First Class Travel

 As she rode the escalator up from the crowded District Line Abi glanced furtively at her watch.  Normally she didn’t allow herself to do that; to see the hands moving inexorably round as she fought her way through the crowds was to invite stress in exponential waves.  If she left it until she arrived on the teeming concourse of Liverpool Street station to look up at the clock and the departures board and see which trains were  there  she could make a spot judgement.  Run or saunter or grab a coffee.  The stress was thereby minimised and the element of variety  and even spontaneity was maintained.  She wondered if other commuters were reduced to playing games like this to keep themselves sane.  To look at their faces, she doubted it.  At this time of the day most people were grim, miserable or just plain dazed with exhaustion in equal measures.

Today had been particularly bad.  The crowds were if anything heavier than usual - probably because of the rain -  and she had had an especially exhausting afternoon in court.  A child custody case; the worst kind.  The 5.42 was still alongside Platform 11 and she had four minutes to get there.  With every step her briefcase and large shoulder bag grew heavier but on this occasion it was worth the hurry.  To get home as soon as possible, to have a cool bath and a long, lazy gin and tonic was the sole thing  on her mind at this moment.  It would be followed by a meal of some sort out of the freezer, sitting, if the rain had stopped, at the small wrought iron table on the terrace at the back of the cottage.

The cottage had seemed a sensible buy when she and Don split up.  Two small homes in exchange for the beautiful Georgian townhouse which had been sacrificed on the altar of divorce.  Initially she had been pleased with her purchase.  Idyllically pretty, with a thatched roof in a charming, riverside village with a small walled garden which could easily be managed by the busy, ambitious solicitor she had become, it had seemed the ideal bolt hole.  There was a charming, heavily beamed downstairs room,  two bedrooms, and  it had French doors leading out to a terrace dripping with jasmine and clematis and roses.  But it was lonely.  There was no one to  share her frozen meals with.  No time to meet the neighbours. No energy to go out and seek for company, male or  female,   no possibility, given her pressure of work and long, long hours, of even a cat or a dog for company.  She was beginning to realise now just how much Don had put up with during their five years of marriage.  No wonder he had looked elsewhere for a partner who was not too tired to cook, too tired to talk, too tired for sex&ldots;   She sighed.

The first class allocation on these trains was a joke.  It was to  be found at the end of the first carriage,  a small glassed off section, seating a mere sixteen people,  presumably all the business travellers -  people like her whose tickets were paid for by their firms because they needed to work in that precious hour or two on the way to and from home -  that  the train company felt it needed to provide for on this line.  If she was travelling Intercity there would have been a  table  to work at, and above all she wouldn’t have to wait till she got home for the g and t, but as it was she had to make do with the token space and relative quiet  provided in this small area -  if she was lucky enough to find a seat inside it at all.  She slid the door back and climbed into the one vacant  place with murmured apologies to the other passengers upon whose toes she was treading, then realised the papers she wanted to study  were in the briefcase she had already slung up onto the rack.  The train was hot and stuffy; it smelt as these evening  rush hour trains always did of  human bodies and  burning brake linings, the windows were dirty and misted with condensation and closed. Someone stretched across and rather pointedly slid the door shut behind her,  sealing them into a   suddenly quiet  exclusive capsule.  She leaned back wearily as the train pulled out of the station.  What, she asked herself for the hundredth time that week, was it all for?

Her neighbour reached down into his own briefcase and brought out a laptop.  With a smile, half of apology, half challenge, he opened the   lid and switched it on.  Opposite her a mobile phone trilled importantly and was immediately silenced. She sighed and closed her eyes.  If someone didn’t open a window soon they would all suffocate anyway and that would be the end of all their problems.

At Chelmsford half the train disembarked.  Those who remained stretched, spread themselves    more comfortably and someone at last lowered a window.  She did not open her eyes.

When she awoke, the train was standing at a  small station, the doors blessedly open, rain slanting out of a windswept sky.  Soon it would be dark.  Nearly everyone had disembarked now.  She was the only person left in the first class ghetto .  The last person to get off had thoughtfully closed the door behind them.  She was seated in a private world.

In the distance she could hear an announcement over the station loud speaker.  Someone blew a whistle.  The doors were actually closing when three  passengers jumped on the train - young men, heavily tattooed. Of one accord they turned towards the first class compartment and slid open the door.

‘Hello, darling!’ The first one greeted her with a leer.  ‘Not too proud for a bit of company, I hope!’  They sat down in the set of seats next to hers across the gangway.

