I had returned to Balcombe out of instinct, not for pleasure. Though the train had refreshed my memory of its seductive beauty I had a less romantic place for those thoughts to reside. The landscape view of sun-drenched streams and sparkling lakes played like a cinematic trailer, catching the attention of the couple opposite me who immediately sprang into a congratulatory embrace. This only served to heighten my unease with the place.
A sudden lurch of the train announced our arrival, propelling the occupants into a flurry of activity. All around me, day tripping couples leapt from their seats and set about passing bags as elegantly as possible from carriage to platform. With this I allowed myself a wry smile; briefly charmed by the obvious enthusiasm of the new arrivals.
Alighting on the platform I turned and looked down the length of the train, beyond the carriages, towards the track curving away into the distance. Though not visible from this point I knew the rest of the line well; not to mention the shadows that dwelt within its tunnels and archways.
On reflection, it occurred to me that this was an entirely perfect setting for what had happened. With so many trains passing over the structure on the Brighton Main Line, the spirits of men that toiled here could never be far away from the living.
But it is the ghosts of more recent times, just as numerous as those of their Victorian counterparts that I am here to consider. For now his words are clearer to me than at any time over the decades that have passed since they were uttered. This is his tale; one told to me almost forty years ago, when I was a young man living in Balcombe, working on the London to Brighton line.
“I could lie here all day, doing just nothing,” said James, gazing up at the smooth contours of the brick arch that towered above him.
The three boys could recall seeing nothing more elegant, nothing more handsome in their entire lives; more so, it was possible for one’s eye to trace a path to the top and not see a single brick out of place.
“How on earth are people able to build such a thing?” said Peter, half speaking, half daydreaming.
“I mean, how can measurement be so utterly perfect?” he continued, a smile of admiration on his lips.
Tom had been listening to his friend talking about the viaduct. It wasn’t as if he didn’t appreciate it; he did, just not in the same way as Peter.
“I built a brick wall once and it had more things out of place than a copper in a tin bath,” remarked Tom, laughing at his own joke.
James joined in, “yeah, it’s bloody massive…. don’t think I’ve seen anything as tall apart from when I went up to London to see Big Ben.”
“When did you go to London?” Peter enquired, niggled that James had beaten him to the capital.
“Last year, Dad took me for my birthday.”
“Oh,” muttered Peter, seeing little benefit in pursuing the conversation further, “that’s nice.”
“What time is it?” asked Tom. “I reckon it must be nearly eight”.
It was the first time the boys had gone beyond Stumble Wood, the destination for their back-packed trip down the valley in the first week of the summer break, when all three had decided they had now reached the age when it was no longer important to inform their parents where they were going.
Summer was petering out and the evenings lengthening. A faint chill had invaded the air and long shadows announced the hour when it was time to return home. But the beauty and shelter that the viaduct offered would not make it easy for the companions to leave. They had gazed at the elegant structure from afar but this was the very first time they had stood within its shadow.
“No,” said Peter, “I think it’s earlier. Anyway, where’s that fancy new watch of yours, the one you got for Christmas? Haven’t seen you wear it for a while.”
“I lost it,” replied Tom, “Haven’t seen it since we went swimming in the lake last month. Haven’t got round to telling mum, she’ll kill me!”
“Well, let’s stay another hour and then head back. It’s just too nice to leave, and anyway we’ll be back to school on Monday and summer will be over.”
The thought of returning to the classroom was such a gloomy one that each was now determined to stay, despite concerns that it really was much later in the day.
The boys sat at the base of the southernmost arch kicking their legs against the brickwork and peering through the gaps in the supports. Before them, the huge oval-shaped openings lined up to form a never-ending tunnel as if they were looking at multiple reflections in a mirror.
As they chatted, a figure appeared in the distance. At first, it was nothing more than an outline, a vague fuzzy shape; but with time came some detail, nothing much, just a hat, possibly broad-brimmed, and a uniform of sorts.
