This short story by Sara Sheridan sees retired Secret Service officer Mirabelle Bevan take a break from her life working in a debt collection agency in post-war Brighton for a holiday in Scotland. The journey, however, doesn’t go quite to plan...
Most passengers retired to their berths but Mirabelle Bevan stayed in the First Class dining car well beyond midnight. This was a holiday for her – a fortnight away from the debt collection agency in Brighton where she had worked since the war. The steward provided tea and Mirabelle pretended she was reading but Ellery Queen didn’t hold her attention. Instead, as towns passed in a flash of amber streetlight she thought how much had changed since VE Day. It still shocked her to see lights at night. The possibility of a bombing raid lurked implausibly on the fringes of her imagination. She never really believed the Blitz was over and tonight the streets seemed garish and dangerous as they streaked by – too easy a target. She had been privy to things during the war – she’d only worked in the backroom of course, but still, the stories passing across her desk had shaken her.
The steward polished glasses behind the bar. The sole sign of his presence was an occasional tinkling as the train rocked on the tracks and glasses on the mahogany shelf knocked at the rims making each other sing. The dining car had been busy when the passengers first boarded. Two men in evening dress smoked cigars with their nightcaps and then ordered a bottle of champagne before stumbling to bed. Three children on their way to boarding school handed over ration coupons and sat solemnly sipping hot milk in silence. The oldest couldn’t be more than eleven and Mirabelle spotted a pair of gleaming dark eyes peering over the rim of the boy’s jacket pocket – a pet hamster with a twitching pink nose. And then there had been the man who passed through the carriage. Poorly dressed, the steward had moved him on.
‘I’m looking for second class,’ he said. ‘My mate’s through there and I got to get back to him.’
As he lumbered off, Mirabelle wondered how he’d managed to get to the first class end of the train at all. She shook her head to rid herself of the thought. The war was over and she had to stop being so suspicious.
‘Makes me think of marmalade on burnt toast,’ the steward nodded through the window. ‘I like my toast burnt,’ he grinned as the lights of Stevenage punctuated the darkness.
Mirabelle surfaced. Fresh-faced, the boy probably hadn’t understood the war. He wasn’t scarred by it. He looked straight out of school so he would have been eight when the fighting stopped. Perhaps the blackout had seemed like a game. It was like that for some youngsters, while others still revisited their nightmares, opening the scars fresh each nightfall, the darkness an unquenchable chasm into which homes and people had simply disappeared. At least Mirabelle was of an age to realise her nerves were unreasonable. After all, it was over and done with.
‘Might I trouble you for a whisky?’ she enquired.
The boy glanced at the gantry.
‘It’s gone,’ he said. ‘I noticed just after the engines got going. Someone must’ve nicked it but I can’t figure out how. There wasn’t much left in the bottle. I’ve got brandy or gin if you’d like.’
Mirabelle shook her head.
‘Heading to Scotland without whisky,’ the boy’s face illuminated as he realised the irony. ‘We’ll be able to get hold of some there at least.’
Mirabelle twitched her book and tried to look as if she was concentrating. Now she had mentioned whisky, however, she had a taste for it. A late night dram had been a habit ever since Jack died – a reminder of his taste and smell, the last sensual connection to the love of her life. In her trunk there was a hip flask that she’d packed in case she went hill walking. Now she wished she’d stowed it in her overnight bag. She got up and finding her balance on high heels as the train rocked and creaked, she decided to head for the luggage van. As she passed between the carriages there was a sooty whiff of oil and rubber and she found she was swinging her slender hips to the rhythm of the train’s progress.
The windowless luggage van felt as if it was moving more slowly – as if she’d opened a door into a different dimension, Mirabelle found it hard to believe England was whizzing past outside. The light was low – its only source the lantern in the passageway. Inside, the sturdy trunks and leather suitcases strapped tightly shut might be traversing any country, anywhere. Any time, if it came to that. She tried to pin her mind to reality and a hazel strand of hair slipped its pin and flopped over her eyes. As she pulled it back she spotted the postbags in a padlocked cage. Royal Mail stamped with the king’s head. There. She was in England and it was 1951.
The car was full, the luggage was tied to the walls of the carriage with long white straps of thick cotton. Mirabelle picked her way in between the stacks. On the right she found her trunk steadying a block of cardboard boxes with ‘R W Forsyth of Princes Street’ pasted to the side. Carefully she released the strap holding the pile and opened the catches on her trunk, easing the top up slowly. It was strange, she thought, but she’d swear she could smell whisky already. She glanced over her shoulder sensing a twitch in the darkness, no more than a ripple. Something was out of place. It was nothing, really, only the corner of a box that had splayed at the bottom so it was no longer square. Then she realized it wasn’t the box but a heel sticking out. Someone was trying to hide.
