(A ghost story)

By Neil Anderson

Fran was six years old and had the face of an angel, almost. A slightly crooked row of teeth with one missing from the middle bottom, turned her smile into that of a mischievous imp. She was the youngest of four sisters who lived in the cottage next to the signal box. The pale blue cotton dress she wore was certainly a hand-me-down from one of her elder siblings. Her stick like legs protruded from the hem of it and were crudely adorned with cut-down Wellingtons, worn without socks.

“Frances, come here please,” she heard her mother call.

Fran’s attention was on a moss-covered dry stone wall where she intently watched red spiders scurry from shade into sunshine and then back again. The girl reluctantly turned and walked sullenly towards the kitchen door her arms folded tightly across her chest, her black rubber boots shuffling slowly through the ashes in the cinder-strewn back yard.

“Take this sandwich and cup of tea to your father for me – don’t dawdle, and don’t spill any,” she warned.

The girl brightened, a visit to the signal box was a rare treat and she climbed the wooden stairs slowly with both hands clutching the tray. To her it was a world of mystery where bells rang and machinery whirred and clicked, and on a shelf was the shiny black telephone that only her father was allowed to use. In the corner, near the door, was a huge stove and next to that was an ancient armchair upholstered in a faded brocade material from which horse hair sprouted through splits and moth-eaten holes. But to Fran’s father it was the most comfortable chair he had ever sat in. It had a high ballooning back and wide arms and there was easily enough room for two, and as he sat down he took out a bottle from a cupboard.

“Come and sit next to me lass,” her father said softly as he moved over to make room for her.

She watched as he balanced the tea on the arm of the chair and saw him top up the cup with some of the dark brown liquid before drinking deeply.

“What’s that?” Fran enquired.

“It’s my special medicine,” he replied, “they used to give us a tot or two every day when I was in the Navy; it puts hairs on your chest.”

“Can I have some?” the girl asked.

“You want hairs on your chest?”

“No,” Fran giggled.

Her father tilted the uncorked neck of the bottle so that she could smell it. She wrinkled her nose and turned quickly away.

“Still want some?” her father asked as he topped up his now half-empty cup from the bottle.

“No,” she said shyly.

They sat quietly until all of the tea had gone and she said nothing when her father filled up the cup again from the now half-empty bottle. They sat together in the warmth of the signal box until Fran realised that her father was asleep and she slipped quietly away to watch the tiny red spiders that lived in the wall.

Later, Fran became aware of a locomotive which had stopped a distance away. She knew little about signals but sensed that something was wrong and walked onto the track to see that two men had climbed down from the engine, and now they were watching her. She walked a few yards towards them striding from sleeper to sleeper until one of them started to call in her direction. This frightened her, and she ran back to find her father. He was still in his chair.

“Daddy, Daddy!” she shouted as she tugged sharply on his sleeve.

He woke and stood immediately sending the cup and saucer to shatter on the floor and he strode over to pull the signal lever back before half-stumbling down the wooden steps to lower the barrier. He came back into the box just as the locomotive steamed passed and the girl heard a yelled comment from the driver which she didn’t understand. Once again, her father sat in his chair and he listlessly said to Fran:

“Thank you lass, what would I do without you?”

Winter came early into the dale bringing sharp frosts along with an illness which seemed to affect every family who had children. The once rare sight of the doctor’s car became more frequent. Soon after that the thin, grey-haired, hunchbacked woman who helped as an undertaker could be seen flitting from house to house after dark. Fran was the first to feel ill, she had a temperature and complained that her arms and legs ached and she was taken to bed. Her mother and father sat with her taking turns to sooth her forehead with a moist flannel until she eventually slept. In the morning, her tiny body was stiff and lifeless and when the doctor came he said that she had died of scarlet fever.

The funeral service was short and there were few people to watch Fran’s burial, and as the first frozen clods of earth from the grave diggers shovel started to tumble loudly onto the miniature coffin lid the family silently left the churchyard. The family moved on as best they could, in their grief.

At Christmas, the village became busy as visitors walked down to the pub or to use the shop and there were the usual parties at the nearby hall with guests coming by train with more arriving in cars.

One night, as darkness fell it started to snow as the signalman lit the gas lamp which illuminated the crossing, and he noticed a black limousine waiting nearby. Five minutes later the car was still there and in the dull pool of yellow gaslight the signalman saw two figures standing beside it and he opened the window to call:

“Has the car broken down?”

“Possibly out of fuel,” the man replied bleakly.

“I’ll come down,” the signalman said. As he walked down the steps the couple looked lost and forlorn.

“Let’s push the car away from the crossing,” the signalman suggested. “You can leave it next to my house.”

“I’m hardly dressed for pushing cars but I’ll give it a go,” the man replied and the two men moved the car away from the road. It was now snowing heavily.

“Are you going to The Hall?” The signalman enquired. The man replied that he was.

“Come up into the box for a moment and warm yourselves by the stove and I’ll make a phone call.”

He left them to warm their hands and he made a brief phone call before finally announcing that help was on its way. For the first time the signalman was able to look at the couple more closely. Both were well dressed but the woman seemed shy and held up the fur collar of her coat which hid most of her face, the wide brim of her ostrich-feathered hat shaded her eyes leaving just a huge glittering earring and a rouged cheek on show, what she couldn’t hide was her expensive perfume. Two minutes later a Rolls Royce swept silently into the yard and the couple hastily climbed down the steps and got into the back. The signalman was still gazing at them out of the window when the man returned and he pressed a smooth metallic object into his hand.

“Something to keep the cold out,” he suggested, “thanks for the help,” he added, and then left.

The signalman looked at it and saw that he was holding a hipflask; he screwed off the top and found it full of a rich smelling brandy. He sat in his chair and took a sip.

An hour later more snow swirled around the signal box and in the yard men arrived with two horses dragging heavy chains which they attached to the limousine’s front bumper but the animals slipped on the icy cobbles and made slow progress. More people came in cars from The Hall and a party atmosphere started when snow ball fights began. Then Carol singers from the Chapel arrived, they were then joined by people from the pub who gathered like moths under the crossing gas lamp to heartily sing and dance in the deep snow which hid the railway beneath their feet, and no one saw or heard the fast train as it rounded the curve and steamed towards them.

In the signal box, the man sat in his chair dreaming of mysterious women wearing diamond earrings and ostrich feathers until he felt a sudden, urgent tug at his jacket sleeve. As he woke the hip flask clattered to the floor and as the tugging continued he saw the danger and strode quickly to the window to shout a warning to the people below. They quickly stood back to watch as the train swept past and the signalman returned to his chair where he patted his sleeve and murmured gratefully:

“Thank you lass, what would I do without you?”