When Roger told him about Crossing Cottage being up for auction, he just had to see inside. Jim had been interested in railways all his life, and this was his local line – his home line. The Berkshire & Holloway Railway Company built the old crossing keeper’s house in 1892 – nearly a hundred years ago. Situated one country mile north of Bockstead village, the cottage accommodated a level crossing keeper through to 1966 when the branch line was closed to passenger traffic. Since then, the cottage had lain empty. Jim delighted in showing his new wife Eve those little architectural details that were unique to properties of the former Berkshire & Holloway. Look at those finials on the roof dormers, the distinctive pattern of the brickwork, the russet bricks – these would’ve been made locally, probably at the Hampstead Parva brickworks that used to be just up the road. It was as if the place had been hewn from the very land on which it sat.
Birdsong coloured the air. Eve made encouraging noises and they discussed which bits of the house they’d keep original and which bits they might refurbish; where they might extend and who’d do what. It was when they were sat in the car after the viewing that she said, ‘I don’t know though. It’s lovely, and I love it too … but there’s something not quite right. Why’s it so cheap?’
‘Specialist market. Not everyone wants a disused railway in the garden. It is isolated and, well, yes, it does need work.’ Experience had taught Jim to strike a conciliatory tone in moments like these. ‘They’ll be pulling up the track soon. Nice little front garden there.’ He’d have preferred to be keeping the track, but still – needs must.
Eve looked up at the landing window of the cottage. ‘It feels sad in there,’ she said. ‘Depressing.’
‘Well, it hasn’t been decorated in forty years. You’ll feel different once we’ve stripped off that godawful wallpaper. Honestly, love. It’s ideal.’
She looked at Jim with the soft brown eyes that he had married. In that moment the sun’s light was split into the seven colours, and the colours danced about her fine dark pony-tailed hair. ‘I think,’ she said, ‘that your cottage might be haunted.’
In the Rose and Crown that evening, Roger suggested that Eve’s fearful remark betrayed a touchingly simple nature. ‘Well played, mate,’ he added. A month ago, Eve had been promoted to a junior manager position at the council revenues office, meaning that she now ranked one degree higher than Jim in the council hierarchy. This, Roger assured Jim, was because she was organised and efficient but also rather unimaginative. Jim had been stuck as an administrator in the council’s waste department for four years.
To Jim’s delight, there had been only one other bidder on the cottage, and his own offer was accepted. On Saturday 15th October 1988 Eve and Jim moved into their new home. With Roger’s help, they heaved their bed up a bare staircase and unpacked just enough in the way of provisions to last the evening. Eve fried sausages on a camping stove while they sat around on boxes, drinking beer and smoking roll-ups. As best he could, Jim tuned in their old black and white portable television. He adjusted its loop aerial and twiddled the dial. The picture was fuzzy – except on BBC Two, where they had a clear view of someone prancing around on a stage. It looked and sounded horribly like an Italian opera – all rolled Rs and subtitles.
Jim grimaced. ‘Might end in a minute.’
‘I want All Creatures Great and Small,’ said Eve. ‘It’s on at eight-fifteen. BBC One.’
Her statement provoked sniggers from Roger and Jim. Roger mimed sticking his arm up a cow’s rectum. ‘Can’t beat a bit of Bully,’ he said.
‘That’s Bullseye,’ said Eve. ‘It’s a completely different programme.’
Roger and Jim exchanged twinkling glances.
‘And it’s on ITV.’
‘Bless her,’ said Jim.
‘Bless her,’ said Roger.
‘Awww!’ said Jim. He gave Eve a drunken hug.
‘Don’t laugh at me,’ Eve said with a girlish pout.
Jim lifted a green box from a pile of boxes. He took an extension lead from the green box and attached it to the telly. He then moved the telly up to the windowsill, switched it on again and twiddled. There was still some grain on BBC One, but they could at least now see Russ Abbot doing his funny faces instead of just hearing the studio laughs.
Eve was happy. ‘It’s on after this,’ she said.
They were fifteen minutes into All Creatures Great and Small when the first cow appeared on screen.
‘Shut up!’ said Eve.
