Getting Off At Dalton
by Sarah Evans


The train strikes out across the sands. These shores are coarse and dangerous: mud flats and sinking sands; tides that sweep in faster than a man can run. 

            The next stop is. Dalton. Is the next stop.

I’m one station away from my end-of-line destination. But as the train takes me back, I’m no longer sure that I can do this.

* * * * *

It seemed such a slight thing at first, just a bit of fun. There was little enough of that to be had those war years.

I’d noticed him before: his thick red hair was striking; his stocky presence belied only average height. He was always so polite, not like some others we had in, never got drunk. He just stayed for his half brown ale, Fridays and Saturdays, once or twice during the week. We’d have a word or two, nothing much. “Crowded tonight,”  he’d say, or “Quiet,” as the case might be. I was surprised when he asked, “Can I walk you home then?”

“I’m not off till late,” I said, but it didn’t put him off.

“I’ll be back then.”

He didn’t talk much as we trod the narrow streets, our way lit by the moon and glints of light splaying out from poorly blackened windows. He carried my gas mask, and tucked my arm round his. I liked his serious way; a man gabbing too cleverly always grated on my nerves.

“So this is it,” I said. It wasn’t far to walk. The landlady was a friend of Mam’s. She was supposed to keep an eye on me, but she left me to myself, the way I liked it. I thought he’d grab hold, I was used to dealing firmly with insistent hands, but instead he said all formal like, “Thank you. Perhaps we can do this again sometime.”

Margery of course wanted to know everything. “So which one is Tom?”  She came into the Ambrose specially to have him pointed out. But then she frowned, none of her usual giggles. “Tom Carter. He’s married you know. Ursula – from the Mill – I’ve told you about her, proud stuck-up sort, thinks she’s better than the rest of us – she’s his sister-in law. She goes on about him as if he’s common, as if her precious sister’s married beneath her.” Margery always had no end of gossip. I stared back my disappointment, then shrugged. I didn’t see it was my problem, I only wanted a bit of a laugh. Men were scarce. The young ones signed up with brash confidence; they came back changed, or not at all. The lists of dead piled up in the papers. I wasn’t about to be a war widow.

It became a regular thing, he’d be waiting outside when I got off. I don’t know how he knew my shifts, perhaps he asked around, or just hung about on the off-chance. I’d just about got used to him not trying it on, so it came almost as a surprise when after a few weeks he slipped his arm around my waist, pulled me to him and kissed me. It was nice: slow and lingering. He didn’t seem to be in any hurry, as if we had all the time in the world for courting. He didn’t push his luck too far.

Neither of us said anything about Lottie. Margery knew: she and the kids had been evacuated to a farm in Milnthorpe, far from the stealth of planes seeking out the shipyard. We’d hear them throbbing overhead, the screech of sirens, the whistle of bombs. Afterwards there’d be the Guy Faulks smell, the heady relief it had not been you they got, and the wild knowledge: you had to live life for the moment.

It was a month or two before he finally asked, “Can I come up then?” I was thinking he’d never get round to it. It wasn’t as if he was the first; it’s not like I’d taken vows. Somehow I didn’t seem to be the marrying type, boys didn’t take me seriously like that and I didn’t want it anyway. I’d seen what happened. All lovey-dovey they’d be before-hand, then once they’d signed you up, they’d do as they liked.

“You’ll have to be careful,” I insisted, sternly, so he’d know I meant it. I wasn’t about to relive my mother’s life. And I believed him when he said he would. Getting off at Dalton, instead of going all the way to Barrow, that’s what we called it, as if it was a bus ride. Funny how we didn’t have the words for any of what went on back then. Later he got one of those rubber things, he’d wash it out carefully afterwards, dust it with talcum powder. I kept it hidden at the back of my drawer of undies.

The next few months were grand. The nights in my room, our body warmth trapped under grey blankets as we breathed white mist into the unheated air. The times he’d take me out. We’d escape the town, all the way to Dalton, he’d say it slyly, and we’d smile our lover’s smiles. He’d take me for afternoon tea, or we’d just stroll along the country lanes, cuddled in a brace against the chill sea breeze. I missed dancing, but he said he didn’t like to. He probably thought there was too much chance of us being seen. Sometimes I’d put a record on and round we’d sway in the yard or two I’d manage to clear in my room. Happiness would bubble up, a perfect fragile sphere.

The inevitable happened. We were seen. Margery got the full story.

“Ursula was full of it. Old bat. That one wouldn’t know a good time if it slapped her in the face. She saw you, arm in arm. Bet she got a right kick out of it.” Margery mimicked a grim look of steely satisfaction. “Straight on the train to Milnthorpe she was. I can just picture her. Pretending to be sorry, when really she was enjoying it.”

I waited. One night, two, three, and I knew: Lottie was back.

