We are delighted to welcome another story from one of our favourite Somerset writers, Martha Perriam. A tale of the unexpected, maybe?
Even now I can’t sit down in a train without thinking of that girl. The amazing thing about it was that we all – her four fellow travellers – hung on her every word. I still think she was telling us the truth, or at least part of it, but whether she was or not the incident turned out to be one of the oddest in my life.
To begin at the beginning. It was during the early sixties and I was travelling by train down from London after a job interview. In those days the carriages were divided up into compartments to seat eight people on broad, comfortable benches, each one leading off the train corridor, with a sliding door. The train was fairly full when it left Paddington but several people got out at Reading, leaving just four of us in the compartment. There was an older lady sitting primly in one of the window seats wearing a cloche hat. Opposite her was a younger woman in a business suit and high heels, reading a fashion magazine. I would have liked a window seat but had missed my chance, so sat in the corner by the door keeping my knees well out of the way of another woman, about my age, in flat sensible nurse’s shoes. Being English none of us spoke or made eye contact.
The whistle sounded, doors were slamming shut and the train had just given a little jerk as it started when I spotted a girl running flat out across the platform. She managed to wrench the carriage door open and leap aboard before we gathered speed, but it was a near thing. She pulled the train door to behind her and staggered towards our compartment panting desperately and holding her side. Out of sympathy I slid the carriage door open and made way for her to come in. She fell gasping on to the bench next to me, bright red in the face and streaming with sweat. She wore a duffle coat, rather an old one, but had no luggage at all. As a matter of fact, she would never have managed to get on the train if she had been carrying anything. All four of us watched her as she gradually caught her breath, curious of course, but with concern too as she remained slumped in the seat, face in hands. I was the one nearest to her, so perhaps I was the first to realise that her rasping breaths had turned to sobs.
“Can I get you anything?” I asked tentatively. She shook her head without looking up.
The nurse tried too. “Come on, I’ve got some coffee left in my thermos, would you like some?” This little show of kindness seemed to affect the girl; she burst into a loud wail of anguish. We all stared at her openly, and could see that she was about twenty years old and very pretty underneath the straggling hair and mannish coat. After a pause she pulled herself upright, and looking round at each of us in turn, burst out:
“I’ve just got to tell someone. Can I talk to you ladies about it? Something so weird and dreadful has happened …..” We were all ears. The prim lady replied for us all, in a firm, loud voice.
“Of course you must say what the matter is. Perhaps we can help.”
“Yes,” murmured the business woman, and the nurse and I chimed in. All eyes focused on the distressed girl.
“I just can’t take it in. I’ve only been away for five days, working flat out. I just thought I’d stop off at Reading to see my sister and her baby before I went back to Mum in Bristol. I didn’t let her know I was coming, she’s always at home because of the kid.” Gradually her words were coming out more steadily, but the tears had left salty rivulets down her white face. She had an open, pleasant look about her nevertheless, and I suppose we all warmed to her.
“When I got to my sister’s house I felt something wasn’t quite right. The door was locked, but I know where she keeps the key and let myself in. I imagined she’d taken the baby out for a walk because the pushchair was missing. The front room was in a bit of a mess, chairs sort of out of place; dirty plates left on the table, crumbs on the cloth and the high chair hadn’t been cleaned off. Not like my sister at all.” The girl looked round at the four of us hanging on her every word.
“Then I noticed the yellow envelope. It was screwed up on the floor under the table. The telegram itself was lying upside down on the dresser, as though my sister had just read it and rushed off somewhere. I had to have a look, didn’t I?” We all nodded.
“It said “AGGIE DEAD STOP COME AT ONCE STOP MUM”. Well, I’m Aggie! What could it mean?”
The business woman was the first to speak. “It must have been another Aggie. Is there a cousin or friend with the same name?”
“No, no-one at all. It’s always been my pet name.”
“What was the date on the telegram?” asked the older lady.
“It was today’s date!” the girl answered emphatically. “That makes it so awful. I just had to catch the first train to Bristol to go home to Mum.”
“Couldn’t you have phoned?” asked the nurse, sympathetically, but with a touch of scepticism I thought.
“My Mum’s not on the phone.” The girl’s face was twisted up in desperation. “I must get home as fast as I can to show them I’m still alive.”
Probably all of us were imagining the grief and horror of her family. What must the sister have been feeling as she bundled her baby up and rushed to catch a train? What of the poor mother? Or didn’t she know anything about the telegram, perhaps? Was it tragedy or black farce?
Business woman spoke next: “Can it have been a practical joke? Do you know anyone who thinks that sort of thing’s funny?” The girl shook her head miserably. We all started suggesting explanations, expressing sympathy and astonishment. Perhaps it was because we were all women in that compartment that we let our normal reserve go. Her predicament and the frank way she talked about herself and her family drew us together. By the time we passed Bath we were deep in speculation, books and magazines completely abandoned.
“Will you be all right once you get to Temple Meads?” asked Miss Prim. The girl patted her pockets as though she had no idea what was in them.
“I did have my purse ….” She pulled a crumpled handkerchief out of one and a letter and a biro out of the other.
“Well look,” said the nurse. “I’ll lend you half a crown for the bus if you haven’t got any money.”
“So will I,” added Miss Prim, and I joined in.
Business woman passed a ten shilling note to the girl. “You’d better take a taxi and get home as fast as you can.”
“Oh thank you. Thank you all so much. I’ll pay you back of course.”
And then I did something really out of character. I tore the fly leaf out of the library book I’d meant to read and wrote my address on it.
“Don’t worry about the money,” I said. “I’d just like to hear what happens and what was at the back of that telegram.”
“So would I.”
“Yes, please drop me a line …”
“Me too, it’s so intriguing ….” They all wrote their addresses on my paper in turn. She thrust it into her pocket, thanking us effusively as the train drew slowly into the station.
We watched her wait until it had stopped completely and push impatiently down on the window ledge to get the door open. She ran towards the station exit without a backward glance, with us all willing her on her way.
For the next few weeks I looked eagerly for the postman. I wished we had asked the girl for her address instead of giving our own. Had it all been an elaborate con, just for a pound or so? Or had there really been some dreadful tragedy awaiting her in Bristol? The oddest thing of all, perhaps, was that the four of us in that compartment, complete strangers to her and to each other, had believed her so unreservedly. Were train journeys that much more exotic and entertaining, was I less cautious in those days, or am I just old and anti-social now? I can get through a whole paper back on the way to London, and never give anyone the time of day.
Copywrite © Martha Perriam