I didn't find out why the train broke down until much later—some nonsense about a geomagnetic anomaly or solar storm. It’s all voodoo to me, but whatever it was did a real number on the railroad switches. They lost their minds, shuffled all the trains like a deck of cards, and sent them speeding down tracks they had no business being on, until the poor things gave up and came to a stop god-knows-where. They explained it on TV after the whole thing was over, complete with a handsome news anchor who sounded very concerned, but by then I didn’t care.
I was on the job that day, and when my train screeched to a halt at what should have been Sydney, the sign said Woonaburra. That’s in Western Australia, apparently (I looked it up afterwards). The station was an embarrassment—hideous red-brick bathroom, rusty sun-shelter, and a penis graffitied over the station sign, rising up from the double-o like a mast. A sea of grass, the color of urine, stretched into the horizon.
“I have a very important delivery to make,” I told the conductor, “and this is unacceptable.” But he didn’t listen; he was screaming into his phone, and it was screaming back at him in French. I pieced that together afterwards, too—the solar calamity hit the telephone towers as well, and they went mad. They were re-routing calls to the wrong numbers, playing fridge poetry with text-message fragments, causing all sorts of mischief.
The passengers poured out of the train like ants and scuttled to seize any available shade. I went last, gingerly alighting onto the hot asphalt. Everybody struggled with their mobile phones, except for a woman in her early twenties who sat alone smoking a cigarette. She looked confident and in control.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Do you know how soon we’ll be going on to Sydney? I’m in a real rush.”
She blinked morse-code behind oversized sunglasses. She wore a black leather jacket, seemingly oblivious to the climate. I was in a thin white blouse and sweating profusely.
“Why?” she asked, after a long pause.
“Making a delivery.”
“What are you delivering?”
I had a hundred liters of water in the baggage compartment, all packaged up in neat plastic barrels. Urgent delivery to Sydney. Get Mister Walter’s most trusted courier, please. Ensure consignment is delivered intact.
I wiped my brow. The air swam from the heat. It was above forty degrees and we’d all get real thirsty soon. Was there much water on the train? Was there running water in the bathroom? Would it last long?
“This and that,” I said.
She snorted and turned away.
I was right about the water. The toilet housed a single bowl and it was completely dry. If you turned the basin tap all the way, though, a little bit would trickle out, so we all formed a line, bottles in hand. At least you could read graffiti on the walls to pass the time.
The passengers seemed both excited and indignant about our predicament, and talked in shocked voices—do you think this is South Australia? What time zone are we in, should I change my watch? I sniggered at their confusion, much too loud. Everyone fell silent. A man with a crooked nose looked at me with distain and shook a sausage-sized finger. I felt like a stranger gatecrashing a terrible party, but I still kept my place in line.
It grew dark. Somebody said a bus to Woonaburra was coming, and we were all abuzz with excitement, but nobody was sure which side of the tracks it would arrive—we didn’t even knew which way the town was, or why we needed a bus to get there in the first place. Half of us went to the right side, and half went left. I took the latter option because the confident woman went that way. We formed a line on a dirt road under a sky covered with diamonds. Nervous murmurs filled the air—everyone wanted to get a look at the town, even though nobody knew a single thing about it. I stood a distance away and watched the confident woman smoke. In the gloom, we heard the