John Hanley hurried to Euston Station through London streets thronged with last-minute Christmas shoppers. He pushed forward as flurries of snowflakes brushed his cheeks and shops were lit with Christmas baubles while passers-by looked with wonder at the white drifting feathers falling from a dark sky made orange by city lights. Ahead of him lay a long train journey to the wilds of Shropshire to spend Christmas with his ailing father, and he worried he’d be late. He had left the surveyor’s office at Bedford Square around 4 pm, but it was already nearly dark. He had to divert up Tottenham Court Road to buy his father a Christmas present and card, which he planned to write once the train was moving. The crowds of people annoyed him. The sudden clumps of shoppers stopping to point in windows got in his way and made him sigh in exasperation.
When he got to the station, it was bright and busy. Spindly Christmas trees stood perched on top of the ticket office and the stalls selling newspapers and pies, their plastic branches hung with strings of blue, red, and yellow electric lights. John Hanley turned up his collar against the cold wind that gusted in through the open station entrance. As he got his ticket, John put down his brown suitcase. The case contained everything he needed for the days he would spend in Shropshire as well as the bottle of whisky he’d bought for the old man, in lieu of knowing what his father would really want as a gift.
He scratched under the brim of his hat as he looked for departure information on the boards. It was 1956 and would soon be 1957. He thought how little the dying year had given him and how much it had taken away. He sighed again. He would need to change several times and the journey would take many hours. He just hoped to make all of his connections and avoid spending Christmas Eve in a cold railway waiting room.
Just then, a woman came up to him shaking a tin. She smiled and said, “Season’s Greetings. Could you spare a few coppers for orphans at Christmas?”
John Hanley looked at her stony-eyed. She repeated herself; as if unsure he had heard the first time. Finally, he said tersely, “No thank you.”
Her face dropped. She was clearly unused to people refusing to help orphans at Christmas and paused as if thinking of saying something, but John Hanley had turned away. She shook her head and walked off, turning to brightly accost another man who reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a few coins, which he pushed into the tin. John Hanley heard the woman give thanks to this stranger, but he did not see her move to the next for his train was announced and he hurried towards the platform to get on board.
John Hanley sat by the window, facing the direction in which the train would travel. The carriage was busy. Opposite him, in the same compartment, a man and his daughter sat. She was excitedly prattling about Santa Claus and her father held her hand and beamed as he listened to her chatter.
Another man came in, medium height and heavily built, wearing a brown suit, with scuffed brown shoes. He took off his hat, placed it on the rail overhead on top of his case and sat down next to John. He made a harrumphing sound as he pulled out a newspaper then said, “Merry Christmas.” The father and daughter grinned and wished the man Merry Christmas in return. John looked out of the window at the faces of those waving off their loved ones. Then he felt a jolt. Clouds of steam billowed past the window. He heard the guard’s whistle and the train rumbled and moved.
“Just made it,” the man in the brown suit said to no one and everyone.
The father of the girl nodded. “Don’t want to miss your train on Christmas Eve!”
The man grinned back. “No, indeed.”
“Far to go?” said the girl’s father.
“Just to Birmingham.”
“Far enough on Christmas Eve. We’re getting off before that.”
“Mummy’s waiting for us to get home,” the girl chimed in.
John Hanley had no book to read. He merely looked at his hands. Then he raised his head and stared out of the window, watching London disappear. The train rumbled and chuffed for mile after dark mile – through Metroland laid out in lights and paper-chains for the dying year, then through the Chilterns, past Berkhamstead with the canal boats lying long on the cold still water. Even they were decorated for the season.
The father and child got off at Rugby, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas as they left. John Hanley watched them go without speaking. When they left the carriage, the man in the brown suit broke the silence. “Lovely to see her so excited. You heading home for Christmas?”
John Hanley said, “No.”
There was a pause, but the stranger seemed determined to plough on, so full he was of Christmas spirit. The man nodded. “We don’t have kids. Wife never wanted them. I’d have liked a boy.” He screwed his face up in a grimace. “But you have to accept what life gives you, don’t you?”
John Hanley didn’t speak.
“Do you have children?” the man in the brown suit said.
Finally, Hanley cleared his throat. “Yes. A girl.”
The man smiled. “That’s lovely. I bet she’s looking forward to tomorrow. Will you be seeing her later? Or will she be in bed already?”
John Hanley met the man’s gaze and said, “My wife left me this year and took my daughter with her.” He said the words like an assault, an attack on the man for being so happy.
The man blushed, his fat face not knowing what to do with the news. He paused, gave another screwed up, tentative look and said, “Sorry to hear that, old chap. Bad luck.”
“I’m going to see my father,” John said.
The fat man brightened. “Ah, well. It’s good you’re not alone.” He gave an awkward, sympathetic smile, but when John’s face remained set, he looked away again.
