Extract from 'After Midnight - Stories of Mystery and the Macabre'
Waiting for a train is one of those pleasures I have had since childhood, and the simplest pleasures are often the best. There is something about a steam locomotive, some magic that calls to me, like the warm rituals of Christmas, or a good campfire story. And wherever there is a line that is closed or an engine that is sitting dead, silent, I can still hear them, the ghosts of the past on the breeze. For I can remember them as they should be. Fire and water, elemental, alive, breathing.
Many would say that the steam locomotive is the nearest thing that man has created to a living being. I rather think that they are the embodiment of our spirit. They are man. For the life, the skill and care that men put into them are what they become, and it takes the very best of man’s efforts to harness their unrivalled magic. But the magic is more than a machine. For with it comes the people, the stories, the journeys more majestic than anything; a way of life, simple and happy. The beat of a locomotive heralds arrival, initially as but a whisper on the wind. Then, heads turn, the whistle calls, and through the clouds of steam on the platform, come the people arriving home for Christmas. What greater pleasure could there be?
This is a story of two friends, the very best of friends, and of a place. It’s the story of a man who is taken far away from that place, into darkness and despair, but in the end, finds his way home. It’s a story which reminds us that not all ghosts are bad.
It had been in the summer of 1937 that the little bird, with such strikingly perfect orange and brown plumage, had first met the station master, and to Mr Simms, Redfellow was indeed eye-catching. Mr Simms was the only man at Bleakhurst. For it was such a small station, high in the hills that it didn’t require being dignified by a throng of signalmen and porters. It was such an out of the way part of the world, nowhere popular or important, that many a traveller who had actually passed through had found it haunting and lonely. The station was on a line that cut across country, and since the nearby mine had closed down after the great war it was rarely served by more than a couple of trains a day.
“It went between nowhere and nowhere much,” the cynics said, but the solitude and inactivity of his out of the way posting never bothered Mr Simms. For he found Bleakhurst beautiful and a place where he could indeed create peace on earth, with the occasional little engine going by too. He was content in the peaceful country with his family, far from the hustle and bustle at Waterloo and Clapham Junction that was all too typical of his early career. Despite his responsibility being a small one, Mr Simms still took his duty as seriously as any of the best railwaymen in the country. The delicate bird reminded him even more than the rest of his surroundings of what life had taught him to value. Indeed, with the echoes of war, and poverty still playing in his head it was the simple things that brought him joy now more than ever.
The station building was a small two-story structure with Simms selling tickets from a booth that opened to the little waiting room and with a cramped but cosy apartment for himself and his family on the floor above. For all its simplicity, and contrary to its grim name, Bleakhurst had some of the most magnificent gardens of any station anywhere in the land. With roses, gardenias and many more species, the flower beds were always full of colour and life. They had plants that bloomed for every season and were so carefully tended as to leave many of the great country houses in the district to shame. The yew bushes were carefully crafted into hedges and an orchard of all manner of fruit trees shaded a picnic area across the line, the perfect place for a family in summer. Bleakhurst station was, in its own way, a paradise.
With the village having but a single shop, a few houses and a pub, the human marks upon the earth were truly dominated by their landscape setting. The station was perched on the side of one of the rolling green hills upon which the trains would climb their way slowly upward and was dwarfed by their grandeur. In summer they would wind their way towards the sunny blue sky, and in winter the engines, billowing their own dense trails of crisp white steam would disappear into the fog, as if they were rising up into the clouds of the mysterious heavenly mountains of the old gods. The water mills and streams in the wooded valleys would slowly disappear beyond Bleakhurst, and beyond them, near the summit of the line, could be seen, on a clear day, such undiscovered views of the whole county as to be unique to those few who travelled “over the top” by rail.
The family loved their life in this undiscovered part of the country, as did the locals in those parts, the villagers and the farmers. They all made friends quickly. No one had much at all but everybody was happy. Often Mr Simms’ family would travel out for the day whilst he was working, down to the seaside, or up to London. His heart would always leap when he would hear the evening passenger train climbing up the bank, bringing them back home to him from a day making sand castles. When the children were a little older they would go with their friends in the village. They’d ride with the guard, or if they were lucky up in the engine. In the evenings inevitably they’d be dirty, sometimes covered in soot. But their smiles would beam through.
Mr Simms could almost always be seen in good weather eating his sandwiches out on the platform, on many occasions with his wife beside him, and it had been there that he had met Robin. The little bird had been fluttering amongst the wonderful garden beds one day when he decided to abandon his caution. He had often noticed the station master, so peaceful for a human he had always thought. Something about the golden air on this particular day though made the Robin feel more inquisitive. He wanted to say hello.