After All Creatures Great and Small had finished, Roger gave the happy couple their moving-in presents. A bottle of Merlot, a good-luck card and then, especially for Jim, the hard-to-find third edition of E.R. Robinson’s The Berkshire & Holloway Railway: An Illustrated History: 1888 – 1978. This contained hundreds of photographs showing the building of the line, its heyday in the 1920s, its minor wartime role, through closure to passengers in 1966 and then its final years as a freight line serving the US Airforce base at Gresley. The rare third edition postscript gave an additional fourteen pages of photographs showing the railway in the months following its full closure in 1978 after the airbase was decommissioned. The book was renowned not only for its extensive photographic record but also for Robinson’s detailed yet engaging text. Jim wondered aloud if this might just be the best day of his life.
Roger left at ten, promising to return the next day to have a look at the brickwork and pointing. Eve needed the bathroom, so she went upstairs while Jim boiled the kettle. On the landing, she looked outside through the sash window. A full moon shone a soft silvery light on the lane as it approached the crossing gates, and she saw a section of rusted rails just beyond an extant gatepost of the former level crossing. By the gatepost, half-covered by a hedge, was something that looked like an old-style post box. Jim was right – this was an idyll. For a start, they’d been lucky to find a period property within their budget that had an upstairs bathroom. Apparently, British Railways had converted the box room only months before they’d made the crossing keeper redundant. Typical public sector profligacy, she thought.
In bed an hour later, she snuggled up to Jim.
‘Sorry, love, I’m whacked out,’ he said.
Eve frowned. Jim had brought Roger’s book up to bed with him and he was now wearing his reading glasses. ‘We’ll be alright here, won’t we?’ she said.
‘You do love me, don’t you?’
Jim gave her a squeeze. ‘Course.’
‘Only I thought … this being our first night … that you … we … might -’
‘Whacked out, love. Sorry.’ He gave her an exaggerated peck on the cheek then returned to his book.
In the morning, Eve stepped out for a short walk. She noted the piles of timber and rubble that had been left behind by British Railways. Hopefully, this would all be cleared after Christmas. According to Jim and Roger, the demolition crew would soon be lifting the track. The hedges on the lane seemed taller and fuller in the daylight. Strangely, she couldn’t find the post box that she thought she’d seen through the landing window the night before. She looked around. This place was so still. Creepy even. There was a brittleness about the air as if she could take a hammer to the crisp blue day and shatter it to reveal something else underneath. Suddenly she experienced an overwhelming feeling of regret, and then of anger. Bloody Roger. But for Roger, she’d now be living on the new estate – closer to her mum, and in a nice modern two-bed house with appliances. When Jim and his new best friend Roger talked about railways, it was as if she didn’t exist – they just went into their own little world. No, she mustn’t be silly. She loved Jim, and she knew that she would never compete with his interests. She’d make a go of Crossing Cottage for his sake.
Eve walked back inside and found Jim in the kitchen, still reading Roger’s book. She went upstairs to the bathroom. Not for the first time, she felt a shiver when she passed under the attic hatch.
Five minutes later, she sat down with Jim at the kitchen table. ‘Crikey, look at this,’ he said. Jim showed her a 1965 photograph of their cottage with the crossing gates still in-situ. The photograph was accompanied by a scanned image of a contemporaneous Berkshire Post news article. Its headline read:
High jinks on the railway – two dead
Robinson’s text summarised the Rail Accident Investigation Board report into a fatal accident that occurred at Bockstead Crossing in December 1965 – the last winter of passenger services on the line. Two teenage boys had been knocked down by the 8.27 to Gresley on Friday 23rd – the night before Christmas Eve. The locomotive driver was exonerated of any blame. Steam locomotives had poor forward visibility at the best of times, and this was a foggy night. Driver Jenkins and Fireman Smeeth had no reasonable way of seeing the obstruction before it was too late. Rulebook procedures had been complied with on approach to the crossing, and Smeeth confirmed that Jenkins had indeed sounded his whistle. These were experienced enginemen who both ‘knew the road’. The crossing keeper’s witness statement spoke of seeing the boys playing on the crossing before he chased them off with a ‘Gertcha’. They’d been ‘up to high jinks’ and had given him some cheek, apparently. To the best of his knowledge though, the boys had cavorted down the lane toward Spicers End, and that was the last time he’d seen them alive. The report concluded that the lads fell into harm’s way while playing ‘chicken’ across the track and that they had disobeyed instructions given by authorised railway personnel. The RAIB report cleared the crossing keeper of any blame and sympathised with the distress that he must have suffered on witnessing the aftermath of such a tragic and grisly event. On the next page of Robinson’s account was a portrait photograph of the man in question. Ernest Chapman was the last crossing keeper at Bockstead Crossing. A burly fellow who looked to be in his early sixties, Mr Chapman was shown posing with his bicycle at the crossing gates.