Minutes went past. This time, John broke the silence. Still looking out of the window into a world reflected completely black, John said, “My father is a man like myself. We find it hard to understand other people. He was astonished I got married.” John Hanley paused. “And I wonder if I did it just to prove I wasn’t him. That’s probably why my marriage foundered.”
“I’m sure she loved you at first,” the stranger volunteered.
“I’m just not very good with people,” Hanley said. “I can’t read them.”
“New Year, new beginning maybe?” the stranger said. He clapped his hand on Hanley’s arm, but John stiffened at this unaccustomed human touch, and the man took it back.
The man went back to reading his newspaper. John stared at the patterns in the material on the seat opposite. Nearly an hour went by. The man was filling in the crossword by the dim compartment light. John gazed out of the window. He saw the houses by the track with their tinsel and bright Christmas trees. He imagined the warmth and love in those rooms, and he envied it.
More time went by. Then the man in the brown suit looked at his watch and said, “We’ll be in Birmingham before too long.” He stood up and reached down his case and hat. “Don’t mind if I go and stand by the door. It’s nothing personal, just habit.”
John said, “I don’t mind.”
As the man was about to leave the compartment, with his hand on the door handle, he turned and said, “Chin up, old chap. I know you’ve been dealt a blow, but things will turn up. They always do.” And then, as he stepped into the corridor he said, “Want the door left open?”
John Hanley shook his head.
“Merry Christmas,” the other man said and closed the door, leaving John Hanley alone.
There was frustration with a platform change but John managed to negotiate New Street Station in Birmingham and find the train bound for Shrewsbury. This train was emptier than the previous one and John guessed that many who were travelling on Christmas Eve had already made their journeys, leaving misfits, strays and the ill-prepared to fill these last services. At Shrewsbury, he changed again for Craven Arms.
Snow was falling heavily now. He could see banks of it beside the track in the yellow carriage lights. The empty countryside lurked on every side as the train made its way to where he would make his last connection. When the train stopped at Craven Arms, he was the only one to get off. The snow whirled around him and he turned up his collar. It was cold and dark. The guard’s whistle sounded and the train departed leaving him alone on the platform. He caught the guard before the man disappeared into his warm office.
“Excuse me, when’s the train for Bishop’s Castle?”
The guard said, “It’s been delayed. There’s snow on the lines up through the hills. They’re clearing it now but I’m afraid there’ll be a wait.”
“My father’s expecting me.”
“In Bishop’s Castle itself?”
“No, near Clun.”
The guard shook his head. “I don’t think you’ll get there tonight.”
“I was hoping there’d be a taxi.”
“At Bishop’s Castle? At this time of night? To Clun?”
“It’s been a long time since I visited.”
The man shrugged. “You might be lucky. But there’s an awful lot of snow down and they won’t clear the country roads until after Christmas.”
John said wearily, “Which way should I expect the train to come from?” He pointed down the track to the entrance of a dark tunnel. “That way?”
“Aye that’s it. You’ll see the lights first.” He looked at John strangely, as if something about the traveller worried him. “But don’t go wandering down the track.”
“Why would I do that?”
The guard scratched his cheek. “A man killed himself in that tunnel. There’s no chance the engine driver can see you to stop in time. I guess that’s why he chose that spot.”
John regarded him. “And you think I have the air of a suicide?”
The man shook his head vigorously. “I never said that. I’m not putting ideas in your head.” He turned to leave, snow already covering his boots. “You’d be better off in the waiting room. At least there’s a fire. And it might be a long wait, like I said.”
John watched him leave and when he was gone, turned again to stare at the black entrance of the tunnel.
John Hanley sat on a bench on the dark platform as if he was waiting for the snow to bury him. There was not another soul in sight. Behind him, there was a light in the waiting room but in front were only the covered track and the dark fields and woods of Shropshire. The guard hadn’t put ideas of suicide in his head; they had lurked like a threat since his wife left him — a threat or perhaps a solution.
He felt the cold on his cheeks and wondered what he had to live for — a future like his father’s, living alone since his mother died? He exhaled and rubbed his face with his hand. He was alone. He truly had no idea of how to relate to people. He was awkward in social situations, dull even. His own daughter preferred her mother’s brother who was fun and knew what to say. Some people seemed connected to the wellspring of life naturally while every attempt John made to connect failed and he could see no prospect of it changing. He stared into the dark tunnel mouth – a threat but also a solution.
The snow fell silently. John was covered. He brushed away the flakes from his shoulders, but the damp was already seeping through his coat. He was freezing now, almost as cold as death, and the life in him shivered.
Time went by. The snow grew thicker, the night deeper. Still no train. But by now, he had little desire to go on. He imagined his father by the meagre fire in the living room, surrounded by the ornaments his mother had bought thirty years ago, which had never been moved since. The old man would be reading by the dim light bulb – some book about long gone wars. He would hardly miss John. He had probably forgotten it was Christmas.
