Catalogue of Shattered Dreams

When I was young I was designed to become a writer.   Of course in those days we knew nothing about DNA but in the sunshine of my bright ideal I saw myself:

Hunched over a typewriter,

in a dim room with a high window of nicotine-stained glass,

Chain-smoking myself into a coughing stupor,

Careless – utterly careless, of the greater world around me.  

Let the scripts pile up on the desk, on the floor, in the passageways and arbors; I would be oblivious to the chaos.  I would write.  Day, and night, write.

Why didn’t it work out like that?  Why didn’t it?   Well, to begin with, but also with annoying persistence, I could not perfect the art of typewriting.  Canute-like, I could not restrain the Tippex tide, nor the quasi-D’Artagnan-duelling clash of rival keys, the log flumes of paper jams, smudges, crumples, and mechanical accidents.   Who has not cried out in pain as they see their paper-carriage skip the return stop and fly across the room?  Why was the Japanese vase, the recuperating cat, the hapless hamster positioned there – just exactly there?

The day the Word Processor came into my life was like Richard III’s best bit:  ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by these salesmen from Sharp’.  Differences between RIchard  and I are many – I for example, am unlikely to be exhumed from a car park, but I have to take his point:  I was liberated.

Life and Art, eh?

Unfortunately, there were storms in other seas.   Spouses unappreciative of piles of manuscripts in passageways or scattered upon disorderly desks, for whom creative chaos held no romance   The word ‘dust’ has been mentioned pretty frequently throughout my life, closely followed by the more nebulous  “Urgh – what’s that?!”   

Spouses are also prone to materialism.   ‘Putting bread on the table’ has dominated many a meaningful conversation, and rebuffs by taking the phrase literally treated with scorn.   I was compelled to accept that there had to be bacon, or beef, or vegetables lumped in.  As my self-addressed manuscripts to ‘1, The Garret’ cascaded back through my door and a wallpaper of rejection letters accumulated, I grudgingly accepted the need to do ‘work’.  

I had to find something that paid.  Writing was not the crock of gold it promised to be.  It was just a crock.

I won’t deny that I take pleasure in money; I am darkly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t, but to the bug of creativity it is pure insecticide.  Wherever you spray it, the Inspiration Aphids are consumed.   Why, after all, spend hours preparing a piece that will reward me with a pittance when I could be doing something more productive, more creative, more lucrative?  Except the ‘creative’ in this sentence refers only to creating money, and the productive in this sentence has to do with making more money, and the ‘lucrative’ in this sentence refers to the worship of MONEY.  Somehow, money always offers very good reasons to ignore the pleading noises Noble Poverty makes inside my head, where  Elizabeth Barrett argues strongly for distinguished starvation, and we even share a bad back, but no time for starving selflessly when there is always another conference to attend, a buying trip to make, a new range to review.  And when all those mundanities are finally overcome, home life has a catalogue of new ones, as in “When are you going to fix that drain?”

“I’m an artist, for God’s sake, my darling:  I DON’T DO DRAINS!”   

“Yes you do.”

You’re right.  This is the real world, and the real world has drainage.

To souls as torn and tortured as has been my own in my advancing years, retirement shone like a beacon.   In retirement I would find solace.   There would be nothing to fill my day!   I could sit in my corner, I could create magical images upon the page.  I WOULD HAVE NOTHING TO DO BUT WRITE!

Wrong!

It is an unwritten law, but it is ineluctably true:  if in life you were busy, in retirement you will be busier!  Once you make your diary aware the pressure is off it will fill itself with small, inconsequential things.   Your family will aid this process by demands for home improvements, shopping trips, ‘visits’ to nice country houses (the kind where your host will make you pay an entrance fee, then rebuke you for touching their furnishings or walking on their grass) and finally – the big one – Sitting.

In extreme cases Sitting may tie you up for several days:  

“Dad, can you take care of Bruce the Hellhound or Tibby the curtain-ripping cat while we go on a weekend break to Moscow?  Or a week in Bulgaria?  Or a round-the-world trip?”

More normally, it will be no more noxious a duty than care of The Precious for an evening, and no more exhausting than that ritual chase around the sofa you instituted last year and have been regretting ever since, with a bit of story-reading to initiate sleep.

If any diary spaces remain, there is always the National Health Service, and I’d like to conclude this blog with a personal message to them.

Dear NHS,

Yes, my body mass index figure is almost as far adrift as most of your overworked nursing staff,   You understand, as do I, that my body will inevitably deteriorate with the years, and I should be thrilled that you want to catalogue my demise and itemise each failing function so avidly…

But I’m not.    Okay?

