On the Brighton Road, by Richard Middleton
Slowly the sun had climbed up the hard white downs, till it broke
with little of the mysterious ritual of dawn upon a sparkling world
of snow. There had been a hard frost during the night, and the birds,
who hopped about here and there with scant tolerance of life, left no
trace of their passage on the silver pavements. In places the
sheltered caverns of the hedges broke the monotony of the whiteness
that had fallen upon the coloured earth, and overhead the sky melted
from orange to deep blue, from deep blue to a blue so pale that it
suggested a thin paper screen rather than illimitable space. Across
the level fields there came a cold, silent wind which blew a fine
dust of snow from the trees, but hardly stirred the crested hedges.
Once above the skyline, the sun seemed to climb more quickly, and as
it rose higher it began to give out a heat that blended with the
keenness of the wind.
It may have been this strange alternation of heat and cold that
disturbed the tramp in his dreams, for he struggled tor a moment with
the snow that covered him, like a man who finds himself twisted
uncomfortably in the bed-clothes, and then sat up with staring,
questioning eyes. "Lord! I thought I was in bed," he said to himself
as he took in the vacant landscape, "and all the while I was out
here." He stretched his limbs, and, rising carefully to his feet,
shook the snow off his body. As he did so the wind set him shivering,
and he knew that his bed had been warm.
"Come, I feel pretty fit," he thought. "I suppose I am lucky to wake
at all in this. Or unlucky it isn't much of a business to come back
to." He looked up and saw the downs shining against the blue, like
the Alps on a picture-postcard. "That means another forty miles or
so, I suppose," he continued grimly. "Lord knows what I did yesterday.
Walked till I was done, and now I'm only about twelve miles from
Brighton. Damn the snow, damn Brighton, damn everything!" The sun
crept higher and higher, and he started walking patiently along the
road with his back turned to the hills.
"Am I glad or sorry that it was only sleep that took me, glad or
sorry, glad or sorry?" His thoughts seemed to arrange themselves in a
metrical accompaniment to the steady thud of his footsteps, and he
hardly sought an answer to his question. It was good enough to walk
Presently, when three milestones had loitered past, he overtook a
boy who was stooping to light a cigarette. He wore no overcoat, and
looked unspeakably fragile against the snow, "Are you on the road,
guv'nor?" asked the boy huskily as he passed.
"I think I am," the tramp said.
"Oh! then I'll come a bit of the way with you if you don't walk too
fast. It's bit lonesome walking this time of day."
The tramp nodded his head, and the boy started limping along by his
"I'm eighteen," he said casually. "I bet you thought I was younger."
"Fifteen, I'd have said."
"You'd have backed a loser. Eighteen last August, and I've been on
the road six years. I ran away from home five times when I was a
little 'un, and the police took me back each time. Very good to me,
the police was. Now I haven't got a home to run away from."
"Nor have I," the tramp said calmly.
"Oh, I can see what you are," the boy panted; "you're a gentleman
come down. It's harder for you than for me." The tramp glanced at the
limping, feeble figure and lessened his pace.
"I haven't been at it as long as you have," he admitted.
"No, I could tell that by the way you walk. You haven't got tired
yet. Perhaps you expect something at the other end?"
The tramp reflected for a moment. "I don't know," he said bitterly,
"I'm always expecting things."
"You'll grow out of that;" the boy commented. "It's warmer in London,
but it's harder to come by grub. There isn't much in it really."
"Still, there's the chance of meeting somebody there who will
"Country people are better," the boy interrupted. "Last night I took
a lease of a barn for nothing and slept with the cows, and this
morning the farmer routed me out and gave me tea and toke because I
was so little. Of course, I score there; but in London, soup on the
Embankment at night, and all the rest of the time coppers moving you
"I dropped by the roadside last night and slept where I fell. It's a
wonder I didn't die," the tramp said. The boy looked at him sharply.
"How did you know you didn't?" he said.
"I don't see it," the tramp said, after a pause.
"I tell you," the boy said hoarsely, "people like us can't get away
from this sort of thing if we want to. Always hungry and thirsty and
dog-tired and walking all the while. And yet if anyone offers me a
nice home and work my stomach feels sick. Do I look strong? I know
I'm little for my age, but I've been knocking about like this for six
years, and do you think I'm not dead? I was drowned bathing at
Margate, and I was killed by a gypsy with a spike; he knocked my head
and yet I'm walking along here now, walking to London to walk away
from it again, because I can't help it. Dead! I tell you we can't get
away if we want to."
The boy broke off in a fit of coughing, and the tramp paused while he
"You'd better borrow my coat for a bit, Tommy," he said, "your
cough's pretty bad."
"You go to hell!" the boy said fiercely, puffing at his cigarette;
"I'm all right. I was telling you about the road. You haven't got
down to it yet, but you'll find out presently. We're all dead, all of
us who're on it, and we're all tired, yet somehow we can't leave it.
There's nice smells in the summer, dust and hay and the wind smack in
your face on a hot day?and it's nice waking up in the wet grass on a
fine morning. I don't know, I don't know?" he lurched forward
suddenly, and the tramp caught him in his arms.
"I'm sick," the boy whispered?"sick."
The tramp looked up and down the road, but he could see no houses or
any sign of help. Yet even as he supported the boy doubtfully in the
middle of the road a motor car suddenly flashed in the middle
distance, and came smoothly through the snow.
"What's the trouble?" said the driver quietly as he pulled up. "I'm a
doctor." He looked at the boy keenly and listened to his strained
"Pneumonia," he commented. "I'll give him a lift to the infirmary,
and you, too, if you like."
The tramp thought of the workhouse and shook his head "I'd rather
walk," he said.
The boy winked faintly as they lifted him into the car.
"I'll meet you beyond Reigate," he murmured to the tramp. "You'll
see." And the car vanished along the white road.
All the morning the tramp splashed through the thawing snow, but at
midday he begged some bread at a cottage door and crept into a lonely
barn to eat it. It was warm in there, and after his meal he fell
asleep among the hay. It was dark when he woke, and started trudging
once more through the slushy roads.
Two miles beyond Reigate a figure, a fragile figure, slipped out of
the darkness to meet him.
"On the road, guv'nor?" said a husky voice. "Then I'll come a bit of
the way with you if you don't walk too fast. It's a bit lonesome
walking this time of day."
"But the pneumonia!" cried the tramp, aghast.
"I died at Crawley this morning," said the boy.