On impulse Simms broke off the smallest morsel of a crumb and threw it in the direction of the little chap. Hesitant at first, Robin eventually had a peck at the morsel of bread. It was unlike anything he had eaten before but Mrs Simms’ loaves were some of the best homemade bread you would ever find, and to his surprise, Robin liked the flavour very much.
From then on the station master and his new friend Robin could often be found sitting together as Mr Simms ate his lunch. He even saw to it that a bird bath was installed in the loveliest of the flower beds, complete with a little seed dispenser. Neither could communicate in the other’s language but it did not matter, for they had an understanding deeper than either word or chirp. In time Robin even became quite tame around the station master, letting Simms hold him gently in one hand.
By the approach to Christmas the pair were the best of companions and Mr Simms made Robin a very warm nesting box that hung in the little Christmas tree he had put out on the platform. Simms’ children loved the little bird in equal measure and as the cold winter closed in “Mr Redfellow,” as the children greeted him, brought the whole family such joy. Robin was content, peaceful even, watching the family, all gathered around the fire, warm and cosy together, each hovering over a mug of cocoa. Yet there were shadows in the winter skies, ever looming. For Mr Simms and Mr Redfellow, the next summer at Bleakhurst would be their last.
The War came and so did a transfer for Mr Simms. It had been several years now since he had pulled a few strings to get out of the busy stations and be placed at Bleakhurst. He had been hoping to spend the rest of his career there where he and his wife could watch their children grow up. But Herr Hitler had other plans, and Mr Simms, who had organised the hospital trains and the heavy timetabling of troop movements in the first war, had experience in demand.
He was not reluctant to do his duty and help the railways cope with their sternest test. He was resigned to losing the small measure of peace that he had so carefully built for his family. As they packed all their belongings into the guard’s compartment of the last train to London in October 1939, he saw the Robin watching intently on the guttering of the station. The eyes of the little bird and his friend met for the last time. When the train pulled out and away from Bleakhurst Mr Redfellow flew with them as the engine struggled up the bank for the first couple of miles. All too soon they crested the summit, and as the train picked up speed downhill the Robin fell back and disappeared into the golden Autumn gloom.
The war was not kind to Mr Simms. But how often can one say that that war was kind to anyone? He had been at the office working late one evening when the bomb fell. To return to the twisted shattered remains of their street was as vivid a journey into hell as his days at Bleakhurst had been echoes of heaven. The only mercy on the poor man was that he knew his wife and children almost certainly died instantly.
He’d walked the next day, all through London. He just walked, and walked, and walked, until well after nightfall. Had he looked up he might well have seen a streak of red and brown in the sky, following him. But he did not, he looked down the whole time. That evening, in the bunk in the shelter to which he had been admitted, he could not sleep. The shock, the realisation, made him shake. Being crammed in with so many other families who had lost their homes, and in some cases loved ones, but still had each other, made Mr Simms feel more alone than he ever had.
He spent one night in that place before returning to work. It was all he could do. While days before Simms had been wishing that retirement age would creep up upon him more quickly, he now wanted to work, and only work. After the funeral and over the following months, Mr Simms ate, worked and slept in the timetabling offices. Indeed his colleagues, having failed to persuade him he needed to spend time at his new lodgings, brought in mattresses and cooking equipment and all sorts of comforts for him. But their compassion compounded his shame. So much had been lost by so many in the war that he felt no right to special treatment, yet he was a broken man and his was a broken mind. Even when he did start spending time away from the office, he filled the void sucking upon his soul with a blaring wireless followed by loud records played at all hours.
But after several months, midnight noise was not the only way that he tried to fill the void. Mr Simms began searching, for mediums, psychics, anyone who might give him a chance. He read up on spiritualism and visited churches for long hours of prayer, from which inner peace was seldom found. His fellow lodgers and the landlady would comment to each other on some mornings, as they put their bins out, of the strange noises they were hearing from Mr Simms’ room in the middle of the night. They talked of rituals, and even that he had gone mad. Yet he still went to work. Each and every day, as had always been the case in his career, he was on time to the minute.
Some nights Mr Simms went out after ten o’clock and did not return until the early hours of the morning. At first, they suspected he was visiting a lady of the night, but then one evening two of the other lodgers decided to follow him, curious about his comings and goings. They found that he was returning to the rubble-filled crater that was all that remained of the terrace house his family had so briefly occupied, and just sitting, with his pipe, for hours. Sometimes he would be in silence. Other times he would be talking, talking to his children, and talking to his wife. No one would ever reply. They followed him when he visited psychics too, desperate to hear a word or two from the other side. But, as with most desperate souls who make such attempts, they were all met with disappointment, and even in fraudulent conjuring tricks that simply made him angrier at the world.
