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A night train north

Another short story by Dan Byrnes

THE Southern Aurora with one solid lurch broke its inertia and began the journey. Past the container loading facilities, the gleam of dark dock waters, on through the suburbs of Melbourne. I pressed my back into the seat of the sleeper compartment, memories like the smoke from the cigarette between my fingers curling upwards, merely to disappear. Or did I merely want them to disappear?

Except, the sleeper compartment was small, and gradually it was filled faintly with the residues of smoke. My skull was equally filled with memories, the smoke of the past.

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This departure had been hasty, even brutal. A train strike threatened for tomorrow, so it was now or never. But settling back, I began to relish the simple, physical fact of movement. Thirsty, I stood to press the button to find a drink of water. It turned out the same as the run of bad luck I'd had the past year. All those negative coincidences building on each other. A cup full of dirty water appeared. At such times one feels rebuked, but I was too exhausted to feel paranoid. I drank uncritically, then opened the novel, its cover gleaming with the gold badge of a literary award. Monkey Grip. And an all too familiar Carlton opened up, even to the same streets I'd lived in. A Carlton now gratefully departed. If I'd finally managed to break this long run of bad luck - my own "monkey grip" - maybe... On the night train north I was going to catch you could meet anyone or anything. Maybe even some good luck when you stepped back on a platform in a new place.

Hunger called. I moved through the swaying carriages to the dining car. A man might as well eat in as much style as possible at the opening of a new break. Just then, such conscious optimism seemed to suit me.
"No sir," the waiter said as I chose a table.
"Up here, please."

I rose and sat down again at an empty chair at an empty table. A packet of Benson and Hedges lay by the place opposite. The waiter mentioned something about a lady coming.
I wondered - how old?

She appeared, a leggy, dark-haired girl in jeans. It seemed our early remarks were to be as uniform as her dress. Both going north? She was going to Mackay, having been speaking with a girl come south from barmaiding at one of the island resorts off the coast. We joked about Queensland being a different country, off the map. At least, I joked.

Being a New Zealander, she didn't really care about political colour, so much, in a new country. As well, her aspirations had nothing to do with political colour. As the waiter came, we both decided to order the same wine. So once again, after a period of silence, we had something again in common. Our meals came before the wine; food all railway tough. I suggested the cooks had slackened off, knowing they would be on strike tomorrow. The situation resembled a political orchestration. Maybe things were getting tougher for everybody? Oil Apocalypse. Skylab was falling.

Maybe Skylab would hit this train? Life wasn't meant to be easy.

So. Experienced anyway at being on the dole, she was off to Queensland, escaping the southern winter, and who could blame either of us for that? Looking forward to a party in Sydney on Friday night. And I?
On the Saturday night train to New England.

"I don't want to take that bloody horrible night train north," I told her. "I couldn't stand it."
"The night train north," she said. "I like that."
She rolled the phrase through her New Zealander's accent.
"It's a mail train." I told her. "Famous. Or infamous. For all sorts of uncomfortable reasons."

As we dined. Both of us I guess were suffering from some form of emotional fallout. She went into a complaining mood. The vegetables were swimming about on her plate. Then she turned to survey the reason for the crying of a child behind her.

"I can't stand people who can't control their kids," she said, glaring at the tablecloth.
"They're just tired," I replied, a little more forgiving.
(Later, in the lounge, drinking, we found the children in question belonged to a disc jockey - "the fastest mouth in the south" as he called himself).

We finished our half-bottles of wine and repaired south to the lounge, determined to drink together to take the edges off the bleakness of stepping on the platform at Spencer Street. She had a striking mannerism, which I suspected shot through her each time some energetic hope began. Of throwing her head back to run the fingers of her left hand through her hair, from the forehead to the crown. Watching this repeatedly was like watching a young horse rear with the power of spring. There was far more life in her than New Zealand could control.

Swaying into the lounge, we chose a quiet spot, ordered from a waitress who didn't herself drink, as she told us, and waited. And why was I going north? She still found me reticent.
To find a job and pay off some too-weighty debts.

