Monday, 30 May 2011

The Shipwrecked Heart by Bobby Stevenson

“But in the world where there is no stay but the hope of a better (world), and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through these two harbours of a shipwrecked heart....”
Charles Dickens, letter, October 1865.

I want you to sit comfortably and find comfort in this strangest of tales. Some swear it is true, although there are just as many who would disagree. Perhaps in the passing of the years and in the re-telling, the shadowy remembrance of the truth has been lost. I am hoping, however, that you will be my judge and jury.

Our story concerns one warm day in June 1865 in the most beautiful Kent village of Shoreham, a day like many others where the occupants of this little haven are wrapped up in their day to day chores; all of them unaware of a train crash which has taken place several miles away. 

The centre of our tale is the Crown public house occupied by the hard working Mistress Squib and her family.

Eliza Squib has not seen her husband for many a year but we will not speak unkindly of that soul, rather we meet with Eliza as she takes the first opportunity of the day to sit and mend the clothes of her two children.
Her son, who stands beside her, is Obadiah Squib, the man of the house and full of all the life that God can give a heart. His wish is to sail the oceans and by this method find his father – but we shall leave that tale for another time. 

The boy who sits reading in the corner is the other apple of Eliza’s eye, young Benedict, who has been on this earth the merest of summers, yet he is assuming all the finer qualities that could be wished for in a son.

Finally we meet Charlotte Squib and let no harsh construct be heard against her. Charlotte is a good soul of infinite compassion and has sacrificed her life to work from morn’ through late evenings to compensate for her brother’s mysterious disappearance, Eliza’s errant husband. Ever since her brother’s parting Charlotte has been compelled to repeat the same incantation...
“He will return, I swear it.”
Eliza smiles as she has done a thousand times before and for all their worries and concerns they are a happy band and one that providence has decreed should assist our Mister Charles Dickens in his most troubled of times.

And so our story begins with an innocent knock at the door of the public house.
“Sweet bird of youth and such a times as this; tut, tut” 

At the door stands Mister Dickens, his mistress Ellen Ternan (known as Nelly) and her mother Frances. They have recently alighted from a train at Shoreham Station as Charles, having been overcome by the shakes, has been unable to continue his rail journey.

Never one to use his real name in such awkward and complex circumstances he introduces himself as a Mister Tringham esquire accompanied by his god-daughter Nelly and supported by her mother. 

“Let me rest awhile in order to dispense of this constant shaking” says Charles as he sits without being asked.
Eliza observing his distress dispatches Obadiah with all haste to prepare a set of rooms above. 
“I cannot have you abroad with such pallor as this gentleman displays, I feel you may all find a benefit in resting awhile. You are welcome, you are all most welcome” 

Although the day is splendid in heat and the windows thrown open to the skies, when Charles finally sits he asks the boy to be kind enough to build a fire and take the chill from his ancient bones. 

“May I trouble you once more, young...?”
“Obadiah, sir”
“Young Obadiah would you be so kind as to fetch me my overcoat, I believe I have abandoned it below”
As Obadiah retrieves the coat a manuscript falls from the pocket, it is several unpublished chapters of an excellent story by Mister Charles Dickens called ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Obadiah has read the early published chapters but has no recognition of these. He replaces the manuscript in the pocket and returns to the rooms above knowing that the man can only be one person. 

Entering the room Obadiah notices that the man sits unusually close to the fire.
“Is there something of consequence regarding my appearance?” asks Charles.
“None sir, it’s just that you have the look of a haunted man”
“T’is due to a change in my circumstances Obadiah, I have just this afternoon escaped from the throats of death. Not far from here was an accident of the most horrific sort, the train in which I travelled left the rails. Pour me a brandy Obadiah, there’s a good man.”

Obadiah likes being called a man and juggles the word in his head as Charles imbibes the first glass. Empty now, Charles holds the glass out for Obadiah to immediately refill.

In the adjoining room, Nelly is being attended by Eliza and Charlotte. She too is explaining their current circumstances as Eliza dresses Nelly’s wound to her upper left arm. 

“So you are Mister Tringham’s god-daughter?” asks Eliza as a distraction to subdue Nelly’s pain.
Nelly sadly replies, “He describes it as such but it is not the truth”
“I did not mean to breach a threshold with my inquisitiveness”
“You did not Eliza, if anything you are kindness itself. Mister Tringham is a writer, together with my mother we have spent a French summer in the company of the gentleman. He is my companion, not my god father”.
“It is of no consequence to me whatsoever” says an apologetic Eliza who watches as Charlotte excuse herself from the room.

