The Woman in Grey

1. EARLY DAYS

I never knew my parents. My mother gave her life in order that I might live mine and my father’s identity was always kept a secret from me. Apparently, I was a sickly child and not expected to survive babyhood, something that might surprise anyone who saw me wearing the Queen’s uniform in the defence of her dominions overseas.

I was named Matthew for the saint’s day of my birth. Brought up in the Manse at Huntley where my mother had borne me, I was neither a family member nor a servant. My mother was not family either. The Primitive Methodist minister and his wife had taken her in when her parents had disowned her and driven her from their house. This act of charity was committed more from Christian duty than compassion and I was never allowed to forget the circumstances of my presence.

In later years I learned from my foster parents that my mother was from a respectable family in straitened circumstances. She had been sorely wronged by a cousin from the moneyed side of the family. His dalliance with the unfortunate girl was not allowed to spoil his prospects of a good marriage and my mother was treated as a temptress, the author of his misfortune rather than the victim.

Though there was no affection in my adopted family, I am eternally grateful to my foster father for giving me an education. By the age of seven I could read, write, perform arithmetic and cast accounts. This was to serve me well in Her Majesty’s service and in my later employment. My compulsory attendance at chapel meant that I could also recite long passages of the Bible from memory. However, I have yet to find a practical use for this attainment.

My foster father clearly was grooming me for the ministry but, as I entered manhood, my ambitions had wider horizons than becoming a small-town Nonconformist clergyman. One Saturday afternoon, in my precious and meagre leisure, I walked the four miles to Dewsthorpe where I chanced upon a band of green-jacketed soldiers, led by a recruiting sergeant. I had always enjoyed listening to tales of faraway places and I was soon enthralled by their stories of service life abroad.

I had left my village a boy but I returned as a recruit to a rifle regiment, in proud possession of the Queen’s shilling. My foster parents were clearly dismayed but accepted my choice as being ordained by God. They were doubtless relieved to be rid of the expense of the object of their charity whose appetite for food and ability to outgrow clothes was prodigious.

2. GONE FOR A SOLDIER

My keen eyes were a distinct advantage for a rifleman and I soon became a deadly shot. For ten years I served, mainly on the North-West Frontier, and rose quickly through the ranks, being a sergeant at the time of my discharge with commendations for bravery and good conduct.

As a contrast to my service under the Indian sun, my final posting was under the grey skies and near-constant rain of Ireland. From attempting to pacify the warring tribesmen of Afghanistan we were dispatched to quell the unrest that was beginning to manifest itself closer to home. For six months we shivered in our sodden uniforms whilst quartered at a barracks in the southern Irish city of Cork.

The labouring people seemed backward by contrast with their brethren in an English city of a similar size, being simple but amiable folk. Their historical dislike and distrust of everything English was fuelled from the pulpit by their priests who lost no opportunity to link the general distress and discontent of the populace with the perceived injustices committed by England against their religion. One would never have dreamt that Bloody Mary’s zealous Roman Catholicism had ever done the least harm to English Protestants. They also conveniently ignored the fact that about one in five of our number had been born in the Emerald Isle.

Resentment at our presence apart, we found that we were never short of an admiring glance from the young women of the city. Many a Celtic beauty flashed her dark eyes in our direction and many English hearts were lost to a colleen, mine included. Bridget O’Rourke was the daughter of a wholesale merchant who held a warrant to supply foodstuffs to the army and I was frequently detailed to command parties of soldiers to transport the provisions to the barracks. It was on one such exercise that we met for the first time. I believe I fell in love with her that day.

Though the priests and political agitators attempted to prevent them, there arose many liaisons between young single women and the soldiers. Compared with their homegrown prospects, we were classed as “a fine catch”, to quote Bridie’s words. In her I saw all the qualities that I desired in the wife I intended to take as soon as I was discharged, plus a fair countenance and a shapely figure. Her laughing eyes and good humour completed the equation.

A week after I received my discharge and banked my gratuity, we were married in Cork’s main Methodist chapel. A strict Nonconformist upbringing precluded any possibility that I might convert to Papism. In contrast, Bridie had a relaxed approach to religion and did not oppose my insistence on the wedding venue.

