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It was chaos in the prison as the lights went out for the third time in as many minutes. This time they stayed out, the only light coming from the lightning strikes which seemed to hit only seconds apart. There was plenty of noise. The thunder shook the ground. The guards shouted to each other in their attempts to lock doors and contain the inmates, while the inmates themselves made every effort to make this difficult including shouting contradictory instructions. For most of the inmates this was a game which they joined in with abandon. Anything to break the monotony and pass the time. But for Dave ‘the barber’ Cross, this was his chance. He slipped through an open door into the canteen, from there through the kitchens and out through an unguarded side gate. Three years, two months and fifty seven days into his twenty five year sentence he was outside prison and running fast.

He covered a lot of ground very quickly. He knew that his best chance of staying out was to use the cover of the late summer storm, and the chaos of people and traffic on the streets of a blacked out Manchester, to get out of the city and into the countryside. He also knew better than to head north towards home, so instead he stole a car from the first car park he came to and headed out over the moors towards Derbyshire. Taking back roads as far as possible, and avoiding major towns where he could, he drove until the petrol gauge showed red. He managed to get it off the road and on to a farm track before it actually spluttered to a final halt. The rain had eased somewhat but was still constant, and with the windows misted up he could not see where he was. Rather than continue his journey on foot, he wrapped himself in a coat that he found on the back seat and slept.

 

When he awoke the world was white with mist. Dave could see not more than he had been able to see the night before. He knew that he couldn’t stay in the car, however, so he set off on foot following the track the best he could.

It took him three hours to find a building, a tiny cottage. He tried the door and to his surprise it was open. Inside were two rooms, one a bedroom with little in it except for a bed and a makeshift wardrobe containing very few clothes. He thumped the wall when he realised none of them would even come close to fitting him, then realised how stupid a thing that was to do in a rough stone built cottage. In the other room there were two mismatched easy chairs, a table and two chairs, a cooker that looked like it belonged in a museum and a small wooden pantry. He raided the pantry for some bread, picked up a sharp and well used carving knife, and sat by the fire to dry out and warm up. Knowing that his prison clothes would immediately give him away when the occupants returned, yet knowing that it was probably suicidal to try to continue his journey in the fog, Dave tried hard to remain alert for signs of them coming back. But in the warm, damp atmosphere with food in his stomach he was soon asleep.

 

He woke he was confused. In his three years in prison he had become institutionalised, so the lack of noise and bustle was enough to throw him into a panic. He stood, turned, then crouched ready to fight. When he saw an old couple sat at the table watching him. Their expressions merely curious. The events of the previous night came back to him. He groped around on the chair for the knife. The old man spoke.

‘You looking for this?’ He held the knife up, ‘Sorry to take it off you, Alice needed it to prepare our dinner. You must be hungry. I’ve brought a barrel in from the outhouse that you can sit on. Join us, eat.’

Dave did as the old man asked, if only because he could think of no other way to react. He started to speak.

‘I…’

The old man stopped him.

‘Before you speak, let me say this. What we don’t know, we don’t care about. We don’t have a radio or electricity here. Some folk down in the village do, of course, but we’ve all got history that we’d rather forget. That’s how we end up here in the first place. The village finds us. So think carefully what you say next.’

Against his character, Dave did think.

‘I’m Dave.’ He stopped.

‘Welcome Dave. I’m Roy,’ they shook hands, ‘and this is Alice.’ She nodded. ‘As I said, sit. Eat.’

They ate in silence. After they’d finished and Roy helped Alice clear the table he said,

‘You’ll need some clothes. I suspect Eric’s probably got something used to belong to his son will fit Dave, don’t you think Alice?’ She nodded. ‘I’ll pop over there. Dave’ll help with the dishes, won’t you Dave?’

He looked at Alice. She stood no more than five feet tall, skinny as s rake and arthritic hands. A small part of his brain told him to kill them both, take what he could and move on quickly. But there was something about the place, and Roy’s voice, that pushed that voice well into the background.

‘Yes, of course I will.’

