Short story challenge

The Cheviot tunnel

1959

Liza stared wistfully at the black and white photo of her Grandparents dressed in their best 1880’s clothing to celebrate the opening of the Cheviot Tunnel. Geraldine and George had always been a striking couple but this was Liza’s favourite of her Grandmother. She wore a huge, barrelling dress with a body conforming corset of that era and Liza just couldn’t imagine living in those times. It was fascinating. She had heard many stories of Yea and the construction of the tunnel in her Grandfather’s younger days. Her Grandmother had joked ‘Yay’ because of the two years she had spent waiting for her husband to finish the important and time-consuming tunnel that extended the railway to Mansfield. Two years of worrying whether it would collapse on him. Nine months later, her worries were over when they had their first child, Grace, who Liza had begrudgingly assumed was part of the celebrations of the day! She thought of her Mother, Grace, and how she must be feeling at the moment with the recent passing of Geraldine. Whilst her Grandmother had lived a long and happy life, it was too hard for Grace to sort through her things just yet so she’d asked Liza to have a look through her house. Liza had always possessed a bit more courage and tenacity than her Mother. Described as ‘plucky’, she threw herself into things without overthinking. Liza shared her Mother’s red hair that had snuck into the family gene pool along the way and kept it long so that the curls didn’t spring up in her face. No one else had been cursed with the flaming curls but it made her feel close to her Mother. Her Father’s death in World War 2 had secured the bond. Even her Grandfather had outlived her Father… She wondered what she would find in their house.

The house turned out to be very clean and organised. Liza made an initial appraisal and decided that most things could go to an opportunity shop, keeping a few pieces of jewellery for family heirlooms, and there was just one big box stored in the attic. That was where she had found the photo. It used to have prime position in a gold frame on her Grandparents mantlepiece but when her Grandfather passed away ten years ago, it was relegated out of sight. Liza spent an hour looking through old photos, giggled at some of her Mother’s baby clothes that had been kept and came to a single envelope at the bottom of the box. She was somewhat surprised that she hadn’t come across a bundle of letters but her Grandparents had married young, soon after they met, and remained close. Her Grandfather had always done physical jobs on the railway so perhaps he also wasn’t the writing type. Carefully opening the envelope, it contained a single, small sheet of curly writing.

Gerry, you were the light in my day and the day you left, the light went out.

If I don’t make it home, I want it to be yours. Make it bright again.

Yours in the light and the dark, love John.

1888

The whistle blew loudly for all to hear. “Breaks over” George also yelled out to the brick makers.  He was at Quinlans pit today, trying to increase productivity. They needed more bricks and quick! The pit wasn’t far from the tunnel, in a paddock upon which once roamed livestock and native animals. It had a huge damn, which was now perfect conditions to dig up the clay from the bottom and place into hundreds of wooden molds. Back breaking work, the brick makers would mix the clay with water and carefully level out the gummy clay in the molds before leaving to dry in the sun. At times, the workers would hum and sing tunes to make the time pass and keep their minds off their aching bodies but there was no singing today. The sun was high, the temperature balmy and they knew the boss was keeping a careful eye on their every move.

It was a good group of workers but they were exhausted and the company thought George might be able to motivate them to summon every last bit of energy they had to get the tunnel completed. They had made hundreds of thousands of bricks since the project commencement. However, the project had come to a standstill with the walls of the tunnel completed and now came the hardest part: trying to build the arches that would form the tunnel roof. So much pressure had been placed on George’s young shoulders to get this right but he had said he could do it! He reminisced for a minute as he himself had started as a brick maker at 14 years old on the railway station houses. After talking to the guys on the railway lines each day, he was hired in a section gang and quickly progressed up the food chain, convincing the company that he was more organised, frugal and hardworking than the foreman. Now at 23 years old, George had talked himself into Chief Supervisor for the tunnel project. Not long married, George also had to convince his lovely wife that this short term pain would give them long term gain and a great future together. She dutifully agreed and offered him the support that he needed at this time. She made herself busy with god knows what during the day and then had dinner ready for him at any time of the night that he got home. He kept reassuring her ‘not long now’ and ‘this is going to put the High Country on the map.’ He thought he was a very lucky man to have Geraldine by his side. The chauffeur he hired to drive her around brought her to the site each afternoon for him to have a break with her. Often the tea and biscuits was the first time that day that he had stopped and eaten but he didn’t tell her that. Sometimes he wondered if she resented having to spend so much time with the chauffeur, trying to make conversation with such a formal and polite man, but she never complained. In the end, he was always too busy to ask her and was unsure if he wanted her answer.

George made his way over to the foreman and slapped him in a friendly manner on the shoulder but it was a dire question. “Greg, are they going to make the numbers today?”

“Should do, sir, should do.” he replied trying to assure George.

“There is no should, we must!” George cried out as he surveyed the crew.

“From Tallarook to Mansfield… it’s never been done before men” he yelled out enthusiastically. A few of the guys looked up but also privately thought ‘it’s been awhile since you’ve bent over backwards making bricks all day long.’ But a few of the younger guys who secretly had aspirations for careers such as George’s sped up just a little bit more.

1959

Liza left the bank with her Mother quietly by her side. As Grace had been left all of Geraldine’s possessions, she had found herself with access to her Mother’s accounts and walked out of there with a house deed to a property in Yea that she knew nothing about. Still grieving, Liza didn’t want to bombard her with questions but she didn’t recall her Grandparents ever living in Yea. From the stories she had heard, they always travelled from a nearby town. George, picked up by someone from the company, and Geraldine was driven around each day by her chauffeur. Grace went straight to bed when they got home. She stayed there for two days and didn’t want to talk. On the third day, Liza decided that she was going to go and see the house.