I thought that was it. “I never thought it would last,” I told Margery with attempted flippancy. Though it hurt more than I cared to say. “But he could have told me to my face.”

Then two weeks later, there he was, propped outside the pub, waiting for me as usual.

“She’s back then?” It came out in a curt retort, to cover up the surging joy. 

“Yes. But that’s nowt to do with us.”

Which wasn’t of course true for him – but right enough for me. She wasn’t my problem.

That night the house shook, we heard the whizz of bombs and the smash of crockery rattled off the dresser, but we were too intent on one another to sprint out to the shelter at the bottom of the road. I think that’s when I knew: the tide was coming in and I ought to be running.

“I’ll leave her,” he whispered in my ear afterwards, “It’ll just be you and me.” I knew it was just bed talk, he never would. Times were different then, being married meant something. But I let myself believe it, just to hold on to the moment’s closeness it brought.

“She trapped me. I’d not have married her otherwise,” he said.

“I’ll not have that.” If he hadn’t wanted her to get her up the duff he should have been more careful. It’s not as if she sounded the forward type.

“She don’t really like it. Like doing it with a corpse.”

He liked the fact I did like it, it meant he could do those things he’d never dare at home. There were those low street words, spoken urgently in the dark. If I’d asked he’d have said he didn’t mean them. But somewhere he did. Somewhere he despised me having the same needs as him. Later, when we argued he’d tell me how Lottie was a real lady. I’d get cross, kick him out. But he was always back, all charm again.

* * * * *

Years it went on. I thought of ending it many times. I had offers, men from the pub hanging round, ready to take me out at the drop of a hat. But not that many. After the war good men were rationed. They’d be married, or those that weren’t, well, you could see why. It was like picking over the remnants at a jumble sale.

I was stuck, in too deep to get myself out.

I knew about the problems he had at home. They weren’t happy. I wasn’t going to accept that as my fault, I wasn’t forcing him. Margery’s aunt ran the shop, just round the corner from them. She told of voices spilling out from that cramped terraced house, rising upwards in a destructive spiral for all the neighbours to hear. I’d see Margery looking edgy trying to figure out how much I needed to know. “Seems Lottie was in the shop the other day, her headscarf pulled right down.”

“Doesn’t do to believe everybody’s tittle-tattle,” I’d say. There were plenty ready to see too much. But part of me would be appalled, and part of me glad there wasn’t the happiness at home he got with me.

Sometimes I think he hated her, what she pushed him to. I’d see his lips tighten, “She just don’t know when to let go,” he’d say, then he’d button up, not say any more. And he hated me, too, because without me it wouldn’t happen. I’d catch glimpses of that simmering anger. “He’d never dare lay a finger on me,” I told Margery defiantly. I didn’t want her to think I needed looking out for. He knew I’d not hang around for more. 

The kiddies of course held him there. He loved them in his own way, not soppy, but I saw his pride in them, their doing well at school, taking the opportunities he’d never had. “Going to university he is,” he told me, puffing up with reflected triumph that his lad would escape the inevitability of a trade in Vicker’s shipyard.

But it was Anne he was really proud of. “She’s the smartest of the lot,” he’d say. Though of course there was no point a lass doing too much studying. “Get it from me they do.” He always spoke of Lottie as if she was a bit of a fool, which she must have been, to put up with all she did.

* * * * *

The summer Anne got married things came to a head.

He came round all down, sagging back into my armchair, not touching the tea I made or looking me in the eye. I’d seen it all by then, his sullen twists and turns, knew I could usually bring him round. 

“Anne and Jack got married,” he cut across my carefree chatter.

I thought his dejection was just the usual thing: a Dad losing his little girl.

“About time too,” I said briskly. They’d been courting for years. “Bit sudden wasn’t it?” I hadn’t heard anything about wedding plans. I saw his stricken face. “She’s not, is she…?” My voice petered out, got ready to say, It don’t matter. She’s safely married now.

“They didn’t ask me.” I had a fleeting urge to laugh, to say no-one asks the father for permission now. Then I got his meaning. “Oh Tom.” There wasn’t anything I could say. She always was his favourite: bright, outspoken, full of spark. She’d not invited her own Dad to her wedding. 

“Leave her.” It was the only time I said it, and I wouldn’t say it again. “Come and live with me. Come where you’re wanted.” I heard the plea in my voice, its cloying feebleness.

I’d never admitted it, but somewhere deep inside lay the unspoken hope: he might just leave her when the kids grow up. There was no real reason for him to stay now, this seemed the perfect opportunity. Because for all I said I liked my freedom, I missed it: the respectability, being able to go out places together. I’d dream of such mundane things. I’d hear the drone of the Vicker’s horn – half-past four every day – picture him streaming out the gates with the rest of them, and I’d know exactly what time to have his tea waiting on the table for when he walked through the door. I’d finally give up the pub. I was sick of the punters, their lewd jokes, the cleaning up after them, always having to be cheery.