‘Good. And later we’ll discuss chores. I’m too old to run this place on my own now. I could use a strong pair of hands around. Can’t pay you, though. Bed and board. Three good meals a day and you can sleep in one of the barns. We’ll find you a chair so as you can sit with us for meals and by the fire of an evening. If you want it, of course?’ Dave suddenly realised that he had never wanted anything more out of life. Even before he had time to speak Roy added. ‘That’s settled.’ And held out his hand for Dave to shake it. ‘Just one thing. We’ll beat the boundary on Sundays. You’ll come along, everyone fit enough to walk does. Until then, don’t leave the farmyard. After that, don’t go beyond the parish boundary, especially in bad weather. You understand?’ Dave nodded. It made perfect sense. He was a runaway prisoner. For some reason the people in the village were happy to hide him. Why would he leave?

 

On Sunday Dave joined the villagers at church. Church in prison meant a chance to get out of his cell and talk to other prisoners. Church in the village meant hellfire and damnation sermons from the vicar, who Dave thought looked like he could be the prison chaplain’s older brother, followed by a walk around the parish boundary. At various points on the walk, for which Dave could see no pattern, they stopped while the vicar prayed and Alice shook some dried herbs while the other women chanted something that Dave did not understand. Afterwards there was beer and mutton was roasted over an open fire then served on thick slices of bread. The men all talking about sheep, crops and the unseasonably warm weather while the women mostly seemed to be talking about him based on the sideways glances and the way they giggled behind hands when he caught their eyes.

 

Life fell into a pattern for Dave. Hard work on the farm, helping out on other farms when he could, Sundays in church followed by a village meal. On the Sunday after full moon the whole village walked the boundary, otherwise they just got on with life. Dave even started visiting the pub once in a while when he’d been given a share of the meagre cash income, but he soon found no-one wanted his money. He could have a few beers each week in exchange for some task on one of the farms which he was happy to do anyway. It never crossed his mind to work out what the exchange rate was for his labour, he found he wanted for nothing as long as what he wanted was not excessive. No one asked about his past, no one asked his plans for the future.

 

One day Roy died. Dave had lost track of how long he’d been with Roy and Alice by the time it happened. Many years, he knew by the passing of the seasons. Alice woke Dave and together they took care of Roy’s body. They took it by hand cart to the church where the whole village had congregated. A grave had already been dug. After a short service the body was lowered into the grave, covered over, and people left. Dave and Alice walked out of the village up to the farm. When they got there Alice started to prepare a meal. Dave tried to stop her, and failing that to help, but she quietly pushed him away, indicated that he should sit down, and finished the job. After they’d eaten Alice went outside. Dave never saw her again. The next morning, after he’d seen to the animals and his chores around the farm he walked into the village again. He found the vicar.

‘Alice has gone. I’m worried.’ He said.

‘No need. She’s probably just gone home.’

‘Home?’

‘I don’t know where that is. She arrived here with Roy and has been here for years. But sometimes when a man dies in the village his wife leaves the farm to a younger man. Sometimes she moves in with neighbours, sometimes she goes home. It’s not unusual and not something to worry about. Just take over the farm. You know how we work well enough. Do what you need to do.’

Not for the first time since he’d arrived Dave found himself taking something that should have sounded strange at face value. He nodded, shook the old priest’s hand  and went back to his farm. He stayed in the barn for a few months, only visiting the house to cook and eat, but when it was clear that Alice wasn’t coming back he moved in.

 

Years past. Dave did what was needed on his farm, helped out neighbours and spent Sunday’s with his friends. He got into the habit of going for a beer in the pub on a Friday and it soon became perfectly normal to drink for free, but leave with a list of favours he’d promised to neighbours. People came and people went. Some died. But village life barely changed. It was hard, but not unbearable, and generally Dave was a happy man. He mostly forgot about his old life.

 

The lightning lit up the sky and the thunder shook the floor. Dave woke, looked out of the farmhouse window and cursed. He could see his sheep pen had broken down and the sheep were running on to the moors in fright. He set off in chase.

The rain made it difficult to see where he was going, and the lightning only served to take away his night vision. He walked his land, lovingly collecting his sheep and one by one carrying them back to the barn where he locked them in. The storm was still raging as he set off for the final one, an old ewe with more than the usual amount of intelligence for a sheep. And oddly, the one he’d earmarked to slaughter for a Sunday roast when it was next his turn. He walked his land, then the neighbouring farm, then right to the village boundary. Years of walking the bounds had imprinted on his mind exactly where it was. So when a lightning strike gave him sight of the old ewe trapped in a gorse bush a hundred yards outside the boundary line he stopped for a second. But his concern for his beast overcame his programming. He ran to her, caught her up and turned to walk back…only to see his route suddenly blocked by a fallen tree. He swore, and took off to find another route. But he was soon lost. While he knew where the village should be, and kept heading towards it, every path was blocked. Try as he might, he could not find his way back. Eventually he came to a farm track. Following it he came to a car, blocking the route. He felt a sense of déjà vu. Turning, he walked the other way on the track. He was surprised to come across a similar looking car in the track. He took off across a field, only to come alongside the same car again. He dropped the ewe, watched her wander off, opened the car door and sat inside. It was still warm. Despite his best efforts Dave was soon asleep.

