by Paul Radcliffe
Children go where they shouldn’t. On a railway embankment in winter, no birds sing. One boy takes up a dare. The other children know there are ghosts. Perhaps they will make new friends. Childhood is imagination. Mostly.
The dead do not rest in peace. It consoles the bereaved to think that they do. The thought comforts them, perhaps in the knowledge that one day they must follow. The dead harbour jealousy and they nurture malice. The dead are all ghosts and they remain. They endure when living memory has gone and their names are moss on cracked gravestones. The dead are ghosts, and children are aware of their presence. They know it instinctively as night follows day, a matter of common knowledge. They know ghosts are malicious but they do not know why. Being children, they tell stories about them to other children. The tales are exaggerated to frighten the younger ones. Still, there are grains of truth to be found. They are buried deep among the terrified screams, the shadows on moonless nights, and nameless spectres preying on the unwary.
Where there are children, there are ghosts, and they said there were ghosts on the railway. In particular, the bridge over the tracks served as an informal meeting place. Children seemed to drift there. They came and went. Friendships and alliances were made and broken. It was part of the fabric of the distant world of childhood. Few adults comprehend it and fewer still remember. The bridge itself was a ribbon of concrete stretching above two sets of railway tracks,f our lines in all. The lines ran into two tunnels. They were dark and cavernous, and the grey daylight only crept a short way into the blackness. These structures had been carved laboriously out of the local sandstone. The date of their opening was etched onto a stone block placed between the tunnels and surmounted by a heraldic plaque detailing a coat of arms. Blackened by smoke and faded by weather, the year was still legible.
The stonemason, instructed by some long-dead railway dignitary, had added Latin wording.
EHEU FUGACES LABUNTUR ANNI
It seemed ominous, and the English translation had been added below:
Alas, the fleeting years slip by.
The children thought ghosts were to be found in the tunnels, and the rails below the bridge seemed far away. They were familiar with the railway landmarks and dangers, real and imagined. Their parents had forbidden them to go there. As with most parental warnings, this merely increased the attraction. At times, the younger children would be so frightened by the stories that they would run home amid the growing shadows beneath the street lights.
There was a long row of terraced red brick houses running parallel to the railway. At the rear of these houses was a long alley. This backed onto a rotting creosoted fence topped by coils of barbed wire, brittle with age. Roughly halfway down the alley, there was a gap, now paved over. Once, a house had stood there. It had been damaged by a German bomb, dropped fractionally early during one of the many raids on the nearby docks. As the house collapsed, two children were trapped by falling masonry and were killed. It was a grim time, but it had been one more tragedy in a time of widespread loss. What remained of the house had been demolished. The dead children were buried on a day when evening fell early and the paths turned to frozen mud. The parents, grief-stricken, had moved away. They never returned. The local children knew of the gap but not the sad history.
The children knew where the gaps in the fence were. They could not climb over, though some had tried, they did not need to. Several of the wooden stakes had rotted and crumbled as the rainswept years had passed. The children could crawl or push through the resultant spaces, and thus scrape their way towards the embankments. These were an untended and overgrown wilderness, strewn with broken glass and household detritus in bursting black plastic bags. Some years before, it had been the practice of the railway company to tidy the grassed slopes. These stopped abruptly where brick walls rose from the side of the tracks. At regular intervals, arched openings had been cut into the walls. They had been intended to shelter workers from oncoming trains but were rarely used now. The children knew that one such opening held a ghost, or a demon, or something for which they knew no name. If the unsuspecting leaned against a certain row of bricks, the rear wall would shimmer into nothingness and the victim would be drawn back, unable to scream, into whatever nameless horror lay on the other side.
In the days when workers had tidied the embankments, metal ladders had been fixed to the walls. This enabled them to go back and forth from tracks to embankments and thus-in the eyes of the company-go about their work with greater efficiency. When a wider authority swallowed up the local railway company, this practice was seen as inefficient and the embankments were left to the flourishing weeds. The ladders remained. The older children would use them to scramble down to the gravelled trackside. Once there, they would gingerly step toward the tunnel mouths. They would try to frighten each other, as children do. They screamed that a train was coming. They would all be killed.
