Thursday, September 01, 2005

Night Trains: a free sample 

Before Twilight

I put the gun to the back of the woman’s head. The muzzle almost brushes against her bronze hair, once glorious, now matted and lifeless after al l the sleepless nights and the long journey on the back of a lorry. Her body quivers and she whimpers something in the incomprehensible gibberish of Yiddish.

It’s a beautiful day. The summer is so intense, so warm, so determined to stamp her full glory on the world before she’ll wither away in a few weeks’ time. The crisp, fragrant air fills my lungs, and I feel they could burst through my chest and float to the sky like two balloons. Above me, pine treetops spear the deep blue sky. There’s hardly any breeze to sway them. I have never felt so alive.

I pull the trigger.

A clap of thunder rings through the forest. And yet there are no storm clouds in the sky.

Blood, brain, and bone splinters rain on me, spray my face, coat the front of my uniform. Again. I’ll have to get it washed tomorrow. I wipe my cheeks with a handkerchief. The cloth is no longer white.

The women collapses as if the ground had suddenly disappeared from under her feet. A few short spasms convulse her body and then everything around me is still again. Only other thunders explode among the trees. No other sound intrudes. The birds are long gone, and the flies haven’t arrived yet.

The woman is lying a few feet away from a girl, seven, maybe eight years old, and a younger boy. I gave the mother a choice: which one of her children did she want to save? She took too much time deciding, so I shot the boy first, then the girl, and then, finally, her. By that stage, I suppose, her mind was already gone. Next to these three lay an old man, half his face missing, his long white beard matted with blood that has already started drying out in the warm sun. And further away, another woman. She screamed, tried to run, took two bullets.

I weigh the gun in my hand. The magazine is empty. I eject it and slip in a new one. Time for a break. I walk back towards the edge of the clearing.

Werner’s there, leaning against a tree, smoking a cigarette. He offers me one from a pack and I take it.

“How’s the pest control going?” he asks.

“Good,” I say. “Hopefully not many more today. I want to go swimming.”

“Yes, a nice day for a little dip, isn’t it?” Werner says, looking up to the sky.

Somebody, somewhere out there cries out. The shots keep on ringing.

* * *

The night is so peaceful and still that for a brief moment I can almost believe that none of it is real.

But it’s no use.

And so here it is, T.J. I made a promise to myself that one day I would tell you. I’m sorry it’s so late – too late–but I just couldn’t do it before ... Bear with me and you’ll know why.

When you’re listening to these words I’m probably dead. Or at least away. Far away. I’m sorry if it’s not making much sense to you. That’s because it all still doesn’t make much sense to me. It has destroyed my whole life, yet I still don’t know quite what to make of it.

But listen on. Even if you won’t understand, at least you’ll know, and for whatever it’s worth I’m now quite desperate for somebody to know. Having to hold it all inside has been tougher than anything else I’ve had to go through.

Maybe it’s better that I not tell you all this. Maybe it’s better if you remembered me like I was before. Maybe.

But the tape is rolling, and it’s too late for second thoughts.

So here it is, T.J.



It didn’t seem like the way my life would start to end. I guess it never does.

Just an ordinary station at midday. Walls of trees muffling the noise from distant roads, a dirty quilt of clouds, promising the rain that would not come. A world of its own, suspended like an insect in a drop of suburban amber.

All the smoothly dressed professionals working in the city were long gone, taking with them their rolled up newspapers, irritating cell ring tones, and bored looks. Schoolchildren were gone, too.

So it was just me, the platform, and three others.

There was a dishevelled schoolboy very late for school, swinging his legs from a bench too high for him, and a few paces away from him an unhealthy looking pensioner, his parchment-like skin tightly wrapped around his head as if his old skull were a precious gift. He was sweating profusely, suffocating inside a woollen coat two sizes too big.

And then there was an old man in a grey tweed suit, sitting on a bench against the wall of the station building.

Later, I would wish that I’d not have paid him any attention and forgotten about him as the train took me away. But now I realize that it wouldn’t have mattered. I don’t have the luxury of believing in coincidences anymore, and I know that if it hadn’t been that day, I’d have met him some other time.

