On the fifth day of Christmas I bring you not five gold rings but a really heart-warming story from Paula Harmon – Branch Lines. As well as being the author of three books: ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’, ‘Kindling’ and ‘The Advent Calendar’, Paula is also a contributor to a limited edition ebook ’12 Days of Christmas’ anthology which will be on sale 26/11/17 till January and is raising money for the Bookbus charity (links to all books below).
That winter was the coldest on record.
Every morning, we shuffled like cattle on the station platform, our breath vaporising. Each of us hunched in silence as our mobile screens studded the gloom until the train arrived. Sometimes an old lady was already on board, sitting with pursed lips, clasping her handbag. She glared out of the window, come rain or gloom, in cold disapproval. Looking at my own reflection, I practised my smile and lifted my eyebrows. At least she didn’t talk. I dozed until London.
One Monday in December, the wrong kind of snow meant we had to change trains. At some backcountry station, I climbed directly into a ancient carriage dragged from old rolling-stock. Two banks of high backed seats faced each other and on the other side, a corridor led to other carriages.
There was another girl inside. She was a little younger than me, wearing a tweed skirt, red coat and low heeled lace-ups. Curls and a brown trilby framed her face. She had a sort of uniqueness that I envied, sitting opposite in my anonymous corporate clothes. Fiddling with a bracelet, she turned to the door.
Outside, the whistle blew and the girl tensed. With a clatter, the outer door opened and a young soldier collapsed onto the seat.
He held her face and kissed her. Discretely, she nodded towards me.
‘Sorry miss’, he said, lighting a cigarette and removing his cap. The girl glanced at it, her face dimmed, her smile uncurved. Muttering excuses about leaving them in peace, I made my way to another carriage. A few stations later, we changed back to a modern train.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the train switched twice at the same out of the way stations. I rode alone, watching the dark approaching fingers of midwinter outside.
On Thursday, the girl got into my carriage again. Her smile was hesitant as she faced the door, touching her hair and pinching her cheeks. But the train pulled off and no-one else entered the carriage. She wilted then slumped. Her shoulders moved but her jaw tightened and her hands only unclenched her bag for the seconds it took to find a handkerchief and dab at tears. She was still trembling as we climbed down onto the platform but she held her breath, gritting her teeth to keep from making a noise. Before I could speak, she marched into the snowy gloom. I was standing unnerved, feeling I could be anywhere or nowhere, when the curtain of whirling white parted and the soldier grabbed my arm.
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I thought you were… Look, if you see her, can you give her this?’ He thrust a letter into my hand and stepped away. When the station became visible again, there was just me and a few other commuters on the platform herding towards the onward train.
I pushed the envelope into my bag. I would give it to the girl tomorrow.
On Friday, everything was running normally: no more corridor trains, just modern ones with no-smoking signs, wifi and refreshments. I rushed from station to underground to office, somehow still late.
Christmas was nearly upon us, but although we exchanged cards with scenes of snow and ice, in reality, all we had was rain. A slow grey muddy drag towards the festive season began. Memories of young lovers and old fashioned carriages thawed and melted away.
One morning, the grumpy old lady joined me.
As we went through a tunnel, I saw in the window reflections that she was staring at me.
‘I recognise you,’ said the old lady, easing off her gloves and tutting as the threads of one caught on her bracelet.
‘I often catch this train,’ I said.
‘No, that’s not it.’ Her lips pursed, her brows crunched together.
She looked down at my phone’s screensaver.
‘Your young man?’
‘I hope he’s not the sort to leave and not say goodbye. Not the sort who’d never come back because of a row.’
She stared at the tracks outside, branched at the points, disappearing around embankments.
‘They said the war was nearly over. Why did they need him to fight?’ she murmured.
Her eyes scanned my face. ‘Your family from this way?’
I shook my head.
‘Thought maybe I once met your great grandmother or something.’ The old lady was silent for the remainder of the journey.
A few days before Christmas, the temperature dropped. First frost, then snow. Just enough snow to bring back old fashioned trains. I could live with it. In the New Year, I would be starting a new job nearer home.
At the backcountry station, the girl sat down opposite and glared. In two months, lines had become etched between her brows. She clasped her bag as if daring me to take it. I glanced at the door but she snapped:
‘They’ve shipped out. He left and never said goodbye.’
At that moment, I thought my phone vibrated and rummaging in my bag, felt a crushed letter. The girl, glaring at the aimless snowflakes, had loosened her grip on her own bag. As I hesitated, the train lurched and … a ration book fell out. My face went cold, then hot. As she leant forward, I caught her arm.
‘This is yours,’ I said, handing her the letter, ‘he gave it to me a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see you again. I hope…’
There was a clunk under the carriage and a pause. As she took the letter, the train changed direction. The girl opened the envelope and when we stopped, I climbed out onto a different station altogether. But the girl stayed reading the letter, her hands trembling.
That was the last of the old carriage journeys. On my last commute to London, an old couple sat opposite me. He held her face in his hands and kissed her before grinning at me and lifting his cap.
The old lady was the one I’d met before, only she wasn’t grumpy. The lines on her face were soft, her mouth ready to laugh.
After a while, her husband dozing, the old lady said, ‘I recognise you.’
‘I’m often on this train.’
‘No, that’s not it. Your family from this way?’
I shook my head.
‘Thought maybe I once met your great-grandmother or something.’
She took me in, my hair, my face, my corporate clothes, my bag, my mobile.
‘Your young man?’ she asked, nodding towards my screen saver.
‘Terrible winter,’ said her husband, waking up, ‘Like when we met, isn’t it dear? Teenagers, right at the end of the war. Fell in love on this train journey, then fell out, nearly finished, but somehow it came right in the end. Terrible winter, like being in a dream. Felt like anything could happen. Felt like life could have taken one wrong turn and ruined everything.’ He looked at me a bit closer, his faded eyes twinkling through the glasses, ‘were you once our postwoman?’
I shook my head.
‘Funny. I look at you and think of letters. Can’t imagine why.’
I caught the old lady’s eyes.
‘Not a postwoman,’ she said, ‘just an angel passing through. Keeping things on track.’
And she put her hand in his, put her head on his shoulder and winked.
Thanks so much for that story Paula, it’s definitely left me with a warm glow!
About the author
I was born in London but moved out as a baby and spent my childhood in Berkshire and South Wales. I went to Chichester University and then settled in Gloucestershire until moving to Dorset twelve years ago. I am married with two teenage children and work full-time, writing on trains and at weekends, pretty much when I can fit it in. My writing can be serious or silly. ‘Kindling’ and ‘The Advent Calendar’ are both collections of short writing. ‘Kindling’ explores the idea of looking behind what’s obvious to think ‘what if things aren’t quite what they seem?’ ‘The Advent Calendar’ was written when I challenged myself to write a story a day running up to Christmas. I put a Christmassy word in a jar and pulled one out a day and wrote about it. It is about Christmas as it sometimes is, rather than how the hype says it should be (with the exception of a couple of stories which may are just for fun). ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’ is about an eccentric father and the family caught up in the chaos he creates.