A few miles away, in a forlorn and neglected cemetery, names faded on headstones. Snow began to swirl in a wind that bit the bone and seemed to come from several directions at once. There were few visitors, and those that were there hurried away, mindful of the approaching dark. In that neglected place, no birds sang. Christmas was two weeks away, the sky was a lowering grey that the children, so it seemed, could have almost reached up and touched. It was late afternoon, and the children were on the embankment. Frost had made it slippery. Few trains had gone by. One of the older boys had made his careful way to the top of the ladder. Rungs were freezing to the touch. The passage of time had loosened the bolts that fixed it to the wall. It rattled as he made his way down, the sound magnified by the cold air. At the bottom, he called out to the other children still on the embankment. He was mocking and he was encouraging. More than anything, children want to belong. One by one they made their way down the ladder. Four of them stood by the tracks. Their breath formed wisps of mist that rose and drifted and were lost in the evening air. They were telling ghost stories, what they remembered of them, stories about the tunnels, the dark spaces that loomed in front of them. A railwayman had been killed there, they said. He had been buried in a roof fall, suffocated by wood, stone and soil. He couldn’t be rescued, said the children, but his hands still reached out desperately in the blackness. All the children knew this. On certain nights, if you listened, his desperate cries still echoed in the dank darkness of the tunnel. However, more frightening by far was the tragic spirit they all knew as Jimmy.
Jimmy had passed into local legend. He was a soldier from the local regiment. He had been part of a Pals Battalion, raised from the men of the town as was the practice until, too late, it was realised that the loss was too great to the tightly knit communities in the small towns. Jimmy had been sent to France. He had been struck in the face by a white hot shell fragment. It had taken away much of his jaw and most of his tongue and teeth. The disfigurement was cruel and all-encompassing. His speech was left guttural and scarcely comprehensible. Finally, after months in hospital, he was granted leave. He arrived home in that small town, and his children were terrified. His wife could not bear to be near him, and so the mythology ran-few of the local people blamed her. His appearance and speech were like a creature from a nightmare. A few sad weeks in a grim boarding house had passed. One winter morning of early frost and a cloud moon, Jimmy had made his way to the embankment and down to the tracks. He had used the same ladder as the children. Quietly, he had laid down with his head on the rails and waited for the early train, silent tears rolling down his ruined face. The children knew him as Jimmy, though no one knew where the name had come from. His name could not be found on the granite memorial, carved in black. Unlike the others, he had returned.
The children were by the tracks. They were close to the tunnels. There were four of the older children. They were daring each other. Small dares. Childish dares.
‘Step on the rail. Step off the rail.’
‘Jimmy’s coming! Look. Look.’
Some of the children had scraped together meagre snowballs. The flurries were beginning to settle against the rails. Dusk was near.
‘Throw that stone. Throw it in the tunnel. I dare you. I dare you.’
Dares had become tag. Another boy, smaller and younger, had made his cautious way down the ladder and joined them. Snow was falling more thickly now. The glow of the street lights cast pools on the embankment. The shadows were blurred. The game of tag petered out. The newcomer was noticed, and a ragged chant began.
It grew louder and insistent. The chorus grew louder and continued as one of the girls dared the boy to walk into the tunnels, dark and ominous.
‘Right into it.All the way, so we can’t even see you. Are you frightened then? Jimmy in there?’
