On the Oxford to York
Cedric Blake had taken the train from Oxford to York nearly ten times during his first two years at university, but he’d never realized how many tragedies had occurred along its tracks until he’d had the pleasure of sitting across from Cynthia Mott, an elderly woman who seemed to have spent her three-hundred-or-so years on the planet cataloging every misfortune that had occurred in England from the days of the Norman Dynasty up until the present—and earmarking, for future conversational use, the most horrific and gruesome of the lot.
Her morbid dispatches ran—like a news ticker—without pause and were made all the more absurd by the fact that she carried with her a small teddy bear, which sat upright in her lap and stared unapologetically across the table at Cedric. Perhaps, he mused, its name was Aloysius. They were traveling from Oxford, after all.
Between the bear and her shapeless, too-large frock, this elderly Mott had the overall appearance of an eerie little girl who’d dropped by the dining room to say goodnight to the adults before heading off to bed. Cedric only knew that she was old because of her wrinkled face and the fact that she wore nylons—in spite of the heat—just like his grandmother.
"Oh dear," she sighed, glancing sadly out over the passing landscape. "It must have been around here, mustn’t it?”
Cedric was silent. He’d been drifting in and out of sleep for the past five minutes, and although he had, indeed, been awake for this last interruption, his shuttered eyelids, which were careful to betray not even a flicker of life, seemed to him to provide a very suitable excuse for absenting himself from the conversation.
“It was before your time, of course,” continued this Miss or Ms. or Mrs. Mott, undeterred by his silence. “It was a great fire, you see. Very sad. All of those people burnt to ashes."
He suspected that she was looking at him—scanning him for signs of consciousness—but he remained resolutely still. It wasn't that he didn't care about the factory workers who'd died of tuberculosis all of those years ago—or the children who'd drowned in their local well—or the sad woman who was said to have thrown herself off the highest tower of some castle near Birmingham way back in the 17th century. It’s just that he wished he didn’t know about them. Because he liked to be happy, you see—and consequently, he’d always kept his knowledge of such tragedies to a minimum. He knew about the Battle of Agincourt—and the murders of Jack the Ripper—but that was about the extent of it.
Was that so very awful? Not at all, he answered himself. If anything, it was a sign of his considerable compassion. Perhaps this Mott character could sit there and chat casually about the brutal murder of a sixteen-year-old girl, but he was far too empathetic. He was also too tired—because last night’s end-of-term bash had taken it out of him somewhat.
Thankfully, his companion seemed to have accepted the premise that he was asleep—for her voice faded gradually into a whisper—and soon it was undetectable over the grinding and squeaking of the wheels on the tracks. That was big of her, thought Cedric, as he fell further out of consciousness. She’d shown him much more respect than he’d shown her. But there would be plenty of time for politeness later—because she, too, was riding all the way to York. She’d mentioned that in her opening introductions—along with the fact that she liked Marmalade—but not if it had ginger in it—and that her shoes had orthopedic inserts—and that her three cats were staying with her friend Gertrude while she was away for the weekend. Still, what would she do in his conversational absence? Read about a particularly gruesome witch-burning? Knit a decorative noose for her boudoir?
Through the flickering gap between his upper and lower lids, he could see her pointing out the window and tracing a path through the quaint scenery. Perhaps she was mapping the route of some wrongfully-convicted, escaped prisoner who’d perished on his way to freedom. She was fiddling with something, too—with her other hand. Her locket. He’d noticed it hanging low about her neck when he’d first gotten on the train, but he’d averted his eyes when he’d realized where he was looking. “So that’s what you like, is it?” he could almost hear his girlfriend Anna teasing. “Dentures and shriveled baps?” He’d met Anna just over a year ago—at the end of his second term. She was in Somerville College and she was coming to meet his parents in just a few weeks.
Cedric must have fallen asleep after that because he woke up some time later, vaguely aware of having dreamt about a fire—and a steak and ale pie. His mother was making one for his welcome-home dinner that evening.
“Hungry, dear?” asked a voice.
Cedric started and blinked groggily at Ms. Mott. Had he mumbled something in his sleep?
“I went to the restaurant car,” she said. “I brought you a few sandwiches and some crisps in case you were. I wasn’t sure what you liked.”
“Oh, I—er, thank you,” he said.
It had been ages since a stranger had offered him food. He hadn’t known that it was still a done thing. But she seemed so pleased with her efforts—and the sandwiches were still wrapped—and, after all, he was a bit hungry. So he sat there nibbling and making unintelligent comments about the weather and the scenery and so forth—and whenever they passed by the site of a particularly grisly death, his companion informed him of the fact and offered a few details by way of commemoration. Cedric had accepted this. He’d started to find it rather hilarious, actually, now that he was rested. In just a few hours, he’d be laughing about it with his mum and dad over a plate of pie—and anything that happened between now and then would only enrich the story he’d have to tell—about the batty old lady on the train.