Your obsession with type 2 diabetes drags me out to repeated Doctors’ Surgery and hospital visits to have my eye pupils stretched with painful chemicals, my blood sampled and my (forgive the word) piss taken with unnerving regularity.

Why unnerving?  Well, because the cleanliness of your premises is self-admittedly not always of the best, so each time I subject myself to them, with the health conditions you are so insistent I have, not to mention those that I ACTUALLY have and haven’t told you about, I run the very real risk that the infection I catch could be fatal.   Capiche?

Thank you, good readers, for tolerating my excess of bile this week: perhaps it’s because, to find a space to write this piece, I had to cancel an NHS appointment to ‘test my feet’.  Don’t worry girls, I have two; I tested them myself this morning by going for a walk.

A more normal posting, the latest episode of ‘Devil’s Rock’, follows shortly.

Image Credits for today:

Featured Image: Keyboard, by Alisonmiller1969 on Pixabay

Typerwriter Image: Devonath on Pixabay

The Insect

The Insect

Sometimes the span of a lifetime is needed to make an assessment of people.

Provincial – that defined Tark’s self-image in the early nineteen-sixties.  An insurance clerk with artistic pretensions and a deeply dissatisfied perspective upon his small-town existence, he had convinced himself of one thing; his destiny was to devote his life to art, however confused he was about the direction his artistry should take.   A short-lived stint as a junior reporter on a short-lived local newspaper had punctured his faith in his ability as a writer.  His capacity for clearing a room when he sang, coupled with absolute incomprehension of the finger-skills needed to master an instrument seemed to eliminate a future in music.   Those inclined to criticize were apt to say he lacked even a hint of talent.  In his own mind he was a genius waiting to flower – at something.

Blagging being as prevalent in the nineteen-sixties as it is today, if Tark’s parcel of ineptitudes had been wrapped in a more presentable package with a greater sense of style he might yet have passed as ‘gifted’, but Tark’s assets were buried deep, tilthed over by a six-feet-one stick insect’s  body and supported on legs so bony even drainpipe jeans struggled for grip.   His feet, sized fourteen and shaped like spades, were equally ill-equipped for a generation which saw toes as an obscenity and punished them by thrusting them into ‘winklepicker’ shoes.  Tark persevered with a cheap black pair which reshaped with time into something resembling a pair of rearward-facing armadillos, complete with tails.

 His appearance was of an under-confident, slightly spotty example of ‘modern youth’.  If he was ready to flower he showed very little sign of doing so.  The only buds he exhibited were red and topped with white blisters.

Given such ammunition, Tark’s low self-esteem manifested itself in aggressive responses to any number of situations; repressed silence at parties, inarticulate rudeness when confronted and on his rare voyages into the everyday a slouching gait along the pavements of the town, studying his  reflection in each shop window as he passed.

Which was how he bumped into Natalie.  He wasn’t looking where he was going, nor was she; maybe they were sharing the same shop window, she from one direction, he from the other.  Their heads met with a noise befitting a cricket analogy; leather on willow.

“Ouch!”  Natalie explored her forehead with tentative fingers.  “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”

Terrified she would bleed, Tark launched into a profuse apology which reached crescendo with an offer of coffee, an obvious solution as the next window belonged to a coffee bar.

Natalie conceded.  “I was going in there anyway.  You’re buying.”

Those two words (‘you’re buying’) Tark subsequently discovered, were intrinsic to Natalie’s survival as a student.  It was a habit she never broke.

From such unpromising beginnings, great things are often born.  They introduced themselves; he discovered she liked Danish pastries.  She was studying Fine Art at the local art college, finishing her course after her parents had moved away, so she was living in digs.  Her evenings were in need of filling and she had thought of Amdram – did he know anybody?  It so happened he did.

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, that meeting was the point at which Tark’s world began to expand.  There were few immediate signs; this slightly ungainly girl, not classically good-looking, but with an engagingly expressive face and serious eyes, seemed interested in him at a point when he believed he was the least interesting person on Earth.  While they were visiting the coffee bar, she also appeared to be interested in a wild-looking and very hairy student who sat at another table.  As she left the coffee bar she crossed to the wild-looking student’s table where money was covertly exchanged for a small packet.

That was one thing Tark wasn’t buying.

Within a week the lump on Natalie’s forehead had subsided, Tark had joined a drama club, spent an evening watching Jacques Tati movies and learned there were things in the world to smoke other than tobacco.  Within a month their friendship had become very close – that was Tark’s impression, anyway.  One evening he asked her if she would like him to pose as her life model.  

She looked at him oddly.   “I mostly do landscapes…but if you want?”

