Reverend Davies stood frozen in his tracks. Just a moment before he had been walking purposefully along the shoreline, attempting to compose the text of his next sermon. He found that a misty morning walk, with the angry ocean and barren rocks as a backdrop, was often helpful in inspiring him to bring the wrath and harsh judgement of the Old Testament to vivid life, for the benefit of the parishioners of Hopeless, Maine. His reason for stopping in mid-stride, and abandoning his musings on some of the least pleasant aspects of the book of Deuteronomy, was the sight of an ominous dark shape lurking low in the water, just a few yards away from where he was standing.
Minutes passed, and Reverend Davies, who dared not move or remove his gaze from the nameless menace, was developing cramp in his left leg. Convinced that the thing was biding its time before rushing up from the sea to drag him to his doom, he bore the agony like a martyr, and kept perfectly still, silently wincing with pain. I have no idea how long he could have maintained this position, but fortunately the incoming tide produced a particularly large wave which propelled the mysterious creature on to the beach, while, at the same time, liberally showering the Reverend with spray.
Banging his foot on the ground to relieve the cramp, the Reverend looked about him anxiously to see if anyone had witnessed his actions, or lack thereof. He felt a little embarrassed that he had confused a plank of wood with some deadly denizen of the deep. When it was clear that the plank held no threat, he decided to make a closer inspection. This appeared to be no ordinary plank. It was huge; a good eight feet long, ten inches wide, about six inches deep, and blackened with age. Emboldened now, he gave it a push with his foot, but found it difficult to shift; the thing was unbelievably heavy! How it had floated was beyond the Reverend’s understanding. “Maybe,” he thought aloud, “that is why it lay so low in the water.”
His sermon temporarily forgotten, Reverend Davies decided that this plank, or whatever it was, would be an ideal replacement for the lintel that sat over the front door of the orphanage, a worm-eaten piece of oak that had seen better days and needed replacing.
What he had discovered was, of course, a railway sleeper. He can be forgiven for not knowing this, as only a tiny handful of people living on the island would have seen, or even registered the existence of, such a thing as a railway, let alone a sleeper. Railway sleepers which are no longer needed are invariably recycled in some way, and this, it would appear, was the plan for this particular specimen. One other thing, of which the Reverend was blissfully ignorant, was that the sleeper he had destined to support the wall above the orphanage’s front door, had been formerly transported by ship. In the course of the voyage a terrified crew, with the help of their skipper, had unceremoniously jettisoned it overboard.
It took four strong men to remove the sleeper from the beach and deliver it to the orphanage. They lay it on the ground outside, where it would remain until needed, for while the plan to replace the old lintel was, doubtless, a good one, the Reverend had not appreciated the enormity of the task. The double doors would have to be removed and the walls would need supporting when the old lintel was pulled out. Failure to do this would almost certainly result in the front of the building collapsing. This needed much planning, and planning took time.
A week or so passed. A pallid full moon gazed down on Hopeless through the ribbons of fog, and saw Miss Calder flitting around the outside of the orphanage, hoping, no doubt, to ‘accidentally’ cross paths with Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man. She was fully aware that her feelings were irrational and could never be realised. Miss Calder had been dead for some years, and though a ghost, she entertained certain unaccountable yearnings for the Night-Soil Man. For his part, Rhys did not mind, for his was a lonely life, and, despite being a wraith, Miss Calder was surprisingly good company. Like Drury, the skeletal hound, she had not allowed the inconvenience of death to interfere with her participating fully in island life, and had continued to oversee the smooth running of the orphanage in an exemplary fashion.
Unexpectedly, a noise which Miss Calder first thought to have been the death agonies of some huge creature, rent the quiet of the island. Here and there lights appeared in nearby windows and pale, frightened faces gazed into the darkness. Reverend Davies, resplendent in a long, striped nightshirt and pink bed-socks, appeared on the doorstep of the orphanage, while Miss Marjorie Toadsmoor, their newest teacher, peeped timidly from the window of her attic room. The unearthly scream ripped through the air again and suddenly, bursting from nowhere, came the apparition of a massive steam engine, ghastly and shimmering with an awful luminescence. The faces of the driver and fireman could be clearly seen, contorted in terror as they frantically tried to bring the engine under control. Following helplessly behind were a dozen carriages, within which the bodies of their passengers were being tossed around as if they were rag-dolls. The onlookers stood transfixed as the phantom engine rolled like some stricken leviathan, falling clumsily on to its side and taking the carriages with it. The noise was deafening as it crashed into unseen obstacles, breaking down trees and buildings that were never there… then it was gone, and there was silence.
