Enjoy a free short story from "The People's Friend" set in the 1930s

Night to Remember free short story

The suave man I’d run into on the station platform had immediately caught my attention . . .

The heel on my left shoe snapped as I dashed along the platform. I would have landed face down if a hand hadn’t grabbed my arm.

“Steady!” a man’s voice said. His fingers were slender and lightly nicotine stained. On his wrist was an expensive watch, half hidden by a tweed cuff held together by gold cufflinks.

I looked at his face. It was the kind of cosmopolitan face that belonged in Monte Carlo or St Tropez. It was a face I recognised instantly. For a brief moment I froze. He frowned and tilted his head ever so slightly, then smiled. It was a smile aimed at gaining one’s confidence – or perhaps a smile of recognition?

“There’s no rush.” He pulled back his cuff. “The train doesn’t leave for another eight minutes. “Let me help you with your suitcase.” I watched him as he adjusted his cuff.

Even that simple action had a suaveness about it. He had those urbane mannerisms that men seemed to be cultivating in the 1930s and I didn’t like it one bit.

“Thank you, but there’s really no need. If we’ve still got eight minutes left –” “Seven, now,” he said, grabbing my suitcase.

“And I’d take your other shoe off before you come a cropper again.” The easy smile spread across his face again. I followed him along the platform with a slight limp. He looked back. “Looks like you’ve sprained your ankle.”

“It could have been worse,” I replied.

Why I had worn such high heels was beyond me. Pumps would have been better, or my work shoes. But I suppose I thought I should dress appropriately for first class on the night sleeper to Scotland – the Royal Highlander.

“Which carriage are you in?” the man asked.

“First class,” I replied, feeling something of an imposter. “It’s a treat. It’s my birthday tomorrow.” “Well, why not?” the man said. “There’s no harm in indulging oneself if the occasion calls for it.”

The trip was a twenty first birthday present from my grandmother. I was heading for Perth to visit her, as she was too frail to head to London. We arrived at the first-class carriage and the man insisted on carrying my case all the way to my compartment, despite the protestations of the smartly dressed porter.

“I’m Gerald, by the way,” the man said as he placed my suitcase by the door. “Gerald Sinclair.” He offered his hand. He had revealed his name, which suggested to me that he hadn’t recognised me after all.

“Susan,” I replied, shaking his hand with reluctance. Susan was the first name that came to mind and it wasn’t my real name. A guard came walking down the corridor towards us. He looked down at my bare feet.

“I broke the heel on my shoe,” I explained. “I was rushing, thinking I would miss the train.” “Well, fortunately, you didn’t. We’ll have you north of the border in no time.”

“Wonderful! The faster the better,” Gerald replied. Yes, I thought. I bet you can’t wait to get away from London. There was a gentle easing forward of the train, and clouds of steam blocked the view of the platform.

“Shouldn’t you be finding your compartment?” I asked Gerald, who seemed mesmerised by the steam.

“What? Oh, yes, I should,” he replied. He took his ticket from the inside pocket of his double-breasted wool coat. For a brief moment I thought I saw something glistening in the pocket.

“Well, fancy that. I’m only two doors down from you,” he said.

“Well, thank you for helping me,” I said.

“My pleasure. I say, would it be forward of me to ask you to join me for dinner this evening?” I let out a nervous giggle.

“You’re laughing at me,” he said.

“I’m sorry, but you remind me of one of those cads in the films.”

“A cad? Really?”

“I’m sorry – that was rude of me. I’m sure you are a very respectable gentleman. Yes, I would very much like to join you for dinner, if only to make up for my lack of manners.”

“I’ll book a table for eight,” Gerald said.

“Eight-thirty. I want to freshen up first.”

I closed the door to my compartment and flopped down on the counterpane. How could he not have recognised me? It was only a few weeks ago when he had almost cost me my job. I closed my eyes and listened to the repetitive clickety-clack of the train. I could have fallen asleep, but the presence of the man two compartments down the corridor had my mind racing. I forced myself up and swilled my face with some cold water. I looked in the mirror above the washbasin.

Perhaps it was my new hairstyle that had prevented Gerald from recognising me? I looked out at the illuminated windows of the rows of houses gradually becoming a blur as the train picked up speed.


In my mind I pictured the housewives in their pinnies clearing up after dinner whilst their husbands drew on a pipe by the fireside. The same routine night after night; not the kind of life for me. I took out my make-up bag and placed its contents on the table by the bed. I opened my suitcase and took out the green silk dress I had bought in the department store on Oxford Street where I worked.

“I don’t see how you can afford a dress like this on the wages in this place,” Margaret had said, as she had wrapped the dress in tissue paper.

“It’s a present from an admirer,” I had replied. “He gave me the money.”

