This is my story which appeared as part of the Speak it’s Name Advent Calendar for those of you who haven’t read it.
The train crash did happen and was deemed the worst railway disaster ever at the time.
September 10th 1874
It was on the chilly platform at Norwich railway station that I first saw him. I was awaiting the arrival of the 9.30 pm express to Great Yarmouth where I would be spending a long, tedious, week-end with relatives and I was feeling grumpy and out-of- sorts at the prospect. The September weather hadn’t helped to alleviate my pessimistic outlook either. It had rained earlier leaving a miasma of cold and damp compelling me to pull the collar of my overcoat up towards my chin and stamp my feet as I peered along the platform hoping for a glimpse of my train. And it was then that I noticed him.
He stood a little closer to the edge of the platform than me, so all I could see was that he was young, tall and fair. Every so often he rubbed his gloved hands together as people do when they are cold or indeed, anxious. He, too had pulled the collar of his smart fawn overcoat up, partially obscuring his face. But I could still see the lock of hair which fell across his brow, and a longish, straight nose above the collar’s edge.
I guessed he was travelling alone as I’d not seen him look at, much less speak with, anyone else nearby. I hoped he would alight at Yarmouth, though God knows why; as I couldn’t exactly rush up to him and introduce myself, or tell him how I’d admired him at Norwich. Apart from the fact he’d probably think I was stark mad, I’d probably get myself arrested. Two years hard labour and social ostracization was not a happy thought.
Finally, the train clanked and puffed its way into the station and, amidst clouds of steam, crowds of passengers who’d disembarked and those waiting to board, I lost sight of him. I made my way to the carriage, found a vacant seat and made myself as comfortable as possible; my thoughts still on the young man as the whistle blew, a flag waved, and with a lurching rattle the train moved slowly from the platform and out of the station.
I was disappointed that he had not chosen my carriage and I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t see him again. I hoped I was wrong; I’d never felt so drawn to anyone as I had to him. All I could reasonably hope for now was that his destination was Yarmouth and, from there Fate would take a hand. I had sighed inwardly; some hope.
I wasn’t to know then that I would be seeing him again much sooner than expected, and in the most dreadful of circumstances.
I guessed that we were barely fifteen minutes out of Norwich and I had just taken a book from my portmanteau to help while away the journey. There was no warning, only the banshee scream of the locomotive’s whistle, then the most deafening thudding crash I have ever heard in my life. The world was turned upside down as carriages were thrown from the rails, to land as ours had on their side. Women and children screamed and wailed in terror, others were struck dumb with shock.
Most were lucky in my carriage and we managed to escape the wreckage by climbing, with some difficulty, through a window on the upside. Those who were deemed too badly injured to move were left in situ to wait for more experienced hands to administer to their needs.
But no one could have prepared me for the scenes I witnessed once free from the wreck. The trains had smashed into each other with such terrific force that they and the following carriages had formed into a huge and ghastly pyramid. Other coaches were squashed almost beyond recognition; whilst some had been forced from the rails and down the embankment.
It was raining heavily now and through my own fog of confusion and shock, I could hear, above the moans and cries of the injured, the hissing of steam as the deluge fell upon the dying fires of the doomed locomotives.
I began to walk, or rather stagger, along the muddy embankment amidst scenes of absolute carnage. People lay where they had been thrown or had managed to crawl, some still moving and crying piteously. Others ominously still.
A little further on, I saw, lying propped up against the bank, a man. He was still very much alive and, anxious to be of assistance I picked my way over to where he lay.
And dear God, it was him. The young man from the station. His face was bleeding and his fair hair was matted with blood and dirt, but it was unmistakably him.
He looked me full in the face as I knelt down next to him, “It’s you”, he said. And winced with pain as he spoke.
“You saw me, at the station?” I was surprised as I hadn’t noticed him look my way once while I had been gazing admiringly at him.
“Yes, I did, of course I did” he groaned as he shifted slightly, “But…oh God, my leg, it hurts”.
“You’ve probably broken it” I said, ” try and keep still until help arrives”.
Despite the wet and the cold, I removed my own overcoat, rolled it into a bundle and placed it behind his head. It was all I could think to do under the circumstances. He smiled up at me, “Thank you, that feels much better..er, I don’t know your name”.
“George”, I said, “George Lennard”.
“I’m Robert”, he said with a grimace of pain, “Robert Ashmore”.
And as chaos reigned around us, there we were, introducing ourselves as we might have done in any drawing room or gentleman’s club. And in between his spasms of pain, we talked, confiding more in those moments than either of us would have dreamt of doing under normal circumstances. And I learnt as much about Robert as he did about me.
Then, as the rescue parties arrived from Norwich, he gripped my hand, saying as he did so, “You won’t leave me, George, will you? Please, stay with me”.
“No, I promise I won’t leave you, Robert. Not now”.
And I kept my word. I didn’t leave him. We are still together over a year later. Robert is fully recovered from his injuries as I am. (A cut to my head and a twisted ankle. I was very lucky)
It is not easy for either of us. We keep separate accommodation, he on one side of the city and I on the other, but we manage; and as long as our love continues I have no complaints.
Today, it is Christmas Eve 1875 and we have decided to make that same railway journey. Our plan is to buy last minute gifts and then to visit my relatives. My feelings towards them are much more charitable these days I’m happy to say.
Now, as the train approaches the place where the accident occurred, Robert discreetly reaches for my hand. As I turn to him, I see his face, white and tense, and I smile, squeeze his hand and whisper, “Don’t be nervous, I’m here, I won’t leave you, not now”.
“Thank you, love”, he whispers back, “and…. Happy Christmas, George”.