Return to the worlds of The Craftsman and Lacey Flint in this first short story collection from Sharon Bolton, International award-winning author of The Split. This collection features eight short stories, each with a new introduction written by the author as well as the first three chapters of Sharon Bolton's latest novel The Pact.
From the world of the Craftsman
The Night Train
All Souls' Eve
From the world of Lacey Flint
Mugwort and Moonbeams
From the world of Dead Woman Walking
Time Travel, Flight and Invisibility
In a world of its own...
Mr and Mrs Jansen and the Mermaid
And from the world of The Split
The Snow Bride
Release date: March 18, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 64
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The Night Train
One of the best loved became Dwane Ogilvy, the sexton, great of heart, if small in stature. From the start, Dwane’s practical common sense, enormous courage and reliable belligerence made him the friend I felt most drawn to. When the opportunity arose for him to tell a story of his own, I jumped at it.
The Night Train began with a Facebook post: a little-known historical fact shared with the few who might be interested. Over a century ago there existed in Lancashire a private, freight-only railway, linking mines, mills and ports in the north west. It was illicitly used, one night, to bring home the corpse of a major personage, whose dignity, it was thought, even in death, would be irreparably harmed by transport on a horse and cart. His coffin was smuggled onto the train and all would have gone smoothly but for an eagle-eyed young constable spotting inconsistent paperwork. There was enough in this tale, of whimsy and the macabre, to get me thinking …
Here’s what you do when the dark moon is rising – you shut the doors and lock ‘em, draw the curtains nice and tight and switch on every light in the house. Better stoke the fire as well and turn the volume up on the telly. Drink Ovaltine, nibble a Garibaldi, go to bed early and try not to dream.
Here’s what you don’t do when the dark moon is coming up – you don’t steal a ride on the night train, crossing Pendle Hill in the darkness, cutting across the path of witches, with terrorists on your tail. And you definitely don’t do it when your only fellow passenger is a corpse.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Me mam always said I could never tell a story in the right order. You see, it were all kicking off back in February that year. ’69, I’m talking about now. We’d not long seen a bloke called King shot dead in America while a Tory politician named Powell made a speech that upset a few folk. End result much the same on both sides of the Atlantic – people marching, getting all het up, not long before hands turned into fists and then, yep, blood on the pavement, pretty much what that Powell fella predicted, though I doubt he expected it that soon. Meanwhile, thousands of kids in a place called Biafra were starving to death and don’t get me started on the whole Vietnam war and the trouble that caused. Mam and her coven were talking serious about the apocalypse, looking for end of times signs, you know – pestilence, rivers running dry, sheep giving birth to snakes — usual cobblers, but they had a point. Things had gone properly adrift.
Me mam were a witch back then. Well, we lived in Sabden, it went without saying.
So, the world were in a bit of a mess, and about to get a whole lot worse, for me anyway, because one Sunday morning, 16th February to be exact, I was asked to do something I knew I shouldn’t.
I’d been in the churchyard since six o’clock — St Peter’s, biggest in town. We don’t normally have burials on a Sunday, but we’d had a bad attack of tuberculosis that winter, so bad the schools had been closed for two weeks and even some of the factories had shut because so many of the workers had come down with it. The hospitals were full, turning away patients who didn’t have the TB, and a fair few who did, and the nursing homes had banned visitors. The undertakers were doing a roaring trade, about the only folk in town who were, and I was out in the churchyards from sunup, digging until the callouses on my fingers were bleeding.
Bloody cold day it were, still and hard, the ground like frozen stone.
The last hymn struck up as I was finishing my third grave of the morning. Nice job, though I say so as shouldn’t, six feet by two, perfect rectangle, all the earth in a plywood box alongside, filtered for stones and ready to go back. The turf lay nice and neat on another sheet of plywood. People think digging graves is easy. Until they try it.
It was Larry Glassbrook, the undertaker, the one I always thought of as the clever one, because he built the hardwood caskets that had made Glassbrook and Greenwood famous in the North West. Roy Greenwood, the older of the two and technically the boss, looked the part, tall and thin with a face like a ghoul, but under Larry’s fingers the strips of cherry, walnut and oak softened and twisted, forming shapes that you’d never dream could come from wood alone. And the colours. I swear those caskets shone like precious stones by the time he’d finished with them. Folk called Larry a craftsman; I called him an artist. Never to his face though, I’m not soft.
I had one last look around; the grave was done, so I climbed out.
Larry was dressed for church that morning in a dark-blue suit. He was a good-looking man, was Larry. I spent a lot of time in those days — I turned twenty-seven in 1969 — thinking what my life might have been like if I’d looked even half as good as Larry.
I didn’t think I’d be making my living digging graves, for one thing.