Winter came, the Amdram turned into a production, prompting an odd flatterer or two to suggest Tark should go to drama school, but he was vaguely uncomfortable with the authenticity of the praise.  Nevertheless he sought some artistic outlet and his typing was still abominable, so he stretched a few muscles and read a bit of Stanislavski.  Natalie continued to paint.  His uncertainty was not a failing she shared.

For all the increasing security and depth of their friendship, Natalie drew one very firm line:  sex was out.   Nudity fazed her not one jot, she liked shedding the restriction of clothing and was happy for Tark to do the same as long as he would not  interpret that small permissiveness as anything more.  Her career, she would insist, was everything.  She could not risk the accident of pregnancy, so, although those around them might make assumptions, and though they often spent days and nights together, they maintained an awkward celibacy:  awkward, at least, from Tark’s point of view:  it fed into his bubbling cauldron of anger.

One spring evening they were sitting in the garden of Tark’s family home; Natalie had her sketch pad with her, doing quick studies of whatever took her eye at the time, while Tark tried to describe his only encounter with a ruby-tailed wasp.  He must have failed dismally in the attempt because she suddenly pushed her pad onto his knee.

“Draw it.”

Was that a moment of revelation?   Did the magic memory of his meeting with that unusual creature transfer itself to paper?  When he had finished he stared at his effort and his effort stared back.  All his miserable, self-deprecating hostility glared from the fudged lines.  At first he tried to hide his abysmal effort, but Natalie was not to be so deceived.   She snatched the pad from his hand.

“It speaks to me,”  she said.

“It was only an insect,”  He replied humbly.  

“Oh, it’s much more than that.”

The insect, of course, was Tark; how he saw himself – how he was, very possibly.  If Natalie saw that too, she was far too polite to say so.

So, no revelation, then; yet a crumb to tempt him to see through the superficial self-image he had built for himself to something far more genuine.  Natalie forced that to happen, not by encouragement, just by her example.  Matters had moved forward; if he wanted to be around her he had to conform; he had to contribute.  To be with her was to see the world as an artist would see it – as she saw it.  He had to add something interesting of his own to earn her approval.

Tark found focus.  Every waking moment when he wasn’t engaged in clerkery was filled with things to sketch, different media to try, exploration of methods, foraging for board, or scavenging for paints.  Now that he and Natalie shared a new affinity, techniques fascinated him.  Although he felt hopelessly dwarfed by her talent, he had found somebody at whose feet he was willing to study.  For the first time in his life he had some sense of direction.

They began working together, painting scenery for the Amdram group’s next production.  He began to develop a plan for much more, telling himself they might have a life together, sharing a workshop, a studio, perhaps a partnership.   In retrospect he might have been better advised to share his vision with Natalie, but he didn’t.  Not then.

The aspect of his new companion’s personality that he never fully understood or equalled was the depth of her unswervable determination.  She fed it into her work, so every stroke of her brush was a conversation with the medium, and little of her dialogue with Tarq on those occasions had any significance at all.   From the most basic exchanges:

Tarq:   “Shall I get lunch?

Natalie:  “Wonderful.”

Tarq:    “What would you like?”

Natalie:   “You choose…”

To the more serious issues:

Tarq:   “We could set up a studio together!”

Natalie: “ That sounds like an idea.”

Tarq:     “I’ll look into it, then.”

Natalie:  “Why don’t you?”

He would get food in and she would ignore it. He was too broke to pursue the idea of a studio, which was fortunate, because she never mentioned it again.

That same vagueness pervaded everything in Natalie’s life other than the journey of paint from brush to canvas, so Tark should not have been surprised when, at the conclusion of her college course she announced that she intended to stay on for another year.

“I’m not ready for London yet.  I’ve more to learn.”

What could he deduce from this; should he be encouraged?  Natalie was always reticent, never gave reasons willingly, but he believed, poor mortal, that she was staying for him.

Come their second summer, Tarq had convinced himself enough of their relationship to take some first tentative steps towards a life with Natalie.   After all, had it not endured for almost two years?  They worked together whenever possible and he began evening classes at her college, through which he discovered a penchant for pottery.  With determination unusual for him, he persuaded his parents to part with money for a wheel and a small kiln.   Given the opportunity he would have discovered the many shortcomings of being wedded to clay – even his own mother kept her distance – but by good fortune or bad the issues of grey sludge spread no further than his room, because a week later Natalie had an announcement to make.

“I’m going to France.”

Tark’s first response was gaping disbelief, “What?”

“Jenna, Toms and Becs are putting a trip together.  Toms has a studio down there, near Cavalaire-sur-Mer, I think he said.  Oh, and Tazza’s coming – probably.”