My side of the congregation consisted of recent comrades, including some of the junior officers with whom I had served during the previous decade. The other side was conspicuous for its dearth of occupants. Bridie’s devout Roman Catholic parents were implacably set against the union and would not attend. She was given away by my Captain and attended by the daughters of the Regimental Sergeant Major. A couple of Protestant cousins and a few friends from her ladies’ academy made up her contingent.

We sailed back to England in a troopship to begin our married life. For want of a better prospect we went to Greenwick, a Midlands village a few miles from Huntley where I was born and raised. Huntley held few happy memories for me, so did not appeal as somewhere to set up home. On the other hand, Greenwick had the advantage of the railway passing one mile to the north of the village.

Honourably discharged ex-soldiers of long service were sought after by the expanding railway companies and regarded as ideal employees. Thus with my army pay book and a letter of reference from my old Captain, I applied for and was granted employment with the Midshires Joint Stock Railway Company and commenced training as a signalman. I would scarcely have believed it but I was to spend my entire working life in that company’s service.

3. A FAMILY MAN

Five years passed and we had been blessed with two children. Jack was an inquisitive lad of four and Emily had just taken her first unaided steps. Because of complications at her birth, we were advised not to have any more children. This did not greatly trouble me but was a something of a disappointment for Bridie who was one of five. As a consolation, our household was completed by Boru, an Irish wolfhound.

My education and exemplary military service had contributed in no small part to my advancement within the company, to the extent that I had risen to leading signalman. At first, this had led to some resentment among my fellow workers, some of whom were many years my senior with much longer service, but they accepted my suitability for promotion when I demonstrated my skills as a leader of men. The stationmaster at Greenwick had hinted that I was being groomed for yet higher things, so I was very keen to impress.

Greenwick Junction was not a major signal box in terms of main line railways but was very important to the Midshires on its cross-country route. It was also where one of the Midland Railway’s secondary routes crossed our lines and shared our track for about two hundred yards. As a minor railway company, the Midshires operated in tight financial circumstances and was keen to promote cooperation with the Midland. A transit fee was payable every time one of its trains ran on our tracks, even for that short distance.

If people had heard of Greenwick at all, it was probably because of the railway accident that had taken place there nearly thirty years earlier, not long after the Midland route was laid in conjunction with ours. A Midland express had been diverted because of a landslide on the main line and was joining our “up” road from the south. The signals for our “up” line had been set to hold the local train while the express passed. By a disastrous turn of fate, the driver of the local train, a very elderly man in poor health, had had a seizure and collapsed dead in the cab. The fireman had then attempted to minister to his workmate when he should first have brought the train to a stop.

As a result, the local train ploughed into the side of the express, derailing it and scattering hot coals over the scene. Fire ensued and the varnished teak carriages burned like tinder. A total of twenty-seven lives were lost that night, to say nothing of those who suffered maiming or injury. It was many years before the Midland could be persuaded to make use of that route again and only resumed doing so because other relief routes were more expensive to use than the Midshires’.

Like everything else in this scientific age, signalling and railway safety has improved beyond our wildest dreams since the beginning of our dear Queen’s reign. Though it might occasionally please God to gather in His servants via what mankind regards as His mysterious ways, one can nowadays travel in confidence of a secure, safe and comfortable journey.

But memories are long and, when the Midland embarked on a reconstruction of a main-line embankment and negotiated priority use of the section of Midshires’ track in its relief route, I was asked to man Greenwick Junction box between the hours of 8pm and 6am. That shift was normally the province of a junior signalman but the company was determined that nothing should interrupt the smooth running of the three-month diversion and the much-needed income that it would bring.

Bridie had never liked me working night shifts but was consoled by the thought of the extra money it would bring. With two growing children we needed as much income as possible. Besides, a successful tour of duty on an important project would do my career nothing but good.

4. NIGHT SHIFT

Greenwick Junction signal box was not large but it was comfortable. Compared to the permanent way gangs and the station staff, my working conditions were luxurious. In all but the warmest summer nights a coke stove was kept well stoked. With an ample supply of food and tea constantly atop the stove it was a veritable home-from-home. Not that I would have any opportunity for shirking. The Midland was determined to make the most efficient use of its relief line and the fee it would be paying the Midshires to use the vital intermediate stretch of track.

