10.8.09

The 4.28 from Strathfield


It hardly seems possible that it is only a year since the last City to Surf; and inconceivable that I should have gone on it again ... the things we do for our kids. This year the weather was better and I enjoyed it much more, even though I forgot to take a hat ... found one underneath a car bumper somewhere in Diamond Bay, I think it was, a beauty, white baseball cap with black stripes, a logo of a red cricket ball with a white cotton cricketer embossed upon it (looks to me like a straight drive for four) and the words THE CRICKET CLUB below that. Course the kids disappeared almost as soon as we rounded the corner into Williams Street and I didn't see them again until Bondi; but I'd taken the precaution this time of giving the older boy a mobile phone. He used up most of the available credit texting me faintly derisive reports of his progress and had all but run out of talk time by the time I hobbled over the finish line ... but had managed to tell me where to find him. It was enjoyable mostly because I spent the walk with Dr. Phil's 76 year old father, a retired chemical engineer who came to Australia as a 16 year old in 1949, having escaped his native Latvia in August 1945 and spent the intervening four years in northern Germany, somewhere near Bremen. A man of few words, but sweet natured and companionable and so we held each other up, or perhaps egged each other on, through the whole 14 kilometres. Getting home after these events is almost as difficult, and as time consuming, as getting there, and I had then to take the kids back to Woy Woy, where their mother was picking them up from the station ... was going to drive but, well, I do a lot of driving and we already had our Funday tickets so the train was the cheaper and, as I wrongly thought, more convenient option. We caught the 4.28 from Strathfield and, because it was going to be packed, sat in the always emptier first carriage of the train. Just north of Hornsby, while I was reading Henry Lawson (The Geological Spieler) and the kids were playing a game on the laptop, the train whistle blew and then there was an ominous sound, a soft, wet thud, repeated once, as the train wheels ran over something on the track. We came slowly to a stop and then, moments later, the driver announced there would be a short delay. This soon became an indefinite delay and later, we were told, would be followed by an evacuation. By then most of us on board had realised that the strangely hollow sound we had heard was that of a human body that had fallen on the rails: either someone had leaped from the road bridge that crosses the railway line just north of Asquith Station, or they had thrown themselves in front of the train from the grassy bank beside the track - god knows, and we were never to. We had ample time to contemplate the peculiar horror of this fatality, as CityRail called it; the train stayed in that benighted spot for three full hours and in all that time we were forbidden to leave it for any reason whatsoever (though apparently a group of cops on their way on to night duty at Gosford got off quick smart and various smokers did contrive to fag standing out on the metal pathways that run between carriages). Horror and boredom mixed. Some hysteria too - a very young couple with a small baby and three feral children in tow caused a ruckus, she shouting about depression and anxiety, full throttle, until a cop told her if she didn't shut up he'd lock her up for the night and take the baby away. My older boy was pretty freaked out but the younger was more sanguine, if that's the word, about the event, though less tolerant of the all but interminable waiting that ensued. There was a fellow sitting near us, an Englishman, who'd worked for Brit Rail cleaning up after episodes such as these, though never a human death - deer, cows, pheasants etc - so he filled us in on all the gory detail we might otherwise have had to imagine for ourselves. One of the strange things for me was the feeling that we had somehow, inadvertently, through no fault of our own, become prisoners of CityRail - I even heard my elder son at one stage speculate (how did he know? from a computer game?) as to which of us would first fall victim to Stockholm Syndrome - but the Pommie bloke assured us that we were being sequestered so that none of us would see anything, since that might then lead to trauma and thus to CityRail costs eg counselling, legal action and so forth. Then there were the logistical challenges ... first they told us buses were coming, then that there would be another train. That is in fact what happened and we had all of us, eventually, one by one, to file out the front of the train, over those fatal wheels, looking neither right nor left, and into another that had come down from the north to take us on. A diabetic without her insulin had to be removed at the next station, Berowra, into an ambulance and the wonderfully officious State Emergency Services personnel kept snarling recalcitrant passengers back into line ... though the police on the whole behaved rather better. I guess it depends upon the individual. We reached Woy Woy at about 8.45 and I handed over the kids, who were by then, especially the younger, in a state of exhaustion that wasn't helped by the fact that they hadn't eaten for six or seven hours. Then I learned that the next train back to the City wasn't due for another 45 minutes - when a fatality occurs both north and south lines are closed immediately and chaos follows throughout the creaky old system. I declined my ex's offer to take me down the road to a Kentucky Fried outlet (there was one outside the stopped train, on the other side of the Pacific Highway, shining balefully white and red through the gathering dark under a Russell Drysdale sunset that was a mirror of the one on the cover of the Henry Lawson book; and I've never liked their food anyway) and went instead for a walk around Woy Woy. A desolate place on a Sunday night and a town I've never liked even when it's busy. I was thinking I might go to one of the two pubs for a drink. One I think I might've drunk in but never since a Scottish friend, a Glaswegian, told me after he'd been there once that it was scarier than even the worst pubs in his old home town; the other I've been to occasionally but never really felt comfortable in; I didn't go to either and then, as I was walking down a dark deserted street, my ex's car with her driving and our two kids sitting up in it sailed unaccountably by - it seemed to me that I left them hours ago but that couldn't have been the case. They didn't see me, the kids I mean, but there was a belated, half-hearted beep of the horn once they were far past and it was too much for me, I headed straight back to the railway station since there, at least, I could begin to imagine arriving somewhere else. There were only three other people on the platform, all Asian. A man about my own age who looked terminally depressed; a slightly younger woman with big teeth speaking Japanese loudly into her mobile phone; and a young fellow who could have been an Aussie, also depressed looking, with a bunch of red roses lying wilting in their plastic shroud on the bench beside him. I read Henry Lawson until the train arrived; at one point (The Union Buries Its Dead) he writes: It didn't matter much; nothing really does. The fall of lumps of clay on a stranger's coffin doesn't sound any different from the fall of the same things on an ordinary wooden box - but I kept, and keep, thinking of that other sound, that soft wet thud, echoed just once, and wondering whose soul escaped back there, and from what torment it escaped, if it did escape, and why ... and other useless questions like that.


image: Angry Harrison's Store, Russell Drysdale, 1950

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5 comments:

Elisabeth said...

I remember your last year's account of the city to surf, Martin. This year's is even more evocative.

The horrible serendipity of being on that train, you and your boys. I feel for you. Experiences like this can go on haunting us (you, your boys and your readers) for a long time.

lmrb said...

Sorry, I had a bit of chortle at your pain. You might enjoy Dempsey Woodley's train of pain on Kim Hill's RNZ Saturday show - 1 August. It's still online.

Mary McCallum said...

Been thinking of this post since I read it. The way you pull so much from that small sound you hear on the train. A friend of mine was that sound - not that day, not that train - but in the UK nearly a year ago now. I have been imagining it from his point of view and from the points of view of the train driver, the family etc, never the passengers or the people at the station.

Martin Edmond said...

... not an easy sound to forget ...

lmrb said...

My apologies for the chortle comment - it was Rail Corp's usual mismangagement. I know someone currently on a contract with Rail Corp. Say no more. I've seen the aftermath on the London Underground too many times, no sound thankfully. Nothing but sadness and emptiness as the train finally departs, and the stretcher is delivered into the ambulance.