“Lucky you,” Margaret had said. “My husband’s never bought me anything as nice as this.”

“I’m teasing you. My parents gave me the money to buy it for my twenty-first birthday.

“I’m going up to Scotland to see my grandmother on the Royal Highlander – first class.”

“Well, we’d better get you fitted out with some nice shoes to go with it.” The dress hugged my figure and it turned a few heads as I entered the opulent dining car.

I looked at my reflection in the carriage window. For a moment, I imagined myself to be a debutante out on her first appearance in some posh London restaurant.

But then I saw Gerald, already seated at the table, and a wave of anxiety came over me.

He stood and gestured for me to join him. “My word,” he said as I sat down. “You look lovely.”

“Thank you. It’s a pity I didn’t have the shoes to match,” I replied, pointing to my drab work shoes. “I doubt anyone will be looking at your shoes,” Gerald replied. I looked around the busy dining car. Everything seemed so shiny and plush. A waiter came to our table, looking impressive in his spotless white waiter’s jacket with gold buttons.

“Good evening, sir, madam. May I take your order?” he asked.

“Give us both a moment, will you?” Gerald said. “You can get me a Scotch whilst we look through the menu.

“What about you, Susan?” I ordered a White Lady. “They serve it at the Savoy,” I said to Gerald, when the waiter had gone.

“You frequent the Savoy, do you?” Gerald asked. “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly afford the Savoy.”

“But you can afford first class on the Royal Highlander.” “I think I’ll have the salmon. What about you?

“The duck looks nice,” he said, nodding in the direction of a lady seated at the table across from us. She looked like a character from the latest Agatha Christie I had just finished.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t eat a poor little duck. I’ll have the salmon, too,” I said, snapping the menu closed. The waiter arrived with our drinks on a silver tray.

Night Train to Scotland

Illustration by Helen Welsh

Gerald raised his Scotch. “Here’s to luxury travel. Cheers!” We clinked glasses, and I spilt a drop or two of my cocktail on the tablecloth. I instinctively dabbed the tablecloth with my napkin and looked to see if anyone had noticed.

Gerald picked up on my concern. “You’re not used to this, are you, Susan?” he asked.

“Used to what?”

“Luxury travel. My intuition tells me you probably catch the number twenty-two bus to work every morning.”

“Well, you’re wrong. I catch the tube.”

“And what work are you in? Let me guess.

“A legal secretary? A schoolteacher or . . . a shop girl in one of the department stores?

A brief wave of panic passed through me. Had he finally recognised me?

I was determined to keep my composure and remained silent. I took a sip of my drink. Gerald’s eyes were fixed on me, as if scrutinising my every movement, waiting for me to answer.

The salmon arrived with a selection of seasonal vegetables served from yet another silver platter.

“Could I have a glass of water, please?” I asked the waiter.

“Water?” Gerald asked, his eyebrows furrowing.

“Get the lady another cocktail!” I didn’t argue, but when I had finished my second White Lady, Gerald was waving his napkin and ordering another.

“You’re not trying to get me drunk, are you?” I let my elbow slip off the edge of the table as if to show that I was getting a little tipsy. But the truth was that I was still quite sober and I intended to remain so.

“Of course not,” Gerald replied. “That would be ungentlemanly of me.”

“I trust you are quite the gentleman, aren’t you, Gerald?”

“I suppose you are quite the lady – except that my intuition tells me you’re not all you seem to be.

“Tell me, Susan, what line of work are you in?

“You avoided my Illustration question a moment ago.”

I let out a little giggle, as if the alcohol was getting the better of me, and leaned over the table towards Gerald.

“Do you promise not to tell anyone?”

“I knew there was something about you,” Gerald said. “I swear I will not tell a soul.”

“Well, I’m a jewel thief,” I whispered. Gerald let out the most raucous laugh.

“A jewel thief!” he exclaimed. I put a finger to my lips, then took another sip of my cocktail.

“My word, you’re quite a girl. I’m beginning to take a real liking to you, but I don’t believe you.” “Oh, I can assure you I am telling you the truth,” I said, knocking back the remains of my cocktail.

I could hardly believe what I was saying. I gave Gerald the most disarming smile I could muster. “You’re not the jewellery thief everyone is talking about in London, are you? Gerald asked.

“Oh, no. I haven’t actually stolen anything as yet, but I have it all worked out. “I know exactly what I’m going to steal and who from, unless you report me before I get the chance to.

“So, Gerald, are you going to turn me in, or order another cocktail?” “I’ll order another cocktail,” he replied. “Good. I’ll just go and powder my nose, as they say in posh circles.”

I went back to the sleeper carriage and found the guard. “Excuse me, my friend has asked me to get his spectacles from his compartment.