So I can’t really curse myself that I suddenly grew tired of standing alone at the end of the platform and came over to sit on the bench next to the old man in a tweed suit.

* * *

Night. A different station. There’s no moon and no stars, all hidden under the dark shroud of clouds. The only light, a sickly bluish glare, comes from a few lamps swinging underneath the overhanging roof. On the platform, bundles wrapped in blankets and shapeless coats huddle against the wall of the building, barely distinguishable as human beings.

I strike a match and bring it close to my face. I feel the pale shadow of warmth on the palm of my hand as I shelter the flame from sudden gusts of wind. It comes violent and biting, like howling packs of wolves, travelling all the way from the deep bowels of a frozen continent.

The tip of the cigarette starts to glow faintly inches from my face. I inhale slowly and close my eyes. The tobacco is raw, fetid, and priceless. The smoke scratches at my eyes and flows down my throat like a vaporous sand paper. But it kills the stench of fear and burnt onion that hovers over the shapeless forms that share the platform with me. The one next to my feet stirs uneasily in its sleep, perhaps dreaming of home, a lost lover, or maybe just the warm welcoming darkness of death.

In a few minutes a train will slowly roll alongside the platform. An asthmatic steel centipede will exhale great clouds of steam as its wheels grind to a halt, and the station will erupt out of hibernation with a few frenzied moments of scramble and noise.

A man in his early thirties will step out onto the platform, a flowing overcoat with a fur collar hastily thrown on top of a drab olive uniform. He will look around, slowly and deliberately, a copy of yesterday’s paper tucked under his right arm as an agreed signal. Our gazes will meet for a moment and I will look into his eyes, burning in the pale lamplight with the sick glow of a morphine addict. He will take in a few deep breaths of the ice cold air, cough perhaps, and disappear back inside the carriage without acknowledging me. After the last drag, the cigarette will die under my boot and I will follow him onto the train, to the third compartment down the corridor.

I’m straining to hear that distant rumble of the steam engine, but there’s nothing yet. I turn my back to the wind and try to peer through the black curtain. The light of day, a cloud-covered sky and the rain that doesn’t fall are an unthinkably distant memory. So is the old man in a grey tweed suit. I can picture him in my mind as if I’d seen him only a moment ago, but he, the bench he sits on and the station - my station - are so very far away they might as well be somewhere beyond these stars that I can’t see tonight.

* * *

Although he was sitting down I could see he was small and rather chubby. His clothes were neither new nor fashionable, but they were tidy and well cut. Even the felt hat resting on his lap was color-coordinated with the rest of his outfit. The picture seemed just right; a perfect grandpa from a TV commercial shot in warm autumn colors through a misty lens.

There was a healthy glow about him that made him look at least ten years younger than betrayed by the whisks of white hair behind his ears and at the back of his head. His gaze was fixed on something in the distance, his thick rectangular glasses half way down his nose, overhanging a snow white, pencil thin, well groomed moustache that went out of vogue a long, long time ago.

I came over to the bench and sat down on the edge. He turned towards me, smiled and nodded. I nodded back, hoping that this would be the extent of our social interaction. I always hated small talk with strangers, with its fake politeness, fake concern and fake interest. No casual conversation with a stranger has ever had any consequences for my life. Until that day, that is.

“I hope it will not rain,” he said after a while, breaking the pleasant silence.

I turned and nodded in a non-committal way, but he didn’t elaborate and returned to staring into the distance.

I was just about to fall back into my thoughts when he spoke again. “I do not like these trains.” He turned towards me and added, “They are not real trains, you know?”

He saw the blank expression on my face and waved his hand impatiently.

“They do not have... how should I say it... any soul.”

Nothing mundane then. I was expecting a lecture about the perpetual lateness of service, overcrowding, or the schoolkids putting their feet on the dirty-green seat, but his was merely a metaphysical complaint.