Tark’s second response was;  “When?”

“Monday, if we can get a ferry.”

“For how long?”

“The summer.  We might stay on.  I don’t know.”  Natalie added, lamely, “Come, if you like?”

A year since, such a move would have been beyond Tark’s comprehension, but his love for this strange, enigmatic girl had altered him enough to reply hesitantly:  “Okay.”

“Alright, then, I suppose.  We’re all putting in.”

Didn’t it, you might ask, occur to Tark to question Natalie’s willingness to leave him behind?   How did he channel the anger he felt?   Secretly, in his clay-spattered room; and being insufficiently skilled to express himself by throwing a pot, he banged a board onto his easel and threw paint at that instead, expelling whole tubes of colour, splashing at it with slip clay for good measure.   Then he took another board and did the same, and another until he had no more paint, and no more board, and no more desire ever – ever- to become an artist.

Yet he still went to France.

He was broke: paints were expensive, brushes too.  So he sold his potter’s wheel and his kiln to pay his passage.   He endured an uncomfortable van journey in ever-increasing heat with a bunch of art students he barely knew, because although he could forgo the art, he could not be separated from the artist.  His feelings had rooted themselves too deeply.

Natalie took to the South of France with alacrity, Tark stuck to her like a second skin, at first.   There were necessary changes.   Toms owned their apartment, so rent was not a consideration.  Food though, and materials; they had to be paid for.  Toms mysteriously popped up with both from time to time, though not reliably: the company had to earn money, if only to eat.    Becs spoke French fluently, and with the tourist season in full swing, quickly found work.  Toms found evening jobs for himself and Tark at a local supermarche.   Natalie painted obsessively, Tazza sat in a corner and played guitar.   Jenna?  Well, Jenna found hotel work, but Jenna was ‘with’ Toms.   

With the resilience of the young, the group adapted to their new situation, which on the surface seemed idyllic.   Toms was one of the Art College tutors and Jenna was a student, so the others were there to lend some propriety to a very inappropriate relationship.   Becs, a darkly introspective girl with pretensions as a portrait painter, spent most of her days sketching any tourist with a wallet, Tazza, who declared himself a musician, did no work at all, predating on whoever had food available, while Jenna played with a canvas she had insisted on bring with her in the van.  Everyone shared freely in her work and no-one understood it.

Of the group, only Tark and Natalie painted assiduously, whenever they could.  Tark’s work reflected the outlier he felt himself to be, apologetic, almost desperate.  The heat disagreed with him, almost everything that could bite bit him: he had never travelled abroad before, only possessing a passport by chance because his parents had once considered going on holiday to Madeira.  Those around him were all friends; they had a level of communication he did not share.

He worried Tazza.   “Tark, mate, you should get out more!  Get down on the beach a bit, yeah?  Get some sun, man!”

Their apartment had a terrace, so Tark wondered at Tazza’s logic and anyway sun was the last thing he wanted.   His paintings, half-completed dashes of sorrow, the work of a day, sometimes less, piled up.   Although he shared a room with Natalie, he scrupulously observed her celibacy  rules, and they hardly spoke.

Then one day, about four weeks after their arrival, Natalie said:   “I’m pregnant.”

Tark knew he could not be the father, of course.  At last he found a voice for that well of anger that he kept so repressed.   “Who is it?  And do you want to tell me when?  I mean, before you dragged me down here, obviously.”

“I didn’t drag you anywhere.  Tazza’s the father. If you must know.  We were doing it at my pad.  You kept leaving me to go to night classes.  So don’t try to put the blame on me. ”

“They’ve been seeing each other for months,”  Becs said at breakfast,  “That’s why she didn’t go to London.  We thought you knew.”

Tark had one more exchange with Natalie before he left, when, with a commendable absence of bitterness, he wondered why she had felt so free to put her career at risk with Tazza, rather than himself.

“I like him.  I needed you, for the support, that was all.  Somebody there, you know?  We could never have stayed together, though.  You’re not a real creative, Tark.  You must see that.”

That might have been the last Tarq heard of Natalie.  He returned home, found a new job because work was plentiful in those days, and he almost, but not quite, resumed his self-conscious, self-isolating life – with just this difference: in his chosen solitude, in the peace of his room and for reasons entirely different to before, he continued to paint.

A year would have to pass before the doorbell announced a visit from Margo, the lady who ran the Amdram club.

“Can you paint the sets for our next show?  The chap we used last year tries, but he can’t really do what you do.”

“Natalie isn’t with me, now.”

“So I was told.  I never really liked her contribution, anyway, to be frank; too fussy.  I’d prefer if you did it on your own.”