‘Alright, Larry.’ I was done at St Peter’s, but I had another to dig at St Wilfred’s before dinner and then I had to be back to fill in at the first of the funerals this afternoon. Four funerals on a Sunday, beggars were dropping like flies.
Larry, meanwhile, was looking all around him as he got close, like there’d be someone hiding behind one of the stones. I could have told him no one would be hanging about outside if they didn’t have to. Too blinking cold.
‘Got a sec, Dwane?’ He faced me across the grave.
I liked Larry. A lot of folk back then looked down on me — because they could. I hadn’t been measured since junior three at primary school when Mam caught the school nurse letting kids make fun of me during one of those routine medical inspections. I didn’t know how tall I was, and I didn’t need to. When you’ve spent a lifetime hearing the word ‘dwarf’ muttered behind your back, and sometimes yelled into your face, you lose interest in the actual feet and inches.
The nurse’s hair fell out shortly after and took six months to grow back, but as Mam always said, no one could prove it was anything to do with her.
Larry, unlike most men, never came too close, because when someone is close, he has no option but to look down to talk to me. Most men, I was sure, knew that and did it deliberately, most men like it when they can make themselves feel big at another man’s expense. Larry always kept his distance, so he could keep his eyes on the level. I appreciated that. So, when he asked me if I had a second, I had.
‘Aye.’ I carried the spade over to the church wall where I’d left my stuff. There’s a small stone I can sit on while I have my break and the roof overhang keeps most of the rain off. Larry followed me, stepping around the grave, and fair play, he was careful not to damage the edges or send any of the earth tumbling back down. I like a man who respects a grave and the work that goes into it.
‘I need a favour, Dwane,’ he said. ‘What you up to tonight?’
‘Not much.’ The stone was cold under my bum as I got my flask out. I’d poured a brew and found my sandwiches before Larry spoke again.
‘Clarence Chadwick,’ he said.
I knew Chadwick, everyone did. He owned the print mill up at Sabden Fold, and a fair few of the local mines too. One of the richest men in the area, Clarence Chadwick. At least, he had been.
‘He died a few days ago,’ Larry told me.
I knew that. ‘Foreign parts, I heard.’
‘Gibraltar,’ Larry agreed. ‘The TB got him. It’s bad there.’
It was bad everywhere. I took a bite, cheese and pickle, very nice.
‘Powers that be won’t give permission to bring his body home,’ Larry went on. ‘Say he has to be buried out there.’
I weren’t surprised. Everything had tightened up. Open caskets banned, bodies going straight into sealed coffins and burials happening as quick as could be arranged. As fast as I could dig the holes, there was someone waiting to jump in.
Shame though, about Mr Chadwick. A Chadwick funeral would have been something to see. Big carriage, black horses with feathers streaming in the wind, widow and daughters in black veils.
I offered my sandwich box to Larry, I was brought up to have manners, but he shook his head. He was still looking over his shoulder every few seconds, bouncing from one foot to the other. He was up to something he shouldn’t be and wasn’t hiding it well.
I took another sandwich out. Tinned salmon and salad cream. Not so bad.
‘Thing is, Dwane,’ Larry said. ‘Mrs C really wants her beloved Clarence home.’
I dare say she did, but beloved Clarence wouldn’t be the man he used to be, not after a few days in a coffin. Gibraltar was a warm place from what I’d heard and embalming can only do so much.
‘She wonders if some arrangement can be made?’
I said, ‘Roy know about this?’
‘No need to trouble Mr Greenwood.’ Larry shoved his hands into his pockets. ‘It’s not just Mrs C who wants this, Dwane. Clarence was Grand Master of the Lodge.’
Larry gave me a look, the sort that means, come on, do I really need to say anymore?
Ordinary folk in Sabden weren’t supposed to know about the Lodge. Don’t ask me what we were meant to think went on in the big stone building, slap bang in the town centre, with a row of pillars out front like a Roman temple. Bingo? Bring-and-buy sales? Whatever, we all pretended we didn’t know it was where the richest men in town got together to make each other richer.
‘He made a very particular will,’ Larry went on. ‘He’s left a lot of money to renovate the Lodge.’
‘Nice of him.’ A new school might have gone down better, or a maternity wing at the hospital, but I guess folk can do what they want with their own cash.
‘He also says he wants to be buried by the chapel at Sabden Hall,’ Larry said. ‘The Lodge are worried that if his wishes aren’t carried out, his family might contest the will and they’ll lose out.’
‘Happen they might.’
Larry was shivering, but he wasn’t wearing a proper coat and he hadn’t just dug three graves. ‘Dwane, it’s in everyone’s interests that we get his body home,’ he said.
