Working with Extension II kids on writing skills: specifically, transformation from recollection to narrative via ‘re-imagination’; so I thought I should make sure I could do it too. Here is my homework.

The Mail Train

He woke to the rattle of the train over a set of points, hours into the journey, and the hiss of airbrakes. The steam from the slowing locomotive shadowed the window of the sleeper cabin, brightened by the lights of some un-named siding, miles from anywhere. As the motion ceased, the sounds of busy men came from the front of the train: the rush of water into the tender, mail dumped on the platform, voices restrained by the hour and the awareness of passengers propped uncomfortably in second class, or stirring uneasily in the sleeper cars.

He lay still, not daring to disturb the boy asleep in his arms on the upper bunk of their compartment. His wife slept below, tired by weeks of travel, the difficulties of caring for the baby girl in the bassinet on the floor, the rush of finding the mail train on the platform at Central in the middle of a strange city.

Outside, a whistle blew and the locomotive strained to bring the heavy chain of carriages once more into motion. He marvelled at how few stops they had made in such a long and tortuous journey. If this had been home, he reflected, they might have been in Scotland now, and he smiled as he thought of that morning, waking up as the train taking them on their honeymoon had puffed across the borders, the porter apologetically waking them with a cup of tea and a warning of disembarkation.

Home it certainly wasn’t, he thought, looking at his watch. Six weeks and twelve hours around the globe, ten pounds each on an immigrant ship and here they were, two hopefuls and two tiny children, at four o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere. He look at the dimly lit cabin and felt it again, that vertiginous alienation, like falling into another world. Everything felt strange, from the brown timber panelling and leather trimming, to the water flask engraved with NSWGR, the primitive equipment of the sleeping compartment. The tourist photographs on the wall of the compartment were grainy monochrome images of sandstone cliffs and eucalypts in the Blue Mountains, an inland he had yet to see, images which only produced a home-sickness for the friendly lithographs of the Devon Coast and Cornish Riviera that were part of his boyhood and first tentative steps in love with woman who slept below.

He suddenly became immersed in regret, childishly closing his eyes tight and refusing to focus on the destination in what seemed the heart of the continent, on the job in circumstances so different from the world in which he had practiced his art. At once he recognised that his journey was the last part of a pilgrimage from his father’s early death, some five years before: that he had really taken flight from the mausoleum that his mother’s life had become, centred as it was around the family plot and the generations of her family that overshadowed the quiet humble man he had laid to rest too soon. A world scarred by one war and terrified of another, colder threat that had seemed all too real only months ago, but which seemed unimaginable in the warm November nights they had spend in the Sydney hotel, waiting for the train.

The night grew grey and he had the urge to get some sense of what the day had waiting for them, a tiny portion of humanity in search of a better life. Slowly, trying not to disturb the boy, he swung his legs around and wrestled with the catches on the steel shutters that had shielded them from the dark. The glass revealed the beginnings of the dawn across a flat plain, dotted with patches of undisciplined gums, drying dams, straggling wheat field and the orderly lines of wire fences, bringing some sense to an apparently random world.

As he looked, the child behind him woke from his deep sleep and, with that childish ability to spring immediately to full consciousness that he always envied, started down the ladder to the floor. Standing on tiptoes, English eyes met a very Australian landscape. The man felt a sudden cold at his own wilfulness in bringing the child into a strange land, and marvelled at the fearlessness and curiosity with which his own son met the day.

The train cross a wide creek-bed, dry for the most part, roaring across the rough steel, and suddenly there were strange forms moving in the still land. The child laughed and turned, pointing. ‘Look, Daddy, ostriches’. A gasp of laughter from the bunk below told him that they were all awake and he suddenly grinned. He leapt down from the bunk and stood beside the boy. He would learn and he would teach, however strange the lesson, to call all this new life by name and claim it as his own. The brown earth, the haze green of dark leaves and dry grass, and the green and white of the young wheat seemed a stronger reality that the ashes of the past. Home was where you made your life, not where you laid your dead.

“Emus, son, Emus.”