’All aboard that’s going aboard! All aboard that’s… hey, mind the gap between the train and the plat— Geez! What did I just tell you!’ the old stationmaster rolled his eyes in disbelief as a young man in a great hurry, failing to notice the gap despite the warning, sent his luggage flying in all directions when his trolley suddenly jerked to a halt and fell over. ‘You alright, mate?’
The young man stared at his once so neatly organized luggage flabbergasted. Finding his voice at last, he cried out in a terrified voice that all his fine porcelain and equally lovely pot-tery must be in pieces now, utterly and mercilessly destroyed.
The old stationmaster shook his head again and muttered something incomprehensible about the manners of the young these days, as he turned around to see who it was approaching him from behind with such firm and decisive steps.
It turned out to be an ancient-looking man with grey, almost white, hair and a small old-fashioned moustache, carrying a smart-looking, modern leather bag. He was dressed in a three-piece black suite of British traditional design, with an old pocket watch in his left vest pocket, fastened to the vest with a chain of gold. Although the man had to be close to his nine-ties, he walked with the youthfulness of a seventy-year-old.
‘Dissatisfied with modern society, are we?’ the man said with a surprisingly fresh voice, still bearing the marks of the commanding and authoritative tone which must have served him so well in his youth.
‘Not at all, sir, bad manners can be found in every generation,’ said the stationmaster, smil-ing.
‘Well, yes, quite,’ agreed the old man, ‘I am Greenridge, by the way, John Greenridge’.
‘How do you do, Mr. Greenridge,’ said the stationmaster, shaking the old man’s hand. De-spite his age the handshake was surprisingly firm and strict – a gentleman’s handshake. ‘Now, let’s have a look at your ticket, sir… ah, yes: second class, seat number 228 – that’s two cars down, and then you turn left once you’re aboard, first compartment to the right. Luggage may be stowed under your seat or on the overhead luggage rack’.
‘Thank you,’ said Greenridge.
‘Your welcome. Enjoy your ride, sir’.
‘Thank you, I shall,’ Greenridge assured the old stationmaster, as he headed off in a quick stride with his single bag in a firm grip.
Once aboard it didn’t take long for him to find his seat and to place his single luggage under it, as the bag was too heavy for him to put on the overhead luggage rack. It seemed he wouldn’t be alone in the compartment, for there were already some bags and trunks placed on the luggage rack above the seat in front of his, but the owners were nowhere to be seen. Per-haps they had gone to the restaurant car to get some early morning tea.
Not in a hurry any longer, he decided to finish the cross-words in yesterday’s paper, as he had not had time to do more than a third of it on the bus to the station. He had just managed to get it out of his bag, when he heard the sound of the compartment doors opening and two peo-ple entering, loudly arguing.
‘Not!’ said the voice of an adult woman.
‘Do too, do too, do too!’ answered a child’s stubborn voice.
Upon turning his gaze towards the two passengers, he found them to be a mother and her young daughter. The mother, obviously fed up with the debate, gave an exasperated sigh and sat down as far away from the old man as she possibly could, although Greenridge rather sus-pected it had to do with the window next to which he sat, and not him personally, for he doubted very much that she had noticed him yet.
‘Fine! Whatever! Have it your way,’ she said as she closed her eyes, feeling the warmth streaming from the train’s electric heaters caress her cold, tired face, and hoping that she would finally be able to get some sleep. It was, after all, very early in the morning. She had left home with her daughter at three o’clock, in order to get to the station in time, and now, three hours later, she was seriously tired. Besides, she had been up packing until the very minute they left, so it wasn’t as if she’d had any sleep since, well, last night!
The little girl fortunately seemed content with the answer and went over to the window to sit down across from Greenridge’s seat. She loved to look out the window as the countryside sped past outside. It was still dark, though, but the sun would soon rise, spreading its warm light over Great Britain.
The train started with a jerk and once his ticket had been checked Greenridge returned to his cross-words. It wasn’t going very well, however, so when the young girl suddenly grew bored and decided she wanted to talk to her mother, he didn’t feel the least bit irritated – not that such things usually did irritate him…
‘Mum, look! What’s that?’ the girl asked, eagerly pointing at an old windmill.