He fell into a reverie, brought about as much by the seeping cold as any fatigue. His head lolled. And then a man tapped him on his shoulder. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but it’s a terribly cold night to be sitting here. I almost took you for a snowman!” The man’s humour didn’t touch John but he lifted his head. Snowflakes dusted his eyelashes as if wishing him to sleep forever. The stranger extended a gloved hand. “Gowan Fell – pleased to meet you.”
In a subdued voice, John said, “John Hanley.”
“Are you related to the Clun Hanleys?”
John nodded. “David Hanley’s my father.”
“The surveyor? Though he’ll be retired by now. I was a friend of your mother Mary.”
“My mother?” said John.
“Come out of the cold. Let’s go to the waiting room.” Gowan Fell extended his hand to help John up. John stood, with difficulty; he was stiffened by cold. He dropped Fell’s hand, but followed him, trudging through the snow towards the waiting room. Fell opened the door and John followed him in. A fire burned in the grate, glowing coals licked by blue, red and yellow flames. There were some wooden benches and a single spindly Christmas tree decked in cheap Woolworth lights. John could see the wire branches were wrapped in tinsel that had seen better times, but still the lights shone, blue and red and yellow, against the dirty cream paint of the waiting room wall.
Fell sat down opposite. The room was warmer but not such as to warrant taking off hat and coat and scarf. John wrung his hands to bring blood back into circulation and looked at Fell. The man had a black beard, half obscured by his scarf, and sad brown eyes. His forehead, such as it could be seen beneath the brim of his hat, was wrinkled. He said, “So, Mr Hanley, I take it you are visiting your father for Christmas.”
John did not reply to that. Instead, he said, “How did you know my mother? She’s been dead a long time.”
“Thirty-one years,” Fell said. He looked at his brown gloved hands, damp from the snow, then he glanced up and smiled. “We were sweethearts when we were young.”
“So do you know my father?”
Fell nodded. “I knew of him. He came from Shrewsbury as an apprentice to the surveyor. I guess Mary chose a man with more prospects.” He gave a laugh.
“What was she like, my mother? I was only ten when she died.”
Fell’s eyes brightened. “She was life. When she walked into a room, it lit up, when she left, the light died. Or so I thought.”
“You were upset when she married my father?”
Fell nodded. “I thought I had nothing more to live for.”
“They were married at Christmas, I believe,” John said. This talk of his mother warmed him. It was true, she had been life: when she died, the light seeped out of the house and the things she had animated by her love became merely things again. When she was alive, the paintings she adored, the ornaments she decorated the house with, all seemed possessed by their own life, and when she was gone, it was like the sun going down. His father was not an expressive man, but how he shone when his mother was around. When she died, the old man retreated into himself and his dry books. He had sent John off to a boarding school and holidays at home were monotonous, until at the age of 17, John had gone to London to be apprenticed to a surveyor in his turn.
“Aye, married at Christmas,” said Fell. “I wasn’t invited, but I heard the wedding was a splendid affair.”
John shrugged. “She’s gone now.”
Fell’s eyes narrowed in concern. “Are you married yourself?”
John grimaced. “She’s left me. I don’t blame her.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Very sorry.”
John said, “I’m sure she’s gone to a better man – more lively. She said I was like a dry old stick.” He rubbed his eyes. “I suppose I’m my father’s son.”
There was a silence, and then Gowan Fell said, “I sense a terrible heaviness on you. I wish there was something I could do to ease your burden.”
John smiled thinly. “Can you change the world?”
Fell looked at him and then gestured to the Christmas tree. “Even in the darkest times, there is a light that never goes out.”
John turned to look at the poor thing. “That? It should have been thrown out years ago.”
Fell said, “When your mother married another man, something in me died too, I thought there was no light left in life. But now I see I was wrong.”
John looked up thoughtfully. “It’s a strange coincidence this, us meeting here, on what would be the eve of my parents’ wedding.”
Fell said, “It is strange. Here at the darkest time of the year, when all light and hope seems extinguished. This is the meaning of the tree. There is a light behind all things that can be seen, if only you look. But, alas,” said Fell. “I did not. I hope you do.”
John said, “You have kept the dark in your beard, for a man of my mother’s age.”
“I’ve been lucky,” said Fell.
Gowan Fell became silent as if lost in his own thoughts. John felt the warmth of the fire on his cheek. He was tired. He drew a weary hand across his forehead. A gnawing emptiness grew in his stomach. The darkness swirled all around him. He looked at his hands – hands that could do no good, dry hands with no life.
And when he looked up, Gowan Fell was gone. He supposed the man had made his exit while he had been preoccupied with his black thoughts. He shook his head. What had Fell even been doing there?