“Those suburban trains; they are just glorified trams,” the old man went on, unfazed by my silence. “The real trains, now that is something. None of those electric wires, doors that open by themselves, and windows you cannot open at all. Trains were not meant to be like that.”

He hesitated for a moment, as if suddenly embarrassed by his exuberance. “But then I think that is what they call progress and I am just an old man who likes to complain, so do not mind me, please,” he added and a weak smile played briefly on his lips.

It was difficult to pinpoint his accent on a simpleton’s mental map of the Old World. I placed him somewhere in Central Europe, because it reminded me of a neighbor I once had. He was a stern-looking man who kept mostly to himself and listened to crackling foreign stations on his long wave receiver. For some reason he terrified me, though my older brother displayed an unhealthy fascination, imagining him a war criminal, hiding from his blood-soaked past on our quiet suburban street. Only when the man died and his estranged son came up from interstate to take care of his father’s affairs, we learned he was Estonian, a slave laborer in Germany during the war; a victim, not a perpetrator. That truth seemed to disappoint my brother. I would wonder whether in some twisted sort of way he really wanted to live next door to a pensioned monster.

“And one other thing; those suburban trains are just that – suburban trains,” I realized that the old man was still talking to me. “How far can these trains go? Just to the outskirts and that is it. Trains should be free like horses; go, go, go” he cackled. “Go across the empty fields, through forests, down the valleys...”

He paused suddenly and lowered his eyes, “Gosh, you must be wishing you had not sat next to me.” Suddenly he seemed almost bashful. His fingers drummed on the bench next to his leg, yet his face radiated with excitement, as if he had just won a hundred meter sprint.

I didn’t quite know what to say. “No,” I murmured, but meant yes, even if the old man seemed harmless enough. I glanced at my watch. A few more minutes of waiting.

The old man took a white handkerchief out of a coat pocket and wiped his brow. “You see, I was a stationmaster in Europe, a long time ago, during the war,” he went on, but more subdued now. “Do not get me started on trains, I can go on whole day,” he chuckled again, but it was a humourless response.

I bet he could. “I won’t,” I promised.

The train arrived just on time, its rumble breaking slowly like a distant wave above the white noise of the city.

“I–,” I stood up and pointed towards the train when it came to a halt in front of us.

The retired station master did not let me finish. “Well, have a nice day,” he waved me on. “Who knows, I might see you again some other time soon, young man.”

No promises, old man.


He was there again, one Saturday morning, some two weeks later. I forgot about the switch to the weekend timetable and found myself with twenty minutes to spare before my train was to arrive.

I was reclining back on the bench with my eyes closed, mentally undressing a girl I briefly kissed last night before she disappeared leaving me with her phone number. Things were looking good.

“Good afternoon, young man. I see we meet again.”

The girl vanished, and he was here instead, a rather poor replacement. He had a different suit on, a black woollen outfit with grey pin-stripes, as elegant but just as out of fashion as his previous choice. His hat was again resting on his lap, his long fingers caressing the felt rim. I didn’t hear him come over and sit down next to me.

“Indeed,” I forced a weak smile.

“Going to the city?” he asked.

“My car’s getting fixed,” I said. “Normally I would drive in on the weekend.”

He pursed his lips and nodded in apparent sympathy.

“By the way,” he said. “It is quite rude of me to chat with you like that all the time without introducing myself.” He extended his hand, “My name is Bartok. Franz Bartok. Like the composer.” he added with hesitation in his voice, judging me an inhabitant of a cultural desert.

“Martin,” I shook his hand. “Any relation? To the composer, I mean.”

If he were a maiden, he would have blushed then. “Oh, no. Not that I know, at least. One could hope, of course. It would certainly be exciting.”

His father was Hungarian, he explained, his mother Austrian (“God rest their souls.”), but he missed out by a few years being born the subject of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. Seeing the empire didn’t quite survive the end of the First World War, that made him what? Pretty old. Hell, time had obviously been very kind to him.

“-drew a new border and my parents decided they would rather take their chances in the new Austria. We had more family there and they wanted to help, so we moved to near Innsbruck. My father used to work for the imperial railways, after the war for the Austrian railways. When I turned fifteen I too-” He paused, “Oh dear, I am boring you very much, no?”

