The Ghost of the Girl on the Train

Helen Fields

When it happened, I was exhausted. That’s been the justification for my inaction over the years. It wasn’t a lie, either. It’s just that I can’t honestly say I’d have done anything differently had I not been so very tired that particular hot, heavy, Friday afternoon. Images from that journey return unbidden every time I board a train, no matter the circumstances or scenery, however cheery and amusing the company. The years should have taken the sting from the tale, but my conscience is one of those crawling insects that seem never to die, no matter how hard I swat at it. I climb aboard, coffee in hand, determined to work, read or plan, and there I am again, many years earlier, at Bristol Templemeads Station.

The courtroom, the setting for my chosen career, is no more than a laundromat. Lawyers take the tragedy and depravity from behind closed doors, and present it to a judge on sheets of white paper in neat bundles, and for reasons best consigned to centuries-old obscurity we even wrap the whole thing in pretty pink ribbon. Gone is the reek and rubbish of real life. In its place is a carefully worded description of events and an analysis of how one should apply the law. There follows cunningly couched arguments, designed not to accentuate emotions but, rather smugly, to rise above those pesky things. Where we must, advocates quote expletives in our best received pronunciation, as if such words only ever infiltrate the court building uninvited. We present and respond to cases regarding children whose parents have failed them, about the steps social workers have taken to prevent further damage, and how the best interests of each child are better served by taking this route or that. Clients win or lose. The names changed, but the circumstances rarely did. Bundle after bundle of white paper wrapped in pink ribbon, occasionally frayed at the ends.

At the end of every train journey since then, I have reminded myself that I wrote a note. The words thereon read as follows. “My name is Sarah Blakelock. My phone number is below. I am a lawyer. I will try to help you. If you feel scared, call me. No one else ever needs to know.” Those words, so often revisited, have become a mantra.

So why tell this story now? It’s a fair question. Am I seeking absolution or understanding? Forgiveness? Perhaps I want you to tell me that anyone would have done exactly what I did. We live in a society that imposes certain norms. It’s hard to break with the traditions of established public behaviour. Except that I don’t think that is what I want. Not at all.

As I await my present day train, where I assume there will be no burning moral hole waiting to consume me – You see the problem? Even now, as I write this, I sound self-pitying and self-obsessed – As I wait for my train, I know this story won’t remain unwritten. It dislikes being held only in the pages of my memory and placed neatly on a shelf for my later consideration and professional opinion. It wants to be told in all its nasty, honesty, real glory.

As I always do when I step into a train carriage, I also step back in time, boarding that train from Bristol that will wind its way east to Portsmouth. That’s not my destination. I will disembark at Romsey. It’s a sweet little Hampshire town with a sleepy station. The month is August. I’m pregnant. Did I tell you that already? Not now, but then. Pregnant and large with it. The weight of the eagerly anticipated baby in my belly is making me irritable and joyful in equal measure. I am a little oversensitive and fiercely protective. Determined to keep working, to allow no one to say that I’ve slowed down during the gestation. I am, I suppose, too proud in lots of tiny, stupid ways.

It’s the penultimate day of a care case that I will lose. The mother who has left her fate in my hands will be disappointed. Not my fault, I can report with certainty. When a family has been investigated by Social Services for a year and a half and still fails to cooperate, comply or change, there’s not a huge amount to be saved from the ashes. I’d fought hard, done my best and put up a serious fight. Still, failure was inevitable. And that’s where my journey began, nearing the end of a difficult few days, where I’d travelled, concentrated, worked, been on my feet too many hours, rubbed my swollen belly over and over so that it should have been gleaming beneath my black maternity dress. Truly, I was exhausted. It’s still no excuse.

My first mistake was trying too hard to be helpful, and failing to see the signs that should have been as obvious to me as neon cartoon writing with a flashing arrow. But I’m talking about what happened as if I were looking back, and that’s never how it feels when I board a train. Every second is as fresh and contemporaneous as a time slip novel. So we’ll do it exactly as the devious snake of my memory wants me to. Let’s relive it up a little.

