On the Brighton Road
This is a quite short story by Richard Middleton that I love for its simplicity and brevity. In talking about the story here, I drop a couple of spoilers. If you’ve never read it before scroll down now. Do come back when you’re done, though.
This story delights in playing with words to dance around the question: who is really dead? We know it’s a ghost story, so there should be a ghostly manifestation of some sort. I’ll admit that on my first reading I understood that it’s the boy who’s a ghost, but that was as far as I really read into the text.
On subsequent readings I realized that there is clearly a case to be made for both characters being dead. The tramp waking in the snow and saying he was lucky to wake at all in this. Saying to himself “Am I glad or sorry that it was only sleep that took me … ?”
In particular the exchange where the tramp admits that he hasn’t been at it [being on the road] as long as the boy, who responds “No, I could tell that by the way you walk. You haven’t got tired yet. Perhaps you expect something at the other end?”.
The other end of the road or the other end of something else?
This story illustrates well an important point about short stories in general, and in particular short ghost stories. Words are at a premium. There’s no luxury of rambling on and on for several pages (as a novel might) and these form of stories benefit greatly from brevity - making sure that each word moves the story forward and is not extraneous. That they also still need to provide a chill or uneasiness speaks to the mastery of some authors in this space, and I believe this story is a fine example of that.
Read it once, then come back and carefully read it again. See if you appreciate a new dimension to the story.
Forever traveling the Brighton Road.
Richard Middleton is probably known best for “The Ghost Ship”: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11045
There is also a nice audiobook of “The Ghost Ship” that contains this particular story if you’d like to give it a listen. I had originally thought about recording my own version of the story as an audiobook, but the narrator in this version has a legitimate accent that works well.
As before, I’ve created ebook versions for those that would prefer to use an e-reader:
On the Brighton Road
Slowly the sun had climbed up the hard white downs, till it broke with little of the mysterious ritual of dawn upon a sparkling world of snow. There had been a hard frost during the night, and the birds, who hopped about here and there with scant tolerance of life, left no trace of their passage on the silver pavements. In places the sheltered caverns of the hedges broke the monotony of the whiteness that had fallen upon the coloured earth, and overhead the sky melted from orange to deep blue, from deep blue to a blue so pale that it suggested a thin paper screen rather than illimitable space. Across the level fields there came a cold, silent wind which blew a fine dust of snow from the trees, but hardly stirred the crested hedges. Once above the skyline, the sun seemed to climb more quickly, and as it rose higher it began to give out a heat that blended with the keenness of the wind.
It may have been this strange alternation of heat and cold that disturbed the tramp in his dreams, for he struggled tor a moment with the snow that covered him, like a man who finds himself twisted uncomfortably in the bed-clothes, and then sat up with staring, questioning eyes. “Lord! I thought I was in bed,” he said to himself as he took in the vacant landscape, “and all the while I was out here.” He stretched his limbs, and, rising carefully to his feet, shook the snow off his body. As he did so the wind set him shivering, and he knew that his bed had been warm.
“Come, I feel pretty fit,” he thought. “I suppose I am lucky to wake at all in this. Or unlucky—it isn’t much of a business to come back to.” He looked up and saw the downs shining against the blue, like the Alps on a picture-postcard. “That means another forty miles or so, I suppose,” he continued grimly. “Lord knows what I did yesterday. Walked till I was done, and now I’m only about twelve miles from Brighton. Damn the snow, damn Brighton, damn everything!” The sun crept higher and higher, and he started walking patiently along the road with his back turned to the hills.
“Am I glad or sorry that it was only sleep that took me, glad or sorry, glad or sorry?” His thoughts seemed to arrange themselves in a metrical accompaniment to the steady thud of his footsteps, and he hardly sought an answer to his question. It was good enough to walk to.
Presently, when three milestones had loitered past, he overtook a boy who was stooping to light a cigarette. He wore no overcoat, and looked unspeakably fragile against the snow, “Are you on the road, guv’nor?” asked the boy huskily as he passed.
“I think I am,” the tramp said.
“Oh! then I’ll come a bit of the way with you if you don’t walk too fast. It’s bit lonesome walking this time of day.”
