Branch Line to Benceston by Sir Andrew Caldecott
Branch Line to Benceston was published in the collection Not Exactly Ghosts in 1947. He turned to writing after retirement from the Malaysian Civil Service, again like many of our ghost story writers, he had a career in the Colonial Civil Service of the British Empire. Sadly, he didn’t live long after retirement and died aged 65.
Sir Andrew Caldecott (1884–1951) was born in Kent. He was educated at Uppingham School and at Exeter College, Oxford, where he became an Honorary Fellow in 1948. His father was a clergyman. Spooky. how this happens so much.
He had a very distinguished career in the Colonial Service and was Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from 1937 until 1944 (so during the Second World War), and before that Governor of Hong Kong (1935–1937). He also worked in Malaya and Singapore and there is a station named after him in Singapore.
He had a lifelong interest in the supernatural and, as is evident from his two volumes of supernatural tales, he was an accomplished writer, but it wasn’t until after his retirement in 1944 that he published his first volume of ghost stories. Not Exactly Ghosts was published in 1947 by Edward Arnold & Co. It contains twelve tales. Interestingly, features of Caldecott’s own interests, such as playing the piano, crop up in his stories and I suppose that is true for most writers, hence my frequent mentions of Hawkwind.
In ‘Branch Line to Benceston’, Adrian Frent, a railway enthusiast and herbalist, is the first tenant of ‘Brentside’, the newly-built house next to the narrator’s own house in Brensham. Frent is a partner in a firm of music publishers, but he hates the other partner with a vengeance, feeling that the man has messed up his life stence since they were boys. He wishes his partner dead, and then when he does die, things turn weird. But the story is not exactly a ghost story. C aldecott does a couple of things wonderfully. Firstly; this story is a portrait of Metroland, the area outside London that was developed in the first half of the twentieth century with the benefit of faster rail connections to allow the middle classes, to have the benefits of living in a suburbia that appeared and was sold as being the English countryside, while still able to travel easily into London to their day jobs. Vast swathes of the Home Counties were gobbled up and railways proliferated. John Betjeman, the English poet laureate captured all of this in his film entitled: Metroland and much of his poetry is set in this half-and-half land bathed in the sunlight of the English dream.
The second thing I think Caldecott does well is the set up of the story. The death of the Dachshunds and the herbalism and poison seems to be a red-herring. Though giving his great enemy Paul Saxon one of the tinctures he makes reminds Frent of his wish to kill Paul, and thus his sin, he does not actually poison the man. This is a misdirection, I think: a red herring.
However, the real set-up is the trap-door. We have already been told how Frent tends to go off half-cocked, but after a brief mention of this trap-door, Caldecott leaves it. This is subtle and I didn’t get that until the end. Caldecott is a great wit and his comment about the coroner’s view that these houses are death-traps being ignored as normal with coroner’s comments reflects his own professional experience, I am sure, and is a bit of a joke because we are going to ignore this clue too, at least I did. Caldecott even flags this clue up saying he has recorded it for a reason that will become clear later. This to me is a great example of burying the obvious, and doing it well.
The picture of Frent’s fire escape being one you swarm down a rope on, hand over hand, like you did at prep school is hilarious and worthy of P G Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh. I began to suspect something about the clock when it was mentioned it was set five minutes fast.
Caldecott sets up all the railway stuff too with the model and the magazines, and mentions this branch line to Benceston which only exists in dreams; a line that was imagined but never happened, much like the murder of Paul Saxon by Adrian Frent, but dreams have an impact on reality and Caldecott refers to Jesus’s famous saying (roughly paraphrased) that if you imaging doing a sin, you are 11as guilty as if you had really done it.
Caldecott sets the motive for a murder up like it was a detective story, but of course the twist is that Frent never actually did it in reality, but in his dreamworld, he was guilty of the sin and executed for it. 1I also enjoyed the narrator Johnson’s snobbish and wry comments about Frent and his taste, his mismatched religious pictures and his interest in railways. Frent’s cousin Gilbert is also a portrait of the no-nonsense rugger bugger Caldecott clearly recognised.
I laughed at his comments about filthy jazz, and about the idea patients being ones who sleep, ask no questions and do what they are told, and about Jameson having to get Hasterton on the case. Hasterton is presumably the psychiatrist. I never met a psychiatrist who wasn’t crazy, and I’ve met plenty.
For a man who spent much of his time in the Orient, apart from the Hindu and Buddhist pictures on Frent’s wall, there is no trace of anything other than the quintessentially English, and English home-counties at that. Amateur carpentry and unseasoned wood, a fatal combination!
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