Maud Kerne sat down in the waiting room, an hour early as always for the London to Penzance, as she had done for the last nine years. Like a scratched ‘78’ of her sister’s, nine times she had taken the journey, always at the same time of year – the limbo between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Time to kill in the hangover of the twenty-fifth – the glamour of the season faded with the false sentiment, smiles dropped like pine needles on the carpet. She could stomach no more cold turkey, the anticlimax of it all, and was glad to be on her way. Staying with Constance, enduring her noisy twins and, worse, the attentions of Archibald, her brother-in-law, was always wearying. Not that she was ungrateful to be taken in at this time. In fact, it had become something of a tradition. Tradition: one of those ridiculous things people mindlessly adopt, she thought, because it has had happened before.
Yet wasn’t that what she was doing? Playing the dutiful widow. And she did not even know if her husband was dead. The body had never been found. Missing in action – the words haunted her. Against all reason she held on to the shred of hope that he had not been killed. That one day he would turn up again. Yet nine years had passed and there had been no sign of him. So she had to face the unpleasant choice: either he had survived and deserted her, or he was dead.
Her life had been in limbo. Unable to grieve, unable to move on.
In the aftermath of her husband’s official death she had appreciated the support of her sister and brother-in-law, the only family she had left, but now it seemed like a chore. All Yuletide she had yearned for the solitude of her annual journey. Even in swarming Paddington she felt more alone than in the forced intimacy of a semi-detached in Eastbourne. Life roared around her, but it seemed far away. Like a gas lamp turned low, she had withdrawn into herself, and if the others waiting to depart were not so preoccupied or torpid, they might have been unnerved by the sullen statue in their midst. She was a pariah. A woman alone. Yet the first time she had taken the journey she had not been.
Was it nearly quarter of a century since that first trip with her future husband?
Maud Kerne needed a holiday. That was what her work colleagues all said. And her sister, her brother-in-law, and Maggie, her best friend. Anybody would think they were trying to get rid of her. ‘Maud – take a holiday,’ they insisted. And so here she was, waiting for the Holiday Line.Yet was it the beginning or the end of the line, this terminus?
The sounds of the vast station echoed around her, volume modulated by the opening and closing of the frosted door. Through the window of the waiting room she saw the cathedral-like iron arches that reached overhead like a tree canopy or cage, an iron cage. A wonder of its age they had called it, or perhaps the belly of the whale for all the lost souls on life’s road. But not Maud – oh no, she knew exactly where she was going. She should do: it was a journey she had taken many times before, in honour of her husband – commemorating their first trip to Glastonbury in 1900, when he had proposed to her on the Tor. It was her pilgrimage to him, her way of remembering; not that she had ever forgotten. The events of that summer in 1914 were engraved on her mind like the hot metal of a press.
A man with a walrus moustache rustled a copy of The Times. She snatched a half-read headline: ‘Mussolini cr— his Rubicon ... marches to Rome.’ The Tatler gave an office-worker a glamorous face. Another paper veil, another wall of privacy. A poster for the new magazine Good Housekeeping showed a beaming housewife advertising a ‘miraculous’ labour-saving device called a vacuum cleaner. Just what Maud needed – something to cleanse the void inside her. Her empty life. So hollow without her Sammy. Like this echo chamber, she thought; Narcissus long vanished, announcements distorted on tannoys, some higher authority issuing incomprehensible dictums, conducting chaos.
She pulled her rabbit fur trimmed coat around her. Shades of brown, like the rest of her. She was a study in brown. Hair, eyes, shoes, stockings, skirt, jacket, hat. Her skin was wan, its pallor not artificial, like those modern girls all-made up. Bold as brass, a young lady applied lipgloss in the mirror above the waiting room mantelpiece, to the withering looks of the matrons and the admiration of the stiff-collared men. Long legged, a slimness exaggerated by the long tight dress, her hair in waves. ‘Is that a shingle?’ someone wondered. ‘A dead-ringer for Louise Brooks,’ murmured a man to his friend. Thoroughly modern like Maggie, Maud’s would-be flapper friend, whereas Maud tended to blend into the background. Fine. Maud did not want life to notice her any more, but she already felt like a ghost. The phantom of platform five,that’s what they should call her.