‘Mm,’ her mother answered. But apparently the girl wanted a more elaborate answer than that, because she kept trying to capture her mother’s interest and attention. But, alas, her at-tempts only succeeded in making her mother more and more irritated with her, until finally: ‘would you please let mum get some sleep! I’m… I’m… tired,’ in her sleepy state she couldn’t find any way to stress the seriousness of the matter enough.
This was his cue, Greenridge decided. ‘Now, now, we mustn’t keep your mother up when she is so tired. Tell you what, why don’t I tell you some stories instead’.
‘What stories?’ asked the girl suspiciously, ‘not any fairy tales, ‘cause I hear those all the time’.
‘Indeed? Well, no fairy tales then. I was borne in Scotland, you see, and know this country-side very well. I know the forests, the hills, the mountains and the lakes out there as well as I know the back of my hand,’ he pointed towards the quiet scenery speeding past outside the window, ‘I will tell you true stories, not some fairy tales. But first, what is your name?’.
‘Sally Bluesborough, and I’m seven!’ the girl answered.
‘Well, hello to you, Sally Bluesborough seven years old, pleased to meet you. I am John Greenridge,’ the old man said, smiling gently, recognizing in her the same seriousness and thirst for knowledge that had half consumed him when he was a child. Yes, this was going very well indeed!
‘Look out the window, Sally Bluesborough. Look at those great forests which rise from the ground like small islands in a sea of grass here and there. Look at them, and tell me that there is no magic at work,’ the sun had just risen above the horizon, enveloping the forests in a golden light. Sally was quiet. The train compartment suddenly felt like a rather safe and se-cure place to be in. But even here, close to her mother and this old man who seemed to posi-tively radiate kindness and safety, the air felt charged with a mystical energy that hadn’t been there before.
‘There are much that we humans do not know, much that we do not understand. In those forests dwell beings older than mankind, older even than the dinosaurs that once roamed the earth, older than—’.
‘So, how come no one ever sees them?’ Sally asked, fixating the old man with a challenging glare.
Indeed, it was not difficult to believe that there was indeed some kind of magic at work out there, and that there were indeed all sorts of wondrous creatures living in those great forests, somehow hidden from mankind since the dawn of time.
‘Why, because once, a long time ago, there was a terrible betrayal,’ the old man said, laugh-ing softly.
‘There was?’ the girl’s eyes were round with excitement at the prospect of learning about a great betrayal!
‘Oh, yes. Once upon a time men and elves, dwarves, gnomes and lots and lots of other be-ings of nature lived in peace, in happy coexistence. But one day an evil king came to the thrown of England, and he sought power not only over the human cities of Britain, but over nature and the peoples of nature. In an attempt to seize this power, he sent troops into the great forests, which back then covered most of Britain, with orders to kill the elven kings and queens, the dwarven councils and the gnome emperors’.
‘What happened then?’ she asked, eyes aflame with an intense desire for knowledge.
‘The king was a fool. He thought that he could defeat the power of nature, but none can. Night-weavers were tasked with constructing a magic veil which would forever sever the ties between the humans and the peoples of nature. Day and night they weaved, using only the finest strings of moonlight, and when it was finished the peoples of nature disappeared with-out a trace, never to be found again by the evil king’.
‘But before they disappeared, the dwarven spell-forgers were tasked with making three amulets – the three Amulets of Friendship. These amulets were each enchanted in such a way that the bearer, provided that his heart was pure, would be able to see through the night-veil. But the spell-forgers made one mistake, for even the most trusted of humans were burdened by ill deeds, and their hearts were not pure enough to grant them the ability to see through the veil’.
‘So, they disappeared for ever?’ Sally said, disappointed.
‘Not quite. You see, it so happens that there are those among the humans who do have pure hearts,’ John said, smiling at the young girl’s sincere and very passionate interest.
‘Who?’ she asked breathlessly.
‘Children,’ John said, ‘children are innocent, they are void of all evil, they have “pure hearts”, as it is called by the ancient peoples of the nature. With this amulet children can see past the veil, but they cannot interact with that which they see’.
‘Why not?’ Sally asked.
‘You ask rather too many questions, my young friend. I’d love to answer them all, but I’m getting off at the next station. I am… on my way home, you see…’ the old man reached for his bag and rummaged around a bit before he found what he was looking for.
‘Here, I want you to have this,’ he said, handing her an old wooden amulet with a blue stone encased in the middle. The stone glowed slightly in the dark train compartment.