‘Don’t think much of Ernie’s taste in wallpaper,’ Jim said, looking around the kitchen. The kitchen wallpaper was a shinier version of the orange that was currently infesting the living room. ‘Bless him.’
Eve looked at the photograph. ‘He looks … horrible,’ she said. ‘Dead eyes.’
‘That’s just the way folk looked in photos. Stiff,’ said Jim. ‘They weren’t used to having their picture taken.’ He showed Eve a 1955 portrait photograph of the Gresley station master – another stern-looking chap. ‘See?’
Eve was unconvinced. ‘Suppose,’ she said. ‘Shall we make a start, then? Start with the wallpaper?’
There was a knock at the door.
The visitor was Roger’s mate Barry the roofer. Barry had brought his ladders with him. He was to make some temporary repairs and give a quote for the rest.
Jim began removing the living room wallpaper while Eve went to work in the kitchen. After five minutes of pulling and scraping, Eve appeared in the living room doorway.
‘Isn’t Roger’s second name Chapman?’ she said.
‘Umm, yes,’ said Jim. ‘I think it is.’
‘You don’t suppose?’
‘Dunno. Maybe. He didn’t say anything.’ He laughed. ‘Maybe we’re all related around here.’
Forty minutes later, Barry came down from the roof and joined them in the kitchen. Jim boiled the kettle.
‘It’s not terrible up there,’ Barry said. ‘Just that outside corner needs doing, really. Oh, and your soffits are rotten, and your gutters and downpipes have had it. That all needs doing pronto. Scaffolding up for about a week. Two men, twelve-foot square … eighteen, fifteen, erm, times two, ermmm, six by eight … three hundred … uh, six … no, five?’ He did an arithmetic show with his fingers. ‘Couple of grand, mate,’ he announced. ‘Four tops. Well, provided the ridge is okay. Don’t worry, Squire. I’ll look after you.’
The rest of that week was a whirl of Roger and Barry and various mates of mates who all needed to quote for this that or the other. Eve was back at work and using the car, but Jim had two weeks holiday from the waste department, so he got on with stripping wallpaper and making tea for Roger’s trade contacts. Above the chimney breast in the second bedroom, a strip of wallpaper was curling from its top edge below the picture rail. Jim pulled it down as a single piece. On the plaster underneath, he saw an ink scrawl. It read:
None as no fear. None as innocent. Repent.
Jim felt a shiver. He supposed the writing was Ernie’s, that the old boy had been a staunch believer and maybe a bit bonkers. Eve mustn’t see this. Quickly, he took sandpaper to the daub and rubbed at it until it was illegible.
Unfortunately, once all the wallpaper in the cottage had been scraped and sanded away, the plaster was revealed to be in a terrible state. Sections just crumbled off to reveal powdery brickwork. Not to worry though – when it came to the plastering, Roger’s mate Kev was a dab hand.
In bed that night, Eve said to Jim, ‘Your cottage is like a public convenience.’
‘Our cottage, love.’
‘I do hope so. One of Roger’s, umm, friends, has been writing on the walls.’
‘Measurements,’ Jim said with a yawn.
‘No. Weird stuff. Umm … is one of them religious?’
On the night before Christmas Eve, the snow came. Just a light dusting but, twinkling in the moonlight and reflecting the warm lights of the house, it made Crossing Cottage look like the centrepiece of a Christmas card. Roger and his merry men had made a fine job of the old place. It was dried out, re-tiled, repointed, re-guttered, re-plastered, redecorated and relit. Only partially re-glazed, but you can’t have everything. Tonight, they were having a party. There was some risk involved here, as the merry men did not all see eye to eye on certain issues. Once done with admiring each other’s handiwork, they’d be a few drinks down and would then start being frank with each other, ‘clearing the air’ over their petty differences. This often led to a fight, so Roger promised Eve and Jim that he’d keep order. Above all, they wouldn’t break anything. If they did, then they’d put it right at their own expense, and quickly. Roger was in a particularly jovial mood this evening. ‘Might have a surprise for you lot later,’ he said. He winked at Jim. ‘You’ll love it.’
