Ah, Father Christmas, here you are again sir, and what is that you have with you, tucked under your arm? Why, a volume of Dickens, of course. Always Dickens at Christmas, right? And, if you’ve not yet gone to a production of A Christmas Carol, I’d bet you’re going soon, or else you’re going to be watching one of the many versions that will be on television here in the run-up to that greatest of days for some, and the hardest of days for others. Treat yourself right and go with the ’51 Alastair Sim effort or venture out a bit, and gather the family ‘round for a Christmas reading unlike any other. And no, I’m not talking the Carol. I’m talking about Dickens’ “The Signal-Man,” Christmas literature for how the other half lives. Not the denizens of Scrooge’s beloved workhouses (well, Scrooge pre-epiphanies and life changes) but rather, anyone who has been through stuff that they feel, if not most keenly at this time of the year, then most soberingly. There’s a difference, as you may well know.
The English have something of a tradition where they like to scare you out of your mind at Christmas, a kind of sobering up of the senses by forces that seem to be beyond them. “Well, it’s all very festive and there’s lots of holly about, I think I shall invent a ghost to get up to no good and contrast with this seasonal levity,” is how it tends to go. M.R James was big on this, but no one might have enjoyed the somber side of Christmas more than Dickens, because it is that somber side that provides a place for those less capable of making merry to gather, to feel commonality, and to begin to move, if only inwardly for the time being, towards a future stacked with epic Fezziwig party throwdowns with barrels and barrels of porter. Or whatever your favorite tipple amongst friends is.
The Carol dates from 1843. Big hit, and Dickens would make loads off of it later with public readings, but it would be difficult to convince me that “The Signal-Man,” from 1866, is not more attuned with his holiday spirit. Spirits, if you prefer. The story was written for a collection by the likes of Dickens, Charles Collins, Andrew Halliday, Hesba Stretton, and Amelia B. Edwards called Mugsby Junction, which sounds like a train stop in a Dickens novel, and which appeared in the magazine All the Year Round, just in time for the holiday.
“The Signal-Man” is not long — about ten pages. It begins with the narrator greeting the title character and the reader alike (don’t you like when works of literature communicate directly to you? Draws you in, yes?), with a “Halloa! Below there!” The narrator is a traveler having what seems like a dolorous vacation. He beds at a country inn, and cuts across a field, where he sees a railway cutting. In other words, he’s at the top of this cliff kind of setting, looking down into a ravine. The signal-man — the fellow tasked with answering a command bell in a signal cabin that gives clearance to trains — is looking up at the man. He thinks he’s seen him before. Or, more to the point, he thinks he might not be of this world. But all our narrator wishes to do is come down and have a chat. The signal-man gives a vague, physical indication that this would be okay, and with the help of a rugged path, the two characters meet.
They like each other, right away. The reader likes that they like each other right away. You like both of them a lot. The signal-man is put upon, and clearly aggrieved. Stressed out, but nice. He likes to study fractions, we learn. The narrator asks the signal-man if he is a scholar: no, he says, he is but a signal-man, doing a menial job that nonetheless can affect — even end — lives. He is fixated upon a red light outside of the tunnel, almost as it was some beacon to an underworld that the Ghost of Christmas Future might fancy if he had to make more rounds, in more graveyards, after leaving Scrooge behind for the night.
The two retire to the signal-man’s box. They hang out. At the end of the visit, the narrator remarks, “You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.” And then he adds — parenthetically, no less, like he’s speaking to you, directly, individual reader, and lets you in on a secret: “I am afraid I must acknowledge that I said it to lead him on.”
This is how we talk to each other. Sometimes, we say what we mean. Other times, we say something to bring about something else. Sometimes, we fess up about doing so. We tend to do a lot of this at Christmas, with family. You’re navigating, negotiating, sometimes enjoying yourself, and sometimes trying your best to muscle through. And in that sense, this railway box becomes oddly of the Christmas season, with these two men, the red light, the wooded setting, the hot beverages you imagine them to be drinking, the idea of contentment, of what it means to appear content, to actually be content, and to not be content at all and feel it more soberingly than usual. Ghosts are good for this, as we will see. Just as ghosts can have many forms, as we will also see.
That the signal-man next says their discussion will have to wait is our next indication that our guy is some kind of haunted. The effort and energy required to explain his situation is not any that he can muster unless he begins with a fresh, running start. They agree that said start should occur the next day, an hour after the signal-man begins his shift, which starts at ten o’clock at night. He makes only one request of his new friend: not to call out when he arrives, but merely do descend down the path, to hear what the signal-man’s distress really is.
There’s this wonderful moment — it heartens me — when the narrator shows up the next night. He does not call out, and when the signal-man gives him clearance to speak, he says, “Good night, then, and here’s my hand.” The signal-man replies, “Good night, sir, and here’s mine.” You have a connection with someone, as simple as that — and as rare as that. We’re seeing it here, and playing back, in our own minds with our own connections. We’re thinking about how immediate they were, for that tends to be the way of connections, does it not? They seem so simple, and you start to think that you should have more of them, after all, the last one was no big deal, everything was merely in instant accordance, no fuss, and why shouldn’t most subsequent encounters follow along the same lines?