He turned on me, fury twisting up his face. “I’d never leave her for you.” His voice was drenched with contempt. Who was I to come between him and his precious family? He looked at me like I was dirt.

Months he stayed away.

It was then I got the letter from Elsie. My baby sister had moved with her husband far away to Cornwall. We didn’t see much of each other, it always seemed too long a way to go. “George is ill. The doctors don’t give him more than a couple of months. I could do with some help – why don’t you come and stay?” She wooed me with images of southern sunshine, a light sea breeze, soft sands.

I quit my job, gave notice on my room. I’d help Elsie through the last painful weeks with George, get her back on her feet, then stay on. They had a small business: bed and breakfast, with a tea shop at the front. I pictured telling Tom, could almost feel the satisfaction of seeing the look on his face. Or maybe he’d hear it from someone else. That would show him, make him see I wasn’t daft enough to sit round waiting.

Then just as it was all settled, finally he crawled back. I hadn’t expected him to look so forlorn, for my angry heart to flip the way it did. Perhaps if he’d pleaded I’d have stayed; perhaps I wanted him to. But he was a proud man, not about to let me see how much it hurt. “I expect you’ll do what’s best for you. But I’ll not pretend I’ll not miss you.”

“Come and visit for your holidays.” I tried to keep it light. I had my pride too.

“I might just do that.”

I didn’t think he would.

But he did: for ten years, two weeks every summer. At first it was the works shutdown, but he kept to the same two weeks after he’d retired. I don’t know what he told Lottie, what arguments they had, but he always came.

I’d keep the best room for us. It was always strange sleeping in a guest room like that, good linen, rather than the worn stuff Elsie and I used. We were like a newly married couple on holiday. Elsie would take on a girl to help out. “You enjoy yourself,” she’d say, even though it was our busiest time. She knew what it meant to me. We’d stroll along hand in hand along the promenade, watching golden sands washed over by silvery surf.

We’d have cream tea and potter round the gift shops. I helped him choose small presents for the grandchildren. I wondered what they were told about their Granddad’s holiday, pictured Lottie’s tight lips when they asked, “But why don’t you go with Granddad, Nana?” We even sent a jar of clotted cream to Lottie once. It was his idea, so I didn’t say anything. It must have choked her. I squeezed every ounce of enjoyment I could out of those two weeks. Lying sleepless beside him, unused to a man’s presence in my bed, I’d feel I was the happiest woman alive.

Hard it would be, that final walk down to the station, always getting there too early and standing awkwardly, no longer knowing what to say. He’d try to insist I didn’t have to hang around, but I wanted to cling on to each remaining second. Then finally it’d be over and I’d be just a woman past her prime, standing on a platform, watching as the train took him away. 

* * * * *

We are now approaching. Dalton. Dalton. Is our next stop.

The train shudders to a halt and the doors bleep. Panic rises up from my stomach and before I rightly know what’s happening, my legs have gotten me up and pushed me past the few stragglers waiting to board. Suddenly the train feels too fast, taking me back over all those decades in a few short hours, to the hometown I’ve not seen for fifteen years, to where I’ve planned to say my last farewells. I feel like a drunk lurching out into the bucket-of-water freshness of the outside.

I stand on the small platform with its red sandstone office, my eyes following the train carrying on indifferently without me. A chill autumnal breeze blows in from the Irish sea, already heralding winter, with no lingering remembrance of summer days.

I head into the small village. The same green hills look down, the same sheep graze on salt-sprayed turf. The high street looks smarter, with a scattered row of city brands, but there is still a café where I can sit and order tea and think what to do next.

I take out four envelopes from my bag, all the same innocent off-white, stained with black ink. It’s five years since I got the first, its razor edges disguised in small neat writing. There were just two lines. “I regret to inform you that my father, Thomas John Carter, has been in a serious car accident. His condition is stable, but he is unlikely to be able to travel again.”

There was no yours sincerely, she’d signed it simply Anne. It was intended to be definitive, finally disposing of me, achieving what those years of fighting couldn’t. He was all theirs now.

He’s my life too. I wanted to protest. They couldn’t think I’d go that quietly.

I’d never written to him before. It was understood it would make things difficult; besides, neither of us were writers. I’d just get that one letter a year, telling me in awkward formal phrases when to expect him. But I wrote now. I didn’t know who to address it to. From what Anne said, it might not be much use to him. I couldn’t address it to Lottie. I wrote, “Dear Anne,” though it had to be sent to his address, “I am writing to enquire about the state of Tom’s health. I wondered if I might visit.” I’ve never had a letter back so fast.

