Time and the tourist had, it seemed, passed by the village and as Arthur Johnson, the village policeman, sat on his front porch enjoying the early evening sunlight, the image he and his surroundings presented might have been captured at almost anytime during the past 75 years. Johnson was a tall man, his fiftieth year, with a mane of white hair which made him look older. He had been the village bobby for more years than anyone else remembered and to the point where he was practically a part of the landscape.
His house, one room of which acted as the constabulary office, was some way from the centre of the village and at the beginning of the footpath which led to the railway station. It had become his habit to keep an eye out for an old lady, whom we shall call Emily, as she made her way back from the station each day. He liked to know that she was safe before he set off on his beat.
Hmm! he thought, glancing at his watch. He called to his wife.
“Haven’t seen Emily yet. Not like her to be late and it’s not far off dusk. We should’ve seen her by now. “
Mrs Johnson was a stout, homely woman who had born her husband four sons, all of whom had grown up in the village but had left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. She turned from the sink, potato peeler in her hand.
“She might have fallen,” she replied. “She is none too steady on her legs anymore. Maybe you should go and look for her.”
“Good idea. I think I shall.” agreed Johnson, donning his helmet after having secured the bottoms of his trousers with cycle clips.
Full sunset was not far away by the time he reached the station and the low sun cast long shadows. The building was silhouetted against night clouds which were gathering over the sea. It was very quiet, except for the cries of seagulls, circling on air currents eddying up from the large sand dunes, a few fields away on the other side of the railway line. Johnson stepped onto the deserted platform and looked in both directions but there was no sign of Emily. Then he noticed something bright in the dust by the edge of the platform.
It was the old lady’s shawl. He picked it up and called out her name but there was no answer. Instinctively, he looked both ways before jumping down onto the track-bed to search in the undergrowth by the tall oak trees which, sentinel like and almost featureless, loomed against the rapidly darkening sky. The leaves and branches whispered to each other in the freshening breeze as he picked his way through stinging nettle, briar and other wild plants.
Johnson searched for nearly an hour by which time, the sun had set and darkness was hurrying to meet the dull red glow over the hills behind the village. He could no longer see well enough to continue and so, retrieving his bicycle, he made his way to the old lady’s cottage which, as with his own house, lay some way from the centre the village itself. Dusk had almost turned to night by the time he got there. No light shone from any of the windows and both back and front doors were securely locked. The cottage was empty.
Earlier that afternoon, Fred Stone, landlord of The Ear of Corn, the only pub in the village, was sweeping the terrace outside the front of the pub. The day was hot and muggy, as if a storm was in the offing. Fred, a big man who perspired at the slightest exertion, paused in his sweeping to wipe the sweat from his bald pate with an enormous handkerchief. He saw Emily coming down the high street towards him. He waved and the shambling figure waved back.
“Hallo, Emily,” he called out.
“Good afternoon, Frederick,” she called back.
“Off to the station?” queried the publican.
“Yes, of course and it wouldn’t do to be late.”
“Take care, old dear,” said Fred but she didn’t hear him. Her mind was already focussed elsewhere – upon the return of her son from the mud and blood of Flanders
No one knew Emily’s precise age but most thought her to be in her 90th year. Some of the village children thought, as only children can, that she was a witch. Elder bothers and sisters would warn their younger siblings that Old Emily would get them if they didn’t behave. She wasn’t a witch, of course. She was just a trifle dotty in a completely harmless way and, truth to tell, she loved all the children. Those who overcame their fear found her to be kindly, if a little vague at times.
They didn’t know what their parents knew. Her mind was no longer her own or that the hoped for return of her beloved son was the only thing keeping her alive. He had, in fact been killed in action in the carnage of the Somme, many years before. News of his death and that of her husband not long afterwards in a farming accident, had sent her over the thin line which divides reason from its darker counterpart. Slowly, she had retreated into her own little world as her grief at this double loss remained inconsolable. In the intervening years, that world had become more and more enclosed and inaccessible to outsiders. She accepted that her husband was dead because she had seen his body into the ground buy, of her son, there had been no mortal remains and she stayed convinced that, one day, he would come back to his mother.
