Ghosts of the Railway

A war time Farewell statue at St Pancras Station

This is chapter four in the second outstanding Round Robin story from Whittlesey Wordsmiths. Its authors are Gwen Bunting, Val Chapman, Wendy Fletcher and Jane Pobgee. Enjoy.

Part 4

The pub was not far from the office. As they walked, the conversation became easier. Arthur asked how long Ada had worked for Ledbetters and she told him she had worked in munitions during the war but went back to the print trade afterwards.

They were shown to a quiet table, and he asked her to call him Arthur outside office hours. She agreed, as long as he would call her Ada. Arthur told her how much Stan spoke of his wife Ada, and he felt he knew her already.

He convinced Ada to have an aperitif. She, being unused to drinking, was feeling rather sophisticated though a little out of her depth as the two friends, for they were comfortable enough with each other to consider themselves friends as well as colleagues, waited for their drinks to arrive.

After toasting lost friends and Stan, they took their time looking at the limited menu, neither one knowing how to proceed. Arthur chose a steak and kidney pudding, while Ada decided on a slice of corned beef and potato pie. The next few minutes were spent talking about their respective families, and how they coped, or not, after the war.

Eventually, and perhaps because of the sherry, Ada decided to take the bull by the horns.

“Mr Giles, Arthur. Why did you ask me here tonight? You did say it had something to do with my Stan?”

Arthur Giles loosened the top button of his shirt and coughed. He didn’t know why he felt so awkward about this. It should be a simple matter to tell a man’s widow that he knew how much she had meant to him and that her husband had left her a letter saying just that. He hoped she would gain comfort from his words and subsequently the letter he was about to hand to her. He also hoped that in some way she may find some comfort with him, in due course.

He drew a deep breath and looked at Ada, quickly glancing away again, as though embarrassed. She had beautiful green eyes and he didn’t want to get distracted from the matter in hand. Taking the unopened letter from his jacket pocket he placed it on the table in front of Ada and explained as best as he could how it had been in his possession.

Ada was so shaken by Arthur’s news that he had to take her home and forgo the trifle he had eyed up for dessert. Still, he would have it next time. He was sure there would be a next time.

Arthur had brought her home and made her a cup of hot sweet tea. He had left now and Ada sat alone at the table with the letter still in her hand. She let her tea go cold, she hadn’t wanted it anyway.

She read, and reread Stan’s letter, poring over each word.

It was clear that Stan had loved her with all his heart, as much as she had, still did, love him.

There was however something else Stan had written, which Ada found most upsetting. She could hardly believe it, but her Stan would never lie to her so it must be true.

Stan had asked Ada not to reveal any of the information in the letter to anyone. Something Ada knew she would struggle with, as her first instinct was to run to Stan’s ma’s house to share the letter. For the umpteenth time, she read her darling Stan’s letter.

In it, Stan told her that the man who had given her the letter, Arthur Giles was a spy. According to the letter, Stan was stationed with Arthur to get close to him and discover how and what he was telling the enemy. Stan in turn was to relay this information to his commanding officer. It became clear that Arthur Giles was becoming suspicious and so Stan and the officer in charge came up with a plan. They were to fake Stan’s death, and Stan would continue to work behind the scenes to stop Arthur.

In his letter, Stan explained to Ada that the Ministry’s plan was for him to go ‘undercover’ to trap Arthur, who they suspected was a ‘sleeper spy’, someone who blended into society until they were called into action, perhaps many years later. He would find a way to get back to Ada, but he hoped that she would understand, know that he loved her and that of course ‘missing in action’ meant that his body hadn’t been found.

How could it, when he was still alive?

Trying to understand, Ada began to wonder, if Arthur had anything to do with the death of the officer in charge all those years ago? Did he get suspicious?

Her mind in turmoil, Ada went to bed, but rest would not come.

There was so much to think about.