This surprised Tarq, but he agreed.  He painted the sets.  By a stroke of fortune that wasn’t really a stroke of fortune because Margo set it up, someone from the regional opera company came to see his work and asked him to do their sets, too.  Soon, a wider audience began to express interest in his paintings.

And there, I suppose, the story rests.  You will probably have guessed by now that ‘Tarq’ is a pseudonym, not our hero’s real name.  Even in this day and age, few painters gain notability and wealth in their lifetime, but ‘Tarq’ has certainly achieved this.  Nowadays his signature on a painting is worth millions.  To this day he remains an artist of note, although his genius has never exceeded that of the group known as the ‘Avant Cavalaire-sur Mer’ triptych, with their unique blending of paint and clay.

The last time I saw him, I asked if he ever got in touch with Natalie again. I knew that she had never reached Art College in London as she planned, electing instead to follow a rock band on a tour or two.   Tarq knew where she was, he said, because she had written to him asking if he would like to paint with her again.   He told me he refused her request.

He remains a very private, and to strangers, a very lonely figure.  His face is not well known, but should you be in Sacramento, in the area, say, of the K Street Mall, and should you notice a gaunt, septuagenarian beanpole of a figure who lopes rather than strides, with his eyes fixed on his own reflection in the windows of the stores, it is likely to be him.  Lately, I am told, he is seen sometimes in the company of a woman who has the hands of an artist.  They walk together but they never talk.

I like to think that she is Natalie.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits: Featured Image: 5598 375 from Pixabay

Artist with Easel: Bridgesward from Pixabay

Cavalaire-sur-Mer: RD LH from Pixabay

The Newquay Train

The text read:  ‘You must come and see this’.  

Lambert came.

That was in 2014, when Tamsyn and he had been searching for a house in a rural setting near Tamsyn’s childhood home for nearly two years.  Property after property had failed to meet their exacting needs, whether by reason of location, size or simple character, so when Tamsyn’s latest find hove into view around the corner of a quiet country lane, Lambert was ready to be persuaded.

“It’s an odd shape.”  Lambert commented.  “Familiar, somehow.”

“It’s a railway station,”  Tamsyn told him.  “Not now, of course, but once.  I think it’s beautiful!”

There was, Lambert conceded, something very plucky and brave about the white rendered façade of ‘Brueburn Halt’, although he would have hesitated to call it beautiful. 

“No rails, they took them up years ago, but you get your very own station platform!”  The estate agent enthused, standing on it, “Endless potential!”  He added, failing to be specific.

“My question is why?”  demanded Lambert,  “Why a station, here?  There isn’t a village for miles.”

“It is odd,”  Tamsyn agreed  “I grew up not a dozen miles from here, yet I don’t recall this station.  I imagine the line was closed before I was born, so I can’t answer you, I’m afraid.  Seeing it yesterday was like it was the first time, you know?”  

Within its doors, Brueburn Halt was a dusty time capsule, wood cracked and peeling, festoons of wallpaper in patterns and colours long forgotten shredded from its walls.  In the darkness behind its boarded windows Lambert sniffed at rising damp like a terrier, poked at plaster, winced at damp ceilings, quailed at the single foetid bathroom.

“It’ll need to be completely gutted.  Are you sure you want this, Tams?”

Tamsyn floated balletically from room to room.  “Yes, oh, yes!  We must have it, my sweetest – we must!”

“The house has been empty for two years,” The agent, a little square man, lowered his voice confidentially, “The old lady who owned it went a tiny bit do-lally in the end; used to sit outside on the platform day and night, rain or shine.  Said she was waiting for a train.  A train!  No rails, see?  They took her into care in the end, I believe.  Big white van – you know?”

“We know.”  Lambert assured him.  “I’ll put in an offer.”  He added.

Lambert honoured his pledge to ‘gut’ Brueburn Halt.  Extensions mushroomed, courtyards were paved, bathrooms proliferated like sanitary rabbits; worktops of black marble glittered in programmable lighting, windows widened, doors deepened:  no swatch of expensive fabric was left unconsidered.  Lambert did not lack sentimentality, though: through it all, the old station platform remained untouched.

There was more, you see, between Lambert and Tamsyn than could be defined in years, although the generally accepted twenty-five was certainly a disparity worth reckoning.  A banking millionaire, Lambert took pride in his wife’s beauty and admired how approaching middle age had not dimmed the child in her; her elegance, her grace – in fact, he was obsessed by her. Tamsyn, prima ballerina for one of the world’s finest ballet ensembles was his pearl beyond price. 

Loved her?  No, not that.  Valued her?  Certainly.