There was a chorus of coughing. Maud’s skin crawled at the thought of all those winter germs and bad habits, the room reeking of pipe tobacco and cough sweets. The air swirled with smoke, highlighted in the shafts of pale winter sunlight. Like the Athena auditorium, Maud thought, or a chambered barrow at midwinter, she could imagine her husband saying. He never liked the pictures. Preferred long walks in the countryside. Preferred his own way in many things. Even death, it seemed.
Maud’s gaze wandered. Plain walls were given a touch of reflected glamour by film-posters advertising the latest releases. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis depicted a woman encased in metal, trapped, like Maud, in the city, in her life, in herself. Yet the pictures offered her escape. She enjoyed the Saturday matinees. After evenings of marking essays she needed to do something less cerebral, although nothing could match a good book – her first and deepest love. A heavy tome awaited her in her hand luggage, a Christmas present, but it could wait. She wanted to savour every page on the train, when it felt like lying in the arms of her Sammy, reading in bed, rocked gently to sleep.
She looked at the time on the wall and recalled ‘a pair of glasses and a smile’ Harold Lloyd in Safety Last hanging on to the clock-face, as it buckled under his weight, as if melting in his hands ... And, oh, how she would melt into Valentino’s gaze in The Sheik. He would hypnotise her and she would be completely in his power, like Lil Dagover carried away by the spectral somnambulist Conrad in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Yet looking around her at the sleepy torpor of bodies, Maud wondered, aren’t they all sleepwalking through life?
And what was this around her except smoke and mirrors?
From the counter in the corner of the room, steam billowed out from a brightly polished silver urn. ‘Tea’s ready,’ said the dour maid, and people began to queue up. Like pilgrims for their ointment, thought Maud. Here, in this new temple of modernity – where modern-day pilgrims flock. A Canterbury for iron horses. All around her, relic seekers returned home with their pieces of a saint – Saint Nicholas.
A red-faced porter grumbled into the grate, attempting to stoke some life into the fire.
‘It doesn’t seem to want to get going this morning,’ he said, half to himself.
Nothing does, thought Maud. The world had ground to a halt. Frozen solid. Dead still. Like her life.
She caught her reflection in the mirrored door as an old lady entered – forgetting to shut it, to a tirade of complaints about the draught. Maud looked long-faced and thin-lipped. She had never been beautiful, but her summer had turned to autumn all too quickly, and winter was in the wings.
Her life had been whittled away by teaching. The faces changed, but the roles remained: the bully, the swot, the shy one, the troublemaker. Set texts and set in their ways. No room for innovation at the LewesGrammar School for Girls – where she had commuted to from Eastbourne for the last twenty years.
Time dilated as she daydreamed … The faces of the past rose and receded before her, like waves breaking. Where had all her friends gone? They had got on with their own lives, moved away, settled down, had families. All she had was Nubi. Her neighbour was looking after the lurcher for her – her sister would not tolerate him in the house. He must be missing her dreadfully, the great soft oaf. A pang of guilt went out to him. He had been her constant companion through these troubled years – she must take him on a long walk when she got back home.
9.49. The large clock clicked on, relentless. Forward, it seemed to shout. Forward! A speeding locomotive, unstoppable. Forget the past! Think of the future! Look! Look! Yet we exist on a knife-edge, Maud observed with the clarity of an outsider. The split-second that is now.
Maud checked her own pocket watch – a large station-master’s one. A memento of Sammy’s – a gift from the railways. The only thing of his she kept with her at all times, though it was too heavy ‘for a lady’. It looked like his compass – yet she had lost true North. It had proven false. No higher authority. No guiding goodness. How could there be, for the Great War to be allowed to happen? For her husband to be ‘killed’ in the first month? To Maud, C of E, it was God who died that day. Mere anarchy was let loose, and she was left on the naked shingles of the world.
She held the watch and imagined her husband near. Imagined him setting off to work. The lines he surveyed for all of these people to travel on … like his namesake, Brunel. He had followed in the footsteps of that great man – and now she followed in his. Yet so many branch-lines had become dead-ends, failed attempts. But in his explorations he found older routes ... Renegotiating the conversion of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s safer, smoother broad-gauge to Stevenson’s narrow wasn’t Sammy’s magnum opus, his research into ancient alignments was to be … But we are all tram-lined in one way or another, thought Maud bitterly. What choices had she been offered? As a woman she had few, as a widow even less. Yet she would never regret having chosen Sammy – one thing in her life she had got right.