The drinks flowed from five in the afternoon, and merry men made festive cheer. Eve and Jim had equal dibs on music choices. Paul Simon’s Graceland was ignored while the men discussed their various parts in the house renovation, then they made supportive though not entirely enthusiastic noises over Wind and Wuthering by Genesis (Jim and Eve both loved this one and had bonded many times to its autumnal colours.) ‘Bit girly though, innit,’ said Barry. Jim decided that something more dramatic was in order. Caravan’s Nine Feet Underground suite was a good one for the lads. Sixteen minutes of up-tempo and slightly psychedelic weaving, then a wistful vocal section before returning to jazzy headbanging. It was during the quiet interlude of Caravan’s opus that there was a rumble and the cottage began to shake.
‘What the hell is that?’ said Eve. ‘Oh no … Jim!’ She got up and lifted the needle off the record.
The shaking was getting stronger, rattling the windows. Jim looked at Roger.
They all looked at Roger.
Roger looked at his watch. ‘Bang on time,’ he said. ‘Well, give or take …’
‘Lady and gentlemen, please step this way,’ Roger said. He opened the front door. From the Gresley direction, a bright light was shining along the rusted track of the old railway. The light was accompanied by a thunderous snarling racket, and it was getting louder.
Eve was horrified. ‘What the -?’
‘Behold the ghost train!’ said Roger. ‘Almost on time, as well.’ He winked.
A long-nosed diesel locomotive appeared through the snow. It sounded a two-tone horn.
‘Alright, Spike mate, don’t milk it,’ muttered Roger.
There was a squealing sound as the locomotive braked and skidded on the wet rails. It came to rest with its nose overhanging the road. A burly man tumbled down from the cab.
‘Spike, mate!’ said Roger. ‘Nice one.’
‘I’m too mashed to park it properly,’ said Spike, grinning and raising his beer can in a drunken salute.
Eight merry men packed into the cab. They roared away down the rusted line toward Gresley singing the snowman song: ‘We’re walking in the air; we’re walking in the scooby-doo …’ No-one could remember the exact lyrics, so they tried smutty variations (none of which worked quite well enough to be reproduced here). The merry men bumped along the rickety old line for a mile and a half, at which point they met the train of flat wagons that was now carrying the redundant rails from Gresley. This was the train of wagons from which Spike had uncoupled the Class 20 locomotive half an hour earlier. ‘Whoaaah!’ the men shouted. Spike executed a timely brake application and stopped fifteen feet short of the leading wagon. He received a round of applause. Roger told Jim that Spike was a member of the demolition crew and that he’d learned how to operate the locomotive from having tea breaks with its driver.
Jim peered out of the window on the second man’s side. No-one would ever see the old Berkshire and Holloway like this. He wished Eve had come along, that she hadn’t been such a drippy daisy. Really, the experience was most romantic – this frosted landscape of home, this unique and never to be repeated perspective on something that was history and would soon be gone forever – and all from the warmly lit cab of a Class 20. Roger was a bloody legend. No, this was the best day of his life.
Alone in the cottage, Eve put away Jim’s record. But for the faraway boom of men playing ghost trains, the room was silent. She was about to go upstairs to the bathroom when, glancing down to the skirting board by the door, she saw marks on the newly decorated wall. It was the same scrawled handwriting as before. This time it spelled just one word:
At eight-thirty on the evening of 23rd December, Thames Valley constabulary received anonymous notice of a stray locomotive disturbing the peace on the disused railway line between Gresley and Bockstead.
Outside the cottage the night sky was a tapestry of stars but, at ground level, a thick mist was settling. It was getting hard to tell where the snow ended and where the mist began. At eight forty-three, Eve watched a winking blue light flash across the velvet. The blue light appeared to be moving toward Gresley from the Spicers End direction.
In the cab of the Class 20, Spike demonstrated the sonic capabilities of an English Electric 8SVT diesel engine. Eight cylinders of over fifteen litres each exhaled through unfiltered exhausts, and the glorious racket of its thrumbling blattering bark made Jim want to bellow at the moon. The men were taking another run back toward the crossing when someone saw blue lights in the distance.
‘Kay-vee,’ said Barry the roofer. Barry didn’t like to admit this to anyone, but he’d been to public school.
‘Oops,’ said Roger. He gestured to Spike.
Spike braked to a halt and shut down the locomotive’s engine. The flashing blue light was about half a mile away and it seemed now to be beckoning from a fixed position. The police must have arrived at the Gresley Road overbridge. Very soon, they would discover a train of flat wagons that had no locomotive attached.
It was a good twenty-minute stumble back to the cottage, and the spacing of railway sleepers was never designed to accommodate the gait of scarpering drunkards.
