Ticket To Somewhere

(Photo By Marc Ryckaert (MJJR) (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
©Kelley Mether 2017
In 2015 One Throne Magazine (onethrone.com) ran a competition called “Joust”. Entrants had exactly 24 hours in which to respond with a story of up to 1000 words. One Throne gave the first and the last sentence of the story, and the writers had to build their story between the two. This was my attempt:

They laid the train tracks back to front and this caused a great deal of confusion – you’d think you were on the train to New York and arrived in Kinshasa, or to Shanghai and found yourself lost in Istanbul. When they discovered their mistake they stopped laying them, of course. The few townspeople who’d fought against the train line were jubilant – they said it was an “act of god”, but anyone with any brain could see it was the Mayor’s fault. He’d appointed his brother’s son-in-law to oversee the work in return for guaranteeing votes at the next election. The son-in-law was a young lad fresh out of law school. He’d studied criminal law but apparently that wasn’t important.

So the lines stopped at Nunangah. That was still pretty impressive: Coothamba to Nunangah is over six hundred kilometres, a drop in the ocean in terms of Australian distances but pretty impressive in terms of useless train lines. I used to wonder if it might be a world record. I imagined writing to Mr Ripley at Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and he could come to Coothamba and he could get on the ‘Coothamba Rumbler’ with me and experience it for himself. The fact that the lines had been laid back to front would surely guarantee entry into that great book of facts – six hundred kilometres of useless train line and a train that screeched as it strained to leave the platform – the grinding wheels and the smoke that streamed up from between the lines and the platform. The first time it happened (and the last time, because they never tried it again), I was sitting with my mum in the first carriage. She held my hand tightly, her eyes fever-bright, blinking rapidly in nervous excitement.

When that noise started, and the smoke and the smell made it obvious that something was very wrong, my mum slowly relaxed her grip on me. She stared straight ahead, her lips a firm line, her face an exercise in self-control. She would never let herself cry, my mum. Later, when she became bitter, it was my mum who started that running joke about getting on the train for New York and finding yourself in Kinshasa. The funniest thing about it, she confided in me, was that the locals kept retelling the joke but none of them had even heard of Kinshasa before she said it. She doubted they’d heard of Istanbul, either.

I was too young to understand the significance of the train line to my mum. From the first, she had been its most ardent advocate. She had gone from being socially withdrawn to the point of perceived snobbishness to the most talkative and community minded person in our small town. She door-knocked, she convened, she united. I was in awe of this new mum of mine. In our school of sixty kids, I was suddenly famous. “Your mum’s gonna bring a train line to our town,” they all said. I believed it too. At home, mum worked furiously; writing, telephoning, petitioning, organising. From his usual position in front of the television my dad sneered, beer bottle in hand: “What d’ya reckon? Think it’s a one-way ticket to Somewhere?” I helped mum stick stamps on envelopes and ignored him. The only time we noticed him was when he was drunk, and then we walked on eggshells.

I know now that it was mum’s ticket to Somewhere. Her dreams must have died that day of the screeching, stinking, grinding smoke. Like most of the men and women in that dying town, my parents were unemployed. Soon after the mine had closed, we sold our car. I thought that was fine – school was close, the supermarket was close, all my friends were close, and it was only a small town, less than two thousand people. No need for a car. The mail van came once a week, the grocery truck came twice a week. They were the main conduits for information about the world outside but who needed the world outside when you were an eight year old kid with a mum and dad and friends to play with?

I don’t think I I even knew mum suffered from depression until the Mayor announced his plans to put Coothamba on the map by joining it to the major train lines going to Sydney. Sydney! How mum’s heart must have leapt at the hope. She threw herself in with the Mayor and her animation was astounding. I had never seen her like this. Because of all her hard work, she and I were guaranteed seats in the first carriage, behind the mayor and his family. Dad was invited but thankfully declined; even he had the grace to acknowledge that it would be hypocritical of him to attend.

With the help of his rich brother, the Mayor had managed to raise the funds for the train lines and an old train with three carriages, but the money hadn’t extended to a proper train station. Instead, the lines began at an old disused shearing shed. They’d cut away the front wall to make it look more like a train platform. The surrounding corrugated iron walls were rusted in sections but the tin roof was intact, and my favourite bit was the old wood floor – beautiful shiny timber burnished with the lanolin of thousands of sheep. Mum said it was undignified but for once I disagreed with her.

When the screeching and smoking stopped, and everyone sort of shame-facedly shambled off to their homes, mum and I sat for a long time on the long wooden bench running along the back wall of the shearing shed. I stared down at her hands, clenching the edges of the bench with whitened knuckles, and said nothing. That was the day I was introduced to despair. I was glad that at least she couldn’t see the train. Rain dripping from the rusty gutters made a curtain between the platform and the tracks.

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