At those social occasions so important to Lambert’s profession Tamsyn’s radiance would draw the rich and influential unfailingly to her flame.  She raised his profile, as she would put it, above the other hippos in the wallow.  When she first met him, Lambert had been rich; with her tutelage he had become very, very rich.  Now, ready in his advancing years to retire, he was gratified when Tamsyn likewise expressed a wish to hang up her pointe shoes – and return to the countryside of her childhood.

It did not occur to her septuagenarian husband that Tamsyn’s retirement idyll might seek to replicate the simplicity and innocence of those formative years.  He could think of her cradled in none but the most perfectly satin-lined nest.  If the confines of Brueburn Halt were smaller than those to which he was accustomed, there was no reason it could not equal the sumptuousness of, say, their St. John’s Wood apartment or their summer villa at Cannes.  If she showed dissent (as from time to time she did) at his lavish tastes he scarcely regarded it, even rather liked it.  Financial despot that he was, he enjoyed a little combative friction – and he always won.

This is not to say Tamsyn was ungrateful.  She claimed to be impressed by the refreshed appearance of ‘Brueburn’ (Lambert had dropped the ‘Halt’, thinking it inappropriate), professing enthusiasm for their shared future in this peaceful spot.

“Oh, Lamby, we shall grow old here, together!”

 And if Lambert had not caught her in this room or that within the house now and then, standing alone and quite still, her expression pensive, her eyes clouded and remote, he might have believed.  Yes, she assured him, the quirkiness of the surviving station platform amused her, the open pathway of the old track bed awakened thoughts in her of long country walks with dogs, she said.  Lambert raised an eyebrow – he had not considered there might be dogs.

Of course there were no dogs, no Tamsyn, either.  If the idyll of retirement seduced her, Brueburnquickly palled.  Party season on the Riviera beckoned, and when that bored her, London society demanded her presence.  She was still, she insisted, in demand professionally.   Much the same could be said of Lambert, whose declared intention to ‘retire’ presented many challenges.   Brueburn languished; St. John’s Wood was so much more convenient.

“I don’t feel comfortable, there,” Tamsyn eventually confided to friends when she spoke of Brueburn.  “One imagines one can relive one’s past, doesn’t one, whereas truthfully one cannot?  Too much has changed.”  And with a vapid sigh:  “For the better, one must suppose….”

Throughout the summer of 2016 Brueburn remained shuttered and deserted.  Come autumn, Lambert decided to place the old station house back on the market.  One late September day he drove from London with this in mind. 

Lambert arrived at ‘Brueburn’ to find its doors already opened, the climate turned on, and his music system playing a coloratura piece from Lakme, one of Tasmyn’s favoured operas.  At first these things seemed to suggest – in fact they spawned the  hope – that his partner had preceded him, although as far as he knew she was still in London, where she was expecting him to re-join her in a couple of days.  But though he explored the much-altered station house from end to end, he found no-one.  A mystery then.  At length he decided Mrs Broadbent, who cleaned the house once each week, must have made these preparations for his coming. He contented himself with that tenuous explanation, poured himself a drink before venturing outside onto the old platform.  Here he rested, as he had hoped to do more often, immersing himself in the sounds of rustling leaves and the drying wind of the season.

Some minutes elapsed before he saw her.   Further along the platform, on an old railway bench that had escaped his notice hitherto, a girl in a printed cotton dress sat reading a paper-backed book.   

  Lambert approached her, though not unkindly, “Hello, young lady.”  The platform was part of his private property but she might not know, after all; why should she?  “What brings you here?”

Wordlessly, without lifting her eyes a moment from her book, the girl extended a hand in which she held, pinched between her forefinger and thumb, a small, green ticket.

Lambert stared at it.

“Don’t you want to clip this?”  The girl asked in a thin voice.

Intrigued, Lambert took the little piece of cardboard from from her hand.  It was stamped third class for Newquay, and dated September 24th, 1949.  “Where did you get this?”  He asked, in a tone less certain than before.

The girl inclined her head towards the house.  “Ticket office.  D’you want to clip it, mister?”

“No, you keep it.”  Lambert passed the ticket back to her.  And he found himself saying:  “They’ll clip it on the train.”  He stepped back, suddenly finding the intimacy of the space repelling and certain in the knowledge he was not wanted there.  Leaving his intended lecture concerning trespass unsaid, he retreated to the drink he had abandoned on the platform’s edge.  When he turned to look again, the girl had gone.

“Describe her to me.”  The estate agent said, when he came to estimate ‘Brueburn’ for resale.