She fumbled for the hipflask and shoved the trunk backwards drawing herself up jerkily in her rush to get out. Then the train lurched and the carefully placed boxes that had been stacked to the side of her trunk tumbled. Mirabelle managed to dodge a large suitcase from the same pile as it crashed past. And then he peeked out – the man who had passed through the carriage earlier: unshaven, scruffy and emanating a faint odour of whisky. The sound that came out of her mouth was a squeak.
‘Please,’ the man said before she could try again. His voice was low and his eyes stared with disquieting intensity, ‘don’t tell anyone. I have to get to Carlisle.’
‘You stole a bottle of whisky from the bar,’ Mirabelle accused him.
She couldn’t help herself,
‘I hoped to find something to eat,’ the man admitted. ‘But there’s precious little food in England these days. Seems like everyone’s hungry.’
There was something unexpected about his tone – resigned and yet steely. His accent was indeterminate. English of course but difficult to place.
‘You’ve been out of the country?’ Mirabelle said, as if she was chatting at a cocktail party to an interesting fellow to whom she’d been formally introduced.
‘Ten out of ten, miss,’ the smile betrayed two missing teeth at the side. ‘But I’m on my way home, if home’s still there.’
‘Near it. My sense of direction’s led me astray before. I’m hoping this time I know the way,’ he leant against a barrel.
His eyes danced as he surveyed her.
‘You look ten years older than you are, don’t you? You’ve had sadness then. But you’re beautiful.’
Mirabelle smoothed her skirt and tensed her shoulders.
‘Well, really,’ she said.
The man, however, remained relaxed.
‘You’ve got to say what you mean. I never told my wife. I left eight years ago and every day since I regretted not saying it. I’ll say it when I get home, you see if I don’t.’
Mirabelle shifted. The war had been over for six years. Where had this fellow gone in 1943 that saw him now slipping aboard the night train dressed almost but not quite like a tramp? His coat, she noticed was cut from the kind of wool used in blankets. His shoes were the wrong shape – somehow foreign and well worn.
‘I thought we’d got everyone out,’ she said, reasoning her argument as if she was back at her desk, figuring out who should be shot for treason, who had collaborated and sold out their own. ‘Did you escape before the relieving force came?’
The man’s head jerked and she saw there was a scar that ran from the base of his ear and disappeared beneath his collar.
‘Yes. I made for our Allies – I was closest to the Eastern Front,’ he said flatly, without bitterness. ‘That’s what they’d told us to do.’
‘You mean, the Russians?’
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. The Russians were the enemy now. They’d been the enemy before the war was even over. Poor soul.
‘Didn’t the Red Cross…’ she started to ask.
‘I’ll make my own way, Miss, if that’s all right with you.’
His eyes shone like polished coal. Mirabelle took a key from her pocket.
‘Here,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you get some sleep in my berth? It’s hours till we get to Carlisle. Catch some beauty sleep before you see her, eh?’
She hoped that the man’s wife was at home. That she’d waited for him. That she’d be overjoyed. She imagined what it would be like if Jack breezed in, told her he loved her and flung her on the bed. A pang, not quite like hunger, pulsed in her stomach.
‘You never know, perhaps your wife will tell you you’re beautiful too,’ she said.
The man’s face broke into a grin.
‘Thanks,’ he gave a salute.
After all, this woman had clearly been in the military.
Back in the dining car, Peterborough passed in a long tiger stripe. Mirabelle poured herself a cup of tea and added a tot.
‘You got sorted then, miss,’ the steward smiled cheekily.
Mirabelle picked up her Ellery Queen. There was always hope, she realised, because of people and their astounding resilience. It was a kind of magic. That was the thing. She tried not to admit to herself that she missed it, those frantic years when people were at their best.
‘When will we get to Carlisle?’ she checked.
‘Four forty-seven,’ the steward said, as if automatically.
At least the lad was efficient, she thought as she sipped. Then she checked her watch and wondered how early it might be respectable to order toast and marmalade. Perhaps she’d even try a burnt edge, just to see what it tasted like.
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Sara Sheridan was born, raised and continues to live in Edinburgh with her family. A self-confessed research swot she is the author of historical novels, books for children and the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries Brighton Belle and London Calling set in post-war Brighton. Find out more about Sara and her work at www.sarasheridan.com