Dickens is good at making you think this way. His stories, like this one, and the Carol, are especially good at it. You come away believing you have read something simple in the sense that you have a “I so should have thought of that” moment. But what we ultimately realize is that such inventions, like the aforesaid connections, are both simple and complex, hard to bring off, and hard to find. So one holds tight. Or alternatively, one fails to hold tight, or attempts to without reciprocation, and you find yourself, for a holiday or two or ten, in a signal box of your own, fixated on a red light, relieved that you have had some kind of warm, human interaction and connection, even if it ends up being a truncated one. For the time being, you take what you can get.
The signal-man describes how he believes himself to be haunted. He hears his bell ring in a not-of-this-earth, ghostly way, and he sees the specter of a man with one arm across his face — as though he does not wish to see something ghastly — and the other waving frantically as he yells, “Halloa! Below there!” just as the narrator initially did. It’s like time is on a loop, with the past and the present and the future trading places, willy-nilly, as can tend to happen at Christmastime. If you’re having a bad one, sure, you’re in that present. But you’re just as much, if not more so, rooted in that past. There’s also a touch of you in a future you’re trying to imagine, a future that will free you from those old Christmases, and provide a lot of holidays that seem to improve from year to year.
The spectre keeps turning up and the signal-man is tipped off to railway accidents he has no power to stop because they’re from the future, apparently. The narrator insists these are hallucinations, that this is a lonely spot, and the mind can get up to some eldritch leanings when confined to a lonely spot. Then we hit upon the signal-man’s existential crisis. He has what he is sure is a real form of knowledge and yet, there is nothing he can do with it. He’d look like a moron if he tried. “If I telegraphed danger on either side of me, or on both, I can give no reason for it. I should get into trouble, and do no good. They would think I was mad. This is the way it would work: Message — ‘Danger! Take care!’ Answer — ‘What message? Where?’ Message — ‘Don’t know. But, for God’s sake, take care!’ They would displace me. What else could they do?”
Indeed, it’s a bad time and, for the signal-man, there is no way out. There is to be a third meeting, but the narrator arrives at the cutting to learn that his friend has been run down by a train, a train upon which rode a conductor who put one arm in front of his face, as the other waved furiously, as he shouted “Below there! Look out!”
Grim, right? Actually, I don’t know. The ending is grim. But there is such sincerity in the relationship between these two men, that it’s like Dickens had one over on the ghost story medium, and created a tale that, because of the evident connection between these characters, offers more hope, in its way, than the Carol does. I think so, anyway, because of that element of a burgeoning friendship in a time and place in life — especially the signal-man’s — where one does not expect to find it. Very Christmas-y. Strip the emotional realism away, and the run-over-by-the-train bit, and you have the makings of a Hallmark Christmas movie. But it’s also a story for those who struggle at this time of year, those seeking a place to partake in the season and not be left entirely behind, while not having to give themselves over to the joy you think everyone else has, that maybe you never have, or never will again.
“The Signal-Man” has been my Christmas reading for the last two years. I once had a wife, a life, and a house, and I was such a Christmas geek that come April, I was busting out the Rankin-Bass specials on Blu-ray to start getting into the mood, nice and early. But then there was nothing but pain, so much so that I felt like I was being tested signal-man style. I thought of trains and what deliverance they might bring, and I had to be careful any time I was getting on the subway, to make sure I took a bunch of steps clear of the rail and put my backside against the wall, lest I have a signal-man-like moment and lean in.
In fact, I felt, on one recent night, that I was in a Dickens story of my own, very much in a “Signal-Man” vein. I had gone out to the Blue Hills, a place I had used to go to before life came apart and Christmas became something else. It’s said to be the highest point on the Eastern seaboard, but I am not sure how that’s possible, given that it’s this hill you can get to the top of in just about 12 minutes. To get out there, you have to take the commuter rail, and on the way back I found myself at the station, confused as to where to board. There were two elevated tracks, and two tracks below, with those high-speed trains blowing down them every ten or so minutes. Super fast trains. A red light would signal when one was coming. I moved from track to track to track to track, all four, with red lights at each one. It was, or so I thought, weirdly dark out, and no one was around. It felt like being tested, to not give in to that red light. Any of them.
Finally, I came upon a train that was at least moving slowly, as there was a conductor hanging out one of the entrances. I must have looked scared and displaced, as she hailed another conductor to stop the train, and they let me aboard, and led me away from my own railway cutting. There was an advert for a local production of A Christmas Carol on the train. I asked the friendly conductor, when she came around for me to buy a ticket, if she was a fan as I pointed at the advert. There was no one else on the train. She said, oh yes, big fan, she and her family try to go every year. She asked if I did as well, and I thought of railway cuttings, and connections, and red lights, and spectres, and muscling through holidays, and trying to survive a present so as to have those Fezziwig futures, and I said no, not this year, but if you like A Christmas Carol, “The Signal-Man” is worth your time too.
“Are there ghosts in it?” she asked me.
“Yeah. There are ghosts in it.”
I thought about saying, “and here is my hand,” but that would have been awkward. But here it is, all the same, to you. • 13 December 2013