Extract: Christmas With the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas

The first chapter from Maisie Thomas's latest novel.

The cover of Maisie Thomas's 'Christmas With the Railway Girls' alongside the words 'Penny Street's 12 Days of Christmas', against a wintery background.



Late June, 1941

Cordelia stood at the foot of the tall pole, looking up at the pair of railway signals jutting out high above her. It used to be scary to climb a ladder that was vertical rather than one propped up at an angle, but she was used to it now and didn’t think twice about settling her knapsack on her back, grasping the sides of the ladder and placing her foot on the bottom rung. Some signals weren’t all that high off the ground. It was simply a matter of their being visible to the train driver. These two signals were at least twenty feet up, because of the water tank beside the permanent way that would have obscured the train driver’s view if the signals were lower.

She climbed to the top. If there was more than one signal, she always began at the top and worked down. As she stepped from the ladder onto the wooden platform, she felt the usual little swirling sensation in the pit of her stomach, but after all these months of experience in her job as a lampwoman, it lasted only a moment. It was another cool day. Last week had been gloriously hot, but the end of June looked set to be significantly less warm. Beneath overcast skies, Cordelia removed the lamp from the signal arrangement, cleaned it and put it back in position before swinging herself back onto the ladder to climb down to the platform beneath.

The upper signal was for the main line, the lower for the branch line. How proud she had been when she had learned 2 that. The feeling of becoming good at her job above and beyond simply going through the motions of the endless cleaning and putting back of lamps, the feeling of actually understanding the workings of the railway, had made her rock on her heels with satisfaction. But who was there to share her small triumph? Not Kenneth. He didn’t like her working on the railway. He would have infinitely preferred her to join the Women’s Voluntary Service or take on a role in the Citizens Advice Bureau, like her friends had.

She couldn’t tell her friends either – not those friends, her old, long-established friends, with whom she had for years played bridge, learned flower arranging and attended matinée performances at the theatre. Those ladies were similar to herself, married to well-to-do professional men and living in smart houses, with at the very least a daily help, if not a live-in maid. These friends did their bit for the war effort dressed in the green of the WVS  – the whole uniform, mark you, not just the hat or the jacket with which less well-off women had to make do – while for her war work, Cordelia wore sturdy dungarees and a headscarf – though, she acknowledged with a smile, her headscarves were pure silk.

She had new friends now. My goodness, what an eyeopener that had been. Whoever would have imagined before the war that Mrs Kenneth Masters, Mrs thoroughly middle-class Kenneth Masters, would make friends with women from lower down the social scale? They weren’t superficial friendships either. She truly valued, even loved, her circle of railway friends, especially Dot, dear, workingclass Dot, whose big heart and common sense Cordelia treasured.

It was thanks to Miss Emery that the group had got together in the first place. She was the assistant welfare supervisor with responsibility for women and girls of all 3 grades. On Cordelia’s first day on the railways, Miss Emery had given the newcomers a piece of advice that had – well, Cordelia couldn’t speak for the others, but from her own point of view, it had changed her life, if that didn’t sound too dramatic. It all came down to class distinctions. Take her and Dot. As Dot had rightly pointed out, in normal circumstances she would have been Cordelia’s charwoman, beating her rugs and scrubbing her kitchen floor. But Miss Emery’s advice had been to set aside disparities in class and become friends. Cordelia had hidden her initial shock at the very idea. Fortunately for her, she had had the good sense to appreciate that Miss Emery wouldn’t have suggested such an extraordinary thing without a solid reason and she had soon found that the assistant welfare supervisor was right.

Cordelia had grown fond of the younger girls who made up the bulk of their group, Mabel, Joan, Alison, Colette and Persephone, who were all in their twenties; she had also developed a real rapport with Dot, who, like herself, was in her forties, married and a mother, though Dot had two grandchildren as well. In recent weeks, their group had opened its arms to welcome newcomer Margaret, whom Joan knew from when the two of them had worked at Ingleby’s before the war.

If anybody (namely Kenneth) had ever doubted the sincerity and depth of the railway girls’ friendship, Cordelia believed that a certain event at the beginning of the month had proved it beyond doubt. This was when she and Dot had had the honour of being mothers of the bride to Joan. There had been four mothers of the bride altogether, the other two being Joan’s then landlady, Mrs Cooper, and her fellow lodger, Mrs Grayson, who had an unhappy past involving a dead baby and an errant husband.

Joan and Bob’s wedding had been a touching and emotional occasion, but the reception that followed had been 4 even more special because, following a water leak in the church hall where the reception had been due to take place, Joan’s friends had mucked in and put together a fresh reception with all the trimmings in the station buffet, to the delight and astonishment of the happy couple, from whom the disaster of the water leak had been kept secret. Cordelia had been proud to be involved. It was one of the best days she had had, if not the very best day, since war had been declared.

She was due to meet up with her friends in the buffet after work this evening and it was going to be one of those special times when they were all present, something that didn’t happen often because of shift patterns and compulsory overtime. Warmth radiated through her as she thought of the tickets she was going to hand out.

