A pregnant woman and a careless telegram operator combine to confuse a soon-to-be father.
|The Last Ticket|
The line snaked past the baggage carts and cornered, extending beyond the iron gate that was unlocked every morning at 5 am. Pamela, her back aching, her feet swollen, took her place at the end of the line. She checked her watch—it was ten past nine in the morning. Even with the long line, she imagined that she would be able to get on the 10:20, and then Matt would be at the station when she arrived after the long journey. On a low board propped against a newsstand that the line passed alongside was chalked the headline of the morning’s newspaper: King’s Navy Sinks Nazi Destroyer.
“When are you due, my dear?” She turned to see that an old woman had stepped into place behind her. Pamela could have identified her as English on sight—she wore a long skirt over dark stockings, a woolen blouse and matching hat, perched at an angle and held on with pins, a purple scarf tied high on her neck. Bright red lipstick surrounded irregularly spaced, heavily yellowed teeth.
“Two weeks to go,” Pamela said.
“You’re American,” the woman replied.
“Yes. My husband is in the Army Air Corps, stationed in London. I’m on my way to join him.” Pamela noticed that the woman was now looking past her, and she turned around and saw that the line had moved forward, so she waddled forward a few steps and then turned back around. “He’s an engineer.”
“Oh, how lovely,” the older woman said. “I’m going home to my son and his family. His wife is having a baby too, probably today, I expect. This will be my first grandchild.” The woman peered at the clock on the far wall of the station. “I think we’re going to make the train all right.”
“Yes, I think so.” Several people had moved into line behind the old woman now. Pamela patted her protruding abdomen. “This is my first.”
The woman’s face crinkled into a smile again. “Well, don’t you worry, dearie,” she said. “Nature will take its course, just as since the days of Adam and Eve.”
The two of them had turned the corner now and the ticket window was in sight. Pamela could hear the attendant’s brisk voice as he issued tickets. The transactions were going smoothly, and Pamela and the woman continued to inch toward the ticket window.
Then it was Pamela’s turn. She waddled up to the window. “London, a second-class berth, if you have it, please.”
“I have one first-class berth left and then the train will be full. Will that be acceptable?”
Pamela quickly calculated in her mind. “Please, when is the next train to London?”
“Next train at 2:25 this afternoon. That one’s usually half empty. Everyone wants to get to London by the end of the day, you see. That one doesn’t arrive until after midnight, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, I’ll take the first-class berth, please.”
The attendant stamped a square of paper and placed it on the ticket counter. “Six pounds forty.” Pamela passed the money over, picked up the ticket, and waddled out of the way, but as the old woman approached the counter to buy her ticket, the attendant rose from his stool and disappeared, exiting the ticket booth and coming around to address the few people who still stood in line. “I’m sorry,” he announced, “but I’m afraid the 10:30 to London is sold out. Next train to London is at 2:25 this afternoon.”
The people turned away and began to wander off; the old woman stood where she was, the confusion in her face turning to alarm. “Oh, dear,” she said. “I suppose I’ll have to telephone my son.”
The ticket attendant was still standing there, and he heard her. “I’m afraid the telephones are out, Ma’am,” he said. “The storm last night knocked over some of the lines. The boys are working on it, I’m told. The telegram wires are still up, though.” He turned on his heel and proceeded back into the ticket booth.
The old woman stepped off, her face worried and disappointed; Pamela saw that it was an expression she’d worn much in her life. Then she had a thought. “Here,” she said, extending her hand. “Take my ticket. I’ll telegram my husband. He’ll be able to meet me on the 2:25 train.”
The woman’s face brightened. “Are you certain, my dear?”
“Oh, yes,” Pamela said. She thrust the ticket into the old woman’s hands. “You take this last ticket and then you’ll be in London for your grandchild’s birth, and I’ll be right behind you on the next train.”
The woman took the ticket. “Bless you, my dear.” The old woman leaned forward and touched her cheek to Pamela’s cheek, as the English do, then stepped away toward the train that was standing making ready to go.
Pamela sat down on a bench along the wall and watched the train depart, and then got up and stepped over to the ticket window. “I’d like to send a telegram to my husband in London,” she said.
“One moment.” The attendant reached for the form. Pamela gave her address details and then the attendant looked up. “Message, please.”
“Please write ‘Am delayed. Gave berth to an elderly woman. Will arrive on the 2:25 train.’ How much will that be?”
“Sixteen words at 5 pee a word, that’s 80 pence, please.” Pamela passed over the coins and then returned to the bench. The attendant, busy as he was, made an error in writing the message onto the form, writing the word birth instead of berth, and the radio operator who transmitted the message, obligated as he was to transmit telegram messages exactly as written, did so.
When the telegram was delivered an hour later, Pamela’s husband puzzled over the message he received from his pregnant wife: AM DELAYED STOP GAVE BIRTH TO AN ELDERLY WOMAN STOP WILL ARRIVE ON THE TWO TWENTY FIVE TRAIN STOP