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“Nanny, why is that grave covered in iron?”

“Well, Ellie, that’s a question and a story.”

“Please tell me Nanny.”

“Very well. Sit down here on this bench in the sun and I’ll explain to you. When I was a girl about your age, my Nanny told me the story that she’d been told by her Nanny. It goes like this.

“You know that you’re always told not to go into the deep woods alone, especially at night or in the winter?”

“Yes, Nanny.”

“And you know why?”

“The Faer folk, Nannny, they might take a liking to me and keep me for their own. Then I’ll never grow up and marry and if I ever come back everything will have changed and no one will know me except for some old lady who was my friend at school and is really my age and I’ll have to live with strangers and no-one will marry me and I might be forced to move away.” Ellie gasped for breath.

“That’s right, Ellie my love. But do you know why people know all of that?”

“No, Nanny. I though you just did.”

“Well, it’s to do with that grave and a story my great, great Nanny told us.”

Ellie squirmed a little closer to her Nanny on the bench and looked up into her tanned, craggy face.

“Please tell me Nanny.”

“Very well, but sit still and listen carefully.

“Many years ago a young girl, about 16, pretty and unmarried went to the woods one afternoon to gather some bluebells for the dinner table. But when she got there she sat down to rest, for it had been a hard winter on the farm and she wanted to enjoy the spring air. She soon lay down with her head on her coat for a pillow and fell asleep.”

“Oh no, Nanny, she mustn’t do that!”

“Well, you know that and so do I, but she didn’t.

“Anyway, while she was asleep it fell dark and the Faer Folk came out to play among the flowers and make their music and dance their dances. The girl awoke to the noise and instead of running or shouting she started to sing. Now one of the Faer men immediately fell in love with her. He started to dance with her,” Ellie gasped, “and soon she was so caught up in the dancing and singing that she had been there all night. So when he offered her some wine and bread she took it without thinking.”

“No, she mustn’t eat Faer food!”

“No, she mustn’t. But she did, so you know what happens then don’t you Ellie?”

“Yes, she had to stay with the Faer Folk for ever and ever and never grow up and never get married and…”

Nanny gently interrupted Ellie.

“That’s right.

“So the girl lived with the Faer Folk for many years and she took the Faer man who loved her and married him in the Faer way. They lived happily and time passed outside the Faer world quickly, as it does. The people of the village looked for her for many months but in the end her mother decided to stop the search. Everyone thought her dead, so they held a funeral and dug that grave and put a stone up for her but never did it have a body in it for many the year.

“In Faer Land the girl was going to have a baby. Now Faer Folk and humans can make babies, but pure human mothers have a very hard time with them. Eventually it looked like the girl was dying. The Faer king spoke to her husband. He said: ‘You must take her to the human village and find a midwife who can help.’

“So the Faer husband did just that. Now it happened that about 60 human years had passed while she was in the Faer Land and the village midwife was the younger sister of the girl. The midwife recognised her sister immediately so she helped her and carefully nursed her until her daughter was born. Once the girl was born the midwife hatched a plot to separate the Faer Man and his wife so that she could keep her sister and niece with her in the village. She told the Faer man that his wife needed a lot of human medicine and that to return to the Faer Land would kill her. Then she reminded him that if he stayed in our world the amount of iron around would make him grow old and ugly very quickly. She suggested that he go home and leave his wife to be cared for by her relatives.

“But the Faer man loved his wife and daughter and did not want to return to Faer Land without them. So he decided to stay and grow old and ugly just to be with her. So, even as his wife started to grow older and more beautiful, he became bent and ill, his face became lined and he died even while his wife was still young.

“Now, while he had lived in the village he had been a good worker and a good Christian, so his wife wanted him buried in the church yard. Some of the villagers did not like that idea, but the vicar was a kindly man, if somewhat stupid, and agreed. So the grave that had been dug for the girl was opened up and the Faer man’s coffin put in to it. Many people came to the funeral, for he was a well liked man, and his wife sang for him, something similar to the song they first danced to.