That, in itself, would have been poignant enough but what made the old lady’s journey to the station each day at 4 O’clock all the more so was that the last train had clanked and steamed its way through the station over a decade before the oldest of the present generation of children had been born. Yet still she could be seen at three thirty each day, winter and summer, in her best dress and hat, walking slowly towards the path which led passed PC Johnson’s house and on towards the disused railway station.
So regular was the old lady that there were some who set their clocks by her, Johnson’s wife handed him a cup of tea as he sat in his porch surveying the world. She point down the lane towards a shambling figure.
“Good grief,” exclaimed the constable,”is that the time already?”
Except for that part of the track bed which ran through the station itself, the permanent way had been ripped up and removed for scrap. The gates of the level crossing hung limply on rusting hinges and. As with the trackbed on either side of the station, were covered by a mass of tangled briar, thornbush and bracken. The station building had a skeletal appearance as most of the roof slates had been lost during a fierce storm some years before. The ridge timbers sagged ominously and it would not be long before the structure collapsed altogether. Grass and weeds grew up through ever widening cracks in the asphalt surface of the platform and the remaining seat was only there because it had been bolted to the surface in which it stood. All in all, it was a forlorn place and, to the village children, it was a place of bogeymen and things which go bump in the night, It was populated by the ghost of all those who had used the train when the parents of those children were children themselves.
Emily saw none of this. As far as she was concerned, the station was as it had been on the day that her son had said goodbye and gone off to war. Freshly painted and flowers blooming in the sunshine – it was always summer when Emily reached the station and sat down on the old metal seat. This particular day, she felt more weary than usual as she put her bag down by her feet and looked down the line. The plume of smoke from the approaching train was just visible over the tops of the hedges, as it puffed its way towards her. Her excitement grew when she realised that, this time, the train was actually going to arrive. On all the other days, it had simply disappeared at some point and Emily, after sitting for a while, had made her way home again. There’s always tomorrow, she’d say to herself. There’s always tomorrow.
The train, with its three chocolate and brown carriages, each carrying the Great Western Railway crest, drew as slowly to a halt. Brakes squealed and clouds of steam covered the platform as Emily strained to see her boy.
And there he was, leaning from a carriage window and waving. Standing up, she walked slowly towards him.
“Come on, mother,” he said, holding open the carriage door for her. “Step aboard.”
“But I’ve come to take you home, dear,” she replied.
He smiled and put a gentle arm on her shoulder.
“There’s someone else in the compartment with me, Mother,” he said. “Someone I know you’ll want to see again.”
He stepped aside to allow her peer in through the open door. Her late husband, Tom, sat there smiling at her.
“Hallo, Emily,” he said. “Better do as the boy tells you. We’re all going on a trip together – the whole family – just like we used to before the war.”
The tears in the old lady’s eyes meant that she could hardly see as she climbed into the compartment. Her shawl slipped from her shoulders and fell onto the platform edge. She stopped to retrieve it.
“Never mind that, Mother,” said her son. “You won’t have any need of it where we‘re going.”
He shut the compartment door as the train uttered a shrill whistle and moved slowly out of the station.
The day after Emily was finally reunited with her son, the whole village turned out to help in the search for the old lady. It lasted several days with police enquiries lasting far longer than that until they were eventually halted. Quite simply, old Emily had just vanished but police files remain open to this day.
They do say that when the wind is in the right direction, it is possible to hear a train whistle and that if it is heard, someone in the village will die that day. They also say that, on the anniversary of her disappearance, the old lady can sometimes be seen, by those who have eyes to see such things, walking towards the station to wait for…….well, who can say what she is waiting for and who can say, with absolute certainty, that only what we term reality survives?
Who can say? Can you?
Goodbye – for now.
A prose version of my poem of the same name but with a more detailed ending (shall we say).