WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: A Train Journey

Write Across Sussex
Write Across Sussex

Elisabeth Stern

Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.

The banker and his wife arrived at the station in very good time for the excursion train back to London. The banker bought a newspaper and they settled themselves into a carriage. Moving along the beach looking at all the entertainments and drinking in the sea air they had found the day in Brighton an exhilarating one. But now they were tired and Adelaide lay back in her seat and closed her eyes.

A mother with three children got into the carriage next. The baby was mercifully asleep but the two boys were fractious and inclined to hit each other. Their mother separated her sons and told them to be good.

Then came twin young ladies dressed in sweet pea colours. They were handed into the train by a group of soldiers who smiled, bowed, remarked that the train was dash crowded, and sauntered off. One of the twins took off her glove to admire her engagement ring. The other twin (who had within her glove and unbeknown to her sister not one but three cards given to her by eligible gentlemen) smirked in an annoying fashion. They began to argue in accusatory whispers.

Lastly in to the carriage stepped a minister and his wife (his helpmate as he called her). They had been visiting an uncle and had not experienced the beach entertainments most of which they would have disapproved of anyway.

The whistle blew and with a jolt the train began to move. Suddenly there was a commotion and noise of shouting, the door of the carriage jerked open and an ugly man holding an old basket tumbled in. A furious porter slammed the door and the mother crossly moved one of her sons to make room for the newcomer. He sat down, placed the basket on the floor and leered round at everybody. He had a tooth missing in the front of his mouth, which made him appear quite sinister.

‘Snakes Mama snakes’ yelled the two boys and the banker realised that they were sharing the carriage with the snake charmer that they had seen on the beach mesmerising the crowds. The children began to clamour to see the snakes and for the man to play the magic music please please. ‘ No’ said their mother ‘No, no, no’ squealed the twin young ladies. ‘Certainly not’ said the banker and the minister simultaneously.

The snake charmer grinned foolishly. He was, the banker saw extremely drunk. The entertainer took the pipe from the inner recesses of his jacket, put it to his mouth and defiantly played a few notes. The lid of the basket moved slightly and the snake charmer’s foot kicked it off.

Up reared three snakes that stared about them with glittering eyes then swayed jerkily in time with the music. For a moment everyone was so frozen with horror that movement was impossible. Then the snake charmer stopped playing and slumped backwards, the pipe fell out of his hands and onto the floor. His face had turned a strange waxy colour and his eyes were shut.

Everyone looked at the snakes that were now sliding out of their basket and along the floor of the carriage. Pandemonium broke out, the young lady twins got up onto the seat and began to scream at the top of their voices while the children yelled with excitement, the baby yelled with fury and the mother cried with fear. The minister took out his prayer book, which fell open at ‘Burial at sea’ and began to read in a tremulous voice. His wife, though she had gone very pale, took the book from him and found the third collect for aid against all perils as being more suitable.

The banker had jumped to his feet and was fanning the snake charmer vigorously with his newspaper in one hand while with the other he tried to reach the communication cord but was unable to move owing to the floor being full of writhing snakes slithering over the feet of the passengers.

The banker’s wife opened her eyes and in a clear voice asked one of the boys to find the pipe and give it to her. She wiped it on her handkerchief and started to play. Strange music flowed out of the pipe, so strange that everyone became quiet; the snakes moved their heads to and fro, to and fro then slithered to their basket and poured over the edge and into it. The banker closed the lid and put his foot on it.

Adelaide then began to play a different tune, a haunting, shivering, go to sleep and dream tune. The charmed music flowed round the carriage and over all the occupants. ‘Hush hush’ it said to the baby and she closed her eyes and dreamt that she was in her little cot at home. Over the mother flowed the music and she saw a beautiful field of red poppies with the soft rain coming down on them like tears. The boys pressed close to their mother as they heard in their dreams the faint sound of gunfire and the frightened neigh of horses. Their mother put out her hand and rested it on the rough head of a little son. ‘I must have a photograph taken of us all just as we are today’ she thought.

The music broke over the twin girls like a wave. They had subsided in their seats and were clasped in each other’s arms. Into their minds came the image of two older women on different sides of a vast ocean writing and writing and longing for the sight of a loved sister.

Round the carriage went the music and whispered a secret in to the ear of the minister’s wife. She smiled her tight little smile; she already knew the secret. ‘I shall call him Octavius’ she thought ‘because after my father, my 5 brothers and my dear husband he will be the eighth man in my life.’

The minister in his turn smelled damp stone and waxed wood and saw an old gnarled hand resting on the back of a familiar pew, and recognised it as his own. ‘No promotion then’ he thought ‘but I kept my faith.’

The banker was struggling to stay awake and keep guard over his wife. For a second, his eyes glazed over and he saw the beach empty and with twisted wire where today there had been crowds of day-trippers but he clenched his fists and forced this eyes open. And the picture vanished.

‘All right, all right, I’m moving on’ said the snake charmer as a heavy hand came down on his shoulder. He woke and found himself in a carriage full of startled looking people and the train grinding to a halt. ‘Sit still’ said the banker ‘and let these poor souls out first.’

Everyone left the train as quickly as they could and sent porters running for the stationmaster, a doctor and a strong rope. But when a rush of station operatives arrived at the charmed carriage all they found was a drunken beach entertainer sitting sulkily on an old basket. Of the banker and his wife there was no sign.

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