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WE‘LL NEVER GO THERE AGAIN

 

Penhelig‘s a lovely place, but we‘ll never go there again. It has changed, if only for us. For others it will doubtless be the same quiet village asleep at the foot of the mountains, washed by the changing sea, an air about it of faded glories and more prosperous times.

For us it will always be the village of the man in black . . .

Our third holiday at Penhelig had been much like the two before. Early June in North Wales is a season known and loved by those who choose it. We woke to mornings of air like Rhine wine, we basked all day in sunshine which made the dunes burning hot to the touch, so that we fled for relief to the sea, and all night we slept a deep and restful sleep, lulled by the gentle rocking of our Camping Coach in the sea breeze.

I mention this to emphasize that we were all in a disgustingly healthy state, physically and mentally. Not at all likely to give way to hysteria, or neurotic outbursts, or even mild hallucinations – which makes our experience all the harder to understand. I‘ve stopped trying to find explanations for it.

We‘d been there just over a week. It was early evening, an evening of clear, pearly light, and the younger children were already in their bunks and asleep. We two were absorbed in watching a pair of buzzards at work on the hillside opposite, so at first we did not hear the tapping at the door.

When the sound finally managed to intrude I got up and went to the door. Outside, standing on the step, was a man, a stranger. He was looking off to one side as people often do when they wait at a door.

Now I want to make it clear at the outset that there was nothing at all strange about the man. Apart from the fact that he was apparently in mourning – a practice which tends to survive in those parts – there was nothing in the least unusual about him. I opened the door and asked if I could help him.

‘Good evening !‘ he said. ‘I do hope you‘ll forgive this intrusion ! I wonder if I might have a word with you ?‘

‘By all means ! Do come in !‘

I had taken him for a local businessman (it was the black suit, I suppose), but his speech denied it. He had a direct and intense look, but at the same time there was an air about him of reserve, of gravity.

‘Do come in !‘ I said again, and we exchanged names as I ushered him into our living quarters, introduced him to my wife, and pressed him to take a seat.

‘I do hope you‘ll forgive me !‘ he said, once more. ‘This must seem an unwarranted intrusion on my part. I – er, I couldn‘t help noticing that you have young children. I saw them playing on the station platform back there today. I don‘t quite know how to say this without giving the impression of confounded cheek, but – but I wondered if you‘d realized how dangerous it is for them to play so near the line – ‘

I was about to protest when he stopped me by raising his hand.

‘Please don‘t think I‘m accusing you of negligence. That would be quite unforgivable ! Besides , I‘ve watched you with the children and I know it‘s not true. But, you see, I once lost – someone – myself. And since then I worry whenever I see children near the lines. It‘s just a – a thing I have, I‘m afraid.‘

And in the way that perfect strangers often do, he began to tell us something of his story. He was, as I suspected, well-educated, and enjoyed a sufficient private income. He had in earlier days studied law and married before being called to the bar – adequate evidence as to the size of his income – and everything had seemed set fair for a rosy future. Then, after a year of ecstatic married life and with his first-born child expected hourly, the Fates had slit the thin-spun thread. In giving life to his daughter, his wife had given her own. There had been no reason to suppose that the birth would be anything but normal, and the blow must have seemed to him cruel and senseless.

But life had not done with him yet. Some three years later his daughter toddled into the path of a train outside Penhelig station, and his holiday turned on the instant into a nightmare, She was buried in the village churchyard and he had stayed on, with no desire to leave the spot and, it seemed, nothing left to live for.

There was something inexpressibly sad and moving about the quiet, almost unemotional recital of his misfortunes. There was nothing we could say; we just sat there, inwardly counting our blessings.

‘So, you see, I have a sort of obsession about trains and children. I assure you, it‘s not a mania with me. I‘m well aware that I‘ve got it. I just have this odd feeling that I might one day be able to save another child from the same – the same thing. If I keep an eye on them, I mean.‘

 

For the next few days we were conscious that he was doing just that. We did not speak to him again, and he made no effort to cross our path. But we realized that from a distance he was watching the children. From time to time we would catch sight of his black-clad figure, always at some distance, and incongruous among the clusters of sun-worshipping families on the beach. Our children were quite unaware of him, and he made no attempt to make himself known to them. Indeed, it was all so unobtrusive that we could not begin to feel resentment. But we knew all the time that he was not far away, and that his vigil continued.

Our holiday almost over, we were preparing for the return to routine with very little pleasure. The children had taken their final sea bathe for that season, rolled down the dunes for the last time, and we were all straggling back along the edge of the golf-links for tea. Our youngest, Jonny, had gone in front, but we were not anxious. There was a heavy wicket-gate before he could reach the railway line, and we knew he could not open it. He would wait for us there.

I can‘t recall at what moment I became aware that something was wrong. The distant train had whistled twice before I noticed that Johnny was not standing by the gate. He ought to be there. There shouldn‘t be a train coming. The afternoon train had gone by an hour before.

I began to run . . .

