This piece was inspired by an old photo I saw once of a little girl with a teddy bear at a train station. According to the photo description, she was an unaccompanied evacuee during the WWII.
Last Train Out
"I don't wanna leave…" the red-haired girl sobbed. Train guard Michael Harrison noted the sorry tag attached to her coat. She was too young to be traveling alone under normal circumstances, but with the bombings building up, even the town of Paddock was not safe. The town had been small and insignificant once, but with the new munitions factories and the bombings inching further north… The stoic guard took the little girl's hand and gently led her to a woman who might be a nurse or a nun.
"Miss, please…" Thankfully, the woman took the girl and brought her over to where a knot of children clad in the blue shirts of St Agnes' Orphanage waited patiently.
It had come to this, Martin watched as the engineer made his routine checks. The last train out. A silver of hope for those selected for evacuation. As for those who remain…
Children torn from their families and sent halfway across the country to the unfamiliar homes in the countryside. Martin hated the tears and lost looks of the little passengers. Children, teachers, expectant mothers and those with young children were to be sent out to the safer parts of the country. There were also those who chose to leave. Whole families, families sending their children away to faraway relations…
Yet there were those who chose to stay.
"I was a girl when Queen Victoria ruled. I have had my fill of life, young man…" his landlady, old Mrs Winslow had said. "I'm not running because of a few bombers. I was born in this house and I intend to die in it." Mrs Winslow had a bad leg and her recent bout with the flu had weakened her so much she was unable to leave her wheelchair. There were the three sisters who worked in the munitions factory. Their skin had gone yellow from the sulphur but they were a cheerful trio. There was old Rothchild, the Jewish doctor, who attends to Mrs Winslow for free. Good company for tea, that one. And who could forget the repressible Reverend Connell and Father Paddy? After the undertaker and his mates got called up for the war, the two clergymen had taken on the task of rallying the lads to help with the grave-digging.
Martin reached for his keys on the counter. There came the dreaded wail of the air-raid sirens. It was a raid. His heart sank. The station was too open. There was no shelter for those on the platform. Then everything exploded.
Martin groaned and blinked. Surely the station had taken a direct hit. He expected to see bloodied bodies and screaming passengers. The platform was too bright, too shiny new.
"All on board! All on board!" a voice called out. The guard blinked. There was another guard at his post. He was blowing on his whistle and calling for the passengers to board. The train, the platform, all his surroundings were unscathed by the bombs which must be falling on them. Had he been knocked out cold and just recovered his senses? Martin rubbed his temples. He must get back to his post.
"Mrs Winslow!" Martin recognized his landlady. The old woman was walking on her own feet, looking about her in awe. She smiled and nodded at him as she got into the nearest car. A knot of children, laughing and giggling, were ushered on board by their chaperon. Old Joe the engineer was standing on the platform among the passengers, his tools lay scattered round him. There was something different about him. He seemed younger, even jubilant. He climbed onto one of the cars almost reverently.
The guard called out to two stragglers on the now almost empty platform. They were Father Paddy and the Reverend Connell. The clergymen hastened towards the train, with the reverend tugging the priest along.
"Harrison, please take care of Mrs Marcie for me… when I'm gone," the priest pleaded. "Sure, Father," Martin Harrison replied. It was odd that the priest was leaving his flock now when he had been so adamant in staying behind. The priest's housekeeper had a bad leg and often needed help getting the rations. The guard urged both men on board.
"Excuse me… I'm sorry but..." Martin plucked at the guard's sleeve. A pair of kind brown eyes gazed at him. "The train, the raid…" Martin blustered. Surely he must have gone insane.
"Not your time yet, I'm afraid…" the strange guard smiled. He checked his watch. "We wait a bit more, chaps, there will be more joining us over the next hour," he called out to the driver. "We've all the time in the world."
"Look, this is irregular but… This is the last train and we have to make sure it goes on time…" Martin argued half-heartedly.
"Not the last one …" the guard corrected. He pulled off his gloves. Martin Harrison noticed the scars on the palms of the man's hands. "There will always be trains running, Martin Harrison, as long as there is a need for them. This little one hasn't a ticket. Not time yet. Will you take care of him for me? Popped him in there in case he got trampled," the guard took from his coat a kitten and handed the little creature to him. Martin nodded as he took the cat. A sense of peace washed over him. Everything was going to be alright.
Then all went white. Martin Harrison's eyelids fluttered open. The stench of burning assaulted his nose. A kitten meowed and brushed against his chin.
"Doctor! This one's alive!" someone shouted. Helping hands lifted debris off his body.
"Not a scratch, a miracle!" Dr Rothschild announced. "A stretcher, Cooper! He may be in shock."
"The train… Lord…" Martin sat up and held onto the dirty kitten. The station was reduced to rubble. The train was a tangled mess of steel. People were moaning and calling for help. The town was ablaze. Martin Harrison shook off the offer of a stretcher and stood up. He could see the houses on his street burning, the steeple of both St Mary's Church and the vicarage were burning like a bonfire. He tucked the kitten into his tattered coat to shield it from the flying embers. Pulling down his guard's cap he set to work helping the rescuers. His train was not leaving the station.
It was many hours later when the exhausted guard plodded up to Father Paddy's boarding house. The priest had been in the church when the bombs fell. They had just dug out his charred remains from the ruins. Martin Harrison consoled the devastated Mrs Marcie the best he could. The old woman had been fond of her tenant. The kitten meowed and popped its little head out of the guard's coat.
"Gracious! The little mite must be hungry!" Mrs Marcie dabbed away her tears. "I must still have some milk…" she pottered about her kitchen.
"If you're out of milk, I can go try getting some. Do you need any help getting other stuff, ma'am?"
"If it ain't too much trouble…" the old woman brightened up slightly. "I don't know how I can repay you…"
"Well, may I stay the night? My place was bombed…" Martin ventured hesitantly.
"Poor thing, stay as long as you like. God knows I need someone to help me with the heavy chores…" the old woman smiled.