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By Nicole Le Brocq on

Case Files: We Thank Him for His Service

A wartime winter and a surprise railway journey are at the heart of our latest short fiction instalment.

The final instalment of Case Files, a series by creative writing students at York St John University. The students’ inspiration came from real-life crime stories, objects in our collection or their own imaginations.

We Thank Him for His Service

By Nicole Le Brocq

It sat by the edge of the tracks, just close enough that when the trains passed through, the window frames gently rattled and a cold winter wind whipped around the old wooden door frames. It wasn’t large nor was it grand, but the little railway cottage was the house and home to Eleanor and her little West Highland Terrier Betsy, in the winter of 1945.

Typical of a mid-winter in Scotland, snow lay heavily across the small patch of grass that was Eleanor’s garden, balancing itself on the tips of the picket fence in perfect, pretty peaks. The light from the moon glistened across the yard like fairy dust, sparkling and twinkling across the smooth surface of the freshly laid white snow that covered the garden path. Eleanor was prepared for the cold weather, or so she’d like to think, as she tossed another log on the fire and poked at it half-heartedly.

It had been six years to the day since Robert was called to fight in the war; Eleanor knew this because she had been counting the days religiously since he left, hoping her love would one day return to her. They had only been married for a year when they decided to move out to the little cottage and start their life together, but their plans had been cut short when the announcement came on the radio that England was at war with Germany once again. The large antique clock ticked loudly above the fireplace, reminding her with each movement of the small hand how much she wished he were here.

Ten minutes to six. Eleanor took one last sip of her tea and shrugged off the woollen blanket from around her shoulders before starting towards the doorway. She put on her coat and hat, wrapping up in her warm woollen coat, and picked up her small suitcase that sat by the door. Betsy lay sleeping by the fire, as always, only raising her head when Eleanor opened the front door and a cold gust of wind dusted snow across the wooden floor by her feet.

See you in a few days, Betsy. Mrs Potts will be here soon to keep you company while I’m gone. I will give Alice your love!”.

Eleanor smiled sweetly at the little white dog before pulling on her black leather gloves and stepping out into the cold night air. As she made her way across the garden and down the steep winding steps to the small train platform, she admired the sound of crunching snow beneath her feet, looking back at the single track of footprints that shone in her torch light and followed her in her little pointed heels. She reached the bottom of the steps and crossed the tracks carefully, stepping between each iron bar, shining her torch both ways into the darkness of the country side as she went.

As she approached the platform, she could already hear the chugging of the steam engine in the distance, readying herself for the oncoming whir of gears and metal. The platform was dimly lit by several small oil lamps mounted on the wall, creating spot lights up and down the wooden boards. Eleanor stepped onto the empty platform, her heels creating hollow clicks as she went. She glanced at the large copper clock tower at the end of the walkway, its hands rusty and stiff. The big hand hit twelve with a creaky thud and with that the train came speeding into the station. A rush of hot wind whipped the golden locks around Eleanor’s face. The clouded puffs of steam trailed high in the darkness of the winter sky. She stood for a moment, admiring the little lights of each train carriage that glowed warmly as the train slowed to a halt and imagined seeing her big sister’s face waiting for her when she got off the train in Yorkshire.

Eleanor held on tight to her suitcase as the carriage doors swung open and several people stepped off the train, steam hovering round the platform eerily, the conductor pacing the length of the platform inspecting each carriage.

“There’s an available carriage right over here, Miss”.

The conductor tipped his hat at Eleanor as she boarded at the instructed carriage with her luggage. The only other passenger was a man reading from a newspaper. Eleanor couldn’t see the man’s face for the height of the paper but she could just make out from his bottom half that he was in uniform. The conductor gave her a reassuring smile as he locked the carriage door and proceeded back to the front of the train, boarding himself before the sound of a high-pitched whistle blew and the engine chugged into action. Eleanor sat with her handbag on her lap at the opposite end of the carriage to the man, wary to be sat with a stranger as she read from her own book, glancing up every so often.

Suddenly, the man folded his newspaper together and placed it on the bench next to him, revealing his ruggedly handsome face and slick, dark hair; a weary, tired smile worn on his lips. Eleanor could see now that the uniform was in fact one of a British officer, the medals hanging proudly from his breast pocket. He looked at Eleanor, and Eleanor looked at him. He smiled and a spark flickered into his eyes, Eleanor barely believing what she was seeing. Robert. She dropped her book and flung herself forwards, knocking them both back against the seat as she clung tightly to him, her arms entwined around his neck.

“Robert! What are you doing here!?” Eleanor exclaimed.

Robert chuckled, “I came to see you, silly! Surprise!”

“But how did you know I’d be here!? And what about the war!?”

“A man always knows where his loved ones are.” Robert winked. “And as for the war… well… let’s just say they gave me some time off.”

Robert smiled sweetly and Eleanor hugged him tightly once more. She moved to sit next to him on the bench and began to tell him about all the things, good and bad, that had happened over the past few years. She told him how Betsy was no longer a tiny puppy, and how it had snowed by their house every day for the past week. She talked about how she had been to a jazz concert for the first time and how she had seen a new motion picture at the movie theatre. She talked about Christmas and the New Year and Easter and her birthday, and everything in between. And finally, she told him how she missed him, and Robert listened intently the whole time. He looked at Eleanor with such love in his eyes as she spoke so passionately about her life. He held on tightly to her as the train passed through station after station, the landscape passing and changing as they went.

Before Eleanor knew it, the three-and-a-half-hour journey to visit her sister was almost over and Eleanor began to gather her belongings, ready to exit the train.

“Oh Robert”, Eleanor smiled. “I am so glad you’re home, Alice will be so pleased to see you also.”

Robert smiled, but the smile did not reach his eyes as he too grabbed his large duffel bag and adjusted his cap.

“I love you, Eleanor. Never forget that.”

The train came slowing into the station as the conductor reappeared at the doorway and Robert and Eleanor stepped off the train. Great puffs of steam and the hustle and bustle of bodies crowded the platform as Eleanor spotted Alice’s face among the crowd. She ran to her, dropping her bags at her sister’s feet, squeezing her tightly.

“Oh Alice! I have some news!” Eleanor exclaimed at Alice, who looked rather anxious and solemn.

Eleanor turned to grab Robert’s hand beside her but her hand felt heavy as she grabbed nothing but air. She turned, confused, scanning the train platform for Robert’s face but found nothing, the platform far too busy to spot him in the crowd.

“Eleanor…” Alice spoke softly.

“Just a minute, Alice! He was here just a moment ago…”

“Eleanor.” Alice spoke more firmly now as she started into Eleanor’s bright blue eyes and took her hand.

Eleanor moved her attention back to Alice and noticed the item she was holding in her hand: a letter, a telegraph.

“This came for you yesterday” Alice said.

Eleanor took the telegraph and held it in her hands, reading aloud the words from the paper.

“Dear Mrs Eleanor Pratt…”

Alice winced.

“We regret to inform you that your husband, Mr Robert William Pratt, was killed in action on the 5th January, 1945…”

Alice lowered her head and held back tears.

“We thank him for his service.”

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