Maud caressed the watch’s smooth silvery surface like a talisman. She traced her kid-glove fingers over the lovingly polished copperplate engraving on the back:
To Isambard Kerne, surveyor for the GWR
For excellence in performance of duties
It should have been given to Isambard when he retired – but he’d never reached retirement age. The Great War saw to that. The surveyor’s skills were needed in the skies above
Belgium, where the average lifespan of an airman was seventeen-and-a-half hours, she’d remembered reading once: a little bit of trivia masking so vast a tragedy. And so it had been given to his widow as a keepsake.
As if it could ever compensate for the lost time.
The bells broke her reverie. At the chimes, Maud rose, smoothing her skirt. Time to make her way to the platform edge. A middle-aged veteran in a medalled red jacket opened the door for her, puffing out his chest like a rooster. She smiled weakly and passed.
Outside the waiting room, life swarmed like the restless pigeons – trapped inside the iron cage like the rest of them. One of the bedraggled grey birds hobbled on a rotten leg. As she strode by they rose into the air with a bustling indignation, like WI members being told to move their meeting. To the staccato of her heels, the rustle of her fur and false silk, Maud passed through the crowds, the luggage trains, in a dream, in a daze.
Omnibuses pulled up, disgorging their contents. All stations were desolate places, Maud thought. Everybody wanting to be somewhere else.
She recalled holding her husband’s hand – shy smiles, the excitement of that first trip – their first time away, she still a student of English literature in her final year at SomervilleCollege, Oxford. The innocence of the new century awaited them. Anything was possible. That was nearly twenty five years ago. Since then the century had been steeped in too much blood. It seemed tainted beyond redemption.
Around Maud, daily life continued as if ‘The War to End All Wars’ had never happened – soldiers and flower-sellers, gentlemen and their sweethearts, dowagers with tiny dogs, businessman in bowler hats, salesmen with carpet-bags, families saying farewell or being greeted, children being told off. The hue and cry was deafening - shrieks of steam, slammings of carriage doors, blowings of whistles, trundling trolleys, puffing porters. The hustle and bustle was like a tea dance to which Maud had not been invited, the dance unknown, the music provided by a drunken orchestra.
Beneath a banner of ‘Blood and Fire’, a Salvation Army band were playing Christmas hymns on a collection of brass wind instruments. They had just launched into a dour rendition of ‘Silent Night.’ A black-uniformed woman rattled a tin at onlookers. Then a squeaking made Maud look down: on a make-shift cart a man with no legs, dressed in a soiled threadbare uniform, but with a medal on his chest, wheeled his way in front of the crowd, wielding an empty tin cup in his teeth. He dropped it in his lap and caught her eye. ‘Spare a penny, missus?’ Most tried to ignore him, but an enraged gentleman, whose wife was in tears, asked the guard for the beggar to be removed. Maud dropped in a ha’penny to scowls and carried on. ‘God bless you, lady.’ She did not look back.
Feedback pierced the hall, then a metallic voice on the tannoy announced, ‘The 10.30 Penzance Express is now boarding, platform 5.’ There was a sudden movement of people – but she was already there, at the head of the queue forming behind her. Maud flashed her pass at the ticket inspector. He smiled, knowing she was ‘one of them’ as a staff dependant. She bridled at his knowingness – she detested all forms of familiarity. Indignantly, she passed through the gate on to the platform.
Porter’s trolleys rattled passed. Her luggage had already been sent in advance – a trunk sewn into canvas. All she had with her was her hand luggage. So efficient, these thoroughly modern times, as Maggie kept reminding her. Everything moving faster and faster – to where? Where did that sacred cow Progress get them? Mechanised warfare. The wholesale slaughter of a whole generation. For those who die as cattle. Only poetry gave some indication of the full horror of the so-called Great War. The poems of the doomed had gripped her like dispatches from the Front.
