Short story: Ghost Train, by Ella Hewison

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It felt as though, at last, winter was over and so I went for a walk to see if I could see the first signs of spring - I knew just where to look.

And so I went down the little road that had once led to the old station and there they were - on the grass verge, near the roots of the tallest tree, the first violets. Whatever the weather, however late or early the spring, they could be relied on.

As I knelt down to softly touch them, I remembered other days, other years but could not quite trust myself to remember the first time I saw them growing there. It was too long ago, too much had happened and I did not want to stir up old feelings. And so I left them and walked down to where the station had been.

The platform was still there, the planks rotten, with grass and weeds growing through the cracks, but there were no railway lines, they had been pulled up long ago. I looked at where the station building had been in those long-gone days when it was bright with polished brass and window boxes full of flowers and, inside, always the flickering flames of a coal fire.

I remember standing in the doorway watching Charles as he hesitated before climbing into the waiting train, not looking back to where I stood, not heeding what he had told me to do. “Don’t watch me go,” he had said. “Stay in the waiting room, please. I have to go, quickly, with no looking back, or else I will never leave you.”

And so, I stood there watching him go, knowing I might never see him again, and then the whistle blew, and he was gone, and I wished I had gone after him onto the train and been with him for just a little longer.

It was then, as I left the station, that I saw the violets for the first time. It was a long time ago, as I have said, and so much has changed, so much life has been lived. That first day might never have happened, even the old station was just a fading memory. And yet I lingered a while on what had been the platform and imagined everything as it had been, the engine, the smoke, the carriage door, the station master who was also the porter and the gardener. They all came into my mind like picture postcards of an old railway.

Then I heard it, the unmistakeable sound of a steam train, still out of sight but I could hear it clearly, feel the old familiar rhythm, hear the words we used to repeat, ‘To stop the train, pull down the chain’. I could hear it plainly, I could even smell it. It was very noisy now and I could hardly see for the smoke but, as I stepped back into what had been the waiting room, the train pulled up, as it always had, and I thought I saw the faint outline of a familiar figure, and I heard Charles’ voice as he said: “Don’t watch me go.”

And again I stood in the doorway and again felt the same pain as I watched him board the train but this time, I shouted, “No, I’m coming with you,” and I ran across the platform but my steps were heavy and slow, and the doors were slammed, and the whistle blown and, once more, I stood alone and forlorn on the empty platform.

I looked down and saw that the planks were broken, there were no railway lines, no station building, and all that was left of the old steam train was a faint reminder of the smoke, a sort of atmospheric change. What had it been? A memory come alive, a hallucination, a temporary insanity? Time to forget it, I thought, and go home for a good strong cup of tea.

But walking back down the old station road and past the few old cottages left from the olden days, I stopped to pass the time of day with an old man I had often spoken to before. Impulsively, I asked him if he had heard any strange noises coming from the old station.

“You mean the ghost train? Can’t say I ever heard it. Just one of those old stories people like to tell. They used to say it came back to pick someone up who missed it, or something like that. Something to do with the war, they said.”

A ghost train, I thought to myself. I missed my chance a second time and lost, perhaps forever, a second chance to spend a few more hours with Charles before he was sent overseas. And then I told myself not to be so silly and set off again for that cup of tea. But first I wandered back down the station road to look once more at the violets growing, as always, by the roots of the tallest tree.

Impulsively, I picked one little flower and put it between the pages of my diary – just a little something to remind me of Charles and the ghost of an old steam train.