I had entered the train in good time, and thus was fortunate enough to locate a space at a table, two seats facing one way, two facing the other. Only one seat of the four was occupied, and I squeezed my belly in and got comfortable. I’d decided to treat myself to reading fiction that day rather than opening a new brief, although I cannot recall the title of the novel. I suspect I never finished it. Associations are powerful things. Another professional from the court case had boarded with me and chosen to sit a few rows along. We’d only met at the start of the week, and long journeys with relative strangers are tedious things. He was the guardian ad litem in the case, meaning he’d been appointed by the court to represent the interests of the children. As he’d taken the stance that the children would be better off removed from my client’s care, he and I were on opposing sides, even if we were not supposed to regard ourselves so, and I was rather relieved he’d sat elsewhere, as I’m sure he was.

It was with only two or three minutes to go that a boy, a girl and a woman entered our carriage. The boy, who was perhaps 10 years old, took the seat opposite me, next to an elderly woman who’d been at the table before I’d arrived. The woman with him I assumed to be his mother,  who together with the girl had been forced to take a seat across the aisle.

‘Here, I’ll move,’ I told him, fiercely aware of how uncomfortable travelling could be for children separated from their family by lack of seats, and thereby forced next to strangers for long periods.

‘No, that’s all right,’ he said with a shake of his head.

This, I mistakenly took for politeness. Not that he wasn’t polite. He was nothing other than quiet and respectful for the part of the journey I shared with him. His manners only made me the more determined to move and allow him to be with his family.

‘Oh, it’s fine, really,’ I insisted. ‘Then there’ll be three seats together.’

He shook his head at me, but by then I was already moving. The look in his eyes should have stopped me. The shake of his head that was directed at me, but the movement restricted to the window side, where his mother couldn’t see. I was caught mid-movement. I’d slipped my book into my bag and was already on my feet. But the look in his eyes.

I told myself, as you do sometimes when strange events catch you unawares, that I was seeing something that was not there. I suspect also that having made a thing of moving, I felt unable to backtrack. My image of him, the one stuck in my memory, is of a pale child, brown hair, brown eyes opened wide, unable to say some words to me that he most definitely wanted to say. In my mind, his mouth is open to speak. That little mouth has never closed in my recollection.

I smiled at him, and he must have thought me the most stupid adult he ever came across in his life. For a child to reach out, to be bold enough to send a secret signal, only to be smiled at then ignored, is an awful thing.

‘Here, you can sit with your son,’ I told the woman, only by then my heart wasn’t in it. The boy’s eyes had sent their message just seconds too late. I wanted to change my mind and go back. What I felt then was a curdling cocktail of curiosity and panic.

What had I missed?

The boy, I realised, was not just scared. He was terrified.

I took the seat next to the guardian ad litem whose name I cannot recall. I never came across him in a courtroom afterwards and that, I must tell you, was something of a relief. My new position left me facing the mother who’d taken the window seat and the daughter who had filled the chair I’d vacated. My first clear view of the mother’s face told me all I needed to know.

She was young, certainly still in her twenties, and because avoiding being judgmental requires an almost super-human self-discipline, I found myself immediately calculating how old she must have been when she’d had her daughter. Fifteen, maybe? Her hair was a dull blonde, raggedly cut, and matted at the back. Her face was a clench of anger. But her right ear, the only one I had a clear view of, was a mangled mess. It looked to me to have been burned. That sanitises my diagnosis too much. My initial thought was that she had been held to something hot, and that the ear had been deliberately disfigured by burning. It does me no credit that my mind works so violently, nor am I proud that aspects of my career gave me sufficient insights into the methods people find of torturing one another that I felt qualified to make such a deduction. Being a barrister was a mixed blessing. You can do real good, represent people who would otherwise have no hope of successfully negotiating complex and wordy proceedings. You can ensure that the innocent are not convicted, or prosecute the guilty and keep the public safe from them. Then there are days when you do nothing but study photographs that no one should ever have to see, reading details of post mortems, listening to recordings of…it doesn’t do to dwell too much on it. That’s the job. You do it warts and all. No barrister is entitled to pick and choose their cases, but they are never thrust upon you. There were opportunities, after all, in tax law or corporate litigation for those with an eye on the money and a high boredom threshold.

I tried not to stare, although it was hard. Made harder by that fact that even before the train had pulled out of the station she was cursing at her children, eyes like fury, lips curled back over her teeth.

