Dawn was barely breaking when Hugh slipped silently through the front door into the farm yard beyond. As he carefully lifted the door so that it didn’t drag on the stone step and wake his father or brother, he couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before he opened it again. Or indeed if he would ever do so. When the latch clicked back into place with a metallic finality it was as if the door was closing on one life and opening on another.
He sighed and hefted his heavy suitcase; he had a long walk to the station and time wasn’t on his side. Even so he spared a moment for one last look around, Ladywell Farm had been his home for the last twenty years after all. He heard a coughing sound from across the yard and saw an opaque cloud condensing in the cold air close to the stables. A smile spread across Hugh’s face, the idea he could even consider leaving without saying goodbye to Poppy was unforgivable.
“Hello old girl,” he whispered as he approached the stable door.
There was the familiar sound of movement from within and a moment later a horse’s head appeared over the stable door. Hugh immediately cradled it in his arms and kissed the white blaze which ran the length of her face.
“I’m going to miss you Pops,” he whispered as the tears started to flow unabated down his cheeks. The mare seemed to sense his melancholic mood and nuzzled into him, just as she had done virtually every morning for the last twelve years. Hugh had always known it was going to be hard to walk away from Ladywell, to leave his friends and family and life as he knew it, but he had no choice. His strong sense of loyalty wouldn’t allow him to stand idly by whilst his friends and peers answered the call and took the Kings Shilling.
“Never mind old girl they say the war will be over by Christmas,” he said with no great conviction as he gently ran his hand down Poppy’s face for one last time. The majority of the population may well be caught up in a nationalistic fervour and held the misguided belief the war with Germany was no more serious than a school boy’s jape. Hugh didn’t subscribe to that train of thought though, any fool could see Germany wouldn’t be a pushover no matter what jingoistic frenzy the press tried to whip up amongst the general public. At the end of the day, war was war and good men on both sides were going to die before it was over.
Hugh turned and looked back at the farmhouse for what he felt sure would be the last time. His Father and Brother were still asleep. He had deliberately told them he would be leaving two hours later at eight O’clock; long goodbyes were never his forte. He knew it was the act of a coward and felt an utter scoundrel as he stole off down the farm track toward the road, but deep down, he knew it was for the best. Whether it was best for them or best for him he wasn’t sure, but either way he felt they would understand.
Dawns first weak rays were already chasing away the long shadows that belonged to the night and Hugh could see the urban sprawl of London in the distance. Even that brought a wry smile to his face as all through his young life he had watched the houses and the factories creeping ever closer to Ladywell. One by one their neighbours had succumbed to the developers and housing corporation’s offers and they were now hammering on his father’s door. So far, the old man had resisted their efforts, but Hugh was a realist and knew the Carmichael’s wouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of progress. One way or another the developers would win through and it wouldn’t be long before there were houses where he had once ridden Poppy through grassy meadows.
Even the road bordering the farm had changed. When Hugh was a small boy it was nothing more than a cart track. Now it was a fully metalled road. He had no doubt it wouldn’t be long before trolley buses were running along it, transporting commuters to and from their new houses into the city.
It took Hugh a full 45 minutes to walk to the station, it was a walk he had made many times over the last four years, to catch a train to nearby Enfield where he worked as a fireman on the Great Eastern Railway. Not for the first time that morning he felt a lump rising in his throat. Who would be firing for old Bill this morning he wondered? Whoever it was they were in for a hard time, Bill had not taken it well when Hugh had told him he was joining the army. Breaking up their partnership had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. It was even harder than telling Elsie, his fiancée he was off to war.
It was whilst they were drawing into Liverpool street station with the 7.15 from Enfield when Hugh had broken the news. As expected, it hadn’t gone well, Bills jaw had immediately set and he had very deliberately turned away from his young protégé. They were a good team working the frenzied commuter trains on the Great Eastern network into London. The Railwaymen called it working the “Jazz” and it took great skill to work to the tight timetables set to meet the ever-increasing passenger demands. The very thought of delaying a train due to a failing Locomotive was unthinkable. No matter what the cause.
Bill Mason was a veteran engineman who had taken to young Hugh the moment they were introduced. The invaluable knowledge he had imparted to the newly passed firemen couldn’t be bought for any price and it wasn’t long before they were one of the best crews working out of Enfield shed. That partnership was gone now, even if the war was over by Christmas the chances of Hugh being paired with his former mentor again were slim. The Great Eastern had promised all those who answered the call that their jobs would be waiting for them when they returned. That wasn’t in doubt, but in the interim period Bill would have been allocated a new fireman and on his return, Hugh would doubtless have to fit in where ever there was a free place.
Hugh had just made it to the station when he heard the familiar sound of a “buck” approaching the up platform. Buck was short for “Buck jumper” the name given by the enginemen to the small 0-6-0 tank engines which worked the commuter trains. The young fireman watched with professional interest as the engine coasted into the station. He could see she had a good head of steam and at this point on the route that was the mark of a good crew. Hugh knew from his own experience a Buck would not build steam when the regulator was open and with sixteen stops on the Enfield line the regulator was either wide open or closed. Needless to say, a fireman had his work cut out to keep the boiler pressure up.