The flower girl shivered by her dried blooms. Maud walked through the station like a ghost. No one could hear her in this dumb show, which had become like a silent motion picture to her, flickering in black and white. The train hurtled towards her. The damsel on the tracks. No one to rescue her. Her husband had been tied to his job, and she to him. Yet the Suffragettes on the railings had not wanted rescuing. Had all their efforts been in vain? Now she had to pay her own way, or it was the poorhouse for her. Her parents were gone, and she was too proud to ask for her sister’s charity. She could imagine the smugness of Constance – it was bad enough that she gave Maud her cast-offs. How skew-whiff, for the oldest sister to be living off hand-me-downs! Yet, she had been living in someone else’s skin all her life.
Maud could feel a migraine coming on. The scene diminished as if she looked at it from the wrong end of a telescope. She saw the newly-deads alighting, or queuing up for their next life. The carriages brought fresh arrivals, singly or in pairs from disease, assaults or traffic accidents, to whole villages from massacres and disasters. Confused and lost, with questions on their brows - ‘There’s been a mistake on my ticket ...’ ‘I got on the wrong train ...’ ‘How do I get home?’ ‘Where’s mummy?’ An old lady called out for her husband – on a different train. The guard could not stop the train, would not let her get on; panicking, forgetting decorum, she ran along, crying, until she fell, sobbing. Her husband placed a hand against the window, his breath misting the glass. Maud’s mind whirled. She steadied herself against a girder. Did death lead to rebirth? New destinies, new lives? Yet nobody could choose their destination. They had already been enrolled in their next life lesson. It had been decided for them, according to their grades.
Maud had to sit down for a moment on a pile of cases. A gang of grubby children hung about there, waiting for their beleaguered parents to finishing loading their luggage. They danced around in a circle, singing over and over again:
In Fleet Street, in Fleet Street,
The people are so fleet;
They barely touch the cobble stones,
With their nimble feet.
The lads run like a windy day,
The lasses run like rain,
From Temple Bar to Ludgate Hill,
And then run back again.
Recovering a little, and concerned that people would notice, she pushed passed them, irritated. Maud hated to be late. To have to rush. She had got there in good time. Had it all planned to perfection. Life ran like clockwork until people got in the way.
From unheated Third Class blue-faced passengers stepped from the open carriages. Everyone knew their place on God’s Wonderful Railway. It was a cast-iron caste system.
On billboards, pastel seaside posters for the ‘Holiday Line’ promoted the golden delights of the Cornish Riviera. Yet the colour was drained from the land, and from the people beginning to feel the pinch of hard times. Thin shaped women, thin faces, thin lives. It was a threadbare world. From a dog-eared and mouldy poster, Lord Kitchener challenged with his pointing finger: ‘Your Country Needs You!’ How many had bled for that patriotic call to arms?
Disgusted with its lies, she hurried away and bumped into a tall smartly-dressed man. The impact made Maud drop her purse. It fell at the feet of the stranger.
‘I’m terribly sorry! Here, let me help you.’ Immediately, he leant down to pick it up.
Flustered, Maud snatched back the purse, all composure gone. She offered a polite but icy ‘Thank you’ and, before the man could speak, she scuttled on. The shock of intimacy had unsettled her more than the accident. He had looked right at her!
Ever since her husband’s vanishing, she had been twitchy around men. She lived her life half-expecting one to tap her on the shoulder and say, ‘Maud, darling, it’s me - your Sammy. I’m back!’ So jumpy had she become of the opposite sex, she had acquired a reputation in her small social circle as something of a Suffragette.
Maud tried to regain her composure as she approached the platform. The gleaming engine was resplendent in the GWR livery.
She had to get on that train before any more unexpected encounters!
There was a scurry of movement towards the carriage – its doors gaped open, ready to eat. As the throng swarmed down platform 5, there seemed to be a commotion holding everybody up. First the purse, now this - it was one of those mornings! Cursing under her breath, Maud pushed past – and then she saw what gripped the bystanders’ ghoulish attention A young man was having a turn. He was dressed smartly enough, Maud thought - he couldn’t be a derelict. It looked as though he was having some kind of fit – twisting, frothing at the mouth, holding his head, staring wild-eyed at the people around him.
Then he screamed: ‘Heads down! Heads down, lads! Heads down! Hunhunhunnn. Nuhnuhnnunnnn.’
Bystanders stared at him like at a freak show, or an exhibit in a medical museum, talking about him as if he wasn’t there or was some kind of dumb animal.
‘One of those shellshock nutters, by the looks of things.’