Then the figure began to walk; a slow, straight-backed movement, but only for a very short distance for it had come to a halt in the centre of the line of oval windows. There it turned sharply, appearing to face ahead, looking as if it was staring directly at them.
James was the first to break the silence, “Who’s he looking at?”
“Not sure, but he’s really giving me the willies… staring at us like that,” added Tom, not taking his eyes off the grey silhouette.
“Come on, let’s take a closer look.” Tom had dropped from the arch mid-sentence. His friends remained on the wall, hesitant to follow.
“Come on ya yellow bellies! I’ll go on my own if you won’t.”
Whilst they spoke, not once did the figure stir. At one point, James thought he saw a second shadow creep out from behind the farthest pillar but he was not certain. Nevertheless his curiosity drove him forward.
“Sure, let’s go. Come on Peter.”
Peter maintained a reluctant look as he dismounted from the wall and joined the others.
Side by side, the boys left the shelter of the viaduct and walked alongside it, all the while keeping a focus on the final pillar. Though the route was without obstacle it was of decent length, enough to detect a noticeable dimming in the light. By the time they reached the northernmost pillars, the structure had become blanketed in shadow and the mass of bright red brick was a seamless shroud of grey.
“Stop,” whispered Tom suddenly. “Get under this arch. It’s close enough to get a better look without being spotted.”
Peter and James nodded and the three positioned themselves once more under the rail line, their eyes adjusting to the dim light. There they inched into the centre, avoiding slipping on the untended mounds of mossy growth. Only when his feet felt solid ground did Tom indicate to the others they should raise their heads above the brick parapet.
At first, there was little to see. The giant oval shaped window was simply a portal to the edge of the forest, where the viaduct disappeared into the leafy darkness. But a moment later, something began to emerge from the blackness. The figure they had seen earlier was now much closer and this time they could hear a voice.
A soft coughing came from behind them, followed by the sound of feet, shuffling upon loose stone; lastly, a dull thud that sounded like something wooden being driven into the ground. As they listened, the boys became aware that there was more than one person ahead, the whispers having split into separate tones.
Tom stabbed his finger excitedly towards the ground. Peter and James nodded and lowered themselves gently, positioning their backs against the wall, their feet nestling in the soft damp moss. Here they would remain a while and listen, silently.
“Bobby fella, how are you doing?”
“Come on Bobby, it’s me, Jack. I’m still here with ya lad.”
Something scraped against the far side of the wall, a mixture of cloth and metal sliding against stone.
A second, much weaker voice followed the first but no words were heard only the pitiful moans of someone seeking comfort.
“Come on lad. It’s lonely here without you.”
A sharp chink of metal; the sound of water being poured.
“Drink this, you must be thirsty.”
The boys pictured Jack pressing a water bottle against his companion’s lips.
It was a frustrating situation; they wanted to see as well as hear but between the three, no one had made the move to reveal themselves.
A gentle sipping could be heard.
“Is that you Jack?” a voice bubbled through the water held within his throat.
“Yes mate, it’s me.”
“How long have we been here?”
“I’m not sure,” replied Jack, “but my memory’s fuzzy. Really strange …don’t remember much about the past few days, just the sound of the siren, then Sarge ordering us into the tunnel.”
Bobby paused for a moment. “I remember the tunnel but do you remember the dust …..that God-awful cloud coming at us, clogging our throats?” His voice had become agitated.
“It came through the darkness ….,” Bobby’s voice trailed off.
“Dust?” said Jack thoughtfully, but added nothing beyond this.
Peter and James felt a tap on their shoulders.
“Let’s help them,” whispered Tom. “They’re injured I reckon.”
The two boys silently mouthed their agreement; then rising hesitantly they left the small space they had occupied for what seemed like hours.
“Hello …..hello, do you need help?” asked Tom, suddenly aware of the inadequacy of his offer.
But nothing came back from the shadows; no voices, no movement, just silence.
“We were listening ….sorry… we were just behind you ….are you injured?”