As the engine drew level Hugh recognised its driver as Bob Saunders who also worked out of Enfield shed. Bob seemed to do a double take, not realising at first the individual waving to him in the long coat and flat cap was Hugh. Recognition dawned however and against all regulations he darted off the foot plate and across the platform to shake Hugh’s hand.
“Good luck son and keep your head down there’s no glory in being dead,” he said before leaping back on to the buck just as the guard blew his whistle. Bob pulled the regulator open and with a whoosh of steam the little engine started to gather momentum at an alarming rate. With a start Hugh realised he was supposed to be on that train and sprinted across to the nearest carriage. He yanked the door open and threw his suitcase in before scrambling in haphazard fashion after it.
“That was close a one,” he said pulling his suitcase back out of the aisle before sitting down on one of the unforgiving seats which typified the carriages of the day. Surprisingly the only other occupant of the carriage compartment was a young woman who seemed to be regarding him with a look of mild bemusement. Hugh inexplicably found himself grinning back at her, as he did so he realised there was something familiar about her.
“Jane, Jane Baker I went to school with you,” the girl said as if she was reading his mind. Hugh thought back to his school days and recalled a vague memory of a rather plain girl with mousey hair sitting in a corner came back to him. There was nothing plain or mousey about the girl, or to be more precise young woman who was sat in front of him now. Far from it in fact.
“Oh, that’s right I remember, you were friends with Pauline Baldwin,” Hugh answered trying unsuccessfully not to stare.
Jane smiled and seemed genuinely pleased he could remember. “Yes, we were friends all through school, it’s funny how everybody remembers Pauline.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Hugh answered with a touch of sarcastic humour. Pauline had been one of those larger than life characters no one would ever forget. Larger than life and twice as loud.
“Do you keep in touch, with her?” Hugh asked casually.
Jane shook her head, “No, not really do you remember David Storey?”
Hugh racked his brains for a moment, the name was familiar but he couldn’t put a face to it.
“His father had the Black Swan on Epping Lane,” Jane said in an effort to jog his memory.
“That David Storey?” he said as the memory of a slovenly near do well dawned.
“I’m afraid so, god knows what she was thinking, she ended up in a slum with three feral kids and a drunk for a husband. I see her from time to time but she’s not the same…”
Jane’s voice tailed off as the train started to slow for the next station. Two thoughts went through Hughes mind, the first being he hoped Jane didn’t get off and the second being he hoped nobody else decided to get on and sit in their compartment.
“Anyway, where are you going, all dressed up?” Jane asked as she to cast a glance toward the carriage door.
“I’m heading up to Liverpool to join up” Hugh answered proudly.
Almost immediately Jane’s face fell and in an instant her whole countenance become one of sadness and concern.
“Really Hugh? What’s the rush, they say the war will be over before Christmas.”
“It’s my duty,” Hugh stammered lamely, somewhat taken aback by the concern this beautiful young woman seemed to be showing. Far more concern than Elsie his fiancée had that was for certain. Her biggest worry seemed to be he would be killed before he received a big payoff from the housing developers. Hugh was starting to think old Bill and his father had been right about Elsie all along.
“Why Liverpool?” Jane asked, “don’t they have recruiting offices in London?”
“I want to join the Kings Liverpool Regiment; my uncle was at the siege of Ladysmith with them.”
Hugh knew it was a romanticised ideal and he doubted it was one the female mind could grasp, but it was the truth. Hugh had grown up with his Uncle Joe’s tales of the South African war. Once he’d made the decision to join up there was never any doubt which Regiment, he would join.
“What about you?” Hugh asked trying to steer the conversation away from the war. “What do you do?”
“I’m a clerk for a legal firm in the City,” Jane answered as she delved into her hand bag. A moment later she produced a small writing pad and pencil.
“Here, take this Hugh, write to me and let me know you’re alright,” she said tearing off a page which had an address in Enfield written on it.
“I will Jane, I’d like that, I’d like that very much.”
To his surprise Jane stood up and came and moved to sit beside him, clasping his hand in hers. They sat like that in almost complete silence for the rest of the journey. To Hugh the whole experience felt so surreal and yet so right, he found himself wondering what Bill would think if he could see him now. When they pulled in to Liverpool Street Station Jane turned to him and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“Take care Hugh, make sure you come back in one piece,” she whispered into his ear.
With that the carriage door was open and she was gone, lost in a sea of commuters flowing down the platform like the ebbing tide. For his part Hugh’s emotions were in turmoil, had he been dreaming, or had he just met the woman of his dreams, and now she was gone. He looked at the address in Enfield and in that instant, this seemingly innocuous piece of paper, became his most treasured possession. He folded it up carefully and tucked it away in his wallet, next to his photograph of Elsie. Life had, he realised just become so much more complicated.