I shrugged. “No, that’s fine.” I didn’t really care.

* * *

By the time Hitler had realized his dream of uniting all the German people within his Reich, Bartok was a station master in a small town close to the Swiss border. A year later, when the war broke out, he avoided the draft as his work for the railways was deemed essential to the war effort. He survived years of bombing raids, but his home was hit by a shell in the last months of the war, and his wife and young son were buried under the rubble.

There was nothing left for him in his small town, and so one day he walked away and joined the wandering of millions of others to find a new life beyond the ocean. He kept on working for the railways in his new homeland, retired some time ago and now lived alone in a little house on Alicia Street, not very far from the station.

So that was it. Just another pensioner with nothing much to do in what the marketing industry has ironically christened as the golden years. Nothing much to do, except to sit on a bench and let the sun warm your old bones.

And talk to strangers about trains.

I didn’t remember seeing him at the station before, but he insisted that he’d seen me quite often in the past. I rarely paid much attention to people around me in public places, so he might have been right. I didn’t press the point.

The train finally arrived and we said our goodbyes.

“Until the next time,” he said as he waved me farewell.

* * *

His English was pretty good for a migrant with no more than a primary school education. Those who came off the ships after the war didn’t have a lot of time to better themselves. Railway work didn’t make one a polyglot either. They lived, played and prayed among their own, and their English remained clumsy and basic, barely overlaying the inflections of their old corners, and betraying them as surely as did their mannerisms and habits.

Bartok’s speech was different. Yes, he would never escape the distant echo of his mother tongue, but the way he spoke, his careful grammar and the textbook vocabulary made him sound more like an émigré professor than a railway man. Maybe this determined young man with no family and too many memories keeping him awake had taught himself the new language night after night while his friends slept, felled by the day’s backbreaking work. Maybe.


I can’t remember what woke me up.

I was a light sleeper; it could have been anything. It probably wasn’t.

I pulled the sheets over my head and curled up in the middle of the bed, hoping to catch a lift back to the comforting landscapes of my dream country. But it was no use. My mind was now awake, even if my body still resisted.

After a while I sighed and opened my eyes. Square digital numbers were glowing on the face of the alarm clock, just some red shapes too blurry for me to read. My hand felt around the paper mountain on the desk, searching for my glasses. I finally found them wedged between books and computer keyboard.

It was two thirty. Too early to give up on sleep. It would catch up with me by lunchtime, and I couldn’t afford to spend half the day barely conscious. But I couldn’t sleep either.

A gust of chilly morning air burst in from outside and gave me a violent shiver. I leaned over and slid the window shut.

The night was dark, cloudy, and moonless. Instead, it was the pinpricks of street lamps scattered along the valley down below that formed their own giant Milky Way, as if the heavens and earth decided to swap places for a while.

Ahead of me and slightly to my right, at the foot of the hill, lay the train yards. A maze of tracks, with a scattering of old sheds and decrepit buildings, spread out over a few dozen acres in the valley. At night the yards formed a rough rectangle of pitch darkness, a black hole surrounded by the lights of suburbia.

All tracks led to the city, and all of them would pass through the yards.

Once, when railroads still mattered, the whole wealth of the state would roll through there. That time was long gone. The lines have closed and the economy now bypassed the yards. Property developers salivated over the inner city site, community groups dreamed of a new park, and the transport bureaucracy, the yard’s cruel stepmother, sat back and reserved its judgment, as bureaucracies tend to do. A few freight trains would still pass through, and the old rolling stock would come down to their own elephant cemetery, but it was all a pretense. The last night watchman had left years ago, following the realization that there was nothing valuable left to steal, and even the part-time Satanists now preferred the local cemetery.

The yards should have been peacefully asleep now. It took me a while to realize they weren’t.

Somewhere in the middle of the dark expanse a few pinpricks of bluish light shone brightly, teasing the darkness like the eyes of a predator.