Ghosts of the Railway

A war time Farewell statue at St Pancras Station

This is chapter three in the second outstanding Round Robin story from Whittlesey Wordsmiths. Its authors are, Gwen Bunting, Val Chapman, Wendy Fletcher and Jane Pobgee. Enjoy.

Chapter 3

‘Sit down Mrs. Coleman; I have a question to ask? Would you kindly come out to dinner with me one evening after work, I have something serious to discuss with you about your late husband Stan.’

Arthur managed to get the sentence out in one breath. Ada went all hot and she felt her cheeks burning.

‘Why on earth would you want to see me out of work, Mr. Giles?’

‘Because, Mrs. Coleman I knew your husband, Stan. We were in the same unit; I have a letter for you.’

Shock struck Ada; tears started flowing and she searched for her handkerchief. Pushing the chair back as she desperately tried to make her escape to the ladies toilet, caused a screeching sound from her chair. The girls in the typing pool turned and stared through the glass partition as they watched Ada come dashing through the door.

Mr. Giles followed to the door and asked Miss Blanchard to go and see that Mrs. Coleman was all right.

Mr. Giles returned to his office to calm himself down. A knock on the door announced Marion Morgan with another cup of tea for him, awaiting his response before she enter entered.

She asked if there was anything else he required?

‘No. No, thank you, Miss Morgan; the tea will do fine.”

Breathing deeply he decided a trip to the Gents would be the place to calm himself. Eyes stared from above the typewriters as the girls in the office continued their assignments.

It had never occurred to Arthur Giles that this lady, Ada Coleman could be the wife of his friend Stan Coleman. They had served together in Bomb Disposal during the war and had been lucky to escape with only a scratch, until that day when the bomb they were attempting to defuse exploded. The blast knocked Arthur Giles yards away and he was told Stan had been killed.

They had exchanged letters to send to their next of kin if they were killed,. Usually the Officer in-charge would accept them, but he had been killed in action. There was no one else to take on the responsibility of collecting such letters. Arthur Giles had tried in vain to find the address of Stan’s next of kin, but with no luck. He had kept the letter safely for two years and hoped that one day he may be able to forward it to her.

After demobilisation, he had moved to Bolton, finding work at Ledbetters Printers. He had been a proof-reader before he was called up for the War Service.

After his trip to the Gents he continued to work until six o’clock. The typing pool finished at five-thirty so he had the office to himself for half an hour. Hearing a tap on the door, he looked up to find Ada Coleman staring at him through the glass. He beckoned her to enter; she seemed flustered and anxious, but that was to be expected after the way he had, less than tactfully, invited her out for a meal.

Arthur stood as she entered. ‘Mrs. Coleman, I am so pleased to see you. I am sorry I was so tactless in my announcement of my association with your late husband. Please forgive me. The cleaners will soon be in the offices and I would like to take this opportunity to finish what I messed up before. Please would you join me for dinner at a venue of your choice where you will be comfortable?’

‘Yes, I would like that Mr. Giles. I’m sorry I was so silly, but it was such a shock. We have not had any information about Stan’s death from the War Ministry, just, “missing in action”. They did not even give us a country or area. Your news was music to my ears: someone knowing my Stan.’

‘Where would you like to eat Mrs. Coleman?’ Arthur asked.

‘How about the Black Bear on Middleton Street?’ Ada suggested. ‘They have a varied menu even in rationing’.

They left the office together, getting stares from the cleaners coming into work.

Ghosts of the Railway

A wartime farewell. The statue at St Pancras Station

This is the second chapter of the writing group’s excellent Round Robin Story, Ghosts of the Railway written by Gwen Bunting, Val Chapman, Wendy Fletcher and Jane Pobgee. We hope you continue to enjoy it.

Chapter 2

Ma had been sobbing quietly but now she let out such a wail of despair, her only child gone. Ada and Ma fell into each other’s arms and cried and cried.