‘If you run,’ said Roger, ‘you won’t feel the cold.’
‘Bloody Roger,’ muttered Jim as he staggered away from the scene of the crime.
Eve had been putting it off, but she really did need the bathroom. It was urgent and in no way was she going to use the sink. She would run up the stairs, she would do the nasties – hell, even she was picking up Roger’s idioms now – no, she would do what she had to do – and then she would run back down again. She prayed for Jim’s return. Her anger at him would be measured. She mustn’t come across as needy, but he had to be made very aware that her toleration for Roger and his trade friends was finite.
The immediate problem was that she just couldn’t bring herself to open the door from the sitting room to the stairwell. Again, she dismissed the notion of using the sink. Jim would be back soon – well, at some point – hopefully without the merry men and hopefully before the police arrived. In pain, Eve went to the record rack and pulled out a Randy Crawford LP. To the echoing strains of One Day I’ll Fly Away, she made a dash for it.
She locked the bathroom door and sat down. Oh, the relief. Then, oh, what a silly she’d been. Eve supposed that the writing on the wall was Roger’s, that it was another of his little jokes. Of course, she was grateful that he’d organised all the work on the house. In fairness, he’d been rather more useful than Jim, who’d been taking something of a back seat lately. She didn’t like the way Roger seemed to be controlling everything though. She didn’t like his hold on Jim, she didn’t like his jokes and she didn’t like his eyes. There. She’d admitted it. Yes, she was jealous and protective of Jim, but there was more. Really, she didn’t want Roger to feature in their lives at all – and she thought that he probably knew this. She would not let Roger get the better of her. No way. She pulled the lavatory chain and washed her hands.
It was then that there was a pop and the bathroom went dark. There was no light around the doorframe. The power must have failed. The house was silent. Everything was out.
The trip-switch downstairs … a short circuit? Eve took deep breaths and let her eyes adjust to what meagre light there was from the tiny bathroom window. Cautiously, she stretched out her arms and walked forward.
With her hands still dripping wet, she felt for the lock and opened the bathroom door. The landing was bathed in moonlight and, outside the large sash window, the mist had thickened and taken on a silver-green hue. She heard laughter. Her first thought was that this was Jim and Roger coming back from their escapade. About time. They were both going to be made to understand the impact of their childish behaviour. She saw figures outside – two young lads play-fighting. The voices must have been theirs. She walked over to the window. Fresh white snow covered the ground, and the two lads were throwing snowballs at each other. A proper Christmas scene. Bless them, she thought. Oh no, one of them was now throwing snowballs at the house. She banged at the window in frustration. Where the hell was Jim?
‘Ernie!’ one of the boys shouted up at the window.
‘Errr-neeee …’ called the other. This kid was leaning against the post box, leering up at the house with a mocking expression on his pugnacious little face.
They were trying to scare her. Obviously, there’d been stories about the crossing and, somehow, the local riffraff had discovered that she was fearful. Bloody Roger. He was bound to be behind this somewhere. Hold on – the post box? That shouldn’t be there.
In a series of flickering pictures, she saw a third figure marching over to the two lads. The kid at the post box jutted his chin at the figure, then Eve saw the kid in a fetal position on the ground with his head receiving thudding blows from a working man’s boot.
The second kid ran. ‘Gonna report you, mister,’ he shouted. ‘You’re a bloody nutter, you are.’
Through the old window, Eve saw juddering images of the man running down Spicers Lane in pursuit. The next thing she saw was him dragging the now-unconscious boy onto the level crossing. The white painted timber gates of the old crossing were back again now, and the rails were smooth and shining like strip lights. The lippy kid started to shuffle away from the post box but soon he too was being dragged onto the railway crossing. The old man closed the crossing gates and then he was raining shattering blows down on the two shapes that were fouling the track. Eve heard the distant shriek of a steam whistle. There was a tremendous inward rushing sound and then somewhere within the vacuum there was a splintering crack. In slow motion, a translucent steam locomotive and its train of ghastly flickering carriages howled past the crossing. She screamed.
The old man turned toward the house. Ernie Chapman stared up the landing window of Crossing Cottage, and he had murder in his cold dead eyes. Mist and steam swirled in Eve’s vision and then, in the next moment, the figure had vanished.
There was a knock at the door.
Story © A.W. Brown, 2019
If you enjoyed this story, you might like to make a short visit to Kiln Lodge.