Let me engage in some light self-defence, not intended as an attack, but as I endeavour to accurately portray what happened that day, this is a part of it. It’s not a criticism. Well, it is, but it makes no difference to my own culpability, so I won’t edit it out.

‘There’s something wrong. That boy is really scared. He didn’t want to sit opposite his mother,’ I told the guardian ad litem.

He glanced up once, briefly, in their direction.

‘I’m sure it’s fine,’ he said, returning his gaze to nothing of importance outside the window.

‘Actually I’m a bit concerned. The mother looks disturbed and the boy was trying to motion me not to give up my seat. I think we may need to do something.’

He shrugged and ignored my suggestion.

There were a few factors at play, most of them perfectly understandable. The first was that the guardian hadn’t seen what I’d seen. Witnessing a child that scared is a rare thing. The second is that he was off duty. The third is, frankly, what on earth did I expect him to do? I don’t have an answer to that. Perhaps to have really discussed it with me. Perhaps just to have listened. With a subtext less palatable, that in my twenties and thirties, men in their forties or fifties were incredibly dismissive of me. There’s a sense that no matter how well qualified or experienced you are, you must still be prone to melodrama or exaggeration. Because you’re female. If I sound angry and bitter, it’s because I am. Being underestimated and misrepresented for years will do that to a woman.

The carriage was full by the time we set off, the only available seat was the one next to the boy, whose previous inhabitant had – for reasons I was trying not to speculate about – decided to move to a different carriage.

Early on in the journey I made eye contact with the daughter. She was pretty. Really pretty. Long straight hair, from nutty tones to gold highlights, hazel eyes, clear skin and a sweet smile. She’d said thank you when I’d given up my seat to allow them the table. If the boy had looked scared, then the best adjective for the daughter was resigned and that made me sad. Fear speaks to a lack of certainty. It sparked with unpredictability and therefore, to some extent, the possibility that the awaited outcome might still be avoided. Resignation in a child is simply depressing. It is a scenario played out too often. It’s the death of hope. I think when I looked in her eyes, I knew how it was going to end that day. She certainly did. I should have done something there and then, but even now I cannot tell you what that could or should have been.

I tried not to look at the girl, but that became harder as her mother grew louder. It’s a funny thing in a packed train carriage, but even in an age where swearing has lost much of its taboo, there are still some words than can quieten conversation and even stop those awful speaker-phone mobile calls that the unashamed and lacking in self-awareness insist on making in public areas.

The train was too hot. Not just warm and sticky, but sweltering. It wasn’t helping anyone’s mood, least of all the mother of two very quiet children who was caught somewhere between muttering to herself and cursing at them each time they moved a muscle. The more she swore, the quieter the carriage became. Every now and then someone would attempt to spark up a conversation, but each brave effort succumbed too soon in the thickening atmosphere.

Stations passed, and I hoped both that they would disembark the train and remain on board, eager to be relieved of the burden of the feeling that I should never have given up my original seat, whilst knowing that as long as those children were in my sight, they were safe.

Tension is a hard thing to define in the emotional sense. Physically, it means to put under strain. That certainly applies to our journey, but it insufficiently defines the escalation of suspense. When you combine the qualities of tension with a sense of inevitability, you end up with a sort of quicksand. Slow burn, incremental, with the certain knowledge of a horrific ending. Trees passed, towns passed, the greenery of southern England was tantalisingly close and yet an untouchable illusion. Real life was happening inside our train, and as one, the collective body of passengers was holding its stale, sour breath.

It was a weekday, of course, as the courts had been sitting. The children weren’t in school uniform and had no bags with them. I was speculating how their day had been passed, when the mother became increasingly incensed over nothing obvious.

‘Just both of you shut up and sit still!’ she yelled, peppering the phrase with expletives.

If the carriage had been subdued until that point, the vacuum left by the verbal abuse rendered me breathless.

The guardian glanced up then, slid his gaze to his watch.

The children looked into their laps. The fact was that neither had been speaking above a whisper to one another, and most certainly hadn’t been moving.