“About thirteen, brown hair, thin and quite pale.  Tall, for her age, probably.  I didn’t see her standing up.  Cheap white cotton dress with a red print.  Roses, I think.”

The agent thought for a moment, then shook his head.  “Nope.  I don’t know anyone like that.  Local kid, though, prob’ly; I can’t know them all.  Do you mind if I have a quick look around?  You’ve done so much to the place…”

Instead of returning to London as he had planned, Lambert ‘phoned his partner.  “Tassy darling, I’ll be staying down here for a couple more days, can you manage without me?”

Tasmyn sounded piqued.   “Sweetie, you know I need to give Rory some answers.  He doesn’t have backing, and I promised him you would make up any shortfall.”

“Is this about Le Corsair?  It’s a classical ballet – surely he can’t be begging in the streets for finance.  Why do I need to become involved?”

“The subject matter is a little controversial.  I don’t think it’s been performed here for years, which is why I want to do it.”

“What do you mean, precious; you ‘want to do it’?  I thought we’d promised each other, no more leads.”

“And we had. Oh, Lamb, I have never danced Medora, it’ll be the last, I promise…”

“I think you’d better come down here.  Wrap things up as soon as you can.  I’m going to need some substantial persuasion.”

“Oh, dear – are you, Lamby?  I shall have to do my very, very best.  You’ll wait for me?  You won’t go jetting off somewhere?”

To curtail a syrup of endearments, Lambert switched off his ‘phone.  He was disquieted by events in the latter days of Tasmyn’s career, as it became evident that her talents were falling from favour and he was repeatedly asked to paper over the financial cracks.  A full-scale classic ballet promised to be rather more than a crack.  He pondered his decision to sell Brueburn afresh.  Maybe this was the time to insist their mutual retirement pledges be put into action. 

She was there again, the girl.  He came out onto the platform expecting to see her:  the same dress, the same paperback book; the same ticket?

She looked up, her intense green eyes meeting his.  “You keep pestering me,” she said.

“You’re on my property,” he replied; and when she gave no response:  “What’s your name?”

“I don’t know as I should tell you, old man comin’ after young girls, and that,”  She retorted.  “Crim’nal, that is.”  She returned to her book.  “I’m Janice, Janice Brathwaite.  My dad’ll come after you.  He’s fierce, my  dad.”

“Well, Janice, you’re trespassing.”

“I’m not.  I’m waitin’ for a train.”

Lambert felt as if he was struggling against something – a weight of atmosphere surrounded the girl.  “There are no trains anymore, Janice; the tracks are gone, do you see?  There’s no ticket office, because the station’s my house, now.”

“I’m goin’ to London.”  

“Your ticket – the one you showed me yesterday  – that said you were going to Newquay.”

The girl rounded on him, her voice rising to a scream.  “LONDON.  T’is LONDON I’M GOING!”

Lambert found himself being blown backward as if by a gale.  The pressure to put distance between himself and the girl was irresistible.  He turned and almost ran back to the shelter of his house with Janice’s voice screeching after him every step of the way.  “LONDON! LONDON!  LONDON!”

Only when he was safely indoors did he look back up the platform from a staircase window. There was no sign of the girl.

Later that evening he Googled ‘Janice Braithwaite’ on his laptop, his search returning only current Facebook references and a few genealogy hits, none of which seemed to apply to a little station called Brueburn Halt, or its long-forgotten estate.  Undeterred, he found the name of the largest local newspaper and paid his way into its archives where, by refining his search to the date of Janice’s ticket, he found the news item he sought.

Railway Death

A tragic accident at Brueburn Station occurred yesterday, when a local man was hit by a train travelling to Newquay and Penzance.  The man, who appears to have fallen from the platform, was pronounced dead at the scene.  Services on the line were suspended yesterday, but are said to be running as normal this morning.  The deceased was named as Norman Talbot Braithwaite.  He leaves a wife and daughter.  Relatives have been informed.

Lambert lay awake long into the night, more than once hearing, when the night was free of other sounds, what he thought to be the thunder of a distant train  – the chuff of smoke and steam, the click-clack of carriages, the hoot of a warning whistle.   When at last he slept, he dreamt of his house as once it was – ticket office, waiting rooms and platform canopy with the tracks laid afresh and gleaming with use.  And when he woke he knew what he must do.  As soon as he had cleared his business calls he returned to the search engine.  He remained there some time.

That afternoon the girl was there, seated and reading as before.  Ignoring the forbidding aura that surrounded her, he walked right up to the seat, which was a long bench, and sat down beside her.

