Coins on the Railway Line

It was the summer of 1980, the last week of the school holidays. Ashes to Ashes was top of the charts and West Ham had recently won the FA Cup. My dad was on my back to get out of the house. So I phoned some friends and we headed to the railway line with some coins in our pockets.

Flattened coins were all the rage at my school. They were objects of prestige and good ones could even be traded for marbles. We clambered up the embankment and placed them in a row on the rail. We hid in bushes and waited for the sounds of an engine. The first couple passed without incident and we collected our highly prestigious (if totally worthless) coins. Complacency set in, then a bit of cockiness. Instead of coins, we placed large bits of stone on the track and hid close by. The sounds of a train could be heard in the distance. We shivered in anticipation. The noise abated. We looked at each other and the boldest peered across at the track. The engine was six feet away and had stopped. The driver was on the track beside the engine and didn’t look friendly. “Peg it!” someone shouted. So we did. Six boys running in different directions. Two got away, I was one of those who did not.

The driver was very angry. He shouted and swore and the gist of it seemed to be rocks on track = derailed train. We mumbled some sorrys, hoping that would suffice. It didn’t. He took our names, our school, headmaster’s name and our ages. “You are in a lot of trouble,” were his parting words.

It was Friday. School restarted on Monday. The pessimists among us thought expulsion would be the only outcome. The optimists reckoned it was simply bluster. I thought of Brooking’s header at Wembley. Did he mean it?

That weekend was sickening. I tried to think through every possible outcome to deaden the impact, a defence against shock. Would I be banned from the football team? Oh, shit, no! Friday turned to Saturday and Sunday, but it was slow and sleep came long after I went to bed.

On Monday morning I had butterflies in my stomach. The walk to school was awful. I met the others at the gate. Someone had seen a police car near the school. The headmaster was in an angry mood. All rumours represented ominous signs. We sat in assembly. The headmaster had an announcement. We held our breath and looked at our shoes. And it was about swimming. We would be using the pool in Basildon this term.

It took me a week to fully accept we were in the clear. A week of being convinced we would be pulled out of class and identified by an angry bloke covered in grease. But it never happened. The fear died down and Bowie was knocked from the top by the Jam. I had enough unsquashed pennies left to buy a copy.