Her heart had sunk to her shoes.  The first class compartment, in theory a haven, a place to work in peace,  was a challenge to people like these, and it  had become, suddenly, a trap.  She smiled non-committally and closed her eyes again, hoping that a calm demeanour would bore them into looking for someone else to bait.  It didn’t.

‘Come on, darling.  Want a drink?’  A can of lager was waved under her nose.

She shrank  back and shook her head.  ‘No thanks.’

‘No thanks!’  The mimicry was mocking, the atmosphere of threat and  barely suppressed anger increasing every second.  These lads were not going to be content  merely with verbal abuse.  This was going to escalate into something worse.

She found to her surprise she was thinking very clearly.  What were they going to try? She  doubted if they would actually hurt her.  Best not to think about that.  Concentrate on her belongings instead.  Her briefcase was pushed back on the rack.  Legal briefs.  Court papers.  Confidential memos.  She doubted if this bunch could even read, but nevertheless their theft would compromise the case.  She had little jewellery on.  Earrings.  A slim gold bangle, hidden under the cuff of her blouse.  A couple of rings - one Victorian, which had belonged to her grandmother’s grandmother.  That she would be devastated to lose.  The rest, well, it could be replaced.  No wedding or engagement rings any more.  Her shoulder bag contained  more papers.  Some money.  Credit cards.  Mobile.

Mobile.  She glanced at the bag, now lying beside her on the seat.  Could she reach it and dial?  The communication cord, so often glanced at, its position noted, just in case, was out of reach above the door,  outside the compartment.  No use at all.

Her chief tormentor had fallen back into his seat, amusing himself with draining his can of lager.  Finishing it, he crumpled it up in one fist and hurled it suddenly and with enormous force at the window near her.  She jumped back in her seat and he let fly a string of obscenities before reaching into the bag he had dumped on the seat beside him for a new can.

Abi glanced at the window.  Streaked with rain as it was, and with  it rapidly growing dark outside  it was hard to see where they were, but surely it could not be many minutes before they reached the next station.   No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than  her heart sank.  Whatever they intended to do, it would be before they arrived so that they could make their escape.  If only she had done some sort of self defence course.  If only she had a rape alarm, a whistle, something to defend herself with.

The third young man had risen slowly to his feet.  His hair was longer than that of his friends and lay greasy on his collar.  Clutching his can he staggered across to stand immediately in front of her, his legs actually touching her knees.  ‘I think I’m going to throw up,’ he announced casually.

‘In which case, I think it would be a good thing if you got off the rain, young man.  I doubt if any of you have first class tickets - or any tickets at all.  You leave the train at the next stop.  Do you understand me?  All of you?’ The sliding open of the compartment door  had been sufficiently sudden, the deep bass voice, sufficiently loud ,  for the youth to spin round in surprise.   His companions, who had begun to sing discordantly fell silent.  They all turned towards the doorway.

Abi’s rescuer was tall and broad shouldered, casually dressed, in his forties, Abi guessed, and he was , undeniably, black.  She took a deep breath, waiting for the torrent of racial abuse she thought bound to follow.  But to her surprise it didn’t come.  The young man who had been threatening to vomit over her staggered slightly as the train rattled across the points and sat down meekly.

The stranger looked at each one in turn for several seconds as though memorising their faces, then with a nod at Abi he turned away  without a word.  She saw him resume his seat in the empty compartment beyond hers, about half a dozen rows down.  She did not dare look at her three persecutors.

She reached into her bag and produced her mobile.  Aware that they were watching her she pressed the 9 button three times and at last looked up at them directly.  All three stood up.

As the train drew into the next station they jumped off and disappeared into the dark..  Abi put away her phone.  The only sound in the carriage  was the tick of expanding metal and the distant rattle of an empty lager can being kicked along the wet platform.

From her seat Abi saw her rescuer glance up and register that they had gone.  She caught his eye and smiled gratefully, wondering if she should go and thank him properly but already he had looked down .  He was, she could see as his hand appeared briefly  grasping a wad of slim folders,  immersed in a pile of papers.

The last long haul before the final stop was blessedly  peaceful.  Abi reached her own briefcase down at last and withdrew a memo.  The compartment still reeked of lager and the atmosphere of violence lingered but she had left the door open and the sight of the distant dark, slightly greying head bent so studiously over his own reading matter reassured her.  She reached for a pen and began to make notes, trying to put the disturbance behind her.