At that point the horror began. In one glance I saw Johnny tottering towards the line. Somehow he had got through.

The train screamed as it neared the station. And then I knew, with sick despair, that I could not reach him in time to save him. Still I ran, incoherent prayers on my lips.

It was no use. It was no use. I could never reach him in time.

As he stumbled on to the line, I saw a figure rush from the far side. Almost before I could recognize him as the man in black it was all over. Startled by the sudden appearance of the black-clad figure, Johnny turned and tottered back to safety. Only inches from him the train, its whistle still shrieking, picked up his saviour and swept him away.

Only once before in my life, during the blitz, have I experienced that complete detachment which can come in moments of agony. I stood, as it were, outside myself, and saw my other self rush forward and sweep Jonny from the ground, sobbing my relief.

My wife, rushing from behind, snatched him from my arms, crying,

‘You naughty boy ! You naughty boy !‘

But her face, ravaged by tears, belied her words.

When at length I found time to look around I realized, with an acute sense of shock, that we alone had witnessed the event. The platform was bare of people, and slept in the afternoon sun.

I rose, still shaking from my knees, and went in search of the station staff.

The station-master heard my stumbling account with white-faced dismay.

‘I must ring Towyn right away, look you, and get them to stop the train. Perhaps, if you feel up to it, sir, you‘ll walk along the track with me towards Towyn ? The – the body may have fallen from the engine by the track-side, you see !‘

I could do no less. While my wife shepherded the children back to the coach. I set out with the station-master.

I don‘t remember a single word being spoken until we came in sight of Towyn. The station-master eventually broke the silence.

‘I‘m beginning to think the poor chap must have been caught up by the engine, sir. There‘s no sign of him on the track, as you see !‘

No, he had certainly not fallen from the engine. And at Towyn we learned that he had not been picked up by it either.

‘You see, sir, we examined it very carefully after we got Mr Morgan‘s call. Very carefully we examined it, look you. But there was no – no blood or anything, you understand ! A man couldn‘t be hit by a train at that speed without some sign, you know !‘

My brain reeled. I had seen the man. I had seen him hit. I had seen his body picked up by the engine and swept away. I had seen it. I had seen it. And to clinch the matter, my wife had seen it, too.

The police were called in. Another search was made. Nothing was found. The sergeant made it clear that, in his view, it was more likely that we‘d both had too much sun and seen things. It was idle to protest. Our friend was well known in the village, he said. He would speak to him later, and we would then see that our story could not be true.

The man in black was not at home that evening, but enquiries by the sergeant and his men satisfied them that he had been seen in the village later than the time we had seen him at the station – or said we had seen him, as the sergeant put it. It was plain that he thought we had wasted enough of his time, and he wished us ‘Good day !‘ a trifle brusquely.

We slept little that night. For my part, whenever I tried to woo sleep, I would see in my mind‘s eye the white face of the man who had saved our son‘s life. I saw his arms outflung as the engine struck him and, without a cry, he was swept from sight. I knew that soon, somewhere, somehow, the broken body must be found.

Next morning the children found us strangely distracted. The car was packed, breakfast eaten, with scarcely a word spoken, and we set off for home. As we passed through the village we called at the police station. The sergeant tersely informed us that no, they had not yet located our friend, but there was not the slightest doubt that he had not been killed by any train. The line had been most thoroughly searched, and so on. At my insistence, he took our home address, but it was clear that he would prefer our room to our company.

As I drove up the estuary, the children said their customary farewells to the sea. A seagull wheeled and dipped over our heads, screaming passionately. The sunlight danced upon the water. Everything was so normal . . .

 

I swung the car into the main street of Machynlleth, and stood on the brakes. There, on the other side of the road stood the man in black. I flung open the car door and rushed across to him, all but heedless of the morning traffic.

‘Oh, are you off ?‘ he said, smiling. "Sorry I didn‘t see you yesterday afternoon ! I don‘t ever go down to the station on Fridays, you see.‘ He paused for a moment, and then added quietly, ‘It was a Friday my little girl was – taken, you know. So I came up to Machynlleth and stayed overnight. Anyway, I had shopping to do, you see.‘

I could do nothing but stare.

‘You don‘t look too well, you know,‘ he went on. ‘Hope you haven‘t been getting too much sun.‘

Still I stood tongue-tied, staring.

‘Well, cheerio then ! Have a good journey ! See you next year perhaps ?‘

I mumbled something – I don‘t remember what – shook a hand that was comfortingly firm and solid, and found myself back in the car.

We never saw him again . . .

 

There are those who claim to have seen ghosts from the buried past. We believe we have seen the spirit of a still-living man. We cannot shake from our minds the conviction that, in a moment of despair, we were allowed a glimpse of what is to come.

One day, I know, I am going to pick up a newspaper and read in an odd corner that our friend, the man in black, has given his life for a child. There is nothing we could do to stop him, and I‘m not sure that we should try. He knows what it is that he has to do.

But we‘ll never go to Penhelig again. At least we can make sure that, next time, it won‘t be our child he has to save.