Tom craned his neck into the darkness and hovered there for a moment. Still nothing; the only sensation came from small gusts of air winding their way through the hollows.
He nudged James forward and the three boys crept around the side of the pillar.
“Hello …. hello,” continued Tom, his eyes scanning the dim recesses of the last arch.
James followed Tom into the viaduct but Peter stood back, the fingers of his right hand pinching his mouth.
“There’s nothing here,” said Peter, his voice rising shrilly. “No one!”
“There must be.” Tom continued to lumber around in the darkness, occasionally dipping his hand into the gloom, expecting to, but not wishing to touch something warm.
“What the ….” James had stopped searching. “But we definitely heard voices ….what the blazes is going on? Where are they?”
The three boys continued searching amongst the shadows but their efforts were in vain. In that time a deep sense of unease had crept over them; a feeling of dread for something they had heard but not found.
With only a weak red-tinted sky to light the way, the boys left the network of arches and crossed the field towards home. Little was said on the way back for each was deep in thought and growing fearful of the conclusion their mind was coming to. But amongst them no one had ever really spoken of ghosts, at least not as something existing outside stories.
Turning the final corner of the lane, they could see their houses uncharacteristically bathed in light and the curtains undrawn.
“Hope it’s not a copper who opens the door!” piped up James.
It would be several days before the boys were to reunite, to hatch a plan to return to the old railway line.
“Have you got it?”
Tom had begun sifting through the bag, having snatched it from his friend’s shoulder.
“Yes, it’s in there but I don’t think it takes very good pictures. Dad got a new one recently and put this one in the drawer.”
Tom handed the camera back to James.
The evening was a particularly gloomy one when the three boys headed once more along the winding path, down to the viaduct. It had been the best part of a week since the sinister encounter, and in that time they had thought of nothing else.
“Do you think it will be the same?”
Tom and James continued walking.
“What do you mean the same?”
“Ya know,” said Peter, “the same things happening again. Like if it were ghosts, they’d say the same things every time you saw them, like actions caught in time.”
“Nah,” said Tom shrugging his shoulders, “like I said in school, the sounds were probably coming from underground, from inside a cellar – buried below the arches. Smugglers I reckon, up to no good on the railway line.”
“Hiding stolen goods in an underground lair,” added James. “Catch ‘em and I reckon we’ll be quids in ….ya know, reward money!”
Tom patted James on the shoulder and the pair shook hands.
Peter looked on, convinced they were simply making light of the situation to ease their nerves.
Dark clouds had not quite given into rain but the early evening was still a damp and chilly one; and the thought of searching a dark field wasn’t a particularly enticing prospect.
As they approached, the boys discussed how they would manage proceedings. Base camp would be made at the boundary of the field directly opposite the last pillar; there, they would lay on a blanket and keep a vigil from a ‘safe’ distance; Tom would be on first watch, Peter on second and James would take the pictures. No matter what happened (or didn’t happen) they would eventually approach the last pillar following a route that no one had yet described in detail.
Climbing the aging fence at the edge of the field, their faces met a whispering howl of icy wind. It nipped at their ears and whistled a little tune between the leaning struts. Peter wasn’t quite sure whether it was his imagination, but no soon as he had stepped down from the fence, he thought he saw something. In the shadow-strewn hollow of the northernmost arch something stirred. It was nothing significant in outline; more the slow revealing of grass-lined brickwork, as if something was sliding against it.
“Peter, come on,” whispered Tom sharply. He blinked, nodding a few times as if waking from a trance.
“Sure ….,” said Peter blankly, “I thought I …..” He stopped his sentence mid-way, feeling it too premature to say anything.
James had laid the blanket down and the three nestled together, tucked below the grass-line. He pulled the camera from its case and placed it in front of him ready to grab.
The view ahead was dominated by the towering, red-bricked arches of the viaduct majestically spanning the river valley.