‘The noise must have triggered it off.’
‘Shouldn’t be allowed in public.’
‘Cowardice – that’s what it is. Not a real man. Should take it on the chin. My Albert did.’
‘It’s just an act.’
‘Why isn’t he in a home?’
‘Electric shocks – that’s what he needs.’
‘Walk in the country.’
‘A good woman.’
The soldier looked at Maud. Stared into her soul. She blanched.
Don’t. Stop. I didn’t mean to live, forgive me,his eyes implored.
Then he spoke to her. ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary. Got a light, mate. Got a light?’
Maud’s eyes widened. She was transfixed, as if her deepest desire or terror was displayed before her.
‘I – I don’t smoke,’ she said.
‘Light?’ he pleaded.
‘Sorry – I’m so sorry.’
He noticed her response. She was not mocking or shouting at him.
Sensing some rapport, the man walked quickly to her, stumbled on to his knees, reached out, whining, drooling. Maud flinched, horrified.
Children screeched with laughed, teasing, dancing around him, singing:
The lads run like a windy day,
The lasses run like rain.
To their terror and delight he joined in, slathering, swaying, clapping hands out of time.
The station clock read 10.27. Out of time! Maud had to get on that train, but the onlookers blocked the platform.
‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses ... We all fall down, we all fall down ... All the king’s horses, all the king’s men ... Couldn’t put Humpty together again ... He marched them up to the top of the hill … All fall down ... Jack fell down and broke his crown ... And Jill came tumbling after. And Jill came tumbling after …’
Maud recoiled, distraught. She had to get away. She had to get on that train!
And scared Miss Muffet away.
With a final effort she stumbled onto the carriage, heart pounding.
And Jill came tumbling after.
Men grabbed him, but he pulled free, and lunged at window, screaming. You’re differenthe seemed to say with his eyes; you understand. Steam screamed from vents like ghosts in the machine. Shafts and pistons shifted, spat. The juggernaut groaned to life. A whistle blew. A police constable had been called over.
‘Pack up your troubles in the old kit bag,’ he sang.
An attempt was made to grab him. There was a scuffle. The constable’s hat was knocked off. The crowd watched on, amused. Faces leered from the carriage windows.
‘Mummy, why is that man silly?’
‘Because he was in the war, Berty.’
‘Right, I am arresting you. Name?’ said the red-faced policeman. ‘Name?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘He’s the Unknown Warrior,’ someone joked – but it died.
The guard blew his whistle, then jumped into the brake van. The engine let out a burst of steam. There was a shunt, as all the carriages fell in line - then slowly, ponderously, inexorably, they moved off. Well-wishers waved at the departing, or blew kisses, determined to play out their own script regardless of disruption, deliver their rehearsed lines, against a backdrop of hecklings.
Suddenly, the man broke free and lunged at the window, pressing his face against the glass. Bloodshot eyes fixed Maud in the corridor of the carriage. He could be my lover, wishing me goodbye. My Sammy.
Then he was grabbed by policemen and dragged away.
Shaking, Maud reached for her watch. It always reassured her in times of stress. She stared at the frozen filigree hands. They had stopped. In a stupor, she checked the time again: 10.01.
It could not fail – it was her only anchor! She had only wound it that morning, as she always had. Must have been the collision with that gentleman, she thought, with sickening realisation. She held the watch tightly, pressing its cold metal against her skull.
The train creaked west.
A sallow-faced ticket inspector asked where she was going with a West Country twang to his voice. Where was she going, indeed?
‘To Glastonbury,’ she curtly replied. ToAvalon, she thought, remembering her husband’s fey comment when they had first made that trip, the Isle of the Dead.
Maud wanted to cry but nothing came. She had not been able to cry since her husband had vanished. People thought her callous. But every grey hair upon her head spoke of the tears she had not shed. She hid her face behind her hands as the rain began to fall.
The face of the soldier haunted her mind. She could still see him, pressed against the window screen, like a portrait of anguish – The Cry of Munch made flesh. And in the rhythm of the carriage and the rain’s drumming, she heard the taunting echo of the children’s song:
The lads run like a windy day,
The lasses run like rain.
Extract from The Long Woman by Kevan Manwaring, awen 2004
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2009
Not to be reproduced in any format without author's permission