“The lady grew old in the normal way. But she always loved her Faer husband, so she never remarried and, helped by her beautiful daughter, she tended his grave daily. Eventually she died a very old lady and was buried with her husband. Her daughter married and went to be a farmer’s wife, and so could not tend the grave quite so often.

“So life went on, until about six months later the church gardener started to notice piles of soil in the church yard near the grave. He put it down to moles and put down some poison but still they came. Now the people of the village started to wonder if it was the Faer Folk coming to claim the bodies. So they had the blacksmith build an iron cage and put it around the grave. Stories say it goes eight feet down and there’s not enough room for an adult hand to fit in to it anywhere.

“Since then there’s been no moles in the church yard. And no one’s seen the Faer Folk in the village, although they are still sometimes to be seen up on the hill in the woods.”

“Is it a true story, Nanny?”

“Go and touch the iron railings, Ellie. Over there, on the sunny side so I can see you.”

“Nanny, they’re really warm! I thought iron was cold.”

“It’s warm to those of Faer blood, Ellie. For you see the girl was my Nanny’s mother.

Now come on, your mother will have that Sunday roast about perfect by now and we’ll need to wash our hands and faces for dinner.”

(c) Chris Johnson 2017 & 2019

Author’s note. There are some interesting graves dotted around all over the country and the Peak District, where I saw the graves which inspired this story, is certainly no exception. Each grave tells the story of a life, some shorter than others some more action packed than others. This story was inspired by two specific graves. I won’t mention the names or locations as that may be offensive to the living relatives. I’ll just suggest to my readers that if you are near a graveyard and have some time, take a walk around and think about the people whose lives are commemorated in that quiet, peaceful space. 

The wreckage lay in the sun. Twisted, charred and burned. Ticking and groaning as it cooled.

In Nevada the choppers scrambled. Men in black racing the locals to the scene.

Perimeter set, the clean up begins.

All of the evidence, both of the small grey bodies, removed.

To Area 51.

(c) Chris Johnson 2018

Friday evening.

“But mum, it smells!”

“There’s no phone signal!”

I’ve got to walk all the way over there for the loo?”

“What if it rains?”

“What are we supposed to do now the tent’s up?”

“What do you mean we have to cook our own tea?”

“Can we go to the bar?”

 

Saturday morning.

“I didn’t get any sleep.”

“It’s too noisy, I was hearing things all night!”

“My sleeping bag is too uncomfortable.”

“My air bed is too soft!”

Where can I plug in my hair straighteners?”

“What are we supposed to be doing now?”

“Why can’t we just go home?”

 

Saturday afternoon.

“That was awesome!”

“Yeah, who knew how much fun the countryside could be?”

“I didn’t know you could ride a bike Mum!”

“I think the man at the hire shop fancied you Mum!”

“Wait ‘til I post my photos!”

“Let me see the one of the cute lambs again?”

“Can we bar b que for dinner?”

“Can I cook the burgers?”

“I’m going to sleep tonight, I’m tired already!”

 

Sunday morning.

“I’ve never slept so well.”

“It’s so cool to wake up to the birds singing!”

“Wow mum, bacon sarnies!”

“Cool, I love bacon!”

“Is that the fresh bread we bought yesterday?”

“Fab, I’ve never tasted bread that good before!”

“I can’t be bothered to straighten my hair and do my make up.”

“What can we do today?”

“I don’t want to go home yet!”

 

Monday morning.

“I didn’t sleep at all.”

“Me neither, the bed’s too hard.”

“And it’s noisy, I heard cars passing all night.”

“And the smell of exhaust fumes, yeuch!”

“And the duvet kept falling off, I want my sleeping bag.”

“I have to get up sooo early to do my hair and make up. It was much more fun when I didn’t have to bother.”

“And we have to sit in stuffy classrooms all day instead of being outside.”

“I want a tent in the garden.”

“I want to go camping again!”

“Can we, mum, can we? Next weekend maybe?”

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2018

“Paul! It is you?”

I turn and walk, speed up. He taps my shoulder.

“Paul, I know it’s you. Where have you been?”

Prison, but that’s not the point.

“Come on Paul, let’s get a drink?”