The train still ran on the same tracks that her Grandfather, George, had helped build. Liza would travel from their home in Mansfield, along the historical route back to Yea. Sadly there was not as many passengers travelling on the line now. The population in that area had taken a huge hit with many of the men failing to return to their hometowns after World War 2. The roads had been improved and with the introduction of automobiles and now buses, Liza feared that the railway her Grandfather had worked so hard to build, might just become a thing of the past. Liza set off early as the train would take about two hours and then she’d try to find her way to the house. She’d called ahead to the Yea post office and been given directions to walk the rest of the way from the train station.

The train journey went smoothly and stopping at the post office for a break in her journey, Liza got to meet Margaret, the helpful lady who had provided directions. “So, what brings you to visit us in Yea, darling?” Margaret enquired.

Not minding the question in the slightest as she was dying to talk things through with somebody, Liza didn’t hold back. “I’ve just found out that this house is owned by my family and I couldn’t wait to see it!”

“You’ve just found out?” Margaret raised an eyebrow, always ready for a chat and any juicy gossip.

Liza explained that her Grandmother had recently passed away and that her and her Mother had been given the deed to the house in amongst her possessions.

“So was it left by one of her friends or relatives?” Margaret was hooked now.

“I’ve got no idea.” replied Liza who suddenly remembered the letter she had found in her Grandparents attic. “But, I found a letter from someone called John. I just don’t know who John is,” she continued thoughtfully.

Margaret had noticed Liza’s fire coloured hair from the moment she walked up. She thought of Laurel who lived near the house Liza was about to see for the first time. “When you’ve seen the house, pop in to number 48, a bit further down the road and ask for Laurel. Tell her Maggie’s sent you. She’ll be able to tell you a bit about the area. Have you seen Cheviot Tunnel before? No? Well ask Laurel to take you. She’s a lovely girl!” Deciding she better get back to her duties, Margaret walked back behind the counter at the post office and let Liza get on her way.

When Liza finally arrived at the house, there was a young girl in the front garden pulling out weeds. In overalls and a big floppy hat, Liza couldn’t see many of her features but guessed she was in her early 20’s and around the same age. Liza called out a polite “hello?” in greeting and also wondered why she was at the house. She briefly doubted that she had the right place but upon checking the number again on the letterbox, she did. The girl straightened up and pulled off her hat as she replied ‘Hi.’ The movement caused her hair to fall out of the hat and settle down the back of her neck and rested on her shoulders. Liza giggled unconsciously as she spoke without thinking “You’ve got red hair too!”

Luckily, the girl giggled back and shrugged ‘yep!’ She held out her hand in introduction “I’m Laurel.” As Liza stepped forward to shake hands Laurel explained that Margaret had given her a call when Liza had set off from the post office and said to expect her. Liza was surprised that after the handshake, Laurel leaned in for a hug and still holding on to her. As Liza wondered whether this was some kind of small town greeting, Laurel explained the overfamiliarity. “You probably don’t know, but this house used to be in my family.”

Liza pulled back, ‘what do you mean?”

“The owner of the house, John, was my Grandfather’s brother.” stated Laurel.

Liza had almost recovered from her surprise after a tour of the small and rundown house. Her mind was reeling trying to put all of the pieces of information together that she had learned recently. “Do you know my Grandmother, Geraldine?” she questioned Laurel when she could finally prioritise her thoughts.

“I don’t know her but I’ve seen her before,” replied Laurel mysteriously. “Come on, I’ll show you. There’s something you need to see. I’m going to take you to Cheviot Tunnel.”

Liza followed her to her car and together they drove for ten minutes in silence to the town, Cheviot.

As she stepped out of the car, Liza saw the historical society’s sign detailing the construction of the Cheviot Tunnel. She skimmed the information with growing anticipation until her eyes came to rest on the sepia toned photo and her eyes widened in disbelief. The caption below simply said ‘An early celebration at the Cheviot Tunnel portal.’ It showed several well-dressed gentlemen and one lady in a huge, barrelling dress with a body conforming corset. It was Geraldine. It was her Grandparents photo! From a wider lens. Her Grandma stood holding her dress skirt up out of the dirt and next to her, standing tall, was her proud Grandfather. There in the background, behind the men who had been important to the tunnel opening stood a chauffeur next to his horse and carriage. Laurel pointed at Geraldine in the photo, “that’s your Grandma isn’t it?” and Liza nodded. Laurel pointed to the chauffeur by his horse, “That’s John.” Before Liza could ask any more questions, Laurel added, “he had red hair too.”

Laurel didn’t know that much about John as he had died in World War 1, 1917. Her Grandfather had spoken of his brother with affection but knew that he had fallen in love with a married woman and just couldn’t find peace after that. When the war broke out, no one needed drivers anymore so he enlisted to fight for his country. He made a will before he left and upon his death, the house was left to the love of his life, Geraldine. Unable or unwilling to acknowledge it, the house sat empty and Laurel’s family had acted as caretakers all this time.

“Did you know?” Liza accused her Mother upon her return.

Her Mother didn’t even pretend not to know what she was talking about and put her head in her hands as she couldn’t look her daughter in the eye. She replied “I didn’t want to know. I just didn’t want to know. George was my Father and he was a great Father.” Grace moved to comfort her and put her arms around her. “But John. John and Mother. They spent those two years together. You don’t leave a house to a friend. I think he was my Father.”

Grace pulled her favourite photo of her Grandparents out of her bag and they both looked at it again with a new light.

 

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