• Liza Stirlinglass

Diversion - A Christmas Story Part Six

Elaine stood up, so that she was eye level to the young woman and tried to convey reassurance with her eyes. Elaine spoke softly through the mask and placed her hands on her own stomach. "Contraction, pain?" she asked. The man translated the reply.

"No pain."

"Very good. Help is coming, you will be alright," Elaine said with a confidence she didn’t feel. She knew the basics, but that wouldn’t be enough. “I will go and find the guard, ask him if medical help is on its way for the other passenger who pulled the emergency handle.”

“Thank you.” said the man as he gestured to the woman to sit back down.

“What are your names?”

“I am Khadir, she is Amira, my wife.”

“Try not to worry Amira, you have lots of time.” Khadir translated Elaine's words and put his arms around his wife.

So much love thought Elaine as she went to find the guard and let him know one of his passengers was going into labour. She knew airline stewards were trained in delivering babies, but she doubted the same would be true for train guards, hoping it wouldn’t come to that. The weather was getting worse, she could just about see a thin streak of red in the distance through the storm, it wasn’t yet four o’clock.

There were only three passengers in the first class carriage, one of them, an older man, had a large bloody open cut across his forehead and was sleeping.

“Is the guard here? Elaine asked the woman with him.

“Behind you.”

Elaine turned to see the guard sitting in one of the seats. He stood up. The slight pale figure she had glimpsed earlier as he ran through the carriage was older than she had originally thought. He looked tired, his pale blue eyes were watery behind the steel rim glasses.

“Why are you walking through the train? It’s not….”

Elaine put up her hand and interrupted his flow. “Another passenger, she is having a baby.”

His mouth fell open, but no words followed.

“Is medical help coming, do you have any idea when the train will be moving again?”

The guard shook his head. “It’s going to be a long wait. This is a bad patch to have stopped at, I don’t know why the driver didn’t override the passcom, get us to the station.” His words sounded churlish and self centred. “So there it is, can’t be helped we are well and truly stuck.”

“But help, who is coming, are there medical people coming for him?” Elaine pointed to the passenger who was hurt.

The guard shrugged. “I dunno.”

Elaine could feel her blood start to boil at the seeming incompetence of the guard to better manage the situation, she needed him to assert some sense of authority and confidence that he would do all he could. “Well can you contact whoever you spoke to before. If the contractions start, well….” Elaine held her hands open before her. But her best efforts to convey urgency had no impact on the guard.

He looked down, shuffling his feet. “I’ll let them know.” he mumbled.

Any curiosity or compassion Elaine might have had for him was swept away as the rage grew inside her. She wanted to shake him. “Well at least call them.” she snapped, rolling her eyes. Elaine stormed back to the carriage.

The mince pie lady was standing by the young couple. “Can I help?” she asked.

“I saw what happened. Is there help coming?”

Elaine nodded, “I think so, but the guard isn’t very forthcoming with who or what.” She leaned in closer to the woman. “We might have to plan for the worst,” she whispered,”the train seems to be stuck due to the weather.”

“Well, at least she’s not having contractions yet. We can manage dear, you’ll see.”

Elaine smiled at the woman. Whoever she was, she was a welcome relief after the guard. A woman of indomitable spirit Elaine thought.

As the passengers waited, without further news of what was happening, conversations between them dwindled back to brief murmurs and sighs. Crumbs from the sausage rolls, mince pies and crisps were scattered on the tables. Outside the snow was building up, laying thick and even across the fields and tracks. Everyone was huddled in their coats. Elaine looked across at Khadir and Amira, they had fallen asleep in each others arms, she marvelled at their resilience and ability to rest, they must be exhausted, she thought. She pulled her mittens on and re-wrapped the mulberry scarf around her legs. Why hadn’t she worn the thick socks? For once she was grateful for the face mask. At least that part of her felt warm.

She woke with a start when the hand touched her shoulder. A tall woman, with a white face and a long silver plait was standing close to her, pouring hot liquid from an earthenware jug into a small cup. She was wearing a dark wool cloak, her hands were fine, delicate with long fingers. Piano fingers Elaine thought as she pulled off her mittens to sip the warm amber liquid. It smelled delicious, reminding her of mulled wine. She savoured it slowly, ginger, cloves and fruit roused her taste buds.

“Thank you,” she said, but the woman had moved further up the carriage, serving other passengers. Whilst she recognised the spices, she didn’t know the drink. What was the fruit? Plums and blackcurrants perhaps. The cup was crafted from pewter, engraved with tiny ivy leaves. It was beautiful, she hadn’t seen anything like it before. Elaine realised the woman wasn’t wearing a mask, yet there was something about her that had compelled her to accept the drink and ignore everything that she knew she was supposed to do. Had been doing since the pandemic struck. She pulled out the bottle of sanitizer to clean her hands.

A few moments later the woman returned to collect the cups, placing each one soundlessly into a black cloth bag. She didn’t speak, just smiled as she encouraged Elaine to finish the last sip. Elaine turned to watch her collect the cups from the passengers behind her, no one seemed to say anything or look up as she passed, she appeared to be almost gliding along the aisle, her silver plait glinting under the overhead lights swung gently. When she had collected the cups from the last table she raised the hood of her cloak and to Elaine’s astonishment completely vanished.