Drugs, mental illness, stress – quite possibly a combination of all those things, I decided. My skin felt tight on my body. Even the baby in my womb, who frequently chose that point in the afternoon to perform endless somersaults, had decided that it would be an inopportune moment to make the day about him.

A whispered conversation began at the back of the carriage. People cleared their throats or coughed, rattled newspapers and studied their paperwork. No one said a word.

The girl looked up at me. I held her gaze and she held mine. That tiny, irrelevant kindness I had shown in giving up my seat had not been lost on her. I was a different type of adult to the one she was used to, or so she must have thought. Keeping her face carefully neutral, she and I stared at one another down the aisle. This is my life, her face said. This is what happens from time to time. It’s not the biggest deal.

The train kept travelling. The normal business and noise of a commute recommenced. I think everyone assumed that would be the worst of it. The mother had been reduced to huffing and muttering. The daughter looked at her brother and gave him a knowing look followed by a reassuring smile, and I remember thanking god that there were two of them. That when they got home they had each other for protection and deflection and as witnesses. The thought was both  premature and far too late.

The train maintained its pace, and we continued to journey away from the sun through the countryside. The seat was that itchy, coarse material, and my black dress was sticking to me. The summer nuisance of public transport body odour was gaining traction, with too few open windows and no air conditioning.

The children, always faster to recover than adults ever give them credit for, had begun making silly faces at one another across the table. This marked a peculiar moment. I felt relieved. These were normal kids. I’d been over-sensitive. Their mother was rough and foul-mouthed, but not the monster I had imagined her to be, or the children wouldn’t have been able to move on from their humiliation so quickly.

At which point, the mother picked up the glass bottle from which she had been drinking, swung it wide, and smacked it hard into her daughter’s cheek.

It ought to sound more dramatic than that. I should be able to find better words. But that’s all there was. One simple movement. The bottle did not break. The girl’s cheekbone didn’t break. Her skin was not split. Yet I can hear the sound of glass hitting bone as clearly now as I could then. A dull thud combined with a high pitched ringing. Inside my head, I was screaming. Because the girl just sat there. I just sat there. The guardian ad litem sat there. Not one person inside that train carriage moved, or spoke, or remembered to breathe.

The mother put the bottle down as calmly and carelessly as if she’d just assaulted her daughter in her living room, with no spectators whatsoever.

The girl neither rubbed her face nor complained. But she did look at me again.

She stared at the useless woman with tears forming in her eyes, one hand over her mouth and the other across her belly, sick with seeing another mother treating a child so violently and cruelly.

I dealt with it every day, that was the irony. I read reports, cross-examined doctors, met with the alleged perpetrators of exactly such violence and worse, but that blow was a real eye-opener, as the saying goes. The guardian spoke before anyone else said anything. Only to me, in the lowest voice I would be able to hear.

‘I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you,’ he said.

I didn’t trust myself to respond politely, and my silence provided sufficient excuse for him to turn his attention back to the outside world.

Then a man stood up. Older than twenty-five, probably not yet thirty, he did what none of the rest of us managed. He acknowledged what had happened.

In casual clothes, thin framed, his hair long enough to make clear that he was no corporate robot and soft of voice, he set himself next to their table.

I don’t know what I was wishing for. A miracle, I think. For him to be a police officer or a social worker, or to have a magic wand that he could wave and set the world to rights. The girl turned her gaze toward him. The mother saw him but looked away, picking at her fingernails. The boy was twitching, wondering whether or not to simply bolt before anything worse could happen, I suspected.

More tears were escaping down my cheeks.

‘I want you to know…’ the man began, ‘…I want you to know that I’m sorry for whatever you’re going through.’ He addressed the mother.

The boy’s mouth fell open. He turned his head to look up and down the carriage at the people staring before returning his incredulous gaze to his sister. Neither dared glance in their mother’s direction.

‘I know things can be hard sometimes,’ the man continued, undaunted by the lack of response from the mother or support from his fellow passengers. ‘But people care more than you think. I care. I believe lots of people would care if you’d let them.’

The mother took hold of the bottle again, and the boy and girl shrank backwards into their seats. The man stood his ground, hands drooping loosely into his pockets, shoulders down. I wanted to applaud. I’d never seen another human so consciously non-confrontational.