As the boys talked, they could hear the distant sound of a train rumbling in the distance. Though the sound grew louder the locomotive itself took forever to appear. When it finally emerged, the stillness of the valley bottom was blasted away by a high-pitched whistle that sounded like the wail of a thousand voices. The shrill sound wrapped itself around the growl of heavy machinery and flooded the landscape.
No lights could be seen in the carriages, the only illumination coming from the engine cabin. As it passed out of view, a trail of drifting grey steam and smoke lingered in the sky above the brick expanse.
To the boys the train appeared impossibly old, almost from another time.
“A steam train?” remarked Tom with a solemn shake of the head. “On this line? They don’t run anymore, do they?”
“No, I’m pretty sure they don’t. My dad’s taken me down to the sheds a few times and I’ve seen a load of them rusting away but I haven’t seen one on the line before,” added James.
Peter appeared pensive, “But did you notice how old it looked? I’ve been to the sheds too but I haven’t seen one that ancient ….looked like something you’d see in a museum.”
The boys watched the trail of smoke spiral lazily into the sky, thinning out as it drifted.
“Right, I say we forget the watch and head straight over to the arch.” Before Tom had finished speaking, James had risen to join him.
To Peter it was clear that James treated Tom as their leader; when he barked, James always jumped.
Peter took an anxious gulp of air and reluctantly joined the march towards the viaduct. There was something about the structure that made him feel quite uncomfortable. As he walked, the sensation grew more intense until halfway across the field he stopped suddenly and shivered; for he had a distinct feeling that someone was watching. Drawing closer, he was certain that whatever hid amongst the shadows of the viaduct wasn’t at all friendly.
Peter entered the towering edifice and breathed in the familiar smell of the old brick building. But the atmosphere had changed dramatically: the mossy floor had become saturated; the walls were icy to touch and streaks of water rained from the spaces above.
Resting their backs against the moist brickwork, the three boys squatted and waited in the quiet darkness, their ears tormented by the wind gusting though the stony channels. Little comfort could be found within the walls now that the season was changing.
“Listen, did you hear that?” James rose slightly, straining his ears.
“Hear what? All I can hear is that damn wind,” replied Tom, secretly itching to get away from the cheerless hollow.
“Footsteps. Listen. I think they’re heading this way.”
The boys trembled, their backs unconsciously pushing a little deeper into the wall. The noise appeared to be coming from behind them.
“I tell you I did see them! They were right in front of me, as clear as you are now.”
“Tell me again,” said a second voice. “What did they look like?”
“Infantry, they were definitely infantry. But not our division….or any others round here.” His breathing was ragged and his words staccato.
“Two men in uniform, like something my dad wore in the big one. Old-fashioned …maybe surplus. But I thought we’d all been given proper kit.”
“Look lad, we’re both under a lot of stress. It’s easy to start seeing things considering all we’ve been through.”
“But that’s it Jack… what have we been through? I’ve never known a night like this. I close my eyes for what seems like hours but when I open them it’s still dark.”
Jack was silent. He too was lost in the darkness. None of it made any sense.
“What? You didn’t mention that before. What did he say?”
A sudden rush of feeling hit Bobby and he began to cry, dropping his head upon his chest. “Jack, I think we’ve gone. We’ve been dead all this time.”
Jack gulped. “What? Now come on Bobby lad. Don’t be daft, you’re just frightened son. It’s understandable. As I said, all we’ve been…”
“No, it’s what he said,” Bobby interrupted, wiping his face. “The soldier waving the lantern came closer. He said “Watch out, the roof …it’s going to collapse. For God sake, get out!” He shouted it several times over. You should have seen him Jack, his face…..” He stopped suddenly, breathless sobs shaking him.
“He was trying to warn us Jack….but it’s too late for us, much too late. It’s already happened. That smoke in the tunnel, the last thing I remember, the last thing before we ended up here – stuck in this night that never ends.”
Jack tried to hold back the tears. He knelt in front of his friend and wrapped his arms around him. “Come on Bobby, it’ll be morning soon. Just you wait; the sun’ll be up before you know it.”
