I have decided to publish a series of my short stories, by way of blogs, over the coming weeks. You may have come across some of them before, as some of them have been published – others have not, and so will be new to you and making their DEBUT on here. They span about 30 years of my writing. I hope you enjoy them, do please feel free to leave feedback via the comments section beneath each blog or via our Facebook Page – it is always nice to hear what the reader thinks. I hope they serve as a small introduction to those who are new to my work, and an enjoyable fix for my established fans whilst they are waiting for my next book 🙂 Janis x
Historical Notes on “The Race”: Fen legend has it that on the way back from London one evening in 1875, six young Ely bucks were subjected to the Cambridge Stationmaster voicing the glories of the Great Eastern Railway whilst they waited for their connection. The young men begged to differ and declared that the train from King’s Lynn to Ely was so slow that one of their Fenland ice skaters could easily beat it in a race. This is the story of that race. All the characters are based on careful research, and the real people and events. Organised ice skating was born in the Fens, and is still active today – when the weather conditions are right.
“The Race” was first published in Issue 4 of Vintage Script Magazine — Winter 2012. It achieved wide acclaim and a very charming email from Larman Register’s great-granddaughter.
(unfortunately, due to the peculiarities of WordPress, it has been impossible to provide the indents in the layout of this story for this blog version. If such things annoy you, you can read the perfectly laid out and indented story in PDF version here The Race PDF Edition
Janis Pegrum Smith
East Anglian Fens
He’d seen them coming from a mile off but he carried on rooting away with his ditch blade, hacking at the brambles and undergrowth. There’s no hiding place in the Fens, not a rise in the ground to break the view, nor ease the wind. He carried on working, though the men were drawing nearer. There were six of them, he’d counted them; gentlemen, from the way they were dressed, all muffled up against the cold. He didn’t feel the cold, the cold was his friend.
‘Afternoon, Larman,’ the tallest of the group greeted cheerily as the men gathered at the edge of the ditch to look down on him.
‘Gentlemen,’ Larman acknowledged them with a nod of his head. ‘Out for an afternoon stroll are we?’
‘No, actually it’s err…you we have come to see,’ the smallest man now spoke. Larman recognised Betram Hall, the brewer’s son. He recognised the others too – Hall’s brother, Arthur; the two Luddington lads; their cousin Tansley and the young solicitor, Archer. None of this clique was ever seen without the others in tow. ‘Your wife told us Sayle had you up here clearing his top ditch.’
That these young bucks had been troubling his Rebecca drew Larman’s full attention. ‘What’s it you’d be wantin’ of me, then?’ Young Ely gentlemen these fellows may be but with the reputation as rogues and scoundrels all.
The six stood shivering in their thick winter coats, hats, mufflers and high boots. Larman wore just his shirt, as if it were mid-July, his hat cast aside hours past in his sweat. These gentlemen were all in their early twenties, as Larman was himself, peers but only in age.
‘We have a proposition to put to you, my good man,’ said the solicitor, Archer, ‘a skating proposition.’
‘Skatin’?’ Larman sprang out of the ditch, tall and strong, he towered over them all.
‘We want you to race a train,’ Betram Hall chipped in.
‘A train?’ Larman laughed, someone was having a joke.
‘Yes, a train. You see we have laid a wager,’ Archer went on to explain as Larman continued to chuckle, ‘we have bet the stationmaster at Cambridge that one of our Fen skaters could beat the Lynn train in a race, they are so lamentably slow.’
That is how Larman knew these men – they came to the great ice-skating matches that were held out on the washes, when the weather was obliged to freeze. If you were a good skater you could win enough food and money to see your family through the cold spells, a time when there was no work to be had on the farms. The poor raced while the wealthy placed bets. The top skaters were heroes – champions – and people came from miles around just to see them race. These six young men were renowned amongst that crowd; those with money to spare gambled a bob or two on the races, but these chaps would bet a king’s ransom on anything they could.
‘Why me?’ Larman stood square on the ground and looked them in the eyes, ‘It’s young Watkins of Welney you’d be needin’ for a race, he’s the current champion.’ Larman went to climb back down into his ditch.
‘Aye, given you weren’t the fastest last year, and Watkins beat you, but everyone knows you’re the man when it comes to distance. We’re looking at around four miles here,’ declared Archer, stopping Larman in his tracks.
The other men murmured in their agreement.
Larman grinned. ‘What’s the prize?’
‘Let’s just say you won’t be digging Sayle’s ditches these next ten years if you win,’ intimated Archer.
Rebecca asked who the men were as soon as he stepped through the door, she was concerned they owed them money. This once he could honestly reassure her that they did not. He played with the children while she prepared dinner.
‘They want me to skate against the Lynn train, where the tracks run alongside the Ouse, from Sandhill Bridge to the Ely rail bridge.’
‘You know I don’t like you skatin’ the river, the washes aren’t deep but the river is death if the ice breaks.’ She didn’t turn from stirring the stew.
He went over and put his arm around her shoulders, held her to him, ‘Stop your frettin’, woman, there’s heavy weather comin’, the river’ll freeze ‘ard. Winnin’s are right ‘andsome, we’d have no worries for a long time after.’
They waited for the weather.
It was new into the year when the solicitor, Archer, knocked on their door.
‘Today,’ he said with a nod.
The Ely gentry had staked a lot of money on Larman’s skates, plus rumours had spread – it was now a matter of Fenland pride against the Great Eastern Railway. Larman suddenly felt the weight of this on his shoulders. As he left his village he stopped by the Southery Stone to spit on it for luck; a superstition, but one he’d adhered to since he was a boy.
‘Don’t you be tellin’ my Rebecca, she’d ‘ave a pink fit if she knew!’ he called out to Old Jack who was passing at the time.