Later when they had managed to quieten their sobs, Ada put the kettle on and began to tell Ma how she thought she had seen Stan at the station. It was so real to her, she couldn’t quite believe the news the telegram had brought. She was clinging to the hope that it was a mistake, she knew that could happen. After all Jenny Masterton had a telegram but later it was found to be a mistake. Her husband came home, injured but alive. It must be a mistake. Ada couldn’t bear it to be true.

As the days passed Ada went on with her life, going to work and coming home like an automaton. Time passed without her realising; she was just going through the motions of life. Living but not living, struggling every day with her loss. Stan’s Ma was struggling too. Ada tried to help her, but it was just too hard. Seeing her sorrow made everything real, and Ada wasn’t ready to accept that.

What made it even harder was seeing so many men come home to their wives. She was glad for them of course, but seeing their happiness made her pain so much worse. That is how it should have been for them; it wasn’t fair. They were just starting out on their lives together. She would regularly phone the number she was given at the war office to check if they had heard anything more. She needed details before she would believe Stan was gone.

Her sister May had come to stay with her for a while but, if anything, it annoyed Ada to have her there. She was sympathetic but impatient for Ada to accept what had happened. It was no good, and eventually she asked May to go back home. She tried to be tactful but May was obviously put out. She flounced out of the house without a backward glance. Although she was sorry to hurt May’s feelings, Ada didn’t have the energy to deal with it right now. It took all her energy just getting through the day.

As the days, weeks and months passed, Ada began to accept that Stan would not be coming home. She had no choice but to accept it. Slowly she began to rebuild her life. She still went around to Stan’s Ma’s house on a Thursday night to make sure she was okay. They would chat about when Stan had been a boy; Ma loved to tell her stories and she loved to hear them. For a short while they could both forget that the future was empty and enjoy the past, talking of the boy and man they both had loved.

She would occasionally go to the cinema with her sister, but most evenings she stayed home. Her only outings were to work or queueing at the shops to get her rations. The girls at work in the typing pool were kind and always asked her to join them on their girls’ nights out. After a while they stopped asking as she always said no. Her boss Mr Butterworth had said she could have time off, but she felt worse just sitting alone at home. At least when she was working her mind was busy and she didn’t have time to brood.

Almost two years had passed when Mr Butterworth retired and the company brought in a man from one of their other offices to run things: a Mr. Giles. The girls who were still single were ‘all of a flutter’. Mr. Giles was tall, dark and handsome; Lesley, the office gossip, had already found out that he was single. He was very polite and neat and tidy in appearance. Quite a change from old Mr. Butterworth who always looked a little dishevelled and had something spilled on his tie.

Mr. Giles was quietly spoken and had a slightly sad faraway look about him. The girls decided he must be a bit of a dreamer as he would often be seen in his office staring into space during the lunch hour. He soon had an impact on the office. Changes were made; most were useful and helpful to the staff. That didn’t stop some of the girls complaining though, with comments that Mr. Butterworth didn’t do that, or wouldn’t like that. Mr. Giles didn’t seem to notice and just got on with the job at hand.

Ada began to take on more responsibility in the typing pool. Mr. Giles would often ask her to hand out the day’s assignments to the other girls. Ada thought it was because he felt safer with her, she didn’t flutter her eyelashes at him and was not as made up as the younger girls were. The girls didn’t seem to mind, which quite surprised her, but then they didn’t want the extra responsibility of chasing up work which hadn’t been finished. When push came to shove, she was always willing to help if one of them needed to finish early – to collect a child or some other emergency. She never needed to rush home for family or to prepare for a date. She was grateful for the extra money; it was not a lot but it helped enormously.

Ada still took her turn on the tea-making rota for the afternoon break. She also shopped for the tea, milk, sugar and biscuits. She had just taken Mr. Giles his tea with two biscuits when he asked her to sit down a moment. Intrigued, she did so. He closed the office door and returned to his desk. He seemed very distracted and not his usual calm self.

‘Is everything alright Mr. Giles?’ she asked.

