NOW, the Scribbler loves a good ghost story. Who doesn’t?
It was while perusing Peter Ackroyd’s superb book “The English Ghost” (Vintage Books, £7.99) that he came across this odd little tale that directly relates to this area.
Ackroyd writes brilliantly about London and its environs, its folk tales and its history. He also writes prodigiously – the Scribbler can recommend a couple of his novels he has enjoyed – in particular “Three Brothers” and “Hawksmoor.” If you love London and you love a tale, you will like Ackroyd.
Anyway, back to this story. It is set in the 1930’s, but its elements will be familiar to all who travel on this line.
As Ackroyd recounts, the story was first told to Maud Ffoulkes by Mrs Theodore Cory – then better known as the novelist Winifred Graham.
“I was travelling from Hampton Court to Waterloo one morning, and was lucky enough to find an empty carriage at Hampton Court. At Thames Ditton, the next stop, quite an ordinary-looking man got into the carriage and sat down at the far end from me. We took no notice of each other, and in the ordinary course of events I should have continued reading my newspaper without giving him a thought.
“But suddenly I had the most dreadful feeling about him. In fact it was so strong that I could hardly support his presence, and something seemed to say “Take in every detail of that man’s appearance, because you will have to identify him again.” Naturally, after receiving this psychic warning. I thought he might be going to attack me, and I decided to get out at the next station, (Surbiton), but in the meantime I obeyed the inward order.”
(Incidentally this would place this story as having taken place before 1933, Berrylands Station, which is the next stop down the line between Thames Ditton and Surbiton, and which Mrs Cory does not mention, or indeed contemplate getting off at, was opened in October 1933.)
Anyway – Mrs Cory continues: “Without appearing to observe him, I registered in my mind his face and figure, the colour of his clothes, and especially a little pile of four books, fastened neatly together with straps.
“So uncomfortable and nervous did I feel, that I was ready to jump out of the train at the nest station. But, rather to my amusement, before I had time to rise to my feet when the train drew in at Surbiton, my fellow traveller calmly took his books under arm, srepped out and marched off. Telling myself I was very silly, I dismissed the incident from my mind.
(Photo by Michael Smoczynski)
“Surbiton is always a busy station in the morning, and a minute later some other people got into my empty carriage, and the train proceeded to Waterloo. I closed my eyes for a little, and opened them at Vauxhall, to see what station we had arrived at when, to my unutterable horror, I saw the very same man seated in front of me. On his knee were the four books in their straps, and he sat very still, gazing quite calmly and normally at me.
“At this time, being unacquainted with the psychology of ghosts, I was frozen with terror, as I knew he had left the train at Surbiton. I got out and ran the whole length of the train, desirous of nothing except to put distance between us. Then I jumped, panting, into a compartment, terrified lest I should meet him again at Waterloo.
“Alas this ghost story has no sequel, this story was the beginning and end of my phantom man, and I shall never be able to explain it to myself or crease regretting my folly in doing a bolt. How often have I longed to know what would have happened had I asked the “ghost” the time, or waited to see whether he would vanish when I reached our destination.”
(This story was first published by Maud Ffoulkes in “True Ghost Stories” (1936).
This version appeared in “The English Ghost” By Peter Ackroyd (Vintage Books, 2011).