The Boy On The Tracks
The weak, winter sun is gentle on the back of his neck, reaching him through a hazy mist leftover from the early morning fog. The metal of the railway tracks is cold and damp on his cheek and somehow its metallic taste has crept into his mouth. The bars support his body in odd places: his forehead, his last ribs, the top of his thighs, his kneecaps. He feels mismatched, uneven. His stomach hangs down like a pot-belly. He pushes it out, trying to get it to touch the dirt between the bars but it doesn’t quite reach. He imagines the vibrations a train would make as it neared the small country station, out of use now for twelve years. The vibrations, he thinks, would be barely perceptible at first. Vague tremors like his blood is shivering in his veins. A few seconds and they would be too strong to be internal. His teeth would chatter, his ribs would bruise as they jolted against the metal. A wall of heavy, metal-on-metal noise, a rush of warm wind, scented with coal, his body flattened into long metal strips, the weight of the carriages rolling over him in a one-two, one-two limp. And then release, his lungs fill with air.
He digs his toes into the dirt. The fresh, cold smell of earth surrounds him. How does smell have a temperature? He reaches his hands up and grasps the furthest bar he can reach. He holds it tightly, his fingers slipping slightly with the damp. Gravity, he thinks, is all that stops him swinging as though he were on a ladder. He squeezes his eyes shut. The world, with Australia hanging precariously at the bottom, and Tasmania just barely holding on underneath. And there is the train track, empty but for a small boy who swings back and forth, bumping into the earth. His stomach swoops as he pictures himself stuck on the bottom of the world, the only thing between him and space is an unseen force which pulls at him. He kicks his legs out and imagines them flying through the air before bumping back against the ground. If gravity were to soften suddenly he would still hold on. All those other people, walking around, would tumble into space, but not him. His hands grip the metal bar tighter.
‘Boy!’ Mr Johnston, station manager since the forties who now likes to sit on the empty platform, has spotted him. ‘That ain’t no playground, boy. Get yourself home!’ The voice cracks with age. The boy on the tracks rolls over, his bum hits the dirt and the metal digs into his back with a harsh bite. Mr Johnston is waving a walking stick at him as though at a rabbit, trying to shoo him away. The boy stands and starts slowly hopping along the tracks, balancing on the bars, avoiding the dirt. A few more words yelled from the station platform and he veers off to the side, leaving the empty metal tracks behind him.
The noise from his house carries through the still air and reaches him as he makes his way down the hill. He stumbles over his feet as the slope propels him forward. Baby Harry is crying, the boy knows his cheeks will be flushed red in fever. A sodden bib, brown and grey swirls showing its age, will be hung around his neck. His little chest will be fluttering with attempts to breathe and scream at the same time; his fists will be mashing the air, trying to make contact with anything solid enough to resist his despair. Sally will be trying to prod food into the baby’s mouth between cries, her own dress soiled from having food spat back at her. Their mother will be yelling instructions from the kitchen, her face red and sweating from kneading the dough for the day’s deliveries in front of the hot oven. By lunchtime they need to be heading out to deliver the bread to restaurants and cafes in the nearby towns, but right now, a sick baby and uncooperative dough are the only things on her mind.
The boy circles around to the back of the house. He doesn’t want to go inside. He sits on the ground by the side of the house. The shade from the house engulfs this spot for most of the day. He leans against the thin white boards of the house, facing south into the great valley. The boy digs his fingers into the ground, it’s cold and clumpy and when he withdraws them his skin has turned a dark, dusty colour. He looks up, watching the mid-morning sun pull itself through the watery clouds. Everything will stay damp today. The boy’s stomach grumbles. His legs are cold, the thin cotton of his pants is pressed into the damp earth. He can hear his mother and his sister having an argument, their voices shrill with anger. He stands up, slapping his legs to shake off the clumps of dirt. He starts walking, trying to get some blood moving into his frozen limbs. He’ll circle back around to the tracks, he thinks, a few hundred metres north of the station to avoid Mr Johnston.
The grass is long and his shoes are full of water, squelching with each step. He wraps his arms around his body as he walks. He pushes himself up and over a rise and looks down the two metre drop to the train tracks. A mixture of gravel and dirt lays either side of the metal. He normally walks further towards the station to where the rise peters out, and the gravel gives way to soft dirt. It is still morning though, and Mr. Johnston will be on the platform. He jumps, his legs spring down to cushion his landing but his foot catches the side of a rock and he sprawls to the side. His head knocks into the ground with a clunk, gravel digs into his elbow, cheek, thigh. The soft sun glints down at the boy’s sleeping form, his cold skin and bent legs.
He is dreaming of the noise a train would make, hauling itself along the tracks towards him. The giant machine emerges from around the corner with a burst of steaming noise, crashing past him with a hot, wet breath of air. He climbs on top of the great screeching hulk as it roars by him, his arms pull at their sockets but he is quick. The metal burns against his hands, smoke billowing in his face, warm and sticky. He climbs up the steep wall until he is lying on his back on the top, the warm metal shudders beneath him. The rhythm of the train becomes the rhythm of his blood, the wind pushes his skin, his cheeks engulf his eyes. He stands slowly, then balances easily on top of the roaring train. He waves to the rolling hills, the valleys with dots of houses hidden in them, the boy who rides trains.