The tramp nodded his head, and the boy started limping along by his side.
“I’m eighteen,” he said casually. “I bet you thought I was younger.”
“Fifteen, I’d have said.”
“You’d have backed a loser. Eighteen last August, and I’ve been on the road six years. I ran away from home five times when I was a little ‘un, and the police took me back each time. Very good to me, the police was. Now I haven’t got a home to run away from.”
“Nor have I,” the tramp said calmly.
“Oh, I can see what you are,” the boy panted; “you’re a gentleman come down. It’s harder for you than for me.” The tramp glanced at the limping, feeble figure and lessened his pace.
“I haven’t been at it as long as you have,” he admitted.
“No, I could tell that by the way you walk. You haven’t got tired yet. Perhaps you expect something at the other end?”
The tramp reflected for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said bitterly, “I’m always expecting things.”
“You’ll grow out of that;” the boy commented. “It’s warmer in London, but it’s harder to come by grub. There isn’t much in it really.”
“Still, there’s the chance of meeting somebody there who will understand—”
“Country people are better,” the boy interrupted. “Last night I took a lease of a barn for nothing and slept with the cows, and this morning the farmer routed me out and gave me tea and toke because I was so little. Of course, I score there; but in London, soup on the Embankment at night, and all the rest of the time coppers moving you on.”
“I dropped by the roadside last night and slept where I fell. It’s a wonder I didn’t die,” the tramp said. The boy looked at him sharply.
“How did you know you didn’t?” he said.
“I don’t see it,” the tramp said, after a pause.
“I tell you,” the boy said hoarsely, “people like us can’t get away from this sort of thing if we want to. Always hungry and thirsty and dog-tired and walking all the while. And yet if anyone offers me a nice home and work my stomach feels sick. Do I look strong? I know I’m little for my age, but I’ve been knocking about like this for six years, and do you think I’m not dead? I was drowned bathing at Margate, and I was killed by a gypsy with a spike; he knocked my head and yet I’m walking along here now, walking to London to walk away from it again, because I can’t help it. Dead! I tell you we can’t get away if we want to.”
The boy broke off in a fit of coughing, and the tramp paused while he recovered.
“You’d better borrow my coat for a bit, Tommy,” he said, “your cough’s pretty bad.”
“You go to hell!” the boy said fiercely, puffing at his cigarette; “I’m all right. I was telling you about the road. You haven’t got down to it yet, but you’ll find out presently. We’re all dead, all of us who’re on it, and we’re all tired, yet somehow we can’t leave it. There’s nice smells in the summer, dust and hay and the wind smack in your face on a hot day—and it’s nice waking up in the wet grass on a fine morning. I don’t know, I don’t know——” he lurched forward suddenly, and the tramp caught him in his arms.
“I’m sick,” the boy whispered—”sick.”
The tramp looked up and down the road, but he could see no houses or any sign of help. Yet even as he supported the boy doubtfully in the middle of the road a motor car suddenly flashed in the middle distance, and came smoothly through the snow.
“What’s the trouble?” said the driver quietly as he pulled up. “I’m a doctor.” He looked at the boy keenly and listened to his strained breathing.
“Pneumonia,” he commented. “I’ll give him a lift to the infirmary, and you, too, if you like.”
The tramp thought of the workhouse and shook his head “I’d rather walk,” he said.
The boy winked faintly as they lifted him into the car.
“I’ll meet you beyond Reigate,” he murmured to the tramp. “You’ll see.” And the car vanished along the white road.
All the morning the tramp splashed through the thawing snow, but at midday he begged some bread at a cottage door and crept into a lonely barn to eat it. It was warm in there, and after his meal he fell asleep among the hay. It was dark when he woke, and started trudging once more through the slushy roads.
Two miles beyond Reigate a figure, a fragile figure, slipped out of the darkness to meet him.
“On the road, guv’nor?” said a husky voice. “Then I’ll come a bit of the way with you if you don’t walk too fast. It’s a bit lonesome walking this time of day.”
“But the pneumonia!” cried the tramp, aghast.
“I died at Crawley this morning,” said the boy.