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The Accident at Staplehurst

by Olivia Holmes


On June 9, 1865,
Charles Dickens rode the train from Paris
with his mistress and his manuscript.
Say he had his hand on her thigh. Ellen
was hungry and bored with the scenery. Charles
was distracted, frustrated it was too bumpy
to write. In his mind, the Boffins were having
the Lammles to breakfast. They were not absolutely
uninvited.
Boffin, who had been acting
like a brown bear, was about to improve.
Charles, chuckling to think how the book would end,
let go of Ellen’s skirt. She closed her eyes
but could not get to sleep for the rattling. The lady
across from them still glared, scandalized.
Mr. Boffin was eating ham and muffins,
ignoring the Lammles. Mrs. Boffin merely
looked up from the teapot for a moment
with an embarassed smile.
All of a sudden
the teapot shattered. The pages flew off the seat
and scattered, littering the compartment with crumbs.
Maybe the engineer spotted the torn-up rails
of the bridge ahead, or a flagman’s red banner,
but not in time. Dickens would later write,
“This is exactly what passed”: the train leaped
a 40-foot ditch, and hung suspended
in an impossible manner. The young lady screamed.
The older one cried out “My God!” Friend Charles
caught hold of them both and prayed they be quiet,
please, then climbed cautiously out of the carriage
and did what he could for the crushed, bleeding victims,
bringing them brandy to ease their cruel deaths.
Finally our hero returned to his own car
to extricate the worthy breakfast party.
Mr. Lammle required another cup of tea.
Georgiana broke into the room, unannounced
and in tears.
Mrs. Lammle turned extremely
pale now: without a pause the words proceed.

 

Olivia Holmes lives in Rome and works as a translator and teacher of English; her work has appeared in the Hudson Review and Shenandoah. (1984)


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