I turn again.

“Come on mate?” Less certain.

I walk away, dialling.

“Witness Protection. How can we help?”

“I’m blown!” I reply.

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2018

Horses gallop across a field, their riders in red trumpeting and hooting, jumping over aeons old dry-stone walls and churning the ground to mud. Ranks of men, women and children line up against a wall. Sickles, scythes, knives and rusty shovels at the ready. Blood mud and carnage as they meet. Unearthly sounds break the day, screams from horses, men and ravens waiting their meals. Walls destroyed allow cows and sheep to stand sentinel to the madness, witness to the carnage but too afraid to get any closer. Hours later survivors pick over the corpses looking for their loved ones, their sons, husbands, lovers, or filching clothes and valuables from the bodies while Valkyries circle, waiting their moment to swoop.

In London the presses run the headlines. ‘The revolution has begun’

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

PA250058.JPGHarry Farnsworth loved the engine sheds. Especially at night when red glow of the fires and the steam and heat from the boilers changed the hulking locomotives from cold iron and steel into living, breathing beasts and the boilers turned the sheds in to the warmest place in Derbyshire. The smell, the noise, the comradery all made the decision to come out of retirement to drive the engines again an easy one. Even if it meant driving limestone and coal down a branch line rather than steaming up and down the main lines with hundreds of passengers. All in all, Harry thought to himself, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good and the wars in Europe hadn’t done him any harm. Driving troops in France during the First World War, then brought out of retirement to drive again in 1941, they’d probably made him the man he was. And two years on he still liked the man he was. Tall, wiry, a full head of white hair, and smartly dressed in clean trousers, a tweed jacket, clean shirt and tie, waistcoat and solid work boots.

Eric, his regular fireman, was already on the plate and building the fire under the boiler when Harry climbed up on to the plate.

‘Evening Eric.’

Eric grunted a reply and carried on with his job. The two men had worked together long enough to not need to speak. Everything that had needed to be said had been said years before. Both quick to anger, and even quicker to forgive, they’d had their fist fights and equally forgiven each other again over countless pints. Always underpinned with admiration and acceptance that the other man was the best in the company at what he did.

Harry took a clean piece of rag out of his jacket pocket and carefully wiped down the brass handles and faces of the dials. Then he walked around the engine and tender, speaking to all of the engineers before checking with his brake man, Charlie, who would ride in the last carriage. Climbing back aboard, he waited for another nod and grunt from Eric before slowly reversing the engine out of the shed and coupling up his load for the night.

‘Limestone to Uttoxeter, back with coal.’ Ernie Foxton, the yard foreman shouted up to him. ‘You should have a clean run, you’re the first out tonight and all of the afternoon traffic has cleared the branch. It’s foggy in the valley though, so watch for signals.’

Harry threw a mock salute. He had little respect for men like Foxton. Young enough to fight, but hiding in reserved occupations. He made one last check of the valves, waited for Eric to nod, then pulled out of the yard and accelerated to a steady speed.

Seven miles down the line they came to their first signal box. The next five miles of the line followed the river valley. This stretch was Harry’s favourite stretch of line on a warm summer day. The river glinting in the sun, cows and sheep in the fields and often children waving from the riverside. On these autumn nights, though, it always seemed colder in the valley bottom and on foggy nights like this one it was impossible to see more than a few yards in front of the engine.

‘I don’t like this fog, Eric.’

‘Me neither.’

The signal was for them, as they expected, and when they passed the box George Hart, the signalman, waved and smiled.

‘Look at him. Sat there in his warm dry box. He should be fighting.’ Harry said, as he threw his second mock salute of the night. The he added, for Eric, ‘We’ll have a brew when we’ve cleared the valley.’ Eric nodded and went back to shovelling coal while Harry strained to see ahead. Suddenly he shouted and pulled on the brakes.

‘Red light, there’s something on the track!’

The locomotive, with all of the weight behind it, took nearly a quarter of a mile to stop. There was nothing obvious in front of them. Harry sent Charlie back up the line to tell the signalman that they’d had a near miss, while Eric and Harry searched the line for anything that could have given off the red light. They found nothing, although as Eric said.

