It must have been about 1974 or 1975. Not sure. Either way it was one if those hot midsummers of youth. I was a keen underage drinker and there was a pub in Battle, down in Sussex where the landlord was a little more age-blind than those in Hastings where I lived. Anyway the point was I spent a lot of Friday nights in Battle and tended to go there by train.
As I recall we used to drink cider and buy it for girls. It was nicknamed ‘leg-opener’ so my weekend trips to Battle were not at all innocent really. Not that there was much leg-opening and what there was of it was usually followed by fumbling and ineptitude. On my part at least. I digress, albeit with a glint in my eye.
We would arrive at Battle station at about 5 each Friday and that’s when we used to see her. Our train came from Hastings and was going towards London. On the opposite platform the train from London would arrive at about the same time. And there she was. There she always was, on a Friday at about 5. A tiny lady, elegantly dressed, no elegantly turned out, for a special occasion of some sort. She seemed to me then to be ancient, but I guess she was only in her fifties. She was gaunt and always looked edgy, always anticipating something.
We used to watch her from the footbridge. She would appear from the waiting room as the train arrived and trot up and down the platform looking quickly into each carriage. As the train emptied and readied itself to pull away she would step back and stare at it. She watched it until it was out of sight and would then leave. But she left slowly, no trotting, no edginess, no anticipation. The moment had clearly passed.
All the station staff knew her – they greeted her – and that’s how we found out she was called Pat.
The pub we were allowed in had a mixture of townies like us, local girls of our age (the sometime cider drinkers) and ancient locals who drank mild and ignored us. Normally anyway. My friends and I had seen Pat and her routine several times and were curious about her, so we asked one of our new female friends. We were told she was mad, a witch, smelly, always drunk and hated teenagers. In short, Mad Pat was best avoided. Overhearing our conversation, one of the older local guys just exploded. A real torrent of rage about how we were disrespectful, didn’t understand and just how much Pat had been through. He never wanted to hear us mention her again. So while we did often go back to the pub for its cheap leg-opener, we avoided the topic of Pat. We still used to see her at the station though.
It was only many years later and quite by chance that I met someone who knew the full story. He was my age and had grown up in Battle and had been told the full story by his father. Mad Pat was in fact mad, driven there by love and loss. It seems that in about 1938 she had married her childhood sweetheart – they we both very young – just before he went off to fight in the British Army. He was reported missing in about 1943 and poor Pat refused to accept that he was not coming back. She had managed to convince herself that he would be on a 5 pm Friday train from London and had been meeting the train virtually every week since the end of the war, certain each week that this time he would be on the train. I also gather that a little after my summer of booze and sin in Battle, she was finally helped by the local social services who succeeded in convincing her that it was time to stop the station visits.
I guess she is long gone now and who knows, she may finally be spending those much overdue happy times with that young boy who died somewhere abroad in 1943.