“Oh—Sheffield,” said the old bat now, shaking her head sadly. “Dear me, dear me. Those poor people. And so many of them, too. Crushed to death, when all they wanted was to see a game.”
“You mean, at Hillsborough stadium?” asked Cedric. He’d heard about that, of course. His club was Manchester United—and Old Trafford had hosted the second semi-finals that year between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, after the first match was called off due to the crush.
She nodded at him solemnly, suddenly quiet. This surprised him. He’d expected her to pounce on his sudden responsiveness—to seize the opportunity to discuss one of her beloved catastrophes. But she seemed focused on something else now. She was staring distractedly out the window. And she was fiddling about with her locket again.
Ten minutes passed in silence. Practically an eternity in the context of this train ride. Then Ms. Mott spoke.
“There,” she said, pointing to a hill and craning her neck, as if she could almost see over it, “Just behind there. That’s where I lost my Tommy.”
Cedric froze. He swallowed the kind of dry swallow that always made him have to do it again.
“I’m—I’m sorry,” he stammered. “Was he your—?”
“My son,” she said.
“When?” he asked hoarsely, barely able to articulate himself. He felt as if a giant melon-baller had plunged itself into his torso and hollowed him out. This had been a comedy—a scene from a Dürrenmatt play. But, suddenly, the lens of humor had vanished and everything about the situation and their surroundings seemed oppressively sad.
“Oh, years ago,” she said. “I’m going to visit him now.”
Cedric pictured her, bending unsteadily over Tommy’s grave, resting the small teddy bear up against the headstone. It made sense now, her need to collect tragedies. Perhaps it gave her strength to know how many people had faced sadness before and come out of it. Or maybe their stories gave her a sense of belonging—of companionship.
“Do you want to see a picture of him?” she asked.
She opened her locket and held it up for Cedric to see. He leaned forward.
“He was six in that photo—it was taken just days before I lost him.”
“I—I can’t imagine,” said Cedric. “I’m—”
He broke off, unsure of what to say. In his own short life, he’d never faced anything to compare with her loss. And he felt horribly ashamed of himself for having thought her ridiculous. His face burned and tears of sympathy and self-loathing sprang to his eyes.
“My dear boy!” cried Mrs. Mott. “Are you quite well? There’s no need to look so glum! I found him again a few hours later! I should have mentioned that, I suppose. It was terrifying, of course. I mean, I spent half the day thinking that I’d lost my little boy. But then, there he was. He’d tumbled down the hill, you see—without making a peep—or hurting himself—and then made himself at home behind a pile of rocks. He’s all grown up now—with kids and everything.”
She held up the teddy bear and waved it at him, as if to say “why else would I have this thing with me?”
Cedric, who’d been holding his breath throughout her explanation, exhaled now—forcefully. He was almost shaking with relief. But Cynthia Mott, who seemed completely unaware of the ordeal she’d just put him through, went prattling on about how it had all happened—about what Tommy had been wearing and why—and about how steep the fall was, and how jagged the rocks were, and how lucky he was to have missed them. It took until the end of her story for Cedric’s heart rate to return to its normal tempo.
“So you see,” she said in conclusion, “Whenever I come here, I always have to think about all of the awful things that took place along this line, and about how Tommy’s death was almost one of them. It makes me so grateful for the life I’ve had.”
She smiled at him warmly, her wrinkles folding into larger wrinkles. And Cedric smiled back.
For the last few minutes of the journey, they chatted about Anna and Cedric’s family—and Ms. Mott told him about her love of history and about how she’d moved to Oxford to live with an Indian man she’d met while they were both on holiday in Cornwall. She came back to visit her grandchildren every month and had a little tea shop on Pembroke street, which she’d opened about ten years ago. Cedric should stop by with his friends sometime, she said; she made curry scones every Wednesday.
Eventually, they reached their stop, and Cedric helped to carry her bags off the train. When they parted ways at the station, he wished her well and promised to visit her soon. She assured him that Tommy and his family were waiting just outside to pick her up—and that there was no need for him to escort her any further. He watched her as she tottered away, her fragile form growing smaller in the distance.
She turned to wave at him just as his parents came over to greet him.
“Who’s that?” asked his mother.
“A teacher—from Oxford,” he said, smiling.
He would tell them about the shop and the curry scones later on.