How old was she?
I was delighted. The wine had strengthened her accent.
"Twenty sex," she replied, taking refuge from embarrassment at her accent in her bourbon and coke. She said she'd gotten to like the drink while sitting in pubs listening to rock and roll.

"I'm Irish-Maori," she said later, and then waited as I though I were intended to explode with some kind of disbelief.
It was already apparent, she was a jokester.

"With a nose like that?" I replied.
The profile of a handsome woman in repose: the nostrils of a young horse in spring.
"Yes. Irish-Maori. Don't you believe me?"
Evidently, most people did refuse to believe her about this heritage of hers.
"Not that I don't believe it. I just never expected anyone to ever be such an odd mix." Like a Martian Tory, or a Chinese-Australian prime minister, I thought aloud.

She chuckled, throatily. The New Zealander rose more powerfully in her speech. That was all I really wanted of her, that appealing accent. To talk with her and keep on drinking. Listen to a pleasing accent. Forget.

Later the night broke in through the sleeper as I fed on the pages of Monkey Grip. All the streets and shops of Carlton kept mapping themselves in my memories. I put the book away when the subject of a Melbourne summer was broached. On the wall of my sleeper my jacket hung from the stainless steel hooks like a torn sail. I put the light out and slept. The train was going to be an hour late into Sydney, so we were told. There was no hurry. Nothing mattered. There is really no free schedule for someone in debt.

At Goulbourn a clear blue sky smoothed down onto the land and the morning. I was glad. No more Melbourne grey winter to darken the speech and eddy through my moods. I lay balanced on an elbow, gazing at what had been done with Australia. Railway lines. Backyards loaded with all kinds of debris. Roads put thrashing through the bush. People given to clustering on railway platforms. In the train I lay and watched rather contentedly, but also too-aware of how removed I was from the lives of those other people out there quietly edging into their day. Making deliveries. Starting out. Conversing. Each one of them perhaps accepting they were all getting older.

At breakfast I sat with another New Zealander, the one she'd turned to last night, as it happened, and asked brightly, "What are you reading?" He turned the cover of the book over for her inspection. Christology at the Crossroads. She got this much out of him. He was a student preparing for an exam.
"Catholic," he had answered. "The book is by a Mexican Jesuit."

A concrete fill of history fell immediately upon the conversation. The legacy of regimes where the Spanish had colonised, brutal. A couple of Graham Greene novels I'd read keeled over in my memory. I suppose that was what made her so lively. An Irish-Maori-Catholic background! Very potent!

We were quiet, nibbling on railway toast. The old gentleman and his wife opposite us had sat down with purpose. He was determined to extract the greatest amount of proper entertainment from this train journey. He demanded the essence of courtly manners from this his table. But gradually his resolve weakened. After the waiter brought him his pot of tea. After pouring carefully he found the surface of his cup was a shoal, like dead fish, of tea leaves. He grumbled and growled. Shortly he demanded a fresh pots.

"This is impossible."
Then he smiled wanly, shrugged his shoulders and gave up all pretences. His rueful smile seemed to suggest, finally, the railways are devoted to the levelling of all civilized contentments.

The platforms of Central Railway slid by the train. I felt the surging force of Sydney entering through the double glass of the car's windows. So early, that metropolitan force alive. Brisk. Rapid. Unforgiving. You had to have money to resist the force of this city of Sydney, and I had too little. Just enough to get further north. I put my luggage into the cloakrooms, imbibed the atmosphere of bumpkin under the enormous roof of the station's country section, then climbed into a taxi. I waited to see if what happened next would be congenial at all, at Darlinghurst.

It was. My old friend greeted me at the door without surprise, wide open arms, a hug, a soft kiss, fleeting. Not until I was following her up the stairs did she turn and say wonderingly... "Why are you here?"
For I hadn't given any warning I was stopping by. Not until then did she feel surprised.

"Well..." I couldn't very well fob her off as I had done last night with people. "I left rather hastily..." I began.
In the kitchen she had her hair tied up and proceeded hospitably. We were interrupted by the other inhabitants of the flat.