She climbed down the ladder to the ground and set off at a brisk pace for her next set of lamps. Sometimes, she worked in the yards outside Victoria Station, removing, cleaning and replacing the sidelights and tail lights on the wagons. Other times, like this week, she walked the line, cleaning the lamps along an allocated stretch of the permanent way. That brought another smile to her lips. To the rest of the population, it was the railway track, but she, being in the know, called it the permanent way. Just another tiny piece of knowledge that, added to all the others, made her feel professional, a feeling she very much enjoyed. She had married in 1920, and since then her life had revolved entirely around the home, which was only to be expected of a family such as theirs – but how wonderful it was now to have a life and a purpose outside the home.

Her job was menial, according to Kenneth.

‘People of our sort don’t work with their hands.’

If she was honest, Cordelia had felt somewhat taken aback when she’d discovered what her war work on the 5 railways was going to involve, but she had hidden that response, just as she had hidden her initial response to Miss Emery’s advice, and afterwards she was grateful that she had, on both counts.

‘It’s a novelty for now,’ Kenneth had told their friends, speaking with the confidence of a gentleman whose wellbred wife would never contradict him in public. ‘When Cordelia gets tired of it, there are plenty of more suitable roles in which she will be far more useful.’

Cordelia felt extremely useful where she was, thank you very much. Her job might involve working with her hands and it might not be the most intellectually stimulating task, but, crikey, one thing you could never say about it was that it wasn’t useful. Keeping the lamps clean so they could shine clearly helped to keep the trains running and helped keep the railways safe. Her job as a lampwoman might not seem like much on the face of it, but her contribution to the  war effort was, in its own small way, to help keep the  country’s essential transport system moving. Britain couldn’t manage without its railways. How else could they have sent hundreds of thousands of children to safety at the outbreak of war? How else could thousands upon thousands of soldiers rescued from Dunkirk have been  dispersed speedily throughout the country? How else were food, fuel, munitions and troops to be moved around efficiently? The way Cordelia saw it, the railways were every bit as important as the army, the navy and the air force.

She realised she had thrown back her shoulders as she walked to the next set of signals. Quite right too. She was proud of her job and proud, too, of the work done by each of her friends. Dot was a parcels porter, working on the trains, Joan a station porter, assisting passengers on Victoria Station itself. Persephone was also based at Victoria Station for her work as a ticket collector, though her chums 6 sometimes joked that she had the additional job of giving men’s spirits a bit of a boost by being so beautiful. Margaret worked in the engine sheds, cleaning the locomotives, while Alison and Colette both had clerical positions in nearby Hunts Bank. The only other member of their group who worked outdoors on the permanent way was Mabel, who belonged to a gang of lengthmen, whose job was to shore up the ballast beneath the railway sleepers, the eightfoot-long wooden planks on which the tracks lay. The difference between Mabel and Cordelia was that whereas Cordelia sometimes worked in the yards and sidings belonging to Victoria Station, Mabel was out on the permanent way every single day come rain or shine.

Cordelia gradually made her way down the line, covering today’s portion of this week’s section. A week’s work was around a hundred and fifty lamps, including those on level crossings. When she finished for the day, she walked up the slope onto a station platform. While she waited to catch the next train into Manchester Victoria, she nipped into the Ladies to spend a penny – though she didn’t actually put a penny in the slot to unlock the lavatory door. One distinctly annoying aspect of working on the railways was the shocking scarcity of facilities for female employees, most notably the lack of lavatories. Women railway workers were obliged to use the same facilities as the women passengers, which was fine up to a point, but many of them drew the line at paying for the privilege. Not to worry, though, as a cleverly bent nail could undo the lock if you knew precisely how to manoeuvre it. Although it irked her that the London, Midland and Scottish Railway hadn’t seen fit to make proper provision for its many women workers, it didn’t sit well with Cordelia, maybe because she was married to a solicitor, to cheat LMS out of its pennies, so she made up for it by putting half a crown a week into the 7 Red Cross box. She was the local collector, both around where she lived and also in the lamp sheds, for the Red Cross’s successful Penny a Week Fund, which bought comforts for the troops.

Standing in front of the mirror over the pair of basins, Cordelia removed her green silk headscarf and checked her clip-on earrings were still in place: she wasn’t dressed without her earrings. Then she delved in her knapsack for her comb, powder compact and lipstick. Wearing dungarees was no reason not to look her best. Shaking out her scarf, she folded it in half into a triangle, laid it over her head and tied it at the back of her neck, beneath her hair, careful not to disturb the stuffed stocking around which her hair was rolled, making it sit just above shoulderlength.

She used to wear her hair shorter and fashionably shingled when she was in her thirties, but as she had drawn, oh horror, ever closer to her fortieth birthday, she had grown her hair because she felt it was her last chance to have a bit of length. Then the dreaded age had hit her and she had discovered that being forty didn’t feel different to any age starting with a thirty and she had ended up keeping it longer.

She went onto the platform just as the train came into view, white clouds puffing from the funnel. As the train ran alongside the platform, the white clouds stopped appearing and there was a hissing noise, then the brakes shrieked and some of the doors were thrown open even before a deep clunking sound signalled that the mighty vehicle had come to a halt.

The train was packed, which was par for the course at this time of day. Cordelia squeezed aboard, holding her knapsack close to her body so as not to bash anyone with it. She edged into a corner, giving a general smile to the 8 passengers who had somehow made room for her, and pretended not to notice the glances that came her way. She was well aware of the disparity between her workmanlike dungarees and her air of well-bred elegance. She liked the contrast. She was proud of it. It showed what she was made of.

Cordelia Masters – lampwoman.


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