Welcome to the third Case Files story, part of a series by creative writing students at York St John University. The students’ inspiration came from real-life crime stories, objects in our collection or their own imaginations. To immerse yourself in the world of mystery and detective fiction and take part in crime writing activities, don’t forget to check out the National Railway Museum’s Summer Sleuthing programme, running from 22 July – 2 September. Tune in next week for the next tale.
The Man in Skirts
By Sophie Spencer
I’ve been nervous for this all month. Mother says it’s my own fault for living so far away from the family. This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t acted like a ‘tawdry filly’ at the first glimpse of a boy. She never was fond of Phillipe and even less fond when we eloped within the fortnight. My sister could not contain her excitement when he left me for a Rita Heyworth double who was hardly in her womanhood.
The thought of travelling to London scares me much more than my mother’s haughty disdain. Everyone and their dog knows that a young woman riding the railways alone is a terrible affair. Only last month a woman was attacked by a man in her own carriage and no one had the faintest clue until the train reached the station. I’ve already checked thrice that my carriage key is in my purse, but I check again. Mother deemed it a waste of her money, but it made me feel safer. You don’t know the type of strangeness that could be wandering around at night.
This winter has been bitingly cold, and the open collar of my coat is coaxing the icy air down my spine. I shiver and readjust my furs, pulling them about myself. I felt jittery enough at the thought of getting a train in the middle of day, in the bright sunlight, but down to my own bad luck, there was an oak tree lodged on the train line after a nasty snow storm and my trip has been postponed. This is how I came to be standing on my own at half past eight on a freezing cold November night. The platform was jostling with activity, mothers with knee-high children darting between stockinged legs; short portly men with suits swelling against their full stomachs as they checked pocket watches every few moments, tapping a polished shoe in impatience.
There was another woman who looked around my age in an oversized mink coat, her red hair styled in a stiff fashion. She caught me staring and offered me a small smile and I suddenly felt more confident. See? Other women were travelling alone and there were far too many people on the station for anything awful or dangerous to happen. With that warming thought, I didn’t quite mind the idea of the two hours to Camden. I could sit and enjoy the fresh scone from the bakers I brought in my purse, then perhaps finish the latest Agatha Christie novel.
With a tremendous rattle, the train slid into the station, great plumes of smoke billowing here and there. I could see now why Phillipe thought these machines were meant for men; they were so foreboding and loud. The station master was all a fluster, blowing his whistle through reddened cheeks, waving his fat hands to and fro. The doors opened one by one and what seemed to be the entire population of Britain poured out of the steel skeleton. Before I even had a second to gather my thoughts, I was being pushed towards the great gaping mouth of the train, people pairing off into the little boxes. Panic started to swell up inside me, I naively didn’t realise I would be boarded with a stranger. I tried to wave my first class stub at the conductor but no one seemed to be paying me much attention.
The inside of the train was well furnished but horribly small. My passenger hasn’t come inside yet so I sat down stiffly, praying for a mother with a small child. I trained my eyes on my hands, staring at the mauve polish until my eyes watered. No wonder the papers described these carriages as ‘boxes of anxiety’. The doors slammed shut and a pair of red heels clicked past my vision. I looked up and was greeted with the same red-haired woman from the platform. Relief flooded over me so hard I became thankful I was already seated; my ankles were weak. Feeling more confident, I slid to the end of the seat and inserted the carriage key into the steel door and twisted. No luck as my wrists were far too delicate. Suddenly feeling quite the fool, I stood as tall and sturdy as I could and wrestled with cumbersome device, to no avail.
The woman behind me made a good-natured noise and stood up to assist me. I tried not to look taken aback at her height, even in her courts. I’ve always been jealous of women who were graced with height, allowing them to look elegant like the models built like coat hangers you see in glossy magazines. Hardly a breath above five feet, my head hardly skimmed her shoulders. With hardly any effort at all she turned the key and secured the door. I turned to give her my thanks and nearly jumped back in surprise at how close her face was to mine. A touch flustered, I seated myself, my thank-you already forgotten. The conductor walked past the doors and rattled each handle and blew his whistle, once, twice.