I began to think there were seasons for things. Duck shoots. Opera. And for meeting New Zealanders. Here were two more from that English enclave. In less than a day I'd met four New Zealanders! These extra two were, like herself, searching in the entrails of the study of yoga, which they all pursued. Rather bemused with coincidences, I rambled on, explaining. The news we exchanged tended to be about quaint things. People's grumblings. Mysticism. The busker at Circular Quay she'd seen, playing a didgeridoo. This amazing sound and those acoustics. And so on. Her view of Sydney was rather more relaxed than my own. It must have been the yoga.

We talked on. Perhaps I could stay the night? I didn't want to take the night train north if I could avoid it. Yes. Certainly. I was grateful.

The people in the flat below, she said, had been pretty quiet since the police had visited them last week in open daylight. Then the two New Zealanders moved off for some inscrutable purpose connected with yoga. Some of their routine had been interrupted by my arrival. We two remaining went for a walk to the Square, for her mail and my inevitable phone calls. Later I kipped in the lounge, dreaming of things scattered, but not so harshly as recently. Besides, the sleeper of the Southern Aurora is far too confined for the enjoyment of sleep. So I caught up, expecting a lateish night and an early rising for the day train.

At six my three hosts ambled off for a two-hour session of becoming supple. Myself, being more addicted to inner-city sleaze than outer-suburban unease, sought out the Cross, for I wanted to try out the eastern suburbs railway, opened only last week. This new railway, so long awaited, demanded a try at least for novelty in this Sydney dusk.

I strode down into the Cross, looking for an entrance into the subway, or some sign indicating where the entrance was. A girl leaning in a doorway saw the eagerness of my gaze and lofted up in a movement like that of a brolga. She shifted her legs, shifted the wings of her cigarette smoke and sailed towards me, swinging in the heated air of what she thought was my desire, her mouth held open, a smile beginning. Not until I had wondered on the sight of her feathery swiftness did I realise she was a prostitute. So slight, and so unused-looking. So blonde and so young. She made me feel old. Nor had I ever seen before a doorway with a brolga resting in. I continued on, surprised.

Times must have been tough. The girls (and she had been the youngest and the most attractive, all the more so for her fragility) were as forward as a stampede. The doorways of the Cross had never been so filled with flesh. I continued down. By the fountain, as I turned on my heels looking for a railway station, another girl came up to me.

"Do you want a girl?"
She asked four blokes besides myself, in a desperate voice issuing from behind a taut smile. Not the smile of a professional, even, but the smile of an addict on the edge of hanging out. Her left hand came down hard on the flap of her shoulderbag, the strap of which was drum tight. Her smile was as taut as that strap. Both the leather and her smile could have snapped dangerously at any minute, like an overstrung guitar string going into someone's unsuspecting eyes.

"Would you like a girl?'
"No. But can you tell me where this damn railway station is supposed to be, Kings Cross?"
"Down there."
Where she had thrown an arm.
I turned.
"Would you like a girl?" she said to someone behind me.
As I walked off, I swear I heard her call out, "Would ANYONE like a girl?"

Her smile. If she didn't get a trick soon she'd be shivering in some doorway, no brolga, but a cold turkey.
Oh Monkey Grip! The miserable skin of the drug addict. The pitted arms and ankles. Someone selling themselves to be able to buy a hit. I wondered why the lovely brolga sold. Impossible motives. I kept an eye out for her on my way back down, but she was gone. So quick!

"Would anyone like a girl!?"
The Cross was crowded with Friday night trippers. Eaters. Buyers and sellers. Two small boys fought over bicycles in the entrance to a pinball alley. I finally discovered the railway entrance.

The new line was intended to be automated. Never has anything so automated been so well staffed, by so proud a staff. The down escalators by their steepness were little more than a breeding ground for pickpockets. I kept my hands in my coat pockets and found I could buy tickets to this new-fangled machine if the computerised terminal happened to be working. Which it wasn't. Obviously, staff were there to cope with this contingency.

My ticket from a vending machine jammed at one of the three turnstiles. I was a leader. The other two turnstiles promptly jammed on other intending passengers. The machines were in sympathy with each other. We passengers gathered in a huddle, panting to be on the train. We were let with sort of disappointed officiousness past the booths, our tickets examined by human eyes.