‘Is it…?’ the old man nodded, ‘Why are you giving it to me?’ she whispered surprised, fin-gering attentively on the amulet, feeling its smooth surface, still warm from having been tucked between layers of clothes in the old man’s bag.
‘Because I am old. I have had a fantastic life, and now I am heading home, to be with the ones with whom I belong. In short, I have no further need of it’ he said, quietly.
‘There’s an inscription on the back. It says, in modern tongue, “Key to Friendship: let he who is of a pure heart account for his past and through this amulet become a friend”’
‘What does it mean?’ Sally asked, turning the amulet upside down, searching for, and find-ing, the engraved letters which looked like nothing she had ever seen before.
‘It means that children may see past the veil, for they are “of a pure heart”. Now I must leave you. But remember this day, and carry the amulet with you… always.’
I did carry it with me – always. That day, when we arrived at my aunt’s old cottage, which my mother had recently inherited, there was a fog on the field just outside the old house. My mother thought nothing of it, but I, as I walked there, heard the sounds of laughter, singing and chatting. I turned around, searching for the source of the sounds, and found it in the midst of the mist.
There, clad in white and grey elegant clothes, were people dancing and celebrating. But they were not humans, that much was certain. They seemed to glow somehow, and I couldn’t help but notice that their feet did not touch the grass on which the danced. They were elves, and the small people in gay colours and green or red knitted caps were gnome musicians playing happy tunes on their wooden instruments.
I could see them very well, but they did not see me. I was air to them, just like they were to my mother. I felt saddened when I realized this, but there was not much I could do about it, even though I certainly did try. For the next few years I used to run down to the meadow every Saturday night to see them dance, and to try to get their attention. But it was useless.
Then one day, on my fifteenth birthday, they weren’t there. It was as like waking up from a long, wonderful dream come to an early end. The impact of the harsh reality, as those last remaining shreds of protecting mist of magic and innocence evaporated around me, was quite severe. I saw the world then for what it was. Wars, poverty, homelessness – thus was my world, and I saw it all. The vile evilness of men made manifest by cruel actions and greed. Aye, it was not difficult to believe the tale of the great betrayal by men towards the peoples of the forest.
Greatly did I miss them, but even more did I ache for the misfortune of man. We brought it unto ourselves, and only we can cast it off and set things straight again. I vouched then to dedicate my life to good, and I have. Not once have I strayed from the path, driven into de-spair by the grey shade that pollutes our existence. I have seen the best of men, and I have seen the worst. Death has been my neighbour, poverty my roommate, and I have fought them all. A servant of life in life, a servant of life shall I remain in death. But not once, since that day, have I seen
I am an old lady now, having just turned eighty. I miss them still, and remember those Sat-urday nights as clear as if it happened yesterday. But the past is the past, and I probably wouldn’t be thinking about my youth so much right now, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I am returning home to that old cottage and the old meadow on which I witnessed all those amazing celebrations.
The train has arrived at the platform. I must disembark now and find my way to my… home. Yes, I am old, I shall not leave again. I have come home to live out my last years in peace and quite with my family, in the house which holds some of my fondest memories ever.
Oh dear me, how cold it is on the platform. The snow is falling quickly now, but then it usu-ally is this close to Christmas eve. The beautiful and soothing sound of the local boys’ choir, rehearsing for the annual Christmas concert, escapes the confines of the small concert hall and is carried by a slight breeze all the way to where I am standing, on the snow-covered, slippery platform. ‘The Holy and the Ivy’, a carol which I have not heard since I left the UK many years ago, is sung with unparalleled warmth and passion, waking inside me memories which have lay dormant since my youth, making me forget the biting coldness of the air.
‘It is you! Sally Bluesborough!’ I hear a voice call behind me, breaking the spell which had me captivated to the brink of not knowing where or who I was.
‘Yes, it is I,’ I say, and turn around to face a young postman standing on the platform, wait-ing for someone to get off the train.
‘I can’t believe it, ‘tis quite something! You’re the one who received the Nobel Prize. The peace prize, was it?’
‘Yes, that was I, and yes, it was the peace prize. I am just come back from Sweden, and I am very tired, young man,’ I don’t want this, my contribution to the world was my work to-wards world peace, I never sought this kind of fame.