After the war, when Mr Simms finally retired as one of the senior timetabling managers in the traffic department for the new British Railways, he found himself lonelier than ever without the daily camaraderie of his colleagues. He would sit at the ends of the platforms, at Waterloo, or Charing Cross, watching the trains and people all day. No longer did he travel to wayside country stations, or tend gardens with friendly birds. Such things were too painful for him, and his days as a country station master seemed like a half-forgotten dream. His dreams now went to dark places, the inevitable end by his own hand that seemed to pull at him more and more. That is, until one evening when he read a letter that had arrived earlier that day in a thick brown envelope, with a watermark of “C M Williams, Stationers, London.”
Mr Simms had walked over to the window to read it in the better light, and as he had opened it, something had fluttered across the sky in front of him. It was a streak of brown, and red, but in an instant, it was gone and he returned to the letter.
The particular envelope with its watermark reminded him of his days at Bleakhurst, for it was exactly the same stationery as he had used there. Once, early in his time there, a parcels van had derailed. It had been full of boxes of writing paper and envelopes. Mr Simms had been able to rescue one of the crates that had tumbled down the embankment, fit it in the back of the station’s storeroom, and had not even used a tenth of what had been in it by the time he had left. How curious to have a letter on the same paper now. But the truth of its origins was such a surprise to Mr Simms he had to read the letter twice to comprehend it.
As you are no doubt aware, the line serving Bleakhurst, at which you once resided as station master, has been closed for some years. It is my understanding that the building in which my family now reside, namely your old station, was a place of some happiness for you in the 1930s. With pleasure, I would like to invite you to take tea with my family on Saturday the 21st of this month, should that be convenient for you.
Should you be able to attend you may find your way here via the number thirty-five bus that stops at the crossroads by the ford, half a mile from the village.
We look forward to meeting you.
Mr Patrick Blainey
P.S. The bus takes the same route and timetable as was formerly that of the morning down passenger train connecting from the mainline. I’m sure you are all too familiar with the one I mean.
What an odd invitation this was, thought Mr Simms. Why should complete strangers invite him? Initially, he leaned heavily towards declining. The thought of going back felt as if it would be painful, but in the week that followed it became all he could think about. So, as the day of invitation approached, his curiosity overcame his unwillingness.
On the appointed Saturday Mr Simms made his way out of London by train, the first time he had done so since he had arrived back in 1939. To see the hills and vales again, the rolling countryside was a journey back in time, one might even say down memory lane. Changing to the bus that was to arrive at the crossroads at 12:30 pm he was saddened by the fact that no one could travel to Bleakhurst by train as he had once done. The little bay platform from which the branch line trains had once left was now mothballed, in ruins. A carpark had been paved over the track beyond it for some distance. It was highly probable no one would alight at the platform there again.
The coach trip was arduous for the old man, cramped and bumpy with its fast pace along the narrow winding lanes. The ride made him feel nauseous. How was it that people favoured this now, over such a smooth and elegant form of travel as rail? When he alighted at the crossroads, Mr Simms may as well have been alighting in 1937: for apart from the shiny new bus stop, everything within sight was just as he’d remembered it.
The air was oddly still that day for what was usually such a windy place, and Mr Simms had not long set off along the road up to the village than he felt there was a little shadow fluttering in the corner of his eye above him. He looked up and around at the sky and yet could see nothing against the blue-tinged clouds.
It was when Simms cast his eyes back down that he saw him. There was a Robin, perched on a rogue twig of the hedge that was lining the road, only ten feet away from him. Surely it wasn’t the same one, his Mr Redfellow, thought Simms. It couldn’t be. But the bird seemed to know him, for it was not startled in the least when he approached it and held out his hand.
After biding its time for a second and noticing that Simm’s hand was steady and not faltering in its offer, the Robin jumped from the bush and fluttered right onto Mr Simm’s outstretched palm. The little bird stayed there quite calmly for a few seconds then took off up the road, landing on the same twig it had been on before. But it was not idle—it then fluttered up and down in a circle, as if calling Mr Simms over.
When he strode towards it, the bird jumped to another branch, a little further along and on the other side of the road. Once Simms got close enough, the bird took off again for another branch further on. The bird was leading him. Mr Simms and the Robin journeyed on as they had begun, the bird full of energy but attentive as ever to the old man’s slow pace. They went up the hill, around the corner, past the church, the graveyard, the pub on the corner, and a few cottages, until they came to a white gate. That had not been there before, thought Mr Simms, but he still knew it well. It had once been one of the gates on the level crossing at the other end of the platform, the platform right in front of him.
