Strangers on a Train

strangers-glassesLast Saturday night I caught a train from Newcastle back to Sydney. By the time I got to the station the last direct service had departed and I had an hour to wait for the next one – an all stations that terminated at Gosford, with a two hour wait there before the first Sunday train. It was the fulcrum, the witching hour perhaps. I went to the station master’s office to ask if there was anywhere I could leave my bags, so that I could spend the time in the Great Northern over the road. No. The cloakroom was locked. Could I use the loo (closed for cleaning), I wondered. No. He would unlock the disabled toilet if I liked. I didn’t like. He was surly and disenchanted, in his heated sanctuary, but I could see why. Most of those waiting on the platform were disheveled and drunken revelers ending their night in the familiar disarray. Not sure if I would have felt happy leaving my laptop in that station master’s care anyway. There were a few long distance travelers among us. An Asian man, perhaps Japanese, with his neat sneakers and backpack and I-pod and air of indefatigable patience in the face of tedium. A fellow about my own age with a pony-tail and a bent-out-of-shape face. A woman with two saucepans on her head. Two saucepans? Yes. One handle pointed one way, the other, the other. Sometimes, as she walked back and forth, she adjusted them. I couldn’t see how they stayed upon her fine head of curly hair; but they did. Couldn’t meet her eye. She looked sweet and distracted and very alone – but she might have been accompanied by voices, in which case mere social contact might not have been necessary. I had in my briefcase a manuscript a friend had asked me to read. It was about his growing up in John O’ Groats in the 1960s and 1970s. I’d read maybe a quarter of it then stalled. Thought I might read the rest of it on the train. It was a kind of blessing. Given the circumstances. The Gosford train was late but it came at last. About 11.30. I climbed in and wedged myself and my two bags in the loo. That was a relief. A dark and stormy night, did I say that? The carriage I chose was more or less empty and they had the fans on but not the heater. At Civic, or maybe Wickham, or maybe even Hamilton, a blond goth with pale skin and very red lipstick got on. Two older women at the fag end of their night also. Someone started talking very loud on a mobile phone – I could hear her very clearly, but for a long time I thought it was the dark-haired older woman whose Irish eyes were smiling just over the top of the seat, ahead. No, it was the blond goth, sitting downstairs. Go to bed, she was saying, go to bed now, set your alarm, and in the morning get up and go. Don’t have anything more to do with those guys, they’re drunk, they’re trouble, go to bed now and in the morning, go. Maybe it was her son. Or daughter, who knew. Eventually s/he got the message and hung up. I was in the Orkneys by now. Scapa Flow. As we made our halting way south, at every station, drunken revelers, with their cries of freedom, left the train to make their sodden way home. The goth girl got off, the two older women, she with her Irish eyes still smiling. It was so cold, I changed carriages, hoping the heaters were on somewhere else. No, just a guy with piercings talking to his girlfriend while the charge on his mobile ran out, another fellow telling his mate stories of fabulous beatings he had dealt out in his gangland past. They always check you out, these guys, but if you are stalwart in your greetings, they leave you alone. Or so I hope. An all-stations train always seems to take twice as long as an express but we got to Gosford at last. One hour fifty minutes to wait. Or, 1.10 until 3.02 am. I half thought I might see my son on the platform, this is his neighbourhood and sometimes I know he is out late and catching trains. But no. Only the Asian boy with his I-pad. The fellow with the ponytail. The woman with two saucepans on her head. A lot of cops. And a few revelers, half naked in the cold. Again I thought of wandering into town to find somewhere warm. But no. It was pelting down and Gosford these days is an habitue of petty crims and junkies. Or so my son tells me and he’s probably right. I saw from the veranda of the station no welcoming lights but dark figures moving between pillars of rain. I returned to John O’ Groats. Kevin paddled his canoe across Pentland Firth, An Caol Arcach, that separates Scotland proper from the Orkneys. Ponytail told me he had left Maitland at 9.30 pm, heading for Mt Druitt. Why I didn’t ask. Said he wouldn’t get there before daylight. He pulled out a book, set his glasses on his nose, and started reading. The woman with two saucepans on her head walked back and forth, back and forth. She studied the timetables on the wall. Unreachable. At some point she crossed over to the other side, and when the north-bound train came in, caught that. Back the way she had come. To Wyong. I think the cops had a chat with her before the train left. What about? Who knows. She was clearly mad but, just as surely, a danger to no-one but herself. How did she keep those saucepans balanced upon her curls? There was someone down the other end of the platform, his head buried in his hands. It was like visiting eternity. Kevin shot a stag that belonged to the Laird. He butchered it by torchlight and, next day, got his mates to transport the venison in the boots of their cars. A haunch each for their meat-starved families. Nothing lasts forever. The train came, it was a Tangara, they have heating. The last hour of the journey passed in a (relative) flash and there was only a six minute wait for the connecting train. The Lithgow service was on the other platform, I saw Ponytail walk over and take his seat. I think he was one of the good guys. The Asian fellow was waiting for the same train I was but we didn’t speak; and yet I know he knew that I knew that he knew . . . whatever. The rain had eased by the time the train got to Summer Hill, it was 4.30 am and there was a truck parked across the footpath outside the news agency delivering tomorrow’s – today’s – papers. I stepped into the road around it and rambled on down the hill to my place. Home. 

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