He took a deep breath and said, ‘No Mrs. Coleman, it is not.

Ghosts of the Railway

A war time Farewell

This is the second of the writing group’s excellent Round Robin Stories, this one has been written by Gwen Bunting, Val Chapman, Wendy Fletcher and Jane Pobgee. Enjoy.

Chapter 1

Ada made her way quickly along the platform. The late afternoon sky had turned dark as she travelled here on the bus, fine drizzle had made her hair wet on the short walk from the bus stop to the station.

That wouldn’t have been a problem, she thought to herself, if it wasn’t for its propensity to become a mass of frizz when even slightly damp. Why today? She asked herself in frustration. Today of all days.

She had taken hours to get ready for her journey this afternoon: carefully pulling on the fine nylons so as not to ladder them as she straightened the seams, then choosing a skirt that revealed a flash of knee when she sat down. She had added a sheer blouse that offered a hint of a tantalising outline of the uplifting bra underneath. The top button was left undone, almost revealing some cleavage.

Her shoes were sturdy and she had sighed as she pulled them on in her bedroom. They were not fashionable and definitely not sexy. Coupons were still limited. How can a girl look alluring in these?

She had considered asking her elder sister, May, if she could borrow her smart black pair but decided against it. She could just imagine May’s voice.

‘Ma, our Ada wants to get dolled up to go to the station.’

And her mother’s response.

‘Hey, our Ada, don’t you go up there looking like some old tart. That young man of yours will be pleased to see you just as you are.’

So there was not a chance of borrowing lip gloss or even a bit of blusher but, almost in defiance, she drowned herself in scent from the bottle on her dressing table as she did a final twirl and assessed her appearance; back, front, sides in the three bevelled mirrors.

Deep in her heart, she knew they were right. Her Stan would just be pleased to see her waiting with all the other women. They had waited so long for this day.

The neighbours had crowded into their little parlour, listening for the announcement on the wireless. Finally came the words they had all waited to hear. The war was over. The men were coming home.

Then there was the bustle of preparation. The women donned pinafores and rolled up their cardigan sleeves. Spiders who had hidden in corners didn’t stand a chance as every cobweb fell before the feather duster. Whitewash and brushes were pulled out. Till late in the evenings, the sounds of carpet beaters could be heard across the yards.

The whole street seemed to come alive again, as if everybody had been holding their breath and now blew fresh air over the terraces. Front doorsteps took on a new sheen of cardinal red. Grates were declared blacker than Newgate’s knocker. Even the drooping plants seemed to revive. All the talk over the low garden walls was of reunions and parties. Cakes were baked and the children played out late, taking advantage of the good humour that enveloped their mothers.

Ada had watched with a wistful smile. When the war had started, she and Stan had only been married for two months. In fact, they had brought the wedding forward so they could have a honeymoon – that wonderful weekend at Bognor – and move into the little house that had just become vacant in the street where they had grown up and both their families still lived.

As she listened to the children squealing below her window, she folded her arms over her flat belly. When Stan had first been called up she had thought she might be in the family way but six weeks after he left she suffered terrible cramps and then the heavy bleeding of a late period.

She still clung to the thought of a late period, not able to face the possibility that perhaps there was a baby but she had somehow not looked after it properly so it had slipped away. Now the sadness was tinged with hope. Stan was coming home and maybe there would be a baby. She hugged the thought to herself as she got ready to go to the station.

With a quick ‘yoo-hoo, I’m off now’, at Ma’s back door, careful not to let the scent waft into the scullery, she had left the street along with the gaggle of women all heading the same direction. Now they jostled for a first glimpse as the train pulled into the station in a burst of hissing steam.

‘Bill, Jack, Ralph,’ she heard the shrill calls of the women close to her as they spotted their husbands, brothers, sons, and surged forward. Then she saw him and joined the rush, mouthing, ‘Stan, oh Stan, over here.’