I pulled out my cake – now flattened from knocking about in my bag – and my well-thumbed book and tried to settle myself. However, my eyes would not latch themselves on the black print and kept snatching glimpses of my travelling companion. Something was off. I broke a chunk off my scone and chewed it thoughtfully. She was sat there calm as a Sunday afternoon, legs crossed demurely, reading last week’s copy of Woman’s Own. Her frame looked disproportionate, even for a larger lady. It wasn’t until she twisted her face a fraction of an inch that I realised so abruptly that I couldn’t prevent my gasp. The pastry turned to glue, sticking to my throat as I swallowed stiffly.
“Is something wrong dear?,” she questioned, her blue eyes burning into mine. I shook my head like a fish out of water and dropped my gaze to the floor. The balloon of panic that had withered just minutes before swelled up so fast I feared my heart might burst. The train was starting to move, I was trapped. I had no air in my lungs and I was in desperate need of a paper bag to calm my nerves. My childish fear got the better of me, I completely lost my head and bolted for the door, despite the fact I could feel the wheels chuntering beneath me.
What had once felt like a solid wall of security to protect me from the horrific stories was trapping me inside, almost writing the next day’s headlines. A solid hand was placed almost tenderly against my back and their breath was warm against my neck. My ankles began to buckle in fear and I spun around to face them, acting a lot more bravely than I felt. It was so close I could now see the soft shadow of stubble, even under the thick layer of makeup.
“My goodness, dear,” he said, stepping back a few inches. “Are you well? You seem flustered. Would you like some water?”
“No,” I replied flatly, sliding myself along the solid door to keep myself as far away as possible from the threat. Looking taken aback he sat back down, reflecting my stiffness. After a few moments, he picked up Woman’s Own and continued to read. Or pretended to, as I was sure I could feel those eyes watching me from over the glossy pages. I felt sick when I realised they were wearing false eyelashes. I was pretty sure it was the mink set from Ellure. The sort of pointless knowledge that mother would laugh at and tell me only a good-for-nothing tart cared for ‘excessive’ cosmetics.
What would possess a man to try and dress as a woman? Of course, a woman can wear a fitted suit and still look quite stylish, with the right makeup and shoes. A gentleman in skirts is just absurd and makes my skin crawl. I eyed him up again over the edge of my book and he pretended not to notice. Maybe if I just kept to myself for the next 30 minutes and got off at the next stop I’d be fine. He shuffled in his seat and removed the fur-lined coat draped over his shoulders. Sweat started to pool at the bottom of my back and my breath felt shallow. Thick, muscled arms were now on show, jarring against the soft crimson dress. He looked up and smiled, pearly whites gleaming.
This wasn’t just some peculiar pervert dressed in the latest fashions. Albeit stylish, this is a 14-stone man who could throw me about this carriage like a cloth doll. The panic erupted again, this was as dangerous as walking down the streets at night and taking a shortcut down a dark alleyway in a short skirt. My dress was sticking to my stomach now and I could feel how red I had become, my porcelain skin a giveaway. The carriage key was still gripped in my left hand and I was holding it so tightly that the sharp edge was almost breaking the thin bridge of skin between index finger and thumb. Trying to remain nonchalant, I shifted myself to the left a few inches to push the key under my thigh.
An image blossomed in front of me, a side effect of my overwhelming panic. It was of our eyes catching once more and his temper flaring, as men’s tempers are wont to do. A strong thick-knuckled hand makes contact with the underside of my jaw, taking me off my feet. My heart quickened even more at the thought and I clutched desperately at my chest in a vain attempt to calm it. Then after a second thought, I stopped, not wanting to catch his attention any more. My imagination wouldn’t settle, I saw myself splayed across the carriage floor, wrestling him like a cat in a bath, my skirts hitched up around my hips in a most unladylike matter. The thought made me feel physically ill and I swallowed down, fanning my face as discretely as I could. I’m not pure by any means, Phillipe made sure of that, but what man would want you if that happened?
My eyes flitted upwards and he was staring flat at me, with a look of fake concern.