The knock on the window was no real surprise. Neither was the drawn truncheon. The constable almost didn’t recognise the white haired old man in front of him compared to the dark haired young escapee he’d been told to look out for. But the car was the one that had been stolen in Manchester hours earlier and this man was asleep in it, so the constable was not taking any chances. Dave got out slowly and held his hands out for the inevitable cuffs.

‘I’m the man you’re looking for. Take me in please.’

 

It had taken some time to persuade the authorities that Dave was who he said he was. He looked twenty years older than he had when he’d escaped, less than a day before. But his fingerprints and other identification matched, and in the absence of any logical explanation he was returned to his cell. In the prison chapel that Sunday Dave looked very carefully at the chaplain. Who returned his gaze and mouthed the words, the village finds us. Don’t go beyond the village boundary. Especially in bad weather.

Back in his cell, alone but for the noise of a thousand other inmates, a tear rolled down the old man’s cheek.

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2019

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

Rodney Franklin was a happy man. Thirty years out of the Marine Corps, he kept to himself except for a Friday night beer in the nearest bar, ran his farm single handed when he could and hired in some help for the jobs he couldn’t manage. When he first bought the farm in ’72 some of the locals laughed that he always hired in help to slaughter his livestock rather than doing it himself, but once he told a few people he’d seen enough death in Vietnam and would see no more, the story got round and people stopped laughing.

He was checking the foundations for a new hog pen when he was disturbed from his work by a voice from the past.

‘Well hello Mr Franklin. How are you today?’

Rodney turned slowly, knowing yet still dreading who he was going to see.

‘Lenny Bertrand. Back again?’

‘Why yes Mr Franklin. I think it’s about time you made me a small gift, don’t you?’

‘I paid you, Lenny. I paid you ten years ago and almost every year since. Why am I still paying you?’

‘Because you really don’t want Sherriff Hunter to know what you did with Mrs Hunter at the barn dance all those years ago, now do you? I’ve kept my end of the bargain. I left town with the money you gave me then, I only come back when I need a top up and no one ever knows I’ve been. Unless you tell them?’

‘I don’t tell nobody nothin’ Lenny. But I don’t see why I should keep paying you year after year for one fumble in my truck. Anyhow, Elaine Hunter’s been dead these last five years.

‘You think the Sherriff cares about that? You think he wants her memory spoiled? I don’t want much Mr Franklin, just enough to see me south and set up for the winter.’

‘Now that’s all you want. But you’ll be back. Again and again. You’re going to keep coming until I die aren’t you?’

‘Or until the Sherriff dies I guess, yes.’

Or until you die The thought popped into Rodney’s head.

‘Wait there. I’ll get your money, you bloodsucker.’ He said, and made to walk towards the farm house. Lenny turned, even he had the decency to give the man he was blackmailing some privacy. That’s why he didn’t see Rodney sneak up behind him and hit him over the back of the head with a shovel. He fell in to the open trench. Rodney looked over, saw the unmoving body and, realising what he’d done, retched up his lunch.

He ran to the house, thinking of different excuses he could give to the Sherriff for finding the dead tramp. He considered throwing the body to the hogs, he knew they would eat almost anything. In the end he decided to simply cover up the body. He couldn’t bring himself to look at it again, so he started up his digger and half filled the trench with hard core to form the foundation of his new hog pen.

 *

Rodney’s success continued. For five more years he lived on his farm. His hogs thrived, he made enough money and carried on living his simple life. He drove his truck to the nearest bar one night a week as he had always done, drank a couple of beers and drove home again. If anyone had known him well enough they may have noticed that he had something on his mind most of the time, but everyone had their own worries and anyway no one was that close to him, so no one noticed.