I don’t know why I paid it any attention. The last man out must have forgotten to switch off the lights. I would have probably collapsed back onto the bed if not for the train.

The only movement I saw with any clarity were the bellows of steam coming out of the chimney. Almost as soon as I realized what I was seeing the train disappeared somewhere behind the line of trees and old warehouses.

The muffled metallic tattoo of wheels rolling on the tracks lingered on a bit longer but soon it too receded into the night.

The spectacle lasted maybe ten seconds.

Steam engine, I thought, how quaint. It was almost like seeing a dinosaur, and just as surreal, at two thirty in the morning.

I took a few deep breaths and I felt the sleep descending on me again, gently caressing my back and pulling a curtain over my eyes. I lay back on the bed and let the night close in around me. In my last conscious thought I realized that after the train had gone, the lights have gone out too and darkness claimed the railway yards once again.

I didn’t think about the train until breakfast. It then suddenly occurred to me that I haven’t actually seen it coming. Suddenly it was just there, running at full speed through the yards, and moment later it had passed and vanished, like a dream. The more I thought about it the less certain I was that I have really seen it.


I cranked up the air conditioning and wound up the window to escape the summer heat, the bark of mad dogs, and the quintessentially suburban smell of freshly mowed grass, which I despised.

I was driving back from my ex-girlfriend’s place. I had to visit and console her on the tragic and unexpected death of her mother. The mother had turned 45 only a few days ago and was returning home after small celebrations with her friends from work when she wrapped her brand-new Toyota around a power pole on a particularly tricky curve about one kilometer up the road from home. She was never a heavy drinker; her friends later said that she wouldn’t have had more than two glasses of champagne.

There were no other cars involved, and no witnesses. An old lady who lived across the road heard the crash and called the police. It took the firemen two hours to cut the body out of the wreckage. The accident got a fifteen second mention on the nightly news, just before the sports segment.

“They did the autopsy the next day,” my ex said, her head resting on my shoulder, half turned away towards the window. I had my arms around her, but it was nothing like it once used to be. “You know what they’ve found?

She had an undetected cervical cancer. The doctor said she would have been dead in twelve months’ time. It was too advanced, he said, they wouldn’t have been able to do anything for her.”

“Double whammy,” I said. “Shit.”

We were standing in the middle of the living room. The sun filtered softly through the curtains and the dust danced on the rays of light.

“I’m glad you came. I really appreciate it,” she sighed. She did not cry, and somehow I didn’t think she would while I was with her.

“Don’t even mention it,” I said rocking her gently in my arms. “I’m sorry it took me so long. I’ve only heard last night. From Jim.”

Sarah was the only one of my relationships that ended without tears and recriminations. We allowed ourselves to slowly drift apart, intuitively satisfied that it simply wasn’t to be, but not blaming each other for our disappointment. Later on, we didn’t exactly try to keep in touch, but we did not avoid each other either when mutual friends brought us together for an occasional celebration. We exchanged Christmas cards every year and sincerely wished each other all the best.

We talked for a few more minutes about safe and neutral things, and after the obligatory offer of anything I could do, we said goodbye.

I remembered the road works and the line of traffic I passed on the way to Sarah’s place, and driving back I took a different route. I didn’t realize quite where I was until I felt the jolt of driving over a railway crossing. Then I knew.

I put the indicator on and pulled up on the side of the road. A wave of oppressive heat hit me when I opened the door. I swore under my breath and yanked myself out of the car.

There was another unguarded crossing about fifty meters down the road. The gate was locked and it didn’t look like it had been in use recently.

A rusty chain link fence separated the grounds from a narrow asphalt sidewalk and the street. Wilted weeds sprouted along its base, adding to the desolate feel.

Twenty meters beyond the fence a row of decrepit warehouses rose up from the ground. Just like the railways they serviced, the warehouses had seen better times, ages ago. The new management had not even bothered to paint over the ghosts of the old writing. On one wall I could still see “Johns & Sons. Grain Merchants,” which in its prime must have stood out in bold black against a white background, but now gray was only melting into another shade of gray.