‘Can’t see toffee in this dark and fog anyhow.’

After an hour, with all four men searching and nothing obvious being found, they remounted the engine and finished their work for the night with no more incidents.

 

‘Farnsworth, can I have a word please?’ Harry stopped short as Ernie called across the sheds to him. ‘Now please.’ Harry turned and walked in to his office.

‘Yes?’ he asked.

‘I’m going to have to send you home, Farnsworth, just until the doctor’s checked you out.’

‘Why?’

‘After that scare yesterday. We need to know your eyes are up to it.’

‘My eyes? Better than yours have ever been you little…’

‘Don’t make this worse, Farnsworth. Go home. The doctor will be with you as soon as he’s finished his evening surgery. All being well you’re back on the job tomorrow night.’

Harry formed a fist, then thought better of it and stretched his hand out again. Without saying anything he walked out of the sheds and back home. The company doctor arrived ten minutes later.

‘Evening Harry. What’s this about then, last time I checked you had the best eyes on the line?’

‘Still do, doctor, but because of that no one else saw what I saw.’

‘Tell me the story.’

As the doctor examined him Harry explained what had happened the night before.

‘Could it have been a bicycle light, or a car, that moved on?’

‘Not with the blackout, no. It was a rail light on low and it wasn’t moving. We should have run in to the back of a stationery train. But it wasn’t there. Maybe I am just too old for this.’

‘Well, I’m giving you a clean bill of health. And there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight. So if you saw something, it was probably there.’

 

That night Harry did not sleep, so at dawn he walked to the site of the incident and from there down the line to where he thought the light had been. He first walked the line and then searched the undergrowth alongside it. After an hour he thought to himself, there’s nothing here. Maybe I am ready for the knacker’s yard. As he turned to walk back up the line he saw the sunlight glint off something red at the side of the tracks. He bent to pick it up. It was broken red glass. He looked again and found more and finally he found the crushed remains of a metal lamp attached to a broken stick. I knew I saw something. Here it is he thought.

Harry walked to the signal box and asked George Hart to send a message up the line to the depot. An hour later Ernie Foxton dropped off a slow moving engine as it passed. Harry took him and showed him the damaged light. Ernie looked at it, then turned to Harry.

‘I think we need to leave that where it is and call the police, Harry, that looks like it was set to stop you and I can’t think of any good reason why anyone would want to do that. I’ll go to the signal box and call for the police. You wait here.’

Harry found a rock to sit on and watched Ernie walk up the line. He waited for an hour before he started to get worried, but when neither the Ernie nor the police arrived he decided he needed to go after them. He took off his tie and left it tied to a fence post as a marker, and set off up the tracks. As he neared the junction box he saw George walking towards him in front of the box. His hair was a mess, his tie askew and he looked like he had a tear in the knee of his trousers.

‘What are you doing on the line, Farnsworth?’ George shouted.

‘Have you seen Foxton?’ Harry replied. ‘He came to use the telephone in your box.’

‘No, I’ve not seen him’.

By this time the men had almost met. Harry looked again at George and could see that he had marks on his face like he’d just been in a fight.

‘You ok Hart?’

‘Just go away, Farnsworth, there’s a good lad.’

‘You don’t talk to me like that!’

Harry was about to give George a mouthful of abuse when he saw a hand waving in the signal box window.

‘Who’s that in your box?’ He asked. George didn’t even look before he answered

‘No one. Your eyes must be paying tricks again.’

Harry didn’t hesitate, he thumped George square on the jaw, knocking him to the floor. While George was on the ground Harry ran up to the signal box, where he found Ernie gagged and partly tied to a chair and looking almost as bad as George did. Harry pulled the gag out of his mouth.

‘Quick, raise the alarm.’ He said.