“Hello Janice.”  He said.   She did not reply.  “I’ve read a lot about you,”  Lambert went on.  “About the competitions you won.  You were very good, even when you were only seven or eight years old.  But that was almost seventy years ago.  How old are you, Janice?”

“Thirteen.  I’m thirteen.”   Lambert sensed a wave of antipathy – he could describe it no other way – pushing against him.  Janice was producing her ticket again.  “I’m waiting for my train.  I’m going to London.”

“Your ticket says Newquay.”

“Then it’s wrong.  WRONG!  I’m going to LONDON!”

“Don’t excite yourself, girl.”  Lambert told her, resisting the urge to retreat, no matter how strong it became.  “Why don’t we talk about the first time you came here?”

“Nothing to say.” The full weight of Janice’s will thrust at Lambert, physically moving him away.

“You came with your Dad, didn’t you?” As if at the turn of a key, he felt Janice’s resistance suddenly stop.  She got to her feet, and stood wide-eyed, staring down at him.  He looked her up and down, the slight figure in her cotton dress, and he knew.  He was certain. “Your Dad was taking you to school in Newquay, but you didn’t want to go to school, did you?  You wanted to go to London to begin doing the thing you loved and to make a living from it – even at such a tender age you knew you could do that.”

“But he wouldn’t let you, would he?  It was a spur of the moment thing.  No sign of the ticket clerk, few people on the platform, the train rolling in.  You were so gifted at judgement of balance it took only the slightest push, might not have seemed deliberate at all.  He didn’t fall beneath those wheels, Janice, you pushed him.”

“Pushed him.”  The girl repeated the words slowly, rolling them around in her head.  “Pushed him.”

Satisfied, Lambert turned and walked away.  That was why she returned here, he told himself.  He didn’t know how often she was doomed to re-enact that dreadful day – he didn’t care.  She was no more than an empty ghost to him now.  When he turned around, she would be gone.  And she was.

The hour had turned six when Tamsyn’s car rolled onto the forecourt of ‘Brueburn’ and its svelte, exquisitely coiffured driver emerged to Lambert’s effusive greeting.  “Tams, my sweet love, you have no idea how lonely I’ve been!”

“Oh, Lamb, I’m so sorry!  I had the most dreadful, dreadful drive!  The traffic, my dearest!  But are you well?  You sounded so serious on the ‘phone.”

“Never better my sweet, never better!  We have serious matters to discuss.   It’s an enchanting evening, so when you have quite recovered come and join me on the platform:  I’ll have your Moscow Mule dressed and ready.”

Very well, my dear, if I must.  Although even the platform is somehow a little bit disturbing. One does one’s absolute best to love it here, doesn’t one?  I shall be with you in a trice!”

Tasmyn’s ‘trices’ were usually on the long side, so Lambert was well prepared by the time she floated from Brueburn’s interior garbed in yards of expensive silk.  “I’ve made an effort for you, darling, you see?”  She shuddered.  “Oh, god, this place gives me the creeps!  Why on earth did we imagine we might ever live here?”

“We did not make that decision,”  Lambert replied mysteriously,  “We were invited and we came.  You look so very beautiful tonight, my dear: if beauty were ever eternal it would find its home in you.”

“Lamby, what a sweet thing to say.”  Tasmyn’s eyes squinted against the evening sun,  “You didn’t tell me we had a guest?”

“Ah, the girl!  You can see her too.  I’m so glad, I thought I was going slightly insane.  She’s our resident ghost, Tasmyn.  Come and meet her – she’s quite memorable.”

“Memorable – whatever do you mean?  I’m not in the mood to socialise, dearest, especially with a ghost, if that’s what she is.  She looks rather too substantial, to me.  Anyway, I do believe she’s coming to meet us.”  Tamsyn’s eyes, wanting glasses she would never wear, narrowed.  “What’s her name?  She looks oddly familiar…”

“She does?”  The distance between the two females was now no more than a dozen yards.  Both stopped.  Disbelief was reflected on each of their faces.  Lambert; he had to believe.  He had known that afternoon, when the girl got to her feet; now, walking and standing, her turned out hips were too obvious.  “Tams, my darling, you should have told me your real name.”

There were times, Lambert had learned, when the truth defies rational explanation.  He had travelled widely and seen enough to know this to be true. 

“Lambert, what have you done to me?”  Tasmyn’s voice pleaded.  “What have you done?”

“I’ve brought you to face your past.”

No further words were spoken.  The two figures stepped towards each other and embraced.  And when the embrace was ended, only one very old woman stood on the platform at Brueburn Halt.  As she wavered and seemed she might fall, Lambert came to her, supporting her.  From her quivering fingers he took a small, green ticket.

“You won’t be needing this now.”  He said.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content