‘N-no, of course, my apologies ma’am,’ the poor man stammers, but I am too tired, too cold to reassure him, so I take my trunk and start down the platform towards Crescent Road, where I will take the bus to Markington Street. Once there it’ll be an easy distance to walk to the old cottage. Besides, my daughter will be there, waiting with her husband and my granddaughter.
The bus journey went well, and I’m home at last. We’ve just had dinner and I should be on my way to bed now. But I am not… Something is calling me – I just have to have a look at the old meadow before I go to sleep.
It is cold outside, and the old door squeaks terribly, as if protesting against being opened at this late hour. I must tell Greg, that’s my daughter’s husband, to do something about that dreadful noise. But the night air certainly is very clear and refreshing, and…
‘”…fall on your knees, and hear the angel voices. Oh night, divine…”’ I know it well, Adam’s song O Holy Night. But from where is the singing coming? Oh, my goodness! There are lights on the old meadow – the singing grows louder, sung by a sonorous bass voice.
I run. I have not done so since I was a child, but now I run, as fast as my legs will carry me. Gay colours. Musicians wearing gay coloured clothes, playing on wooden instruments. A dwarf. A dwarven bass, standing in front of the musicians, singing with fervour. Elves. Elves dancing and laughing and talking merrily. And an old man! I know him, yet I have not seen him since I was a child. Not since I was seven years old and was sitting in a cramped com-partment on a train with my mother.
‘John Greenridge!’ I cannot help myself, the name has left my lips before I get the chance to stop it. Two elves dancing close to where I stand turn around and… they look at me. They can see me, and they can hear me. What was it John said about that amulet? Oh, yes, he said that he who is of a pure heart may account for his past and through the amulet become a friend. ‘Account for his past’, perhaps that is something a child cannot do. Because children cannot be evil, they cannot account for past evil or good deeds. I, however, can, and I have just re-ceived the Nobel peace prize! Thus, I have accounted for my past and become a friend, and can now do more than just gaze through the night-veil. It is like the dream of my life has just come true, a life-time of struggles come to an end. Finally, I am truly at ease with myself – I am come home at last!
‘Granny? What are you looking at?’ I hear the voice of my grandchild Mary behind me says. I turn around to face her, and at the same time I remove an old amulet which I have had hanging in a leather string around my neck ever since I was seven years old.
‘Come, I want you to have this. It’s a magic amulet,’ I say.
‘Th-thank you. But, isn’t this… I mean, you never let anyone touch it even,’ Mary stam-mers, surprised at the unexpected gift.
I smile gently, ‘I am old. I shall soon be heading home, to be with the ones with whom I be-long,’ as I say this I cannot help but turn my gaze towards the meadow and the celebrating people of the nature. I feel no sorrow; I have no regrets – all I feel is a sense of fulfilment, a sense of having found my place at last. ‘I have no further need for it, but you… you will, just like I did when I was your age.’
Mary is a sweet child, so young, so innocent. A whole new world opens up to her, as she takes the amulet and suddenly becomes aware of the dancing and singing on the meadow.
‘Are you going to die, granny?’ she suddenly asks, as if she understands what I did not when Mr Greenrigde handed the amulet to me, many years ago.
‘What a silly question, of course I am, but not in many years to come,’ I respond truthfully.
‘And then you’ll join them?’ she points to the people on the meadow.
Indeed, she is not only sweet, you and innocent, but bright as well. Once again I answer truthfully, this time with a single, quite nod.
‘Will I be able to visit you?’ she asks in that innocent, sorrowful voice which only children may use, and which has the ability to break anyone’s heart, no matter how cold and hard it may be.
‘You’ll be able to see me, to see that I am well, but not speak to me. But I will be there, and I will be happy’ I whisper, knowing that it will be of little consolation to my dear, sweet grandchild. The next moment we embrace each other in a warm, loving, silent hug which seems to last forever.
‘Mary? Sally? Where are you?’ Mary’s mother calls.
‘Coming,’ I answer, as I slowly break the hug and turn my back to the meadow.
I will join them, but not yet. Now is the time to live, and I shall do so with the greatest of pleasures, knowing what’s out there, knowing what awaits beyond the rim of life.
//Borik canDonovsky – 2006-10-30
rev. I: 2006-11-05
rev. II: 2007-01-13
rev. II_b: 2007-01-20