‘Hey. Hey.’ An insistent voice as his arm is shaken. A strange boy is squatting near his head, his hand poised, ready to continue shaking the thin shoulder in front of him. ‘Whatcha doin’?’ The boy lifts his head, trying to see who is asking but the sun is too strong in his eyes, the figure is nothing but a silhouette. He tries to form words but his lips don’t move very well. He reaches a hand up and touches the side of his head. There’s a large lump, the skin burns in pain when he presses it, thick liquid oozes against his fingers. ‘Shit, boy, you’re bleeding pretty bad.’ The strange boy sounds impressed. The wind whistles around them, the morning mist has been blown away but the sun has no warmth in it. The strange boy stands up and looks down the tracks. ‘Where does this go, then?’ The boy on the ground pulls himself to a sitting position, then, slowly, leaning heavily against the rise off which he jumped, he stands. Nausea rises and he turns, retching against the stones. ‘You’re hurt pretty bad, aren’t you?’ The strange boy’s voice is a soft statement. The boy presses a hand to his head and nods slowly. They are the same height, looking eye-to-eye. The boy shields his eyes from the sunlight. He could be looking into a mirror. Their hair is the same pale blonde, their faces are narrow, their eyes the same dark brown. The strange boy, though, has longer, danker hair; his skin has seen more sun and his body is slighter, though he looks strong. The boys stare at each other, eyes narrowed in confusion.
The strange boy turns and starts making his way down the tracks, his interest waning. The boy coughs to find his voice. ‘Where are you going?’ he calls out.
The strange boy half-turns but doesn’t stop walking. ‘To the horizon and beyond!’ He flings his arms out wide.
Warmth, the boy thinks vaguely, would be over the horizon. ‘Wait!’ he shouts.
The strange boy pauses uncertainly. The sun glints up at them off the metal at their feet. The boy catches up and they start walking side-by-side. The strange boy is walking quickly, half-skipping over the tracks. The boy stumbles over the rows of metal, his steps constantly out of sync with the space between the bars. ‘C’mon, we haven’t got all day.’ The strange boy is impatient.
The boy stumbles, his hands catch him before he hits the ground, and when he gets up again the strange boy is several metres in front of him. The boy has a stitch in his side, his head feels like it’s full of thick fluid, the sun is too bright. ‘Wait,’ he coughs, bending over and wrapping his arms around his body. In the distance he can see where their train track meets the main line. The strange boy is twenty metres away and going faster. ‘Wait!’ the boy calls again, his voice echoing back at him from the surrounding hills. In the distance he hears the loud honk of an approaching train, the air around him starts vibrating in preparation. The strange boy has started running towards the main line. The boy sinks to his knees, yelping in pain as his kneecap strikes the edge of a metal bar. He tries to crawl over the bars, his stomach filled with the need to get to the strange boy, the boy who is going somewhere. They will ride trains throughout the world and leave the cold of this place behind.
The strange boy has stopped at the point where the new and old train lines meet. He is standing, hands on his thin hips, staring intently to where the train has appeared. Black and maroon and a thick column of smoke is curling its way around the bend. The strange boy glances over his shoulder. He raises a hand and cups his mouth, creating a funnel through which to yell. ‘C’mon!’
The boy manages to get to his feet and stumbles a few steps forward before collapsing to his knees again. ‘Wait!’ The train is too fast, the noise is ricocheting around his head. He closes his eyes, trying to block it out. The whistle of the train is loud and long. ‘Too slow!’ The voice is barely perceptible over the rush of wind generated by the train. He opens his eyes. The strange boy has disappeared. The boy’s eyes follow the train, searching. A small black figure is moving its way along the side, spider-like in his grip of the steep metal walls. The figure pauses and one long thin arm rotates in a giant wave, then he is gone, swallowed by the black smudge of an open compartment door. The boy on the track sinks further into the ground. His stomach aches in disappointment. His nausea comes back to him in a wave, and he retches between the bars. He closes his eyes, sinking further into the ground.
He wakes with the taste of dirt and metal in his mouth. The sun is in his eyes, he doesn’t know how long he has been asleep. He gets unsteadily to his feet and starts to run, his legs wobbling, towards his home. His chest is heavy with a disappointment he finds hard to place.
As the house comes in to view he sees Sally leaning against the front post of the verandah, her arms crossed. She calls out to him when she sees him approaching. ‘Where the hell have you been? You’re in so much –’ She stops mid-sentence, her mouth hanging open in surprise. ‘What happened?’ Her voice is quiet in reverence for the blood which has dried down the side of his face. She opens her arms wide as he comes up the steps, and pulls him close to her. ‘Oh Jim.’ She turns his face to the side so she can study the injury. ‘Come inside.’ With her arms still tightly around him she leads him into the kitchen. ‘Mum! Jimmy’s hurt!’ she yells, and Jim shudders at the noise in his ear.
Their mother appears, her face white in panic, her arms already outstretched towards him. ‘Jimmy, Jimmy, what’s happened?’ She pulls him away from Sally and holds him close to her aproned chest.
‘I fell,’ he mumbles against the mound of soft fabric in his face.
She leads him in to the bathroom and sits him on the edge of the bathtub. Carefully she mops his face with warm water, trickles of it run down his neck and under his shirt. ‘That’s it, that’s it. It’ll be over soon.’ She mumbles under her breath as he winces at the disinfectant she applies. Sally is standing at the door, baby Harry on her hip. Both of them are staring at the clean-up operation in front of them, mouths slightly open in concentration. It only takes a few minutes, though his head is still tender where the large lump has formed. ‘You go sit on the couch now, Sally will bring you some tea and toast.’ Their mother glances over her shoulder at Sally, as though daring her to make a fuss, but Sally merely nods and disappears back to the kitchen. Jim is led to the soft brown couch which sits in the afternoon sun. The fabric is warm and slightly scratchy to touch. A blanket is tucked around him. A large mug of milky tea and a plate piled high with toast appears. His mother and Sally stand over him, their faces still furrowed with worry. He grins at them and shoves a large piece of toast in his mouth. His mother smiles, and Sally moans in disgust. The warmth is finding its way through to his skin, his bones. Riding trains, he thinks, would be a pretty lonely adventure.