“Are you sure you’re okay, dear? You look quite ill, do you not travel well?,” he asked, adopting some bizarre high-pitched tone, similar to my mother when she is acting posh on the telephone. Did he honestly think it made him sound like a woman? Despite my crippling fear, I felt a hot spike of embarrassment towards him. I latched onto the travel sickness excuse, somewhat grateful for a plausible answer for my odd behaviour. However, did he not realise how uncomfortable a young attractive woman would be in his perverted company?
“Yes. Yes, I’m just a little hot,” I said as normally as I could, despite feeling my thighs slipping against the key, slick with sweat. He smiled, malice in his heavily kohl-rimmed eyes.
“I’ll just open the window, shall I?,” he suggested, standing up. I sat rooted to the bench as his vast frame towered over me, biting down on my tongue and blinking hard to stop myself from bursting into floods. Showing fear seemed like the worst possible idea right then. Using one hand, the stiff window was wrenched open and I watched his arm muscle flex. Away from the small lamps, shadow clothed his face. He turned to me, a twisted kind of empathy etched across his structured face. In one swift movement, he leaned forward, encasing me in his shadow and placed a giant paw on my shoulder.
“Are you-” WHAM.
My fist hit his cheek with all my strength. He staggered back, clutching his face, blood running through his knuckles. I was pressed against the corner of bench, the key still crushed under my leg, as if I could simply melt through it onto the tracks below. I’d rather have been crushed by the wheels of this train than be locked in here right now. He stared at me for a few moments and then looked at his hand, at red wetness oozing down his wrist and peppering onto the stretch of his skirt.
“You crazy bitch,” he snapped, voice now low and husky. The tears came then, thick and fast, down my cheeks, probably ruining my blush. I didn’t dare wipe them away. I hardly dared to breathe. At this, he softened slightly and absent-mindedly wiped the blood on his skirt. I flinched as the blood soaked into nylon. He leaned forward slightly and twisted his body to mine and opened his mouth to speak. I darted for the train door once more, ramming the carriage key into the door so hard my nail snapped. I cursed through my tears, twisting hard on the metal, willing it to move.
“What the hell are you doing lady? The train’s still moving!” he yelped, jumping up again. Sobbing in frustration, I wriggled the key as hard as I could, yanking until the skin tore off my palms.
“My god, stop that!” he yelled and lunged forward, grabbing my wrist and twisting it away from the door. I screamed and smacked him, my fists feeling limp and pathetic against his chest. He flinched and pulled me further away from the door, but I wouldn’t let go of the key, and it pulled out of the keyhole, skittering across the floor. My wrist was still under his fingers and I was hysterical with fear. Twisting my body around as hard as could, I tore myself from his grip and sunk my teeth into his arm, grinding my jaw until he ripped away, hollering profanities. I felt something gristly wedged between my lip and bottom teeth and spat out a chunk of skin and blood. Bile rose in my throat, but before I could throw up, blinding pain erupted in my temple and I was suddenly flat on the floor, the ceiling spinning.
He was on top of me, pinning my wrist against the floor, digging his knee into my stomach. I thrashed, not letting him grab my other one, tearing at any skin I could reach. I kicked out, twisting around like an otter, determined to evade his grip until the next stop. His foot lost its grip in its kitten heel and slid off my stomach, knocking the key across the floor, inches away from my right hand. I flayed my hand around like a spider, desperately trying to grab it. He saw my intentions and lunged for it too, his weight shifting off me for a split second.
I didn’t even look, I flexed my finger around the metal edge and threw my arm forward, forcing all my pressure into what I hit. There was the most sickening squelch followed by a thick crunch. He screamed like a dog, an awful drawn-out yelp and spasmed away, legs fitting desperately, hand grabbing at his mangled face. Then, as fast as it happened, he went limp and slid stiffly to the floor, his other eye open and unseeing.
The already small box seemed to cave in, the walls melting like creme brulee. An odd sort of calm followed, the tears stopped and my heart rate slowed. I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. But there it was, three feet away, a dead body. I stared at his chest, moments before so strong and powerful, now seemingly weak and empty, the air poured out. My eyes fixated there, expecting to see it suddenly rise, jerky and scattered, as he coughed violently. Nothing happened. Hesitantly, I leaned forward onto my hands and knees like a cautious rabbit. This was something out of one of my brother Francis’s scary stories he’d tell me when I was little. I’d be curled under the blanket, creeping further and further under its protection as he spoke. The dead in his stories always came back to life and he’d impersonate them, yelling so suddenly that I’d cry.