“My father is weak and confused, and often doesn’t know where he is. The doctors said any other man would be dead.” He always was strong as an ox. “It is unlikely he will ever recover.

“Visiting is out of the question. Could you please not distress my mother with any further correspondence.”

I had mad ideas of going anyway, of watching from the corner of the street, of creeping to the door to knock when Lottie went out; or perhaps I’d catch a passing glimpse, he might still leave the house from time to time. I’d somehow kidnap him, bring him to Cornwall, take good care of him. But it was all just crazy ideas. I endured, grieving without the finality of death. Those two weeks in the summer were the worst. I’d sit and think of him, trapped, with her finally having got what she wanted. 

The next letter was even shorter than the first. 

“Miss Tyler,” it began.  “I regret to inform you that my father, Thomas John Carter, passed away on the 5th September.”

It’s not I’d not expected it; besides he was as good as dead to me. But still it hit me like a brick wall, sent me sprawling.

This time I rang. It took all my courage to ring Directory Enquiries, hearing my voice trembling as I gave Lottie’s name and address. I had to use both hands to dial her number, the one over the other to weigh it down.

“Is that Mrs Carter?”

“Yes. Who’s speaking please?” She sounded as shaky as I felt; it was hard to imagine that same voice once rising relentlessly in reproach.

“It’s Doreen. Doreen Tyler.”

I didn’t have to say any more. She put the phone down. But I couldn’t give up so easily. I dialled again, listening to it ring and ring, thinking it wouldn’t be answered, then suddenly it was, a sharper voice.

“This is Anne. Please don’t ring again. It’s upsetting Mam.”

“The funeral. I just want to know when the funeral is. I have a right to know.”

The pause stretched into hours. “Please,” I said.

“You. Have. No. Rights.” Her voice was quiet, each word said like it was on its own.

It didn’t seem right not going. I know it doesn’t mean much, a lot of fancy talk, it doesn’t bring back the dead. But I’d have liked to be there, to have seen his body one last time, said goodbye. I thought of heading there anyway, on the off chance; perhaps I could ring round the crematoriums to find out. I pictured myself in widow’s black, sidling into the back pew, my breath poisoning the air for his precious family. The days trickled by without me doing anything but stare dry-eyed over the pitch and fall of waves, with Elsie feeding me cups of tea. I chickened out.

* * * * *

I drain the last dregs of my tea gone cold and gaze out at the street. A young couple stroll past. Times are different now, but feelings run the same. She’s holding his arm, their heads dip together as they laugh at some silly lover’s thing. The tide has come in, swept them under with its current, for good or bad.

My determination returning, I head for the taxi-rank across the road. “The Cemetery, Barrow.” I sink back into the seat, my eyes idling across the blur of green, the glimpses of the red boulders of the ruined abbey. We head up the hill.

I search out the new stones until I find it, engraved with the conventional lies: Much loved husband, father and grandfather. I dream of stealing it away and adding, And lover.

I think over the words that are now etched into my memory, Anne’s final response to my last plea to be told something of his end.

“My father’s last years were difficult for all of us. He never regained his strength or clarity of mind. He had periods of great confusion. He would call my mother Dorie. He refused to accept from her or any of his family that she was Lottie, our mother. He would get very agitated, ‘Don’t call her Mam,’ he would shout at us. ‘She isn’t fit to be your mother.’ It was a pitiful sight: my father pleading with us to take him home. He only ever wanted to go home to Lottie. Sometimes we would take him for a drive, circle back, and he would look at my mother and recognise her with beaming smiles for who she was. But it never lasted long. I hope that this answers your questions. Please don’t try to contact any of us again.”

I stand here, staring at the block of granite. I feel the hardness of the words, echoing the hurt from long ago: a young woman getting wed and not asking her own Dad.

Curiosity got the cat, that’s what Mam would have said. Perhaps it would be better not to have known. I’d always thought we’d have had a better life together, that somewhere he knew this. But she’s claimed him back as theirs; at the last, it wasn’t me he wanted.

The cemetery slopes high above the town. I gaze over the dockyards where men have toiled all their lives, generation after generation, father to son. The distant sea is grey and forbidding, it lacks the turquoise shimmer of Cornish coves. Beauty here is understated and austere. Industrial vandalism interrupts the wilderness green, blends with the landscape, makes it what it is.

I stand and look for one long last time until finally I smile, a small smile, and I try not to make it a bitter one. The old bugger, I think, stringing both of us along to the last. He was always getting off at Dalton, never going all the way.

 

 

Sarah Evans lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband. She commutes to London where she is also part of a writing group. She has been writing for a few years now and has had a number of competition successes with her stories, including Writers’ Forum, Happenstance, Leaf and shortstoryradio.com. Other interests include opera, walking in the Lake District and dancing.