The mockery was an incentive and the boy knew it would get worse if he hesitated. He took a few steps forward. The other children ran in front of him and stopped, screaming, at the tunnel mouth. Screaming as if confronted by ghouls, they jeered at the boy. He kept walking forward. While the snow fell – and unnoticed by the children – there was a faint glimmering on the embankment. The cries of the children had faded. The boy’s footsteps seemed louder as he walked into the tunnel. There were other sounds, or the child’s imagination thought there were. A desperate scraping.The muffled cries of a railwayman, fighting for breath against a pitiless weight. Worse, at the edge of hearing, the sobbing of a soldier, his face devastated, as he waited in the dark. Maybe it was. The boy could not tell. He was following the gentle curve of the tracks. The arch of dim, pale light behind him grew smaller. He seemed to be a long way into the tunnel, and he was sure the other children could not see him. He turned and walked back, avoiding the urge to run, knowing the derision that would bring. He emerged from the gloom of the tunnel. The dare was won. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw the snow was now settling on the rails and the wooden sleepers. He also saw two children, a boy and a girl, standing behind the others. He hadn’t seen them before. Maybe they came from a few streets away, enough to make them strangers. The local children had their own borders, undefined but observed. It didn’t matter. He had won the dare, and it must be time to go home. The older boy stepped to the front of the group. The others looked at him, seemed to defer to him as he spoke.
‘I’ve got a dare for you. A real dare’.
He waved dismissively at the tunnel….’not stupid stories.’ The children, hearing this and sensing vulnerability as a shark scents blood, began to shout encouragement. Behind the older boy, the girl who was with him smiled. He went on, gesturing to an old metal lever jutting upright through the granite chips. In busier times it had been used to manually change points when the lines were under maintenance. It had long been disconnected from this purpose, though none of the children knew this. Years of weather and neglect had rusted it into place.
‘A proper dare. I dare you to move that lever. Move it. Move it proper. ’
The girl spoke for the first time.
‘I think it’s too much for him, the big brave boy who went all that way into the tunnel, the big dark tunnel…’
The other children joined in, a choir of ridicule. The older boy spoke again as they seemed to pause for breath. He looked at the others as if to check they were listening. He took a step towards the smaller boy and looked intently into his eyes.
‘ Did you see Jimmy?’ He pulled the side of his face down in grotesque mockery, and slurred and twisted his words.
‘Did you? Did you see him?’
There was no reply. The derision had a bitter, keen edge to it now, and the girl spoke again. She asked if he had seen the railwayman. She made scratching, clutching motions with her hands to emphasise the question, the actions of a man scraping soil from his face in unbroken darkness. It was beyond anything the child had ever heard, harsh and bleak. Something that went far beyond a game, beyond any childish wish to belong. An earlier chant resumed.
‘Dare! Dare! Dare!Dare!’
It grew louder. The boy stepped toward the lever. He gripped the icy metal and flakes of rust fell to the snow. His fingers felt frozen through the dampness of his thin woollen gloves. There was a vibration in the rails. The chanting had stopped and he could no longer see the children. He thought he heard a voice, faint in the distance.
He pulled. There was a split second when he heard the locomotive. In that instant, the lever slipped and he fell backwards across the rail. The boy glimpsed a girl’s face, a smile framed by whirling, twisting snowflakes. A black sky, stars glittering. And all was black. In a turmoil of wheels and scraping iron, the locomotive passed. The screams began, awaking from a nightmare. The children saw blood pooling. And much, much worse. They ran to the ladder, frantically making their way upward to the darkened embankment. Scrambling and pushing, heedless of nettles and broken glass, they hurried to the rotting gaps to escape the horror and blame that would follow. Heedless, they ran through the streets. They could hear the locomotive in the distance. There were tendrils of steam near the lever, fading rapidly and a scattering of blood along the lines. On the embankment, the boy and girl looked at each other. Their eyes held each other’s gaze for a long moment. The girl smiled as if recalling a pleasing memory. They had both died in a long-ago air raid, crushed by walls and beyond rescue. All that remained to them was an eternity of jealousy and malice. They would never leave.
Had any remained to have seen, they would have seen the pair fade into waning silhouettes till they vanished into the thickening snow. The boy and girl did not measure time. They would linger, and they would watch. On the embankment, there was a stillness.
There is a stillness.