For most of us, such a sight would be traumatising, to say the very least. For the inhabitants of Hopeless, not so much. For them, the majority of hauntings are just regarded as one minor cause for concern in lives fraught with greater worries. They would be talked about in complaining tones the next day and, afterwards, mentally filed under ‘Nuisance Apparitions’. This particular apparition, however, was larger and noisier than most. Although lights were soon being doused and people went back to bed, there would be questions asked as to the origin of this particular disturbance, and, doubtless, blame to be attributed.
“What in Heaven’s name was that?” asked Reverend Davies, carefully picking his way over the cobbles to where Miss Calder stood.
“I have no idea, Reverend,” admitted Miss Calder, “But whatever it was, it has no place on this island, I’m sure.”
“I think I might know what it is that we have just witnessed.”
It was Marjorie Toadsmoor, an overcoat wrapped over her nightgown.
Marjorie had found herself mysteriously transported to Hopeless from Victorian Oxford some months before. The details of her previous life were shadowy and dim, but the sight of the ghost train had awoken some vague memory within her.
“I believe that was, what is commonly known as, a steam engine, pulling a train of carriages behind it… ”
“It sure was ma’am.”
Everyone turned to see where this new voice had come from.
The eerie shapes of the engine’s driver and fireman hovered unsteadily over the railway sleeper, as it lay on the stony ground.
“That there’s the Old 97, eternally doomed to haunt this old sleeper which brung it off the rails,” said the soot-grimed fireman.
The wraith who had been the driver – or, more properly, the engineer – was more than grimy; he looked to be badly burned.
“The last thing I remember,” he said, “we was going down the track making, ooh, must have been ninety miles an hour, when the whistle broke into a scream.”
“He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle,” volunteered the fireman, shaking his head sadly.
“Oh, you poor man,” wailed Miss Calder. “It looks as though you were scalded to death by the steam.”
“Well, that’s as maybe,” said Reverend Davies, briskly, “but we can’t be putting up with that racket all the time. How often is this likely to happen?”
“We manifest every full moon. The last time we did, we were on a ship. You should have seen their faces,” said the fireman, smiling at the memory.
“Indeed,” said Miss Calder, “but every full moon? Honestly! I don’t understand why some hauntings have to be so unoriginal. I make myself available day and night, all year round.”
The ghosts of the engineer and fireman said nothing, but silently retreated, somewhat shamefaced, back into the ethereal depths of the sleeper.
“It has to go,” said Reverend Davies firmly.
The following morning the sleeper was taken to Scilly Point, where the water was particularly deep. The little party, overseen by Reverend Davies, rolled it, with some difficulty, into the ocean, then they stood on the headland to watch it being taken away from the island by the receding tide.
“A pity about the lintel,” thought the Reverend, “but at least we won’t have to put up with that again.”
There is a popular saying that time and tide waits for no man. While this may be true, unlike time, which is fleeting, high tides and low tides occur regularly, twice each day. That which is carried out is often returned twelve hours or so later, but not necessarily at the same spot. This is especially true of an island which occasionally decides to change its shape without a ‘by your leave’, as does Hopeless.
Seth Washwell looked at the long, dark piece of wood sitting on the beach with obvious appreciation.
“What a great piece of timber,” he thought to himself. “I’ll get the guys to drag it back to the sawmill, I know exactly what to do with it, once it’s been cleaned up a bit and sawn into shape.”
It was around three weeks later that Reverend Davies was both surprised and delighted to receive the gift of a bespoke, single-seat church pew. This had been donated with the compliments of the Washwell Sawmills and Joinery, an establishment situated on the far side of the island. In fact, so pleased was the Reverend that he decided not to install the seat in the church, but rather keep it in his study at the orphanage, where he frequently worked late into the night, burning the midnight oil. With a couple of cushions it would make an excellent replacement for his chair, which, after years of wear, was falling apart.
As I have said, so many times in these tales, what could possibly go wrong?