This was entered into the competition for the RNA’s Elizabeth Goudge trophy 2021 – first line was provided, maximum 2,000 words. I had recently been on this particular train with my boyfriend and dreamt up this story. (It didn’t place, but the competition is huge!)
The woman who sat in the corner of the railway carriage with her eyes shut was attracting a good deal of attention. She was very old: her white hair, whilst artfully arranged, was sparse. Her wrinkled skin was translucent, and dappled with liver spots. Despite the day’s heat, she was wearing a shapeless cardigan over a thick frock. She hadn’t moved since the train left Bishops Lydeard, and her face was wet with tears. Her mask lay crumped on the table in front of her.
“Excuse me?” Sophie hesitated in the aisle, swaying with the train’s motion. “Are you all right?”
The woman opened her eyes and smiled. “I’m deaf, dear. If you take off your mask, I can lip read.”
Sophie tugged the mask down under her chin. “We aren’t supposed to …”
“I know. It’s all right.”
Sophie unhooked her mask, letting it dangle from one hand. “You seemed kind of upset?”
“Not at all, dear. These are happy tears.” The woman wiped her face with a white handkerchief; Sophie caught a glimpse of embroidered flowers. “It’s the smell of the smoke, you see. It always takes me back.” The train shook as it passed over a rough piece of track and the woman gestured to the seat opposite her. “Why don’t you sit with me for a while – before you fall over!” She gave a little chuckle, her whole face lighting up.
Sophie glanced back at her boyfriend, who was chatting with the train guard; the two stood, swaying, deep in conversation, oblivious. The carriage jolted again; Paul had told her that the rolling stock had the wrong sort of suspension, and she guessed that was the reason for the roughness of the ride. “Thank you.” She slid onto the indicated seat. “Are you sure you’re well? And are you sure we shouldn’t be wearing our masks?”
The woman gestured to the water bottle on the table from which a wilted paper straw extruded. “I’ve got a drink, so it’s all right. I like talking to people. It’s so difficult when you can’t hear their replies.”
The train pulled to a halt at Stogumber, and Sophie’s boyfriend glanced in her direction but made no move to join her. A few people got on and off the train; doors slammed.
“We were very young.”
“Excuse me?” Sophie’s attention was drawn back to her fellow traveller.
“Me and Joe.” The old woman smiled. “A friend leant us a caravan at Minehead for our honeymoon, you see. We came down on the train. It was such a long way.” She took a deep breath as the train got under way, a cloud of coal-scented smoke wafting through the open windows and temporarily obscuring the view.
“My boyfriend’s interested in these heritage railways,” Sophie said. “It’s my first time.”
“Lovely line, this. And they made the carriages very nice last year, when they couldn’t run services.” She stroked the upholstered seat beside her with a heavily veined hand that trembled a little. “Almost like new. Almost like … I’m 97, you know; can you believe that?”
Sophie blinked, astonished. “You are?”
“Kept all my marbles.”
“And they let you …” Sophie ground to a halt, realising that what she had been about to say could have been taken as deeply insulting. She felt out of her depth; she’d never met anyone so old. Somehow she’d imagined them all shut away in homes, too feeble to engage with the real world.
“Oh yes. They know me.” The woman chuckled, and then glanced out of the window at the partly wooded slopes of the Quantock hills, beautifully green after the rains of May. “A whole week we had together, me and Joe.” Her voice quavered a little, but her words were clear. “I remember it like it was yesterday. Walking on the beach together, hand in hand, laughing and joking … we didn’t care if the sun was shining or if it was raining cats and dogs, it was enough just to be together.”
There was a long silence; Sophie didn’t like to interrupt her companion’s memories. Eventually, the woman sighed and smiled a little. “And then it was over and we went home, and he got his marching orders and went off to fight in the war. Like so many, he didn’t come back, so he never knew we’d made a baby that week.”
“That’s very sad,” Sophie said gently.
“It was the way things were.” The woman lifted her bottle of water and took a sip from the straw.
“What did you do?”
“What we all did. My parents helped, but mostly I raised my Susie on my own. She grew into a fine lass and married a nice boy. They had four children, and now I have three great-grandchildren as well, isn’t that amazing?” Sophie made the requisite noise of agreement. “But you know,” the woman sighed, “I always thought about that week, and how happy we were. I always planned to come down to Minehead again, but I was just too busy, and then it was too late – they closed the line. I thought I’d missed my chance …”
The train drew in to Williton, and Sophie’s boyfriend came through. “This isn’t our seats.”
“I’ll join you in a moment.” Sophie watched him walk past, his camera clutched in his hand, and smiled a little.
“He seems a nice boy,” her new friend confided in her. “Like my Joe, he is – tall and thin.” She sat back. “I had so wanted to ride the railway again … when I heard it had reopened, I got my grandson to buy me a ticket. And I’ve come every year since, to ride down to Minehead and remember my Joe and how happy we were.”
“Did the guards help you …?”
“Oh, my grandson put me on the train today and his daughter will meet the train at Minehead with my wheelchair. The staff are so very kind. They know me, you see. Because I come every year at the same time, to let the smoke bring back my memories.” She paused to inhale deeply as the train departed the station. “One year they tried to use a diesel engine and the staff kicked up such a fuss to make sure my ride wasn’t spoilt. I had a ticket last year, but … well, you know what happened.”
“It was a strange year,” Sophie said. “I worked from home. I only have a bedsit, but there’s a park nearby and Paul – my boyfriend – used to come and wave at me through the window, and we could zoom each other, of course. I guess I was luckier than some.”
“I was one of the lucky ones too,” the woman agreed. “The care home took good care of me. Stella died, and Marian, but … I was lucky. The internet is amazing, isn’t it? We can see our families without leaving the comfort of our armchairs.” She chuckled. “My son tried to tell me I was too old to ride on the railway this year, but when I heard it would be open again in time for our anniversary I insisted. I just wanted to smell the smoke again and remember.”
She inhaled deeply, and Sophie copied her. “It’s a very distinctive odour,” the younger woman agreed, smiling. “I won’t forget it in a hurry.”
“Perhaps you’ll have an anniversary of your own soon,” the woman said, nodding. “Make sure you have good memories, just in case. You’d better go and join your young man now. You’ll be able to see the sea soon – look out for it.”
“I will.” Sophie clambered out of the seat and, before putting her mask back on, said, “Thank you for telling me your story. I really appreciated it.”
Betty leant back as the young black woman walked away from her. The train chuffed onward toward Minhead and the sea. This would be her last journey, she thought. But that was all right; she’d be with Joe again soon – and it really wouldn’t be heaven if there were no steam trains.