“Where did she go?” Elaine exclaimed.

“Who dear?” asked the mince pie lady.

“That woman, the one who gave us the drinks?”

“Oh, I think you must have been dreaming, there wasn’t anyone serving drinks, but look, someone is coming now.” She pointed out the window. There were two large vehicles with bright lights and a group of walkers making their way through the snow towards the train waving. They didn’t look like engineers.

The guard ran back through the train, “help is here” he said as he flew past

Elaine. She was about to follow him when her phone rang. It was Mark.

“Hello, how is your journey?”

“Well we are still stuck, but it seems like help has arrived finally.”

“That’s great. I have some news, I thought I should let you know, because of what your sister tried to do to help me find my mum.”

“Have you found her?”

“Well not exactly, but I do know that it is Lee, my cousin who is at the house and the reason he is there is because he was wrongly convicted. Apparently, he has some mental health problems and he confessed to something that he didn’t actually do. But the murder had nothing to do with him. The prison was treating him while he was there, but now, well who knows. The policeman I spoke to couldn’t tell me anything about the medical stuff. They are going to the house, to see if they can figure out where my mum is. Sorry if it’s a bit weird me phoning you to tell you. It seemed important to follow up somehow.”

“It’s fine, I hope the police can figure out where your mum is. It must be good to know your cousin isn't a murderer.”

“Yeah, it is, except that now I feel horrible for all the things I said about him. After all if he was ill…, I don’t know, but I wonder if that was why everybody just thought he was odd, or even bad, and didn’t try to help him.”

“It happens, it’s sad, but, how were you to know?”

“Yeah, well hey, I hope you get moving soon.”

“Me too, let me know what happens about your mum.”

“Sure. I’ll call you.”

She hung up. Hearing voices behind her she looked around, thinking she would see the woman with the drinking cups. But instead it was two men and a woman in a red woolly bobble hat. From the dusting of snow on their clothes, they were from the walking group. Their voices were loud and cheery as they followed the guard to the front of the train. Outside the train there were three others in bright high vis jackets with torches and what looked like shovels, walking along the verge next to the track. The guard turned and pointed at Elaine.

“Who needs help here? These people are from the village.”

“Someone’s in labour?” the woman in the hat asked Elaine. The two men and the guard continued walking.

Elaine nodded. “Yes, she’s across the aisle, her waters broke about two hours ago. She was sleeping, until the lady with the drinks came by. Her husband speaks some English, she doesn’t seem to.”

“Alright, well don’t worry we have a vehicle that can make it through pretty much anything, if needed. Mind if I sit, I’m sure three of us aren’t needed for the old fella.”

“Ah, the one with a cut?”

“Yeah apparently his wife thought he was having a heart attack and panicked, turns out he just stumbled and fell.”

“So she pulled the emergency.”

“It happens. This is the third train we’ve come out for since August.”

Elaine looked surprised. “How come?”

“Ah, it's old Roger, he’s our radio ham, picks up all sorts of things. You wouldn’t believe some of the situations we’ve come out for. Donkeys, sheep, people in various pickles. My names Jean by the way.”

Elaine nodded and introduced herself. “And that woman, the one in the cloak who served drinks, where is she?”

Jean put her head to one side. “No one that I know, must have been a passenger.”

Elaine shook her head. “No, I don’t think so, she had small silver cups and a big jug of some hot fruit drink, it was delicious.” She leaned across the table to Khadir. “Khadir the woman who brought the drinks, did you see where she went?”

He opened his hands. “Sorry I don’t understand.”

Elaine mimed drinking. “The drink, a tall woman gave you and Amira, you tried it first and then Amira had some.”

Khadir shook his head. “No, no drink.”

“Told you dear, you must have had a dream.” It was the mince pie lady.

“But I,” Elaine paused. How could she have dreamed or imagined something so real, the taste of the warm comforting nectar, why had no one else had seen her? It must have been a dream.

“What did she look like, this woman you dreamed about?” Jean asked

“Tall, silver hair in a long plait, she was wearing a dark cloak with a hood.”

Jean looked down. “Only you saw her?”

“Seems that way?”

Jean’s face paled, her ruddy cheeks drained of colour.

“What, who is she?”

Jean nodded. “I don’t believe in them myself, but there have been sightings.”

“Sightings?” Elaine questioned.

“The sisters, there was an Abbey here. It was destroyed four hundred years ago. The story is that the sisters were all burned or hung as witches and some of them walk these parts at night in the winter, usually around the solstice. Father Philip will tell you more, he’s up at the front with Jack, tending the old man. There are groups of people who come and watch for them, but as I say I have never believed it. Though the believers, or people who claim to have seen them, say they wear cloaks, like the one you described.”

Elaine was stunned by what Jean had told her. She didn’t believe in ghosts either. But why would she have dreamed something like that? She was about to ask Jean to tell her more about the story when Amira called out. It sounded like her contractions had started.

Join us for the next part of the story and have your say in what happens next. Tuesday 15th December at 8pm

Meeting ID: 896 1968 6034

Passcode: Diversion

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