Harry sounded the alarm signal then pulled all of the signals to stop just in case. When he looked out of the window he could see that George was coming back towards them, and he had a pistol in his hand. Harry locked the box door and pulled the chair with Ernie still in it and himself behind the cast iron stove. As the first bullet hit the stove he prayed for the first time since 1917. His prayer was answered as there was no second bullet, just the sound of George cursing his jammed gun, in German. The two men looked at each other, then Harry stood up, picked up a crow bar kept for prising apart frozen points, unlocked the door and calmly hit the retreating George across the back of the head, causing him to fall down the signal box stairs. When he landed his left leg pointed in the wrong direction from the knee, and he was ranting in German to himself. Harry picked up the gun, put it in his pocket, then untied Ernie.

 

The Police arrived and took George away to Derby in an ambulance. Over two days he was interrogated by them, then the army, and finally someone from Military Intelligence. He refused to give up his secrets. The intelligence officer eventually came to interview Harry.

‘Evans, Intelligence.’ He said by way of introduction. ‘Jolly good show with that Nazi, old man. Wonder if I can ask you a few questions?’

Harry looked him up and down. He was almost as tall as Harry was, with a blue pinstripe suit, beige raincoat, trilby hat and a rolled umbrella.

‘Come in. There’s tea in the pot.’ He said, ‘Evans was it?’

‘Evans? Oh, yes that’s it. Evans.’

Harry explained in some detail what had happened. Evans asked him some searching questions on his background, service and eventually about his view on why anyone would want to stop the train.

‘I don’t know, Evans. There could be any reason. But the obvious one is to cause an accident.’

‘Interesting thought, old man. You know anything about troop movements?

‘Not since I drove trains across France in 1918. Why?’

‘I’m going to tell you a secret, Farnsworth. More than my job’s worth if you pass this on. More than your life’s worth too. Be a troop train through in two days. Will follow the train you were driving. Non-stop from Buxton, full of new recruits. Our man Foxton was supposed to be making sure the line was safe. Looks like you spotted something he didn’t.’

Harry nodded.

‘So if someone stopped a freight on the line, then ploughed a troop train straight in to it we’d lose a lot of men as well as engines and possibly use of the line?’ Harry asked.

‘That’s the thinking.

‘So stopping me was a trial run?’

‘We think so. We think Hart, if that’s his name, wanted to check out whether he could stop your train and keep the line open for the troop train to hit you. Works once, it’ll work again. He just forgot that everyone would investigate why you stopped.’

‘So I’m in the clear?’

‘More than that, old man, a hero.’

 

Harry walked back in to the yard that night, head held high and acknowledging the shouts and waves of his colleagues. He was heading for his usual engine when Ernie shouted him over. Harry’s heart fell, but he kept the smile on his face.

‘Change of duties tonight, Farnsworth.’

Harry didn’t like the sound of that.

‘We need a new signal man. Clean and warm. Fancy it?’

‘No, sir. If I wanted clean and warm I’d go back in to retirement.’

‘Thought so. So I’ve put you forward to drive troop trains from now on. We need our best men on that job. Hop a ride up to Buxton, you can drive from there to London overnight. Take Eric.’

‘Thank you Sir.’ He said. Harry smiled as he walked across the yard.

 

Picture (Keighly and Worth Valley Steam Railway) (c) Chris Johnson 2013

Words (c) Chris Johnson 2016

I found an audio file recently on a memory card I bought 2nd hand from ‘NorthPoleMan’. I’ve transcribed it here. What could it mean?

Muffled cursing and chair scraping.

‘Is this thing on? I think it is. Ok, here we go.

‘Here is my confession. I hate Christmas. Well, not hate, that’s hyperbole. I just dislike it. And I find myself constantly having to explain why. Well, not constantly, that’s hyperbole too. Just regularly. Well regularly from early November onwards. Actually it’s the hyperbole I don’t like.

‘I’m not making a very good job of this am I? Let me start again.’

Sounds of a pen scratching notes, paper being torn and scrunched up followed by muffled swearing. Eventually:

‘Right. So I don’t like Christmas. It’s so stressful. Buying presents, working out what some people want, “surprise me” they say. Thanks for nothing! Making lists, checking them, and checking them again. Queuing for the ‘must have’ toy for kids. There’s always someone whose list is full of things that are so expensive I end up maxing out my cards. Then they all need to be wrapped. And delivered. And who defines naughty and nice? Over what timescale? And then I have to work all through the holidays, not like some people who have two weeks off. And don’t get me started on the traffic. And the weather.