The schedule revealed levels of traffic that the Midshires could only dream about. Passenger, mail and freight trains would pass by Greenwick Junction as never before. Within ten minutes of relieving the day man on my first tour of night duty, a ten-coach express passed by at the maximum speed permitted over the junction. I was kept busy with points and signals, fitting in the Midshires’ own traffic as best I could. Some of our drivers were resentful at having to give way to another company’s trains but that was the rule and would be so as long as the arrangement lasted.

The telegraph bell rang frequently, passing information about trains moving over the sections of track under my control. At times it would have overwhelmed a less-experienced signalman but the company had chosen well in assigning the job to me. I was extremely busy but my methodical nature kept me abreast of the situation.

The work was tiring but satisfying. Each morning after I returned home by an early footplate ride to Greenwick station I fell asleep within minutes of taking to my bed. Boru had been restless at night with me away from the house so I took him to my work, providing me with companionship and ensuring a peaceful night’s sleep for Bridie and the children.

One evening at dusk, Boru rose suddenly from his customary position in front of the stove and sniffed the air. He loped to the long window that overlooked the track and barked loudly. “What’s the matter Boru?” I asked him, convinced that he understood every word I spoke. He stood fixed to the spot and I moved to his side. About fifty yards away, walking from us along the trackside, was a young woman of respectable appearance.

It was not uncommon for working folk to use the trackside as footpaths. Some hoped to ease their journey by jumping aboard a slow moving train and thus save themselves the price of a fare. But this woman could clearly afford a ticket and was putting herself at potential danger from footpads and trains alike. I went out, ran down the staircase and called “Hey, ma’am.” As I looked along the line, there was nobody to be seen. If it were only myself I would have put it down to a trick of the light but Boru had also been aware of her. The telegraph bell rang, offering a Midland heavy goods train wanting to join the “down” line, so I returned to work and thought no more of the woman.

There were other occasions when Boru leapt to the window and started barking, with me catching a glimpse of the same woman who would disappear by the time that I left the signal box. I resolved that I would sometime investigate the spot where the woman left my view. I would probably find a path through the line-side thicket that made a useful short cut, perhaps to the house of a friend of hers.

Something troubled me. I know little of women’s fashions but the mysterious young lady appeared to be dressed in the style of a bygone age. I mentioned this to Bridie upon my return one morning and she laughed. “So who’re you to be takin’ notice o’ the fashions? I hope you’ll be just as appreciative o’ the clothes that I’ll be wearin’ when I’ve had a chance to spend some o’ your wages!”

Cork was not the metropolis but the young women of that city believed they could teach their London cousins a thing or two about dressing stylishly. Bridie was never one to let her appearance slip, even though she was the wife of a railway servant, and she thought the local gentlewomen very dowdy and unfashionable.

I resolved to put the matter from my mind but the sightings continued, always at dusk. I was beginning to dread the end of the day and the inevitable disappearance of the woman before I had time to speak to her.

5. CONFRONTATION

Early one evening, while I was entering the details of the last traffic movement in the log, I chanced to look up and saw the woman standing below the window. I was determined that I would speak with her and opened the small side window. Before I had a chance to speak, she said, “Have you seen a young man pass by this way?” I said that I had not and that she should not be risking her safety by walking alone at the trackside. She said nothing so I asked her if she would like to step inside the box and warm herself beside the stove. I walked to the door and down the staircase, only to find again that the woman had disappeared.

I had hoped for a busy night to keep me occupied but it was a quiet one, so I had ample opportunity to reflect on our meeting. The woman’s clothing had seemed old fashioned, a plain grey woollen dress of homespun material with no coat above. Her voice had sounded distant, farther away than one would expect from where she had stood. As I drank my tea and smoked my pipe, one more thing came to mind; she appeared to be with child.

The next morning, I declined to ride back to Greenwick and walked with Boru in the opposite direction, near to where I had seen the woman walking. The line-side vegetation was very thick with nowhere a person could pass though anywhere near that place. We turned to begin the walk home and I let Boru off his lead.

He ran on, darting into the undergrowth and back again, chasing the occasional rabbit but never catching one. At times he was ahead of me, then behind, but as we passed the junction with the Midland line turning south he dashed from sight, though I could hear his movements a few yards away. As I called him in my sternest voice he returned and circled my feet, whimpering. I walked on but he blocked my path before turning back to where he had just reappeared.

