Set in a railway town in the west of England during the winter of 1943 and spring of 1944, this story focuses on the experiences of three Indian men brought to the UK to help prepare in the run up to D-Day invasion of Europe and the people they come into contact with. With little in common with the people of Swindon, or each other, their mutual dislike is just one of the challenges they will need to overcome.
In Swindon’s vast Great Western Railway Works the war-time workers comprise a few men too valuable, old or infirm for active service and thousands of recently recruited women. Critical skills are in short supply. The British government looks to the Empire to provide vital expertise and our three protagonists, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, answer that call.
No one has ever managed to get so many trains through so many junctions with such short time intervals as Vincent Rozario does every day in Bombay. Given the anticipated rate of traffic the invasion of Europe will require, his skills are sorely needed. Anglo-Indian, touchy and something of a loner, he is greeted with suspicion, prejudice and rejection. And his problems don’t stop there. Especially as the British authorities begin to fear he knows far more than is good for him, or them.
Dr Aakash Ray from Calcutta is a first-rate Mathematician convinced that Communism represents the only way forward for India and the World. His skills are sought as a coder/decoder to secure signals about railway movements-especially as all UK based cypher experts have mysteriously disappeared. His political views lead him first into Trade Union politics, then Marxist groups and bring him to the attention of the local police Special Branch, who blackmail him into becoming an informer. When Aakash urges industrial action to win equal pay for female workers he comes into direct conflict with his fellow Indians as well as the authorities. He also narrowly escapes a lynching at the hands of a gang of white American soldiers. But when he works out that the authorities know the rail works is about to be bombed and he persuades the union to call out the workers, saving many lives, he finds himself arrested and effectively sentenced to death when his fellow revolutionaries are told he’s been informing on them. Having also got a colleague pregnant, he decides suicide is the only course left for him. It is then he discovers saviours come in the most unlikely form.
Imtiaz ‘Billy’ Khan is chief Engineer of the Gwalior State Railway, recruited for his detailed knowledge of turn of the century ‘Bulldog’ locomotives, scrapped a decade earlier in England and left rusting in sidings but which urgently need to be renovated and recommissioned to meet the need for more engines to transport a million troops for the upcoming invasion. Work in a factory full of women who haven’t seen a strapping young man for years? Billy can’t believe his good fortune and sets about the serious business of seduction as enthusiastically as his repair work, although he finds those who fall for him are not the helpless victims of his irresistible charms that he imagines.
Sally Atkinson, with debts she can find no other way to settle, is the only person willing to accept the three Indians as lodgers. She decides not to tell her abusive and violent husband, fighting in Italy, about her paying guests. His unexpected return has far reaching consequences for them all.
With a rich cast of local characters, strained relations with the US Army, and British Intelligence, sex, humour and a murder, this story explores themes including what does it take, and mean, to belong? Who or what is it acceptable to betray and when?
Race, class and colonialism.
And the relationship between Bubble and Squeak, Toad in the Hole and Slap and Tickle.