 *

But something was playing on Rodney’s mind. He’d read Poe. He could hear Lenny’s heart beat every time he went to the hog pen. He knew that one day he would have to move the body or go mad. Finally the day came. He could stand it no longer. Rodney let loose the hogs and drove his digger through the pen walls. Then he dug. He dug down to where the body should have been and saw nothing. He dug further, and still no body. He got out of the digger and dug with a shovel. Still nothing. Finally he started scraping at the ground with his bare hands. He was on his hands and knees when the trench collapsed in on him. If anyone had been there they would have seen a filthy, crying man shouting over and over again ‘She wasn’t worth this! She wasn’t worth this!’

 *

The Sherriff arrived a couple of hours later. Someone had called him after seeing hogs loose on the highway. Sherriff Hunter recognised that they were Rodney’s. He saw the damaged pens and re-opened foundations but could not work out why Rodney would have done that much damage. He assumed some sort of accident or vandalism. Worried, he went looking for Rodney. When he couldn’t find him around the farm he eventually called for some help and dug down in to the reopened trench. That’s where they found his body.

No one in town ever worked out what happened or why. The only man who might have known saw a news report of the mysterious death while nursing a sandwich and coffee in a Salvation Army hostel two towns away. Lenny Bertrand rubbed the scar on the back of his head, hidden by his long greasy hair. Yet again he thanked his lucky stars that the one farmer who tried to kill him was probably the only one on the country too squeamish to check he was dead before leaving him alone in the trench with enough time to climb out and slip away.

(c) Chris Johnson 2019

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

11898940_10153633488311095_2218785026502278564_nThe candle guttered as the breeze from the open window blew across the flame. The room was otherwise dark and silent, Charlie and Evie long having run out of conversation and retreated to their own thoughts. Charlie assumed that Evie was composing a poem. He had always envied her ability to ‘write’ in her head and only later commit to paper. He needed to see words on a page, to see what they looked like and to capture them before they were lost. He was thinking about money. Or lack of money. Hence the Friday night blackout. It saved on electricity. At least that was what Evie said. ‘With what we save on a Friday we can go out or have a take away on a Saturday, and anyway it’s a great way to come up with ideas and work on them’. Except it never seemed to end up that there was enough money left for a night out and he never came up with ideas that he could remember long enough to use.

Charlie knew that Evie was by far the better writer of the two of them. She seemed to turn her hand to any genre, sold articles and fake agony aunt letters and responses to the local papers and even had some interest from an agent for her unfinished novel. Not that they ever had any money, even with his part time wages and the money he managed to get from selling by the inch filler pieces on local clubs and societies to the local free papers, they still struggled.

A moth flew in and started to circle the candle. Charlie watched as it flew close to the flame, then further away only to be drawn back again. Evie gasped as it flew straight through the flame and trailed smoke as it circled a little wider for a while before, inevitably, being drawn back. Charlie just knew she was composing some deep meaningful poem. He tried to come up with some ideas himself. He could write about pilots in a dog fight. Something meaningful about how the pilots had more in common with each other than with the politicians who sent them to fight. He reached for the ever present notebook and pen, then realised that he couldn’t see well enough to write and Evie would never allow a light. Even so, he stared at the flame and started to plot the story even though he knew he would never remember it, hoping that something useful would remain somewhere in his subconscious.

Time passed. The moth continued to flirt with the flame and somehow just avoid being burned alive.

“Bed time.” Evie said. “Have you come up with any ideas?”

“A few” he lied.

“I’ve got a poem on the go. That moth was a brilliant inspiration, don’t you think?”

“I suppose.”

“Are you ok?”

“Yes, of course I am. Always.”

Evie went to bed. Charlie blew out the candle and closed the window before he followed her up. As he got into bed Evie recited some of the poem she’d ‘written’. She was using the moth circling the flame as a metaphor for a destructive relationship, subverting what appeared to be a love poem into something really quite dark in the final verse. It was genius. Charlie was devastated. Again.

Charlie dreamed. He was a moth and Evie was the flame he was circling. Every time he tried to get away she drew him back. But whenever he got too close he got burned. He woke with a start. Realising he would not get back to sleep he quietly got out of bed and went downstairs. The candle sat where it had been the night before. The moth was dead, its body preserved in the re-hardened wax. Before Evie woke he had packed and gone. Out into the darkness.

 

 

Photograph (c) Karen Downs-Barton 2015. Thanks to Karen for the writing prompt and kind permission to use her photograph. You can find her at: http://karendownsbarton.blogspot.co.uk/

Words (c) Chris Johnson 2015