I followed him into the bramble, scratching myself in the process. I lost my footing, slithered on my backside and fetched up at the bottom of a bank. Boru was sniffing at something so I struck a match to see what was troubling him. To my horror, I saw a crumpled skeleton in rotting clothing.

No one would ever accuse me of cowardice without paying for it and my courage in the face of the enemy had earned me mentions in dispatches. But I scrambled back up that bank, heedless of the brambles tearing at my clothing, hands and face and ran at full speed back to Greenwick station. For once I outran Boru. I roused the stationmaster and reported my horrific find. He sent for the constable and I recounted the whole grisly episode to him, surrounded by the gaping assembly of idlers who had gathered as the news spread. The body was recovered later that morning, by which time I had fallen into a troubled sleep.

A snuffbox and papers in a wallet identified the body as Henry Bingham, a young man from a wealthy local family who disappeared without trace some thirty or so years ago. When nothing more was heard of him, it was popularly supposed that he had fled to America to avoid a scandal involving an innkeeper’s daughter and her child. That had probably been his intention but he had got no further than the two miles from Greenwick station before his flight was brought to an end by the dreadful train collision. It seems incredible that his body was never found at the time of the accident.

By the generosity of the company I was granted a day’s paid leave to recover from my ordeal, not that it afforded me much peace. During that day our cottage was visited by four newspaper reporters, one an agent of a national daily. Relating the story of my discovery quite took my mind off the matter that had been troubling me - the mysterious woman in grey. For a few days it seemed that my fame would know no bounds, then the world moved on, my discovery was forgotten and life returned to normal.

6. A REVELATION

A month after the tumultuous events I received word from Huntley that my foster father wished to see me. Sunday is not a good day to visit a clergyman but it was my only day of rest so, early in the afternoon, we set out to walk the few miles to the village of my upbringing. My foster mother opened the door and embraced Bridie, the children and me in turn. They had no family of their own and were pleased to regard Bridie as a daughter-in-law despite her Papist leanings, not an easy thing for strict Nonconformists to do.

After we had taken tea, my foster father signalled his wife to take Bridie and the children into the garden. He was in his seventy-sixth year; worn out from ministering to a congregation he was only marginally better off than financially. The collection plate rarely yielded more than pennies and he spent large amounts of his own small stipend on food and medicines for the sick. He quickly came to the point.

"I heard about your unfortunate discovery, it must have come as a great shock.” I nodded my assent as he continued. “Matthew, we told you of the circumstances of your birth many years ago. Despite that, you seem to have made good the sin that accompanied your entry into the world. Your military service was exemplary and I hear you are highly regarded by your employers.”

"I fear though that we were not entirely honest with you. Under pressure from your mother’s family, we kept the identity of your father a secret when you had every right to know. A cruel twist of fate has resulted in you unwittingly making your own discovery. Henry Bingham was your father.”

I was struck dumb. Competing feelings of anger and relief flowed and ebbed, leaving me totally confused, wishing I had never opted to walk home that morning with Boru. I had always harboured resentment, even hatred, towards my unknown father but the hatred became incandescent at the thought that he had met his death whilst trying to shirk his responsibilities for a second time.

"My wife and I are in fragile health and might be called to higher service at any time. Before you leave, I want to give you certain remembrances we have of your dear mother.” At that moment my foster mother returned with Bridie, Jack and Emily in her wake. Without a word she went upstairs and returned holding a small wooden box. She held it out to me, I took it and we bade our farewells. Within five weeks I would again be in Huntley, standing at my foster father’s graveside.

Back at home with the children in bed and Bridie at my side, I placed the box on our table and opened it. I took out a Bible, a Prayer Book and a confirmation certificate. Next were a hairbrush, a looking glass, some ribbons and pieces of lace, these being her sole toilet items. Last were some letters written in faded ink. I had no stomach to read her personal correspondence and was about to replace them in the box.

Bridie’s hand stopped me, pointing to a piece of card that had become lodged between the letters. She withdrew it and handed it to me. It bore the address of a photographer’s studio in Dewsthorpe, the town where I had begun my military career. Turning it over, I gazed into the face of my mother, the mysterious young woman in grey.

© Brian Smith 2002

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