Considering its popularity I was more than a little surprised at how empty the train was. Did I say how empty? In fact, the train was completely empty. I was the only passenger. Perhaps other intending passengers had been fooled, as I nearly was, by the late platform change. I had had to run alongside the train as it left the station to get on board. The guard, or whatever they are called these days, looked at me in a way which seemed to say – are you sure you want this train? I thought, for a moment, he was not going to let me get on but he must have repented and, slightly to my surprise and before I could reconsider, the doors opened silently, completely silently actually when I thought about it later, and I scrambled through the doors to my seat – there were any number. No doubt other travellers would board the train at one of the many stations between here and the end of the line. Given the fantastic weather this was surely a day that would see dozens of people wanting to take this trip.
The train was one of those rather soulless, three carriage, trains so popular with rail companies these days. It would not have been my first choice for this beautiful journey over the Pennines from Leeds to Carlisle. The real attraction being, of course, neither of these cities but the Horton in Ribblesdale viaduct and the spectacularly remote and empty countryside the line passed through. I wasn’t intending to travel the whole of this route. I would be getting off the train at Dent and doing some gentle walking in the area whilst staying at a small pub in the village. I was looking forward to the whole adventure. I hoped it would be the tonic I needed after the death of my wife. I pushed this thought from my mind and sat back in my seat.
My theory about picking up other passengers seemed quite wrong. Although we stopped in stations such as Shipley, Bingley, Keighley not one single person got on my train. At first I was delighted. I had never been comfortable in the company of others and for a while the train seemed like my idea of heaven. At Skipton, Gargrave, Hellifield and Long Preston no person boarded my train.
But then anti-social feelings were one thing, complete isolation was quite another. The strange thing was it was not that there weren’t any potential passengers for the journey. Often people stood as if waiting for a train but none climbed on board my train. In some cases those waiting on the platforms of these many stations seemed completely oblivious to the presence of my train. Even those I stared hard at gave me the impression of looking right through me. My unease grew. Had I accidentally boarded some private excursion?
I got up from my seat and went to look for the guard to check. To my amazement I could find no sign of him. The door at the rear of the train was locked and even though I banged loudly and persistently there was no response. It seemed like it was just me and the driver. By now we had passed Settle and were climbing towards the viaduct. This section of the line, between here and Dent, I knew had been the most challenging part of the route to build and accidents and casualties had been frequent. Why I had this thought I do not know but it added to my sense of unease. I did not have time to pursue the thought any further, however. Just as I had begun to wonder whether I had become a part of an ill-fitting dream the train came to a halt.
The name on the mock gaslights and station benches said Morton. I didn’t recognise the name. Not a scheduled stop I remember thinking. The weather had changed abruptly as we had climbed. Now, to my surprise and disappointment, a fog or thick mist swirled outside the carriage windows. Of course in this part of the country, over a thousand feet above sea level, it wasn’t uncommon for the weather to change, without warning, for the worst. Consequently, as we pulled slowly into the station I could see no further than the rather bleak and, seemingly, desolate station building. Before I could think about this strange change in the weather I saw the people. The small platform was packed with men, women and children. I half expected the train to travel past them as it had done many times before.
But no, here was my missing guard cheerfully opening the carriage doors and welcoming his new passengers like long lost friends. Having described myself as no great lover of people I must admit I was quite relieved, pleased even, to have company.
I looked around me at these newcomers. A number of them seemed to be dressed in workmen’s clothing, rather old-fashioned clothing at that. They all seemed to know each other. My eyes passed over the rest of the passengers. I noticed the woman and her young child, a girl, because she looked so sad. She and the child were dressed in modern day clothes. The child had a book and the woman was making desultory efforts at helping her sound out the words. I could tell her heart was not really in it. I looked over the rest of the carriage. The people were a mixture of old and young, mostly male, some sat in groups but mostly they sat alone. They seemed neither excited nor bored by their journey. Simply, I searched for the word, resigned, yes, resigned.
We began the crossing of the viaduct, travelling slowly. The mist or fog cleared a little. I seemed to be the only person in my carriage who was interested in this exciting part of the journey. Granted you could see very little of the viaduct itself but, nevertheless, this was the bit I had been looking forward. Obviously this was not the case with my travelling companions. Even though the view was only spasmodic they paid it no attention.
The shuddering of the train happened only a few seconds after we had begun our crossing. For a brief moment I thought the train had been derailed but, as the train carried on, I realised, to my great relief, that this could not be the case. If we hadn’t been on the viaduct I would have assumed that the train had left the mainline and transferred onto a branch line but, given our position, this was clearly impossible.
Any relief I felt was immediately dispelled by what happened next. Suddenly, I was alone once again in my carriage. From where I sat the other carriages were also completely empty. Before I had a chance to take this in something else occurred far more terrifying. As I looked out of the window I saw not the misty rolling hills or the partially-obscured peak of Penny Ghent, I saw the train I had been travelling in. For a while it moved parallel to me. As I looked in disbelief I could see all those passengers who had only a few moments ago sat with me in this carriage. There were the workmen in their strange clothes and the woman and child I had been observing. Then a woman I had not seen before seemed to be waving to me. She was speaking I think. It was my wife or the woman who had been my wife. I tried to shout back but, as I did, her train gradually began to move away getting smaller and fainter every moment until I could see it no longer.