‘It’s not like it was in the old days. Not so long ago kids were happy with a new toy or warm clothes. Parents just wanted a day off work and maybe a good meal and a drink. None of this months of anticipation followed by days or weeks of excess. I mean, basically it’s just a midwinter festival, right? Celebrate that we survived this far into the winter. Celebrate that the days are getting lighter and we may make it through to the spring.’

Sound of a drink being poured, swallowed and a glass being put down followed by a voice in the distance “Don’t you drink too much, beardy, you need to be off to work soon!”

‘It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for my job. In those days my job was much easier. Now, pah! I’m lucky if I get a day or two off between finishing one year and starting the next. And people really believed in me then. I was much stronger. Not now. I’m just a face on a card or a TV advert.

‘Nostalgia, eh? Memories of easier times. Not that everything was easier. Winter could be brutal. I’m way too hot in my work clothes now. Chalk that one up to global warming I suppose.

‘Oh well, I best get off, it’s time to go to work.

‘Oh, and for the record, I hate sherry ok? And would it kill you to leave a bacon sandwich instead of mince pies?

Sound of boots walking away followed by a faint ‘Oi, Rudolph, get yourself over here. Sleigh’s loaded. It’s time to go! Ho! Ho! Ho!’

 

Author’s note: I don’t hate Christmas really. I hope all my readers and followers have a peaceful Christmas (or winter festival of your choice) and prosperous New Year.

© Chris Johnson 2015

The Station Master – A ghost story

‘Station 20151207_161537Master! Station Master!’

The messenger banged on the door until the Station Master opened it dressed in his pyjamas and great coat. The messenger barely held in a laugh at how the man, who was an absolute tartar when working, looked so silly. He gabbled out his message.

‘German ships off the coast, Station Master. Heading this way. We have to stop the trains here, turn back any we can.’

‘Slow down boy. Tell me again.’

‘It’s the Hun. They’re coming up the coast. We’ve got to stop all of the trains, turn back any we can.’

‘Ok boy. You get on to Whitby, I’ll get organised here.’

The Station Master, being a kindly man if somewhat of a hard task master, sent his wife, children, maid and the station porter inland away from any danger. By the early hours of 16 December 1914 he was on the platform, still dressed in his pyjamas, coat and slippers, holding a red lamp out over the line. There were no trains due until 06:42 but war had played hell with timetables and there were often unscheduled trains through to and from the harbour. So the Station Master paced his platform, waving a red lamp. Soon he was standing, shivering and soaked through, at the end of the platform waving the lamp on the end of a long pole across the line.

The night was cold and wet. But he knew that the lives of anyone on any train passing through could depend on him so he carried on swinging the lantern through the cold. He carried on when the wind blew the rain sideways and drove it in to his uniform, chilling him to the core. He carried on when even though the wind blew so hard that he had to lean in to it to keep him upright. He knew that he could not move, even to go for a dry coat. And he’d sent away the only people who could take a turn or bring him dry clothes. So he stood there, swung the lantern, and waited.

The 06:42 was about two hours late. So the Station Master had been out for the best part of seven hours in the worst weather for a generation when it arrived. The driver saw the lantern swinging and stopped just short of the platform end. The Station Master stayed where he was, swinging the lantern. The driver and engineer shouted to ask what was wrong. When they didn’t get a response they finally climbed down from the warmth and relative dryness of the cab and walked over to where he stood. When they got there he was still waving the lamp. The driver touched him on the shoulder. He was dead. He had frozen in place and the lamp was only swinging because of the wind.

Sometimes, on December nights, especially when it’s windy, he can still be seen on the platform swinging his lantern.

 

 

In December 2015 I spent some time in the Station House at Ruswarp with a group of friends. This is one of the stories inspired by that visit – on a very windy night I sat and worked up the first draft, which was later amended to introduce the 1914 bombardment of the East coast in to the story.

Photograph and words (C) Chris Johnson 2015