Getting Off At
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
* * * * *
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
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
“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
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
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
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
I didn’t think he
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.
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
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
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.
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
“Visiting is out
of the question. Could you please not distress my mother with any further
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
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
speaking please?” She sounded as shaky as I felt; it was hard to imagine that
same voice once rising relentlessly in reproach.
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.”
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
* * * * *
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.