‘Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. Just reach out if you need help. We’re not all against you. I hope you have people to show you love. I wanted to let you know, that’s all.’

The mother played with the bottle, banging it against the edge of the table, making noise, creating a distraction. I was reminded of a toddler.

‘That’s all,’ he said again, giving a small shrug and a half-smile. He took the few steps required to reach his seat and there were murmurings. Some, I like to think, were of agreement or support, others were people rousing themselves from the shock.

The mother began muttering again, swearing beneath her breath, keeping the line of her eyes away from other passengers. Not from embarrassment. She was too far gone for that. Not from a dawning realisation that what she had done was a terrible thing, and that her daughter was hurt, scared and humiliated. Just anger. She was holding it in. But it was right there. Neither child spoke or moved.

I waited until the girl looked at me again.

‘Are you okay?’ I mouthed.

She gave a single nod, and a faint smile. Then she shrugged too. That tiny up and down movement of her shoulders was confirmation of everything.

It had happened before. It would happen again. Better not to make a fuss. Best not to cry. This was her mother’s temper. They had learned to live with it.

So I cried the tears she couldn’t, struck with self-loathing at letting emotions get the better of me that a young woman who’d just suffered an assault could not afford to show. Hating myself for sitting quietly and letting a stranger take responsibility without backing him up. For not having the courage to move when action was required. Still, she stared into my eyes and did not judge me. I wish she had. I wish she’d screamed “coward”, and pointed her finger. I was screaming it inside my own head, even as I tried to decide what I should do.

Calling the police was the obvious answer. I could have them meet the train at my stop, hold everyone there while they removed the woman and the children from the train, and took statements from the witnesses in the carriage. Of course, that would involve me making the decision to keep a trainload of people waiting. Some would miss connections. Others would miss social engagements or meetings. More still would not get home in time to say goodnight to their kids or get elderly parents their medication on time.

Surely, I told myself, someone else would be making that call right now. If it needed to be made, I couldn’t be the only considering it.

There was a more pressing question. If I called the police, where would those children spend the night? In all likelihood, not with their mother. Social Services would have to be called. A public assault on a child would be taken seriously. The mother might not be bailed immediately. So where was the children’s father?

In the depths of my mind, I’d already wondered if they’d been on a prison visit to see their incarcerated father. Her Majesty’s Prison Bristol, was home to a number of violent and dangerous male prisoners, as well as the usual ragtag bunch of petty criminals and small-timers. I’d visited clients there often enough to know. I stole another glance at the woman’s ear. Had some drug-crazed lover inflicted that upon her? Was that the last time the children had seen their dad?

Checking around, desperate to catch someone else whispering on their mobile in the act of alerting the authorities, I found all to be quiet.

The best I could hope for was that the children might have grandparents or members of a loving, extended family who would take them in – aunts, uncles, cousins. But if not…if not then I was making a choice for them. They would, quite conceivably, be removed from their mother’s care. They would have to leave the home they knew. Foster carers might look after them, possibly a children’s home would be the only choice. And worse than that – much, much worse given the fact that I’d seen them interacting, witnessed their bond first hand – there was a very real prospect that they would be separately housed. As hard as Social Services tried not to do so, sometimes with teenagers it was the only option.

This plagued me. My watch was counting down the minutes until we arrived in Romsey. If I called the police, as dreadful at it seemed to me that their young lives were, involving the authorities might leave them even less happy and more adrift. Intervention might just be worse than living with a known enemy. That wasn’t some distant, fanciful notion. I can give myself credit for that. I’d dealt with plenty of families, many kids, who did not want to be taken from their failing parents when the alternative was a system that would shift them from pillar to post, then dump them unceremoniously at the age of deemed independence, family ties beyond repair.

When I looked up again, the girl was staring at me again. I had nothing to offer. No solution, no answers. I longed to take her aside and ask what I could do, but the mother was unstable and my unborn baby was vulnerable. Overt, physical interference was unthinkable. I knew perfectly well how much harm a blow to my belly could do. Then I imagined explaining such an injury to my husband. Not that he wouldn’t have understood the need to act to protect another child, but why not, he would have asked me, just do the sensible thing and telephone the police?