Only two or three out of a dozen warehouses seemed to be still in use.

They looked just as decrepit as the others, but their doors were open and a few workers were milling around, attending to old wagons. Further away, a forklift was unloading small containers from a freight train.

A railway worker was standing outside a small gate, about twenty yards from where I parked my car. He was a tall, prematurely balding man in his thirties, turned rich brown from working outdoors. The black oval sunglasses gave him a menacing insectoid look. He was getting the last few drags out of his cigarette and absent-mindedly kicking the dirt with his boot.

“Excuse me,” I started walking towards him.

He turned towards me and stared at me like a man caught doing something improper.

“Listen,” I said. “Do you still get many steam trains going through here?”

His body relaxed. I wasn’t trouble.

“Steam train enthusiast, eh?” he said. It sounded more like an insult than a question.

“Yes, a bit,” I lied.

“Not from around here, are we?” he asked. I couldn’t see his eyes behind the sunglasses but his expression was pretty blank.


“Well, otherwise you’d probably know that they took all steamers out of action years ago.” There was a hint of satisfaction in his voice, as if he was happy to disappoint another sucker. “Too costly to run and too costly to fix,” he added, trying to sound like an expert.

I’m not sure what sort of answer I was expecting but this wasn’t it. “I could have sworn I’ve seen one here quite recently,” I persevered.

He pressed his lips tightly and shook his head. “Couldn’t ‘ave been. As I said we don’t use ‘em any more. Switched to diesel engines completely. There’s still some steam ones running, but that would be up north, just for the tourists. None here.” He paused for a few seconds as if pondering something. “When did you say you saw one?”

“Oh,” I shrugged. “A few days ago. Actually it was at night.”

It didn’t ring any bells with him. He shook his head again. “There wouldn’t ‘ave been trains going through here at night. And no steam trains as I said. You must’ave seen a normal one.”

“Yeah, I must have.” I hadn’t. Normal trains don’t blow smoke.

“Yeah,” he said, eager to finish the conversation with a budding trainspotter who couldn’t tell a steam engine from a diesel one.

I was just about to walk back to my car but I stopped and asked one more question. “Do you fellows do much work on the nightshifts?”

“We don’t have any nightshifts,” his eyebrows rose betraying impatience.

“So no one does any work around here at night?”

“No. Why?” The suspicious animal stirred again.

I made a vague gesture with my hand. “It used to be busier, eh? The government’s not spending much on railways anymore?”

“Too right, mate,” he said. “Too right. The bums only look after themselves and this whole place is going to shits.”

This time I was leaving. “Well, thanks anyway.”

“No worries,” he waved his hand, glad to be left alone.

I was staring at my car when I saw a Barman’s Express van pull by the gate. The driver stepped out, slid the side door open, took out a carton of beer and passed it onto the railway man. My railway insider exchanged a few words with the driver while fishing in his pocket for some change. It was one o’clock.

Maybe it was all a dream. Otherwise I was stuck with a steam train that wasn’t there, going through the yards lit up by workers who weren’t working there at that time.

The day seemed to be getting hotter and I already had a splitting headache. I didn’t feel like thinking too much anymore.


He waved at me as I was descending the stairs from the overpass onto the platform. Instinctively I waved back, realizing too late that now I would be obliged to go over to him and have a chat. The angel sitting on my right shoulder was taken aback by my antisocial impulse. Get a hold of yourself, he whispered in my ear, he’s just an old man, not a child molester.

“I saw a train,” I said as I sat down next to him. It was one of those Freudian slips; I meant to say ‘Nice day, isn’t it?’

“Ah,” he smiled. There was a delicate breeze in the air and it levitated a rebellious strand of hair behind his left ear.

“It was a–” I was suddenly lost for words, “–a different train.” I didn’t know whether I really wanted to go any further. It felt vaguely embarrassing, as if I had to owe up to still wetting my bed. But who better to confide about trains than a retired station master? Please lay down on the bench and relax, young man, and tell me about your relationship with your mother. And about the trains.

“A different train,” he repeated, just when the silence was starting to become uncomfortable. His gaze drifted off. “Every train is different.”

