queue up The Grove and along Deadmans Lane did reach the main road; I’m told the queue on the western side backed up Udimore Road hill 100 yards beyond the Tilling Green turning – and whatever else one says about personal inconvenience, gridlock in Rye isn’t a joke for emergency vehicles.

A bell rings to warn the signal box to close the level crossings for an approaching train – but not it seems to open them again. The good guys watch the CCTV and look out of the window – and open the gates between the two passing trains. The “dreaded one” never seems to raise his head, let alone the gates, even if the second train is 10 minutes late. And when the hourly theatre is finished, he sometimes fails to lift the poles until long after the second train has departed, as though to punish our impatience.

When finally released, frustrated traffic leaps through the crossings into Rope Walk or the Station Approach racetrack, threatening any pedestrian caught halfway across the road.

So what is the problem with our signalman? Does he fall asleep? Or is he reading a very absorbing magazine or book?

I confess that once I nearly blew up Tunbridge Wells because I was reading a good novel. I was employed as Water Gas Man in the High Brooms gas works in 1962, and on the night in question I was deep into the Threepenny Novel with Macheath, vivid Polly Peachum and descriptions of the brothel in Tunbridge Alley, even Tonbridge itself in the heart of hop country.

As Water Gas Man I used to work 12 hours on a two-hour cycle to coincide with the stoking of the coal and coke in the retort house where, 12 times a day, like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, the red and white hot ash was dragged out with long irons into an explosion of water and steam as it fell and, over the cataclysm, the cries of the foreman coordinated his teams.

But that night the foreman failed to notice that, my head buried with Brecht, I hadn’t reported to him for four hours. My job was to operate a dozen beautiful steam-engine pumps buried in the basement of every building to clear the accumulating tar from the gas pipes. By the time I did finally make my check, the tar was blocking all but one of the supply lines to the gasometer, every gauge bouncing in the red and Royal Tun Wells trembling on the very brink of disaster.

Back in the queues of cars, vans and lorries, tension mounts. Will suppressed rage burst as drivers wait at the level-crossing gates? Will he open, won’t he open? Will the patient in the ambulance die en route? Will the house burn down while the fire engine waits to leave the depot?

Dear oh dear, what is the book he reads? Should we call him Mack the Knife?

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