“Would you be so kind as to let me in?”

“Oh, I can’t do that. It’s not allowed. “But, well, you look like an honest young lady,” the guard said.

“You’re a darling,” I said, giving him a quick peck on the cheek. That was enough to get him putting the key in the door to Gerald’s compartment.

I went in and closed the door behind me. I had to work quickly. I looked in an attaché case on the bed, but there was only “The Times” newspaper in it. I rummaged through his coat pockets, but what I was seeking wasn’t there.

I looked under the counterpane and pillow. Then I noticed a toiletry bag by the washbasin.

Beneath the toiletries and a folded flannel was the most dazzling collection of jewellery – including the diamond necklace Gerald had stolen from under my nose in the department store a few weeks earlier.

It happened so quickly. Gerald had walked into the jewellery department where I had only been working for a couple of weeks and said he was looking for something for his wife’s birthday.

I had turned my back for a moment and he was gone with the necklace before anyone could stop him. All that remained on the counter was a packet of cigarettes. I cried my eyes out in the manager’s office.

He was cross with me at first and threatened to sack me, but then my supervisor said that thieves often spotted new staff and took advantage of them. I gave a full description of Gerald to the police.

“The Black Cat strikes again,” the inspector said, nodding to his sergeant.

“The Black Cat?” I asked.

“Yes, he always leaves a packet of Black Cat cigarettes behind.

“We reckon it’s a kind of joke – it being a cheap brand.”

I looked through the jewellery in Gerald’s toiletry bag, wondering if I should give it to the guard to lock away somewhere safe.

But I left it as it was, except for the diamond necklace Gerald had stolen from my counter.

The guard was still waiting in the corridor.

I summoned him into the compartment. His eyes widened when I opened the toiletry bag.

“The man in this compartment is a jewel thief,” I said. “I’ve been following him. He’s going on to Aberdeen.

“When we get to Perth, call the police and warn them. He’s known as the Black Cat.

“Don’t say anything to him – he’s dangerous.

“Don’t let on what you’ve seen. Do you understand?”

“I retire in two weeks,” the guard said. “This is the last thing I need.”

“You’ll be a hero. The one who caught London’s most notorious thief. “You’ll probably receive some reward or an honour from the King!”

The guard shook his head. “What an end to my working life,” he said.

“Indeed. Now I’m going back to the restaurant car before he suspects something.” I hardly slept a wink that night, waiting for Gerald to come knocking on my door. But he didn’t, so I guessed he hadn’t taken the trouble of checking his stolen goods.

The next morning, Gerald was already having breakfast when I entered the dining car “Ah, Susan. Would you care to join me?”

“Yes, that would be nice,” I said, my heart racing. Gerald lit up a cigarette. A Black Cat cigarette.

“So, what have you done with it?”

“Done with what?”

“Oh, my dear girl, if you want to be a jewellery thief, you need to be a bit more subtle than what you pulled off last night.

“I recognised you straight away when you broke your heel. I never forget a face.”

“Neither do I,” I said.

“You listen to me, young lady. You’d better hand that necklace back or –”

“Or what? You’ll report me to the police?

“You’ve been had, Gerald, and by an amateur!”

I got up from the table and went back to my compartment.

The train pulled into Perth. I was about to step down on to the platform when a hand grabbed me.

“You won’t get away with this, you little . . .” Gerald snarled.

“And neither will you, sir,” the police officer who had silently appeared behind Gerald said.

“She’s the thief,” Gerald exclaimed. “Look in her handbag.”

“The jewels are in a toiletry bag in his compartment,” I said, pulling my arm free.

Gerald turned and pushed the policeman against the wall.

“Getting off here, sir?” a porter asked Gerald from the platform, unaware of what was happening.

“No, he is not,” I said, throwing my arms around Gerald and holding on to him as tightly as I could. The policeman put a handcuff on his wrist. A detective was waiting in Gerald’s compartment.

“It’s quite a collection you have here, sir,” the detective said, emptying the jewels on the bed.

“Oh, and what’s this on your bedside table?

“Well, I never – a packet of Black Cat cigarettes.”

“This is the necklace he stole from the store where I work,” I said, dropping the necklace on the bed. The detective raised a suspicious eyebrow.

“I was going to take it back to the department store,” I said, giving the detective a smile of pure innocence.

“I sincerely hope you were, young lady.”

I ordered a mug of tea and a bacon sandwich in the station café.

It was a far cry from the luxury of the first-class restaurant carriage. It had been so easy, taking that necklace from Gerald, and for a moment the thought crossed my mind . . .

“The devil makes work of idle hands,” my grandmother said when I told her of what had happened.

“You’re right as always, Nan,” I replied, giving her a big hug.

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