“May I speak freely?” asks Nelly.
So Nelly explains that she met Charles when still only eighteen years of age and he was, even then, an elderly gentleman. She knows that Mister Tringham has a family and that she will be held to account one day but that day has not yet arrived and whether t'is the pain or the closeness of death she has tasted this day, Ellen Ternan speaks one sentence that will never pass her lips again.

“Our son lies buried in France”.

Next door, Obadiah has finished building up the fire to a roar which is almost impotent against the shaking. Obadiah knows this is not the best of times but he feels compelled to ask:
“I wondered sir, if it did not burden you too much, that perhaps you could describe the accident?”
“Why should you not be interested, after all you are a boy.”
“I am a man, Mister Tringham”.
Charles feels bad and apologies to Obadiah then implores him to make himself comfortable.

“I, and my two companions, had boarded the 2.38 tidal-train at Folkestone. All was well abroad and the world was an excellent container until I felt the carriage shaking, first this way then the other. My little Nell cried out, ‘let us all hold hands and die as friends’. A silence followed, Obadiah, one that hushed the very birds on the trees. I crawled to the window to observe that our carriage was hanging twenty feet, at least, above a ravine held by the slightest of graces. The others had been less fortunate, each having crashed to the river below. I called out to the train guards asking did they recognise me......”

He has said too much.

“You mean did they recognise you Mister Dickens?”
Charles smiles at the boy. “It is our secret Mister Dickens”
“Once my two companions were safely at the top of the hill I returned to the ravine, it would have been less of a chore to have walked into the jaws of hell. 

“The valley was awash with the dead and dying, I climbed the side of our train and re-entered our carriage retrieving my top hat and a brandy flask. 

“I filled my hat with water and took it to a young man who lay a short distance from me. What I could see, but he could not, was the fatal damage to his upper head. He asked that I slake his thirst, asked me not to leave him then closed his eyes for the last time.

“Slightly to the north was a lady of similar age to myself who lay on the ground. I lifted her and sat her against a little pollard tree and wetted her lips with brandy. She smiled at me with one half of her mouth and I instructed her to wait as I fetched for help. The next time I passed the tree she had expired. It was then I remembered I had left my manuscript in my pocket of my overcoat and that that was in the carriage we had vacated. I climbed as the carriage threatened to crash along with all the others. Yet I did not relish rewriting those chapters. I recovered the document which I am assuming you must have identified.”

Charles did not instruct Obadiah on all the facts regarding the three hours that he had spent tending to the dead and dying. In all ten people perished and forty nine were injured. He could not talk of it to others for fear of the scandal in his choice of companions. 

When he asked Obadiah what would ensure his silence regarding his true identity, Obadiah asked for only one thing, a new story written by the greatest of all writers. 

The source of the crash was a deadly simple one: the foreman at the site in Staplehurst had read the wrong timetable. His times were for the following day, the Saturday, when the next train was due shortly after five o’ clock but on that day, the 9th of June, Dickens’ train was due to pass the bridge at several minutes after three. Thinking that the workmen had two clear hours of maintenance, the foreman instructed the gang to lift the rails.

Shortly after Dickens finished his recounting of the tale, Charles, Frances and Nelly were on a train to Charing Cross. They were met at the station by Willis, Dickens confidant, who saw the ladies on to their London home at Mornington Crescent.

Charles had intended to return to his family that evening, a family watched over by his sister-in-law Georgina at Gad’s Hill in Higham, but the shakes overtook him once again and he spent the night at his London office.
Charles’ panic attacks increased over the following years and once it was noted by his daughter that he seemed to sink into a trance and relive the day of the crash. His concentration suffered too and he found it difficult to complete ‘Our Mutual Friend’. He brought it to such an abrupt halt that his publisher asked him to think again and extend it. This he did reluctantly but it was to be the last novel he ever completed.

It was love that kept Charles silent about that day and it was love that nurtured him in the final years of his life. He died five years to the day of the train crash while writing ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’. 

As for Charles attendance at the crash, there is a postscript by him at the end of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and as for the presence of Nelly, there is a letter sent by Dickens to the Station Master at Charing Cross instructing him of Mistress Ternan’s lost jewellery at the crash site. 

Regarding our Shoreham friends, Eliza’s husband Richard came home several months after Dickens’ visit and they settled into running the Crown Public House together; both are buried in Shoreham churchyard.

A few weeks after the crash a letter was delivered to Obadiah containing a story, true to his word Mister Charles Dickens, the most famous man in all Christendom, had penned a ghost story called ‘The Signalman’. 
Aunt Charlotte was committed to Bedlam where she died in 1877. Benedict, the youngest son took over the running of the Crown and Obadiah, after many years in the Royal Navy, settled in Australia.

And so dear friends we are almost done with this remembrance and whether or not you believe my story, I hope it has amused you. I wish each and every one of you a wonderful life.

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