‘Better to ‘ave the stone on your side than not, I always say,’ Jack winked.
‘Good fro’en day for skatin’, lad!’ his uncle, and namesake, greeted Larman as he arrived at Littleport’s Sandhill Bridge.
The trek across the fields had concentrated his mind. It was solid cold. Freezing fog refused to lift. Trees stood like bleached skeletons before a grey, swirling curtain that gave a visibility of but a few hundred yards. An ex-champion himself, now turned official, his uncle would oversee the start, along with a man from the railway.
‘Bit of a crowd!’ Larman observed.
‘Word got out, you know ‘ow it is,’ his uncle confided. ‘And we thought you’d like some company along the way.’ He nodded to where Larman’s brother-in-law, a fellow skater, was skating circles to warm up. ‘John’ll keep you company for a mile, then Will, Jesse Brown after that, then the last mile’s your own, boy.’
The older Larman took the younger’s coat, leaving him in nothing more than his long-sleeved woollen vest and trousers, which were tucked into his long socks.
Oblivious to the wager, the driver of the King’s Lynn train signalled he was ready to leave the station with the usual whistle blow – the race was on. Larman took the grip beneath his feet and launched forward on the ice, feeling the weight of his blades securely screwed to the soles of his boots, he then shifted onto the other foot. Long, lunging, sideways strides propelled him forward. Speed came quickly to a Fenman on skates – he and John were soon eating up the solid white path before them, wind behind aiding their cause. The ice groaned and crackled as they passed, but the weather had been bitter, the ice was a good two inches thick.
‘She’s gaining,’ called John as the engine puffed and laboured on the tracks beside them, billowing out smoke.
Larman concentrated, focusing on his rhythm; ‘right … then left … then right … then left …’ leaning forward, the grating glide of the skates on the ice constantly clicked and rattled beneath him. Like pendulums his arms gained the pace, then, folding them behind him, he streamlined his speed. He kept an eye out for imperfections in the ice.
From the corner of his eye, Larman saw John pull up.
‘Good luck!’ John shouted, then Larman was aware of another skater at his side, falling into silent companionship.
From the depths of the fog a heron lurched and Larman’s heart faltered. With silent wing beats it flew parallel with them for some moments then disappeared back into the mist. The train had fallen from view behind the steep riverbank to the right.
‘Can you hear her, Will?’ Larman’s own deep breathing made it hard to discern.
‘Behind,’ Will said, eventually.
Larman thought of how he would take Rebecca and the girls to Cambridge, buy them new dresses, toys – spoil them proper. He’d still have plenty of money left to buy tools. He had always liked tinkering with clocks and watches; everyone said he had a way with them. No more working the fields for him, he would become a clock mender. How respectable they would be, Rebecca would be so happy. They would have a business and the girls would never go without again.
Will tailed off; Larman’s dreams powered him onwards. Push, push – his legs reached out as far as they could, side to side, powerfully thrusting towards Ely.
‘You go, boy!’ came Jesse’s voice in his right ear, ‘Halfway and you’re still out front, you can do this.’ Jesse Brown was an experienced skater; Larman trusted his word.
Cheers came from the towpath where locals lined the bank. The ice was good, firm and true – the course had been swept. He could see piles of snow to the sides; his uncle undoubtedly had men out sweeping all night, the Fenmen wanted to see him win.
Before he knew it Jesse had dropped away.
‘Just over a mile left, go, lad!’ he shouted.
Larman was alone. He tried hard but he couldn’t hear the train – the bank and the fog cloaked sight and sound. Adelaide Bridge loomed eerily ahead.
‘What the devil?’ he said out loud as he saw the ice looked different beneath the bridge. Drawing closer he could see steaming ashes and coals strewn across his course. ‘They’ve cheated!’ he growled to himself and used some choice words in his head that his Rebecca would most definitely not have approved of.
Slowing to a stop his eyes sought a pathway through. The ice was gone, melted, a big pool of water showed through and, worst of all, he still couldn’t hear the train. Larman took to the side and saw he could just make his way around, if he clung to the bank and scrambled a bit. Suddenly, his skates slipped, his left foot was in the icy water, grabbing a large tuft of grass, he stopped himself from falling in completely – despite the winter, a nettle in his grasp left its sting. He swore out loud, but he was through. His legs started aching, the cold hit him raw through to his bones, all was lost! It had taken too long – the train was well past him, surely? All his dreams had tumbled through that hole in the ice, he felt like crying, his heart was so heavy – he had pinned their entire future on winning. Larman pushed off and began to skate, stretching his ears as best he could for a sign of the train.
Against the cold his pace quickened, faster and faster, anger now replacing his sadness, anger at those greedy, cheating railwaymen who wanted for nothing … and there! There was the train!
Toot! Toot! Toot! Chuff… chuff… chuff… it was behind him! The train was still behind him! Larman laughed, and there before him was the Ely railway bridge, the finish line, he could still do it! Yes, he could see men gathered under the bridge, many more standing on the riverbank, he could hear the train clearly now, behind him for sure. Larman skated for his life; his heart drummed in his ears, his head throbbed and his chest felt fit to burst as the ice swished faster under his feet.
He was there; flying under the bridge. A great cheer rose up, though words of annoyance fell from the mouths of a few Great Eastern men. As Larman bent forward, hands on his hips, trying to gather his breath, the train rattled across the bridge above, he had won! His backers slipped down the bank, sliding towards him as best they could across the ice. They grabbed his hand, patted his back, some sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow!’ Someone threw a coat around him, he was hoisted up on shoulders, carried aloft to the pub and celebrated by all.
In the bar Larman recounted how the railwaymen had cheated by melting the ice, the opposition of course denied it. Later, the Fenmen huddled together over their pints and plotted their revenge, but that’s another story though…