‘I have to speak to the driver!’ The woman’s voice behind her made her jump.  She turned round, scanning the compartment.  It was empty.  The door behind her, locked shut, led only, she knew, to the empty  driver’s cab and the rear of the train.

She frowned.  She must have imagined it.  Perhaps she had dreamed it,  fallen asleep or been in that  unreal hypnagogic state when strange voices from time to time accost one loudly out of the ether.

Rubbing her eyes she turned back to her papers.

‘Please.  Help me!  I have to speak to the driver!’

Abi jumped to her feet, her papers sliding from her lap in all directions.  The voice had come from the seat behind her - quite loud, perfectly clear, the accent elegant, almost over refined.  There was no possibility she had imagined it.  She turned round slowly, clutching the back of the seat as the train sped northwards on the last stage of its journey, scanning every inch of the compartment, under every seat, the luggage rack, even the litter bin.  There was no one there.

‘I don’t mean to pry, but are you all right?’

He had been watching her, frowning, and now he approached, leaning against the doorway, a look of  concern on his face.  ‘Did they steal something?’

‘No, they didn’t take anything.  It was a woman.’  Abi  looked up at him, confused.  ‘Did you see a woman in here? Sitting behind me?’

He shook his head.  ‘I don’t think so.’  Stepping into the compartment he sat down and leaned over, rounding up her papers from the floor.  Then he straightened.  ‘Yes, come to think of it, I believe a woman got on the train as those boys got off.  I noticed her and thought it strange because she was wearing such an old-fashioned hat!  You don’t see many hats on commuter trains, and this one was not attractive!  But I didn’t see where she went.’ He frowned.  ‘I was reading.  I didn’t  take much notice I’m afraid, once they got off.’

Abi had watched them get off.  She had seen no one get on.  She shook her head.  ‘She’s not here now.’  She found herself staring fascinated at the long sensitive fingers clasping her confidential memos.  ‘Look, you can see that the whole carriage is empty.’ She gestured wildly down the length of it.

‘She could have walked on  through - ‘

‘No.’ She shook her head vehemently.  ‘No, this is the last carriage.  The end of the train.’

Far away, at the front, they heard the two tone hooter as they rattled through an empty station without stopping.

‘She might have passed me if I was working,’ he said  thoughtfully.  ‘I might not have seen her.’

I didn’t see her at all.   Abi did not say it out loud.   ‘But I heard her. Just now. She spoke to me.  In here.’ She looked at him desperately.   ‘Her voice was clear.  In here.  With me.  And now she’s not.’

‘Are you sure you weren’t asleep?’ He had the most wonderful smile, she realised suddenly.  Gentle.  Understanding.  Inviting confidences.  Slowly she shook her head.  ‘I suppose I must have been.’ She gave an awkward laugh.  ‘I’m sorry.  I suppose those awful louts unnerved me so much I was hallucinating or something.’ She paused.  ‘I haven’t thanked you for saving me.  I was so sure they were going to rob me at the very least.’

He laughed.  ‘Bravado, most of it.  You showed no fear, so  would probably have been OK.  They are often cowards, that sort.’

‘You handled them like an expert!’

He nodded.  ‘So I should.  I was head of an inner city school for sixteen years.  I expect I dimly reminded them of some sort of authority figure.’

Abi laughed. ‘I should have guessed.  Are you still a teacher?’

He shook his head.  ‘No.  I’ve done my bit for British youth.  I’m a straight academic now.  Writing books on education.’  He glanced at the window. The train was slowing.  ‘Nearly there.’  He handed her her papers.  ‘I think I’ve found them all.  Will you be all right now?’

She nodded.  ‘Thank you again.  I’m really grateful.’  She hesitated.  ‘You live up here?’

‘I do.  Lovely spot.’  He smiled again as he rose to his feet and then he was gone,  back to his own seat where she could see him busy packing his briefcase.

When they disembarked from different doors she saw him striding ahead of her  out of the station and into the darkness.  He did not look back.

For the rest of the week she was nervous coming home.  She watched jumpily as the train began to empty, aware that in her bag at last was the rape alarm she had always promised herself she would  buy.  And she kept her eyes open for her rescuer, unable, in spite of herself,  to keep the image of his wonderful, engaging smile out of her head.  Their mutual station served  dozens of small villages.  He could have come from any one of them , but there was no sign of him again.  Until Friday.