And then there was silence. Silence on both sides of the wall.
Tom rose first, flanked by his companions. Each instinctively knew what to expect. Circling around the arch they saw nothing beyond dirt and shadows.
James stood still, “Is that it?” he said dolefully, “just a pointless warning …..”
For all their willingness to help, it seemed there was little they could do for these poor unfortunate souls. Moreover, the space in which they occupied only radiated feelings of gloom and sorrow and it was best if they removed their presence.
An exchange of sighs and blank stares was a signal for the boys to leave.
As they trudged back across the field a light flickered in the near distance. It was a small light with a faint glow that moved back and forth. There was something hypnotic within its slow and deliberate movement and the boys found themselves unconsciously changing direction towards it.
Approaching, they saw what appeared to be a lantern, gently swinging to and fro.
Peter stopped. The sensation of being watched had returned. His skin prickled with a sickening uneasiness; the hairs on his flesh rigid.
The three moved towards the light. But as they did the flame grew brighter. Standing before it, the flame-light raged with an intense orange flicker.
The space in which they stood was calm for the wind had lost its power, as if no longer sweeping across an open field. “This just gets stranger and stranger,” said Tom as he nervously reached out to touch the lamp; but as he did so, it flipped to its side and burst into flames, throwing the boys off balance, scattering menacing shadows across the high walls now surrounding them. For they were back amongst the stone pillars, restrained by the dark embrace of the viaduct.
Fear and panic struck at their hearts: the boys began wrestling with the cold, clammy surface of the walls, desperately trying to find a way out; but something unseen prevented them.
It was then that Peter stopped, aware of a presence behind him; the faint flicker of a shadow passing over his eyes. Turning sharply he found himself staring at a man in military uniform, the butt of his rifle raised in the air. But beyond this, Peter could not describe the infantryman: for his face was a shifting mass; a ghoulish watery blur. Yet, his words he heard clearly: “Watch out, the roof …it’s going to collapse. For God sake, get out!”
All at once the spectre moved, shoving the butt of his rifle violently towards Peter. There was no impact but in his eagerness to get away he found himself tumbling backwards, pleading with the thing to leave him alone.
As he fell, Peter saw the grey shade drawing away into the shadows, thinning as the darkness consumed it. His chest painfully tight, he cradled his arms and sensed a veil being lifted; a painful awareness that all that had gone before was a portent of darker things to come. Choking back a cry, he acknowledged the inescapable reality of what was now about to take place.
Then it happened, as the spectre had warned. A train appeared out of nowhere, hurtling down the line and sweeping across the bridge with a blast of compressed air. With it came a violent shaking, sending bricks at the top of the arch into an uncontrollable quiver. For a moment it appeared the building would take the sharp lateral movements; but seconds later the action was duplicated down the entire length of the supporting pillar. Then, with a thunderous rumble, the arch collapsed in on itself sending huge chunks of fiery red brick crashing down.
Lifting themselves from the ground, Tom and James turned and watched in disbelief as the arch and pillars tore apart, spilling debris only a few feet from where they were lying. How they had managed to escape the tumbling brickwork they had no knowledge.
The plumes of dust took several minutes to settle. Throughout the destruction, the pair had stared into the swirling red haze, looking for their friend.
It took me many years before I could talk about these events, nearly forty as I told you earlier. Tom and James were fine but Peter’s near-lifeless body was recovered from the rubble a few hours later. Ultimately he did not survive, though he remained conscious for several days. In the time I spent by his bedside he had been strong enough to tell me what he had witnessed. Though I heard his words I took in very few details. Only after did I consider in earnest what he had told me. But what more could I have seen in his account than a fanciful ghost story constructed through trauma?
Now the passing years have changed my mind, but there is one aspect I am unable to make sense of: that the spectres of the past must preside over fates they wish to change but yet cannot. No matter the unstoppable path of time, I miss my boy terribly.
Balcombe viaduct slideshow