‘Folk might notice when a new grave pops up like a mushroom.’
‘The chapel’s on private land. We can leave the headstone for a year. Everyone will have forgotten about it by then.’
I had to get moving if I was going to catch my bus. ‘You want me to dig a grave up at the chapel?’ I had a feeling it was more than that. Larry wouldn’t be looking this edgy about a grave.
‘Thing is, Dwane, we’ve had to be a bit inventive.’
I picked up my last sandwich. Meat paste. Mam always snuck at least one in.
Larry said, ‘Clarence Chadwick’s body will be arriving at Liverpool dock at six o’clock this evening. He’s in a coffin, cheap Spanish affair, but we can move him when he gets here, and the coffin is inside a big packing crate marked Machinery. It’s addressed to Chadwick Paper Mill, Sabden Fold, Lancashire, and it’s going to be loaded on a train from Liverpool to Whalley arriving a few minutes before nine o’clock.’
‘And you’ll be at Whalley station to meet him?’
I was winding Larry up and he knew it. Since the TB outbreak, funerals had had to be local, no more than three miles from place of death to burial site, to avoid spreading the infection. Any cortege travelling the main roads outside town would be stopped and questioned.
Larry said, ‘we’re bringing him in on the freight railway.’
Fair play, I hadn’t thought of that. There was a railway in those days, you see, that not everyone knew about, a few miles of track from Whalley through to Sabden Fold at the foot of Pendle Hill. It had been built by the mill and mine owners to transport freight – slate, lime and coal from the mines, equipment and supplies into the factories, finished goods back out again. The plan had been to convert it to a passenger railway but that had never happened and with the roads getting better, there was talk of it not being in use much longer.
‘I’ll meet you at Sabden Fold,’ Larry went on, like I’d agreed already. ‘We put him in the back of the van and take him up to the Hall. Mrs C has said we can use the old dairy. We move him to his proper casket – maple with bronze handles, lovely piece – and then we have a short private service.’
‘We?’ I said.
‘I need someone I can trust, Dwane,’ Larry said. ‘I need you to meet the train at Whalley and supervise moving the crate from one train to the next. And then stay on that train until it gets to Sabden Fold.’
I shook my head. ‘Can’t do that. It’s illegal.’
The freight line wasn’t licenced for passengers, even non-paying ones. My Uncle Stan had explained that to me years ago when I’d begged him to let me ride on it. Back then, I thought Uncle Stan could fix anything. Uncle Stan, you see, was Superintendent Stanley Rushton, boss at the police station in Sabden.
‘Dwane, what harm are we doing?’ Larry asked me.
I had nowt to say, I wasn’t about to break the law without good reason.
‘We’ll make some important people happy,’ he went on. ‘And I’ll make it worth your while.’
Now, I tell no lie, at that moment, a dark cloud moved in front of the sun and the whole churchyard fell into shadow. I saw Larry shudder and suddenly I was cold as death too. I’d remembered something.
‘It’s the dark moon,’ I said to Larry and watched his face fall. He’d forgotten as well. We shouldn’t have done, we both lived with witches, but with everything else going on, it had slipped our minds that whatever might be happening on earth, the moon alters its course for no one. Larry pulled out his fags.
Some folk don’t get how much the moon affects us here on earth. Uncle Stan always put extra men on the beat during the full moon; he knew there’d be more fights in the pubs, more wives beaten up by their husbands, more accidents taken to the local infirmary. The full moon makes people giddy, turns them stupid.
Well, the effect of the dark moon isn’t as obvious but it’s there all the same. I’m talking about the night, sometimes two nights, when there isn’t a moon in the sky, the time between the old moon disappearing altogether and the new moon appearing. The dark moon unsettles folk, especially in winter. It’s like, the glue that should hold us together, make us treat each other decent, obey the rules we’ve decided are good for us, well, it’s like that glue comes apart and something a bit wild slips in through the cracks. Bad things happen during the dark moon, really bad things I’m talking about now, far worse than a pub brawl or a woman with a black eye. The dark moon was not the time to be illegally moving around corpses.
‘Give it a couple of days,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you a hand on Tuesday.’
By Tuesday, the moon would be a slim, shining crescent. The new moon was a good time to get things done. Things went well when the moon was waxing in the sky.
‘Too late.’ Larry sucked in smoke like he was gasping for air. ‘He’ll be at Liverpool in a few hours. It’s tonight or it doesn’t happen.’
And Larry could not risk a corpse, embalmed or not, lying around at Whalley station for anyone to find. He named a sum, one that made my eyes water.
‘It’s a big packing crate.’ Larry saw me weakening. ‘Labelled Machinery and addressed to the papermill. You get it. . .
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