It was on the last lap of the journey  that he knocked on the door of the compartment where she was once more sitting alone and slid it back with a smile.  Beyond him she could see some dozen or so heads scattered about the carriage  - the train was always extra busy on a Friday when those who didn’t have the stamina for daily commuting headed into the country for the weekend.

‘May I join you for a moment?’ He was formally dressed today  in an immaculate grey suit and sober silk tie.  ‘I trust you are none the worse for your adventure on Monday?’ He paused a  second then not giving her the chance to reply, went on,  ‘I’ve discovered something rather intriguing about the woman with whom you were sharing the compartment and I wondered if you would like  to hear about her.’

She looked up and met his eyes.  It was impossible not to respond to his smile.  ‘You make her sound rather intriguing.’

‘She is.  Or rather was.’  He paused.  ‘Something about her disappearance puzzled me, as I think it puzzled you.  It nagged at my brain until I began to remember a story I’d heard and yesterday afternoon I had some time to spare so I went to the  newspaper library to check.  I found her.  Or at least, I think I did.  The woman who spoke to you was a ghost.’  His eyes held hers soberly, challenging her to laugh.  She didn’t .  A cold draught tiptoed lightly across her shoulders.

‘She was called Sarah Middleton.  In the 1950s she was travelling on a train on this line when she was attacked.  She managed to pull the communication cord but by the time they found her she was dead.  When they interviewed the other passengers later someone who had been in the same compartment with her said she had been very agitated.  That the man she was with was very aggressive.  When the passenger got off she tried to as well but the man pulled her back.  Apparently she was screaming, "I must speak to the driver".’

Abi closed her eyes.  She shivered.  ‘Why on earth didn’t he help her?’

‘He thought it was none of his business.  He assumed the man was her husband.  He even thought she might be drunk.  Apparently she has been seen several times over the years, on trains travelling this stretch of line.’

‘Poor Sarah.  Did they catch him?’

He shook his head.

‘So her spirit can’t rest.’  She shuddered.  ‘That’s a terrible story.’

The train was slowing.  He glanced at his watch.   ‘I photocopied the newspaper stories.  I haven’t got them with me.  I wasn’t sure if I would see you again, but I could send them to you, if you’re interested - or wait until I see you again.  I go up and down this way several times a week to visit the British Library.   I live in  Seaton.’

She smiled.  ‘So do I.’ She hesitated, but only for a second.  ‘You could always drop them in.’

They walked together to the car park and found their cars next to each other.  Their houses, they discovered, were in adjacent streets.  How they could have failed to meet or even see one another in the post office on Saturday mornings filled the conversation for the next five minutes.

‘After all, you could hardly miss me.’  Grant laughed.  That was his name.  Grant Stevenson.  She glanced, suddenly a little shy, at his six foot frame and  the black face, unusual in this lonely part of East Anglia, and she laughed with him.

Before they parted she had discovered that he was a widower with three children all in their twenties, that he was 45 - twelve years older than   she was -  that he had published three books, two on educational theory and one on local history - hence his memory of the story of poor Sarah Middleton -  that she was invited to supper the following evening and that - undeniably -  she found him astonishingly attractive.

A version of a story in Sands of Time

The Story behind the Story

As in many of my short stories there are real events behind this tale. A real train journey; a real stranger in a First Class Carriage, both of us trying to work; real yobs who piled into the small compartment and began to act in a really threatening manner. In the  real life version a second stranger got on the train at the other end of the deserted carriage at a deserted station and for whatever reason, perhaps just the sight of him, the yobs decided at the last minute as the doors were closing to run for it, leaping from the train and disappearing into the dark. Perhaps we didn’t look rich enough to rob! The man in the compartment near me and I exchanged a quick glance, laden with unspoken relief. We didn’t speak though. We didn’t exchange names; it didn’t turn into a romance. No such luck. Of course it didn’t; this was real life. The stranger who had saved us by his arrival probably never realised anything untoward was happening at all!

The event put me off travelling late on a train which I knew would, by the end of the journey , be pretty much empty and it made me realise that the tiny first class sections on these trains could turn into a trap rather than the refuge one had hoped they were.

And the ghostly voice? That too happened, though I can’t say if it was real. It was on another journey. Another day. Once more the carriage was empty. Completely empty this time, which is how I knew she must be a ghost. The voice left me very frightened and completely mystified! And no, I hadn’t fallen asleep, because I was collecting my bags and putting on my coat as the train drew into its destination when I heard it. And as these trains have no trolleys any more with  g & ts for exhausted travellers, I was completely sober!

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