I willed the guardian to disengage from whatever was so fascinating beyond the glass pane, and talk to me. He did not. His arms were folded across his chest and the rear of his head was as good a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign as I’ve seen on any hotel room door. Instead, I scanned my fellow travellers for allies. Shifting in my seat, I searched for the brave, extraordinary man who’d had the courage and decency to express his concern for the woman and her children. My heart sank. Either he’d disembarked at the last station or decided that his speech had done no good, and moved out of our carriage into more morally accomplished company. If it were the latter, I could not blame him one iota.

Five minutes from my stop and it was make or break. Call the police, split up a family or do nothing, offering only watery eyes and a sad smile. My fingers hovered over the keypad, my mobile heavy in my hands, as if it had absorbed the weight of my decision. The guard announced the next station and I wanted to freeze time. Surely, some fortuitous event would make the decision for me. A sign, if I’d been the sort of person who believed in signs.

Three minutes to go and I knew I couldn’t telephone the police. If I was going to do that, I’d have done it by then. That was the first time it occurred to me that there was a compromise option. I could leave a note. Slip it into the girl’s hand as I walked past. Pretend to drop something, thereby creating an excuse to get her attention and bend to the floor. I had a pen in my bag and plenty of paper in my notebook. In handwriting whose shaky form was in no part due to the motion of the train, I wrote, “My name is Sarah Blakelock. My phone number is below. I am a lawyer. I will try to help you. If you feel scared, call me. No one else ever needs to know.’

Those were the words. A lifeline. A positive act. Maybe not all I could have done, but not nothing either.

Finally my train slowed to a halt at Romsey station. I climbed off slowly. The girl’s eyes had not left my face as I’d walked past her, making sure I smiled reassuringly, my tears fully dried, playing the grown up again. The guardian ad litem left too, taking the door at the opposite end of the carriage to mine. He did not wish me any sort of farewell, nor I him. I think I hated him a little for doing nothing. Even so, I did not dislike him as much as I detested myself.

Upon exiting the station, I looked down and to my right as I always did. Below the elevated tracks and hill slope of the carpark was a terrace of shabby housing. The end house on the left was divided into two flats. The ground floor accommodation, I’d visited often as a young child. My grandparents had lived there for the duration of their 50 year marriage, and though they were long-since dead, in my heart they would forever inhabit that tiny space. My father had been born into real poverty – four children, my grandfather a pilot in the war, my grandmother hit by a car and losing a leg not long after my father’s sixteenth birthday. During the war, they’d made beds out of blankets on their floors, and shared already sparse food rations with no fewer than eight inner city evacuee children. Fourteen people in a two bedroomed flat. They had never flinched in their duty to do what they considered to be right. With nothing except four walls and each other, they still had a moral compass stronger and less yielding than mine.

Was strength of character formed when you were born and augmented through adversity? Did it weaken with every generation? Had I been blessed with too easy a life for my backbone to be as straight as my forebears’?

I climbed into my car and bent my head until it rested on the wheel.

And wept.

For my dead grandparents whose disappointment was too tangible and near for comfort. I cried for the man who’d stood out from the crowd, done the right thing, and who’d received nothing more in support from his fellow travellers than silence. I sobbed for the woman whose ear had been burned to a mangled clot. I shed tears for the boy who had pleaded with terrified eyes for me not to move seats. And for the girl, the sweet, beautiful girl with the badly bruised cheek, who had smiled when I had cried.

And I ached with love for the baby inside me, who would grow up safe and adored, and never know the pain and terror of a parent deliberately hitting him in the face with a glass bottle.

Lastly for me. I cried as I stared at the crumpled note in my hand, that I had not found a way to pass to the girl. Because I was too weak, too unsure, too pathetic to pass it over. I couldn’t comprehend why.

I know that I do not want your forgiveness. This tale requires outrage and judgment. It will only be complete when you tell me that you would have done better, found a solution, made the wrongs right. I stand in the dock of my own memory and await sentence.

She is still there waiting for my help, that lovely, wistful girl. I climb on a train and she sits a few seats from me, facing in my direction. The shimmering outline of her smiles at me constantly and does not judge.

Find out more about Helen Fields and her work here where you can also watch the launch of her new book The Shadow Man.

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