I didn’t think this body was coming back. Feeling braver, I inched closer. The carriage key was lodged in his right eye, the handle tilted at an angle and slick with scarlet blood. Bile rose in my throat but I swallowed it back. His uninjured eye was open and blank, the pupil unnaturally dilated, as if reaching for light it would never find. His makeup was smudged roughly, grey smeared across his rough cheek. The bizarre urge to clean him up washed over me, followed by a spike of paralysing fear. What would happen when the train reached the station? It wouldn’t be hard to figure out the puzzle, dead man and woman covered in blood. Covered I was, the front of my bodice was damp and my hair was wet against my neck. But this was a man dressed up to the nines in women’s clothes, surely they’d realise that I was just defending myself from this pervert. I didn’t want to risk it. They could easily pin me as crazy and throw me in the loony bin, or even worse, jail. Manslaughter was still a hanging case. My arms erupted in goosebumps and I rubbed at them angrily.
I had no choice, I’d have to slip away at the next station shop, slide between the crowds of people before the conductor saw the scene. If I had any chance of getting away, I’d have to make this look as inconspicuous as possible. I braced myself and stood up, gripping the edge of the seat for support. Kicking off my shoes I took a deep breath. He was slouched against the edge of the bench, blood starting to congeal around his mangled eye. Holding my breath, I locked my arms underneath his and hoisted him as hard as I could upwards and shoved forwards, his bulk falling onto the seat and then immediately sliding. Beads of perspiration ran down my neck as I caught him and pushed back, twisting his arms forward so he was leaning against the wall.
Cleaning him up was no easy feat and I could feel the rolling of the wheels underneath me steadily starting to slow. Panic started then, imagining how surreal this would look if the conductor saw me tidying up a man in skirts. I scrubbed at the blood over his face with a bunch of tissues and gave his arms a once-over to be sure. I knew I needed to take the key with me, but the first few times I pulled at it, I physically gagged at the sound and his face lurched forward with it. However, the train was certainly starting to slow down so I forced myself to act more bravely than I felt. I lodged a foot against his chest and yanked the key as hard as I could. It finally gave and I nearly fell onto my behind with the pressure. I didn’t give it a second glance, just wrapped it hastily in the bloody tissue and crammed it in my bag.
I deliberated for a moment then grabbed my brand-new hat and ran my nails around the underside, locating the personalised label reading ‘Winnie Judd’ and tearing it roughly from the felt. I placed this over his face, at an angle to cover the eye and draped his coat around body. He looked like could be sleeping. Or so I hoped. It should be just enough time for me to get away before the conductor came over the awake the passenger and instead found a corpse. I examined myself in my compact, I looked like I’d been dragged through a hedge. After roughly combing my hair into place, I wrapped my coat around myself, still smelling the iron stench of blood on my bodice.
The station was sliding into focus and I noticed his heeled shoe, still hiding in the corner. I was too much in view now. I crossed my fingers so hard it hurt and pressed myself as close as I could to the door, ready to jump out as soon as I could. As the train pulled to a staggered stop, the pistons shot and the crowds of people flooded the platform, eager to be home for Christmas. Thank God it was busy. There was a rough click as the conductor opened the door. Feeling as if I was on stage I stepped out, trying not to walk so fast that it might look suspicious. I was sure that the whole of London could hear my heartbeat and smell my panic.
My heels clicked loudly as I paced through the crowd, weaving through thick-set men and their dolled-up wives, children skittering about my ankles, clutching sticky lollipops and keening for their parents like newborn kittens. There was a shout of horror behind me but I didn’t turn back, hoping the conductor hadn’t seen my face. The doors were only several feet away, then I could disappear into the night and this could be folded into a dark crevice of my mind, never to be thought of again.
The bustle behind was getting louder, and I heard a woman scream. The wind was cold on my cheeks as I approached the doors, a smile creeping onto my face.
A hand on my arm, their grip iron.