I continued to stare in disbelief and shock out of my carriage window. Only a few seconds later the train entered Blea Moor tunnel and I found myself staring at my own reflection. In the artificial lighting I looked pale and frightened. I tried to take deep breaths to compose myself.
By the time the train had emerged from the tunnel I had almost convinced myself that the whole thing was merely my imagination twisted by the recent death of my wife into some kind of fantasy, some kind of denial of her absence in my life. Despite my efforts at rationalizing my experience, by the time we reached Dent station I was more than ready to get off this train. Even though it was only just after three o’ clock it was beginning to get dark. A damp mist swirled around the platform and the mock gas lamps gave off a dull and eerie glow in the half light. Of course nobody else got off the train with me. I was completely alone. I had directions to my hotel which, fortunately, was only a few hundred yards from this deserted station. In five minutes or less I stood outside the building that was both hotel and pub. I pushed the door open with some relief as if, by doing so, I would leave my fear behind. I stepped into the hotel’s welcoming glow.
A slightly harassed, middle-aged man, the owner it turned out, welcomed me and showed me to my room. He told me to come down for a drink as soon as I was ready. The room was pleasant, not exceptional but comfortable enough for the walkers who stayed here. I stood for several minutes looking out of my window at the mist-shrouded moorland outside. I tried to push my recent experience out of my mind. That’s what I am, I thought, out of my mind. I shivered and turned from the window then I unpacked my bags and hurried downstairs to the bar. I needed a drink, several drinks in fact.
There was only one other couple in the bar at that relatively early hour. From their conversation with the hotel owner it was clear that they were also staying here. The hotel owner was called Brian Steele. He and I exchanged short bursts of conversation between his other duties. He explained that he had a relief chef working for him tonight. His wife usually did the cooking but she had been feeling a bit down in the dumps and he had suggested that she take Molly, their only child, on a shopping trip into Leeds. He explained that the isolation had been getting her down recently. He looked at the watch on his wrist.
“They’ll be just about getting to the station to come back, I reckon.”
So we talked while he popped in and out of the bar. He recommended a couple of walks in the area and we discussed something of the history of this remote part of Yorkshire. I wanted to tell him about my strange experience on the train but could not for fear that he would regard me as a lunatic and cease our conversation and, as the night closed in, I needed someone to talk to very badly.
Whether it was the alcohol that reduced my reservations or a growing, but source-less feeling that I had to share my experience with this man, I could not say. I would almost say, thinking about it later in my room, that there felt like an almost inevitability that we would talk about my journey. After a while we fell to talking about the construction of the line and, of course, the famous viaduct. Then I told him about what had happened to me on the train. How it had been empty, suddenly filled with people who had then left my train for this, what could I call it, ghost train? I told him about my wife trying to say something to me. As I told the story I looked across the room at the couple still sat in the corner to check that they could not hear this crazy story. Even to me, as I told it, it sounded so improbable as to be no more than a tale from a drunk trying to sound more interesting than he was. From time to time I checked Brian’s face to try and gauge his reaction. But his face was impassive and I could not tell what he was thinking.
I suppose I had expected him to laugh at me and, by the end, despite its improbability, so caught-up was I in the telling of my story that I realised I had not looked at his face for several minutes. I looked up at him as I finished my story telling how the train had faded into the mist. He looked confused as if, realising this was the end of my story, he now had to make a decision as to what he would tell me next. For a few moments he said nothing.
“Well ” I said. “What do you make of that? Am I mad or what?”
Again he struggled as he tried to judge his response. Finally, he said.
“It might be better if you were.”
I could feel the blood drain from my face. I looked across at the couple, suddenly they seemed far away. I knew I was about to hear an explanation for my story
“You’ve had a very unusual experience, not unique, but, thank God, very, very unusual. I hesitated because I didn’t know whether to tell you the story or not.”
He looked at me as if for some sign that he should continue.
“Go on,” I said immediately. “I think I need to know.”
“Yes, perhaps so, perhaps you do.”
For some reason he could not look at me as he told me the story.
“People have had the same experience. They’ve been on the, what you call, ghost train. They have told other people about their experience before they” He paused.
“Before they what?” I asked despite myself.
“Before they died,” he said quickly.
For a few moments neither of us spoke. Finally, my voice unnaturally loud, I said.
“You mean it’s some kind of warning?”
“Well,” he said, a little less confidently. “So they say. They say that all the workmen killed during the building of the line and the viaduct and people killed in some kind of accident shortly after their journey and even people who have committed suicide by jumping off the viaduct – they do that sometimes – they all travel on the train. Perhaps they want to give the person they’re warning a chance to do something different. I don’t know.”
I laughed. I don’t know why, hysteria probably.
“There is a chance then? – for me”
“Oh yes, definitely,” he said. “Your wife was trying to warn you about something. Try and think what it might be.”
I must admit his note of optimism did not help. It didn’t convince me and he didn’t seem to convince himself. It was clear that Brian Steele was a firm believer in the fatal omen of the ghost train.
It was then I saw the photograph behind the bar. The strange thing was that I could almost have believed that it hadn’t been there before. That, impossibly, it had just, at that moment in this evening, appeared. I stared at it for several seconds. It was a photograph of a woman and child and Brian Steele.
Perhaps if I had not stared at this object for so long, Brian would not have felt compelled to say.
“That’s Mary, my wife with Molly, our daughter.”
I held the bar so tight my hands ached. I looked away from the photograph and around the room, searching for some kind of sanity. The woman and child in the photograph were the same woman and child who had boarded the train. My ghost train.