The three children stood together, waiting. Other passengers had disappeared homeward and the tiny branch-line station drowsed peacefully in the June sunshine; the big bright faces of the hollyhocks nodding against the tarred fence; roses and honeysuckle growing together in a scented tangle by the booking office; milk churns waiting for collection. The station master leaned from his door at full stretch, the telephone receiver still in his hand, watching the small group. The eldest, a girl of ten, was clearly exhausted: her pale pointed face pinched with silent endurance. She was skinny, her gingham dress was creased and limp, and damp wisps escaped from the two plaits of thick fair hair. Her grey eyes were fixed with desperate intensity on the station master as he waved his free hand at her cheerfully. His cap pushed far to the back of his head, looked as if it might tumble off at any moment.
'Left 'arf'n'ower ago,' he shouted encouragingly. 'Trouble with the car, I shouldn't wonder.'
The girl swallowed audibly her arm tightening around the boy who was holding a fold of her skirt, and nodded back at the station master, who disappeared inside his office. His voice could be heard, discreetly lowered, talking volubly. The boy looked up at his sister and she smiled at him, loosening her hold on him a little.
'Grandmother will be here soon,' she told him. 'You heard, didn't you. Mole? You heard what he said? “Trouble with the car." She'll be here any minute.'
The boy stared toward the entrance. His grubby Aertex shirt had worked loose from the grey flannel shorts and his eyes were frightened. She bent to him again, guessing his thoughts.
'Only trouble with the car,' she repeated. 'Not . . . Only trouble. Like a puncture. Nothing else, Mole. Truly.'
The small girl, who had been clinging to her other hand, let go suddenly and subsided on to the platform. She lay down amongst the luggage and crooned to herself, holding her dolly high above her as though offering it towards the swallows that dived and wheeled in the blue air.
'Oh, Susanna,' sighed her sister helplessly. 'You'll get filthy.'
She wiped her freed sticky hand on her skirt and looked about her. Near the office the porter was checking over some parcels piled on a trolley. She watched him as he whistled quietly to himself, turning the labels with stubby fingers. Pasted on the wall above his head the Ovaltine girl smiled eternally, clasping her golden sheaves of corn, swinging her basket with its tin of Ovaltine which repeated the picture, so that her smile grew smaller and smaller . . . A car was approaching, chugging over the level crossing and round the corner, and the station master was hurrying out, craning to see who was arriving. His cry of greeting was so full of relief that the girl instinctively began mustering her small group.
'Get up, Sooz. Get up! Quick. Grandmother's here. Come on, Mole. Take hold of this. Get up, Susanna!'
The sound of the voice, which had been talking breathlessly outside, was coming closer and the three children, clinging together, stared at the elderly woman who hurried out on to the platform and stopped short with an involuntary gesture of compassion and grief. Freddy Chadwick looked at her three grandchildren and her throat constricted.
'My darlings,' she said. 'Forgive me. The stupid woman was supposed to make sure you stayed put at Totnes, not send you on to Staverton. And then I was driving too fast and went into the ditch. Muddles all round. And at such a time. Forgive me.'