"Come through here all of you," ordered a migrant intoxicated with the authority sewn into his brand new uniform. (Do it the old way).
We passed through, all of us secretly pleased at this failure of machinery.

Jaded train passengers were alert with all the novelty provided by a new toy. We were all more or less enjoying ourselves. In a hurried moment we were out to Bondi Junction, that monument to the cosmopolitan. As I discovered when I surfaced again to street level, no more was the Junction rendered a still life of traffic jams. Traffic was re-routed. I ranged the pavements. The place was uncommonly dead, and I felt uneasy, disquieted.
Not until I was down below again, buying a second ticket, did I realise why. Over ten years ago, my grandparents had a house just above this station. Possibly just above my head now had been the house where the family had gathered after my grandfather's funeral. And years before, too, my mother had told the story of how, long ago, when digging had first begun for the first underground railway in Sydney, workmen had from below interrupted the peace of an old cemetery. A coffin had fallen from the roof of the tunnel. All along the sides of the coffin were the scratch marks made by someone... buried alive!

From a vending machine I bought a ticket for Central Railway. It was time to buy a ticket for the day train tomorrow. And still, all the way in, the passengers seemed to be enjoying this new toy. At Central I took the stairs between the city and the country rail sections two at a time, for time was flowing. But at the country booking office, my run of bad luck caught up with me again. The last two tickets for the day train had gone half an hour ago. I stood speechless in city wrath at the counter. Beside me was a man with a voice full of long-bred country meekness, asking,

"Single to Gunnedah, please." And he gently waited.
And then reared the prospect of the night train north.

I hurried away with the ticket for that damn train with less than an hour till 7.50 to book luggage. No meal. No time to buy rum. To find things in the lockers in the cloak room, and take them back to Darlinghurst. Then through the great hall of Central Railway, Country Section, back toward the city subway where those stairs are the most tangible division point there is in New South Wales between city slicker and country bumpkin. A real change of level. Up and down. At the top of those stairs I stood aside to let an old woman pass with weighty baskets. Then a girl. Then I was astonished!

At the bottom of the stairs, flat on his back, was an Aboriginal boy, legs and arms extended in an attitude of crucifixion. He was absolutely still, as though put on display.
Around him were Greeks in railway uniform, one of them darting forward as though sighting the arrival of an ambulance. A Lebanese girl stood staring with her mouth open.

Down the stairs, passing, I noticed the flash of the white of an eye as a young Greek man bent to roll up the boy's eyelids to examine his eyes, which were not rolled back. He didn't move. Handsome, he was. Neatly dressed. No more than twenty. I expected to notice a seep of blood from the back of his head, for it was as though he had been violently flung on the subway floor. But there was no seep of blood. I left the scene of his stillness. Time was running out.

"Why did you hit the machine?" demanded the railwayman in charge of the turnstile.
"I put my ticket in and it jammed," I told him flatly.
"You shouldn't hit the machine." He gestured to the gleaming turnstile. "This is full of delicate machinery," he said.

He fondled the turnstile lid slowly, the way a woman fondles a new baby, examining it for possible defects. On and on he went, explaining how this new system worked, as I stood impatiently waiting to get on through. Eventually he leant over the machine, inserted his key, raised the lid and extracted my jammed ticket, and stood aside to watch the thing work properly, all with most elaborate delay.

"Thank you," I said curtly. And shoved the ticket in.
Zip! And through. To stand impatiently while the train I'd just missed faded away into its tunnel. Another one to Kings Cross! A taxi to Darlinghurst! Scrabbling for the key left under the carpet on the stairs. A scribbled note. A taxi to Central. To board the mail train with two minutes to spare.

We introduced ourselves in the crowded carriage. Everyone sat just as cold as one another as the rail line plunged deeper, deeper north into the night of New South Wales. Most of all I thought about the Aboriginal boy crucified horizontally at the bottom of those stairs. And a busker playing a didgeridoo at Circular Quay.

Finally the cold of the night blocked out everything else.
I turned up my collar and waited.

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