And there it was, the station itself. It was sheltered now, not open to the landscape at all, but still the same structure. It sat, nestled among the far larger trees which now concealed that there had ever been a railway line running through the village. Some of the gardens were overgrown, but a big pile of prunings and a dug-up bed were signs that someone had started to do something about that. Apart from being a little rough around the edges, the place was almost exactly as Mr Simms had remembered it. The fences had been freshly painted, just as he always kept them, and a small wisp of smoke wafted from the chimney as if Mrs Simms had never left the kitchen.
Along the platform, with overgrown rails surrounded by green grass and thistle on his left, Mr Simms came to the main waiting room itself. From the looks of things, it was not at all what it once had been, but a family living room. Mr Simms wiped at the window in order to see inside. He was peering in on them now, just as the Robin had always watched his family, and the new occupants were enjoying a delightful spread for lunch.
The parents were young, at least to him, and Mr Simms found himself remembering all too vividly what those idyllic days had been like when he had been on the other side of the glass. A simultaneous smile and watering of his eyes caught him off guard. He froze for a moment, stunned. He had walked into a dream. The Blainey children laughed and played, and everybody was happy. After a little while, young Mr Blainey saw Mr Simms at the window and came to the door to greet him.
Mr Simms was a little sheepish at the warmth of the welcome, as anyone would be when a stranger is so eager to greet you into their home like an old friend. He confessed to Mr Blainey as to being a little confused as to the invitation he had received, just as he noticed the Robin fly away into the trees.
“Come and have lunch with us. My wife will explain how it was we came to write you that letter,” said Blainey.
So in he went, and he sat down to lunch in his old waiting room, with the family and had the most warming and hearty of meals as he’d had in a long long time. Afterwards Mrs Blainey, a very lovely and attentive woman, and keen of mind took Mr Simms out for a stroll in what had once been his garden. She showed him how dreadful the flower beds had become and how, since they had moved in, they had started to restore them to the way they were in his days, from old pictures they had found. They had heard about him and his family from the villagers but had not thought to contact him, until they received a certain message.
“There is no easy way to say this Mr Simms,” said Mrs Blainey after a while, turning the conversation to what the old man’s questions. “But I’ve been in contact with your wife.”
Simms said nothing, he just ambled down the garden path. What could he say? “I am a medium,” she continued, “a psychic.”
“I know what a medium is, Mrs Blainey!” Simms couldn’t believe it. He had fallen for it again!
“Call me Cynthia, please.” She realised she was upsetting the old man. “Her presence is very strong in this place, and I can tell she was happy here!”
“Can you really?” wheezed Simms, fumbling for his pipe and tobacco. He wandered away from his hostess, back towards the house.
“She said the bird would guide you here…” Simms was stopped in his tracks. “It’s a descendant of your friend, Mr Redfellow.” She couldn’t have known. How could she? His family were dead. He hardly thought it likely the villagers knew about his friendship with the bird, it had been their secret.
“What more can you tell me?”
Cynthia Blainey did tell him more, a lot more. Things that only a husband and wife know, things they never speak of with another soul. After they had walked on for some time that afternoon, Mr Simms was left in no doubt. His wife had wanted him to come back here, to live in happiness the rest of his days. That is what Mrs Blainey had told him.
From that day on Mr Simms set about to find that happiness. He travelled back to Bleakhurst so often that eventually, the Blainey family gave him one of the upstairs rooms, that had once been his and his wife’s old sitting room. For the rest of his days, he lived there in peace. To the Blainey children, who had no grandparents, Mr Simms was a wonderfully instructive and entertaining grandfather. He had lost one family, but in the most unlikely of circumstances, he had found another. The joy that he could bring to them, and they to him, left him as content as he could be.
Sometimes, just sometimes, when he was alone on the old platform, smoking his pipe after midnight, Mr Simms would hear the whispers of the past. The whistle called out from down the long-abandoned line. Then the beat, slow but steady, breathing heavily up the hill. First, it was low, just a whisper on the breeze, an intermittent note that could have been imagined, then it grew louder, owning all around like a thunderclap. But the ghosts of the trains would whistle right on through, not stopping, not bringing his family home as once they’d so often done.
He knew that one day he would catch that train to find them, but not yet.
We hope you have enjoyed Sidney Wainwright's stories. Next year we will be bringing you his story, and the story of our search to find out what happened to him. For now though, we wish you a very happy Christmas.