I pushed my glasses back. On humid days like this they had an irritating habit of slowly sliding down my nose. “It was a steam train,” I explained.

His upper body rotated towards me, as if to make the conversation more intimate. “Ah, a steam train,” he repeated. “Not many of those left around. Pity,” he sighed wistfully. “They were the real trains.”

A sharp staccato noise made me jump and look around. A half crashed can of Coke was rolling down the platform. It lingered motionless for a moment and then drifted, pushed by a sudden gust of wind, over the gray gritty concrete of the ramp, past the yellow “don’t cross this line while the train is approaching” line and disappeared over the edge. There was a dull clink as it hit the gravel and then the station was quiet again. I turned back around. Mr. Bartok, no relation to the famous composer, was still looking at me unperturbed.

“You did not tell me before that you were interested in trains,” he said.

A half-question, half-statement. Of regret, perhaps.

“No, I didn’t. I’m not, “ I shrugged. “I’m not interested in trains. But this one was different.”

“You said that already.”

A truck with a broken muffler thundered somewhere close by. This time I resisted the urge to be distracted.

“I know,” I said, feeling more self-conscious with every word coming out of my mouth. I was ready to stand up and make up some convenient excuse, then leave. It was silly. “It was in the middle of the night,” I heard myself stumbling on instead. “Pretty dark. A moonless night. But I could see it, you know, the smoke–”

He nodded, encouraging me to go on with my confessions. “I looked out the window but I couldn’t really see it. As I said, just a movement; a black shape against the black background. And the steam coming out... Then a few days later I was passing by the yards and I started talking to this fellow who works there, and you know what he told me?”

“That there are no steam engines working anymore?”

I opened my mouth but before I could say anything Bartok leaned over towards me and patted my hand with his. “I am a station master – well, a retired stationmaster, remember?” he shrugged. “I know such things.”

He was right, of course. But my palms were sweaty and it wasn’t just the Queensland summer heat. “So what was it?” I asked.

“It was a train, “ he said. “A different train, as you said.”

“How different?” I pressed on. “Some kind of tourist train from interstate?”

He took out a white handkerchief out of the blazer pocket and wiped his brow. “You could say that.” At that moment I thought I could imagine him like he used to be, almost sixty years ago, the smiling, friendly station master. It’s twenty-five past four, madam. I’m afraid there will be a slight delay. Some little problem up the line. Terribly sorry. Say, aren’t they lovely children? You must be so proud. “A tourist train from interstate,” the retired station master repeated slowly. He was old again and sitting next to me.

“Have you ever been on it?” I had no idea why I asked this question.

“Oh, no. Unfortunately not.” he sounded almost apologetic, as if sorry to disappoint me. “Not on this one. I know it well, though. It is the 2:35 to Vienna.”


“Why what?”

“Why is it the 2:35 to Vienna?”

“Well,” his hand caressed the rim of the hat. “Because it departs the station at 2:35, and it goes to Vienna.”

The eyes are supposed to be the mirrors of one’s soul and I peered very hard into his to find a glimmer of insanity, or maybe just a senile dementia. But he held my gaze and the only thing I thought I could see was a flicker of amusement. I now expected him to burst out in giggles, wave his hand around and apologize for having fun at my expense. But he didn’t. He stood up instead.

“If you excuse me,” he put his hat back on and then straightened the wrinkles on his coat with slow and deliberate movements. “It is my tea time.

When you get to my age you do not want to miss it.” He put two fingers to the brim of his hat in an old-fashioned farewell. “As always, it was nice talking to you, Martin.”

I didn’t call after him, or try to stop him as he walked away. The metal tip of his umbrella clinked on the concrete with his every step, until the passing traffic drowned it out.

The train to the city was two minutes late. It was only some time after I stepped out into the beehive of the central station that I realized I had left my bag on the seat. I stood on the platform, motionless, long after all the passengers disappeared up the escalators. On the billboard across the track an unnaturally joyful young couple were engaged in a pillow fight, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you what they were advertising.

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