There was just a moment when she thought he wouldn’t see her in the crowd but then his eyes met hers. He was tall and could see over the crowd although she was still tiny even in those sturdy shoes. Her heart expanded with love as she took in his handsome face, neatly cut hair and straight back, despite the heavy kit bag that all the men carried, slung over one shoulder.

Now she was pushing forward and he was almost within reach.

Then two taller women stepped in front of her and just for a moment she lost sight of him. Weaving around them she stretched to her full five feet, craning her neck to catch sight of him. Men were still pouring from the train. Women still thronged around the open carriage doors. Couples were hugging all the way to the escalator.

‘Oh, Stan,’ she tutted. ‘Couldn’t you have just walked in a straight line?’ but she knew it was difficult with the crowd jostling from all sides. Nothing to do but wait until he came into view again.

The porters were sweeping the platform before she admitted to herself that Stan wasn’t going to reappear from the WC or behind the paper stall. He had obviously not looked properly for her, typical man, scanning the platform and deciding that she must have given up hopes of reaching him in the crowd and gone home again.

Now she felt lonely as she caught the bus back. Gone were the women from the street, gone were the clamouring children, gone were the men with their heavy kit bags. She knew Stan wouldn’t be at their house. Who went to war with the back door key in their pocket?

So she headed straight to Stan’s ma’s house and burst in the door without even waiting for her tap to be heard, unable to contain her excitement a single moment longer.

Stan’s ma sat hunched over the kitchen table and the crumpled telegram lay on the chenille cloth right next to the fruit bowl.

Ada stopped dead in her stride, she couldn’t breathe. She finally stepped forward and picked up the telegram. Everything around her seemed to stop, slowly the words began to make sense as they swam before her sight. Stan was dead.  She sank into the chair next to Stan’s Ma.

Book Launch Yesterday At U3A

A fantastic new post from Wendy Fletcher.

Wendy book signing.
Wendy signing copies of her autobiography The Railway Carriage Child at the launch in Whittlesey

At the U3A meeting in Whittlesey yesterday I did a book signing session for my first book, The Railway Carriage Child. Over 100 members attended and the afternoon was a great success. I hope that is encouraging to all would-be writers who may be having doubts about stepping onto the public platform with their own creations

 

The Railway Carriage Child now in print

Wendy's Book
Wendy Fletcher with her first print copy of The Railway Carriage Child

About two years ago I joined the local U3A Writing group as its third member. At my first meeting in Whittlesey’s Not Just Cafe, I was able to read a chapter from Wendy Fletcher’s autobiography. It was unfinished and hadn’t a title but it was for me a work of exceptional quality. Today the first-ever print copy was delivered to Wendy she brought it to the Writing Group (Whittlesey Wordsmiths) meeting opened the envelope and together with Wendy, we had the first sight of it.

This is the foreword

Against a backdrop of the Cambridgeshire fens, lies the

small market town of Whittlesey. Here are many features

of historical and architectural interest, including two

medieval churches, a 17th century Butter Cross and rare

examples of 18th century mud boundary walls.

Less well known, but still quite remarkable, are the pair of

Victorian railway carriages which stand just outside the

town.

Originally built for Great Eastern Railways in 1887,

they have been home to Wendy’s family since 1935.

Now, for the first time, Wendy shares the fascinating

story of her childhood, growing up as a Railway Carriage

Child in the mid to late 20th century.

With a wonderful memory for detail, she paints a

picture so vivid that we are there with her.

Through the eyes of an exuberant child, whose

imagination outpaced her years, we meet the characters

central to her life: an ancient Granny, still governed by the

old fen traditions of an earlier era, a domineering Mother,

a long-suffering Father, and Grandfather who died before

her birth but still inspires her dreams.

With the humour of hindsight, Wendy brings alive a

time when life moved at a gentler pace.

The final chapter follows Wendy as she returns to live

in the carriages as an adult, continuing the renovation and

preservation, to ensure that they survive for another

generation of her family.