He got up and looked at the timetable pinned to a board on the waiting room wall. The only train left was the one from Bishop’s Castle, and that was delayed. He sighed heavily and stood. He left his case in the waiting room and went to the door. Standing there the cold hit his face. The wind had risen and it drove the snowflakes in a mad dance across the backdrop of the cold night. No stars were visible, just a blur of cloud, lying heavy like a lid on the world. There was no sign of the guard. All footprints on the platform had been erased by further snowfall. John trudged out over the platform, his shoes wet and struggling to make headway against the thick white layer. He saw the tunnel entrance ahead. It grinned dark like an empty mouth. He stepped down from the platform into the soft cold. The snow here was waist-high. He pushed against it, slowly making headway, moving from the platform lights into the greater darkness.
He almost stumbled across the rail, then found the sleepers underfoot. The cold bit him but he allowed his coat to flop open. He was shivering terribly, but he moved on towards the tunnel. He thought that if the train came, then it would strike him dead, and if it didn’t come, the cold would end him. Either way, a finish to a useless life.
He went on. The going was easier now he had the wooden sleepers to support his steps. And then, the great half circle of the tunnel greeted him. The snow was less here, just what had blown in from the entrance. The rails became vaguely visible, guiding him on into this heart of emptiness — his solution. The howling wind was behind but here in the tunnel there was a thoughtful silence. Nothing moved. If any living thing had been here, it had long ago sought another place. John Hanley stepped forward. And then, the darkness surrounded him. He stood alone with no reference point. He could see neither top nor bottom to the tunnel, only the deep void of darkness beyond imagination. John Hanley lowered his head and allowed himself to sob.
He walked forwards, hand in his hair, desperately raking his skin. He half stumbled then righted himself. He was not deep enough yet. Further he went, step after step.
And then John became aware of a presence in the tunnel. It was as if someone was there with him but they were the other side of a partition – present but not present, as if separated by years. And then it was as if he saw the silhouette of a man, darker even than the surrounding blackness. The man raised his hand, as if pointing to something that could not be seen or heard. John strained all of his senses, but there was just the deep silence of the tunnel, and then came the far off whistling of an approaching train. The man’s arm was pointing.
John stood listening to the train. He sensed the man’s concern. He was trying to communicate. The train got closer. The man was trying to tell him something. And then he heard it. It was like a shining out of space. The man spoke to him, but it was not about the train. He pointed, not to the oncoming engine, but all around. John imagined the empty interstellar wastes that lay between the stars. And in the emptiness, there was a music. He opened his eyes in wonder and saw the stars were singing. He heard the voice that lies behind all things. And in front of his eyes was the void and behind the darkness of that void an unseen light and out from this emerged stars – blue, red, and yellow, like the lights on a tinsel tree. In the darkest time of his life, when all hope was extinguished, John Hanley finally heard the stars sing. He guessed his mother had always heard their singing. The train whistled again and he saw the first illumination of its lights entering the far side of the tunnel.
But John stood entranced by the blue, red, and yellow light that filled him. For the first time, he knew the light had always filled him, just that he had never recognised it. In the darkness, there is light; there is always light. In that moment, John Hanley’s heart opened and the darkness fell from him like the snow. He turned and fled the oncoming train.
John ran and stumbled in the snow until he got to the platform edge. He heaved himself up, struggling to his feet. Looking from his office window, the guard saw John’s shape emerge from the dark beyond the platform and ran over to where he stood shivering. He stood there astounded, astonished to see John come from the track, so caked in snow and wet. Then he said, “I don’t think that train’s coming through tonight.
John span round to stare down the tunnel. “But it was there. Behind me.”
The guard shook his head. “No, the track’s blocked by snow.”
“I saw it. The train.”
The guard shrugged. “Then it must have been a ghost. There has been no train through that tunnel since the snow began.”
John frowned and said, “I saw the lights. I heard the whistle.”
The guard looked perplexed. He said, “I don’t know about that, but I have just been talking to the wife. We only live down the lane. We’ve a bit of a houseful in for the holidays, but you’re welcome to come and stay with us until we can get you off in the morning. Can’t have you spending Christmas Eve on your own shivering in the waiting room.”
“That’s very kind of you,” John said. He was about to refuse the offer, but then he paused and said, “If it’s not too much trouble, I would love to come.”
“It’s no trouble, the wife loves visitors.”
As the guard led him from the platform edge, John said, “Tell me about the man who committed suicide in the tunnel.”
The Guard frowned. “Well it was about thirty years ago now, but the locals don’t forget it. Apparently he was a well-liked young man, but his heart was broken, see? The love of his life married another. Silly to kill yourself over that, isn’t it? But I suppose at the time, he thought all the light had gone out of his life, and he had no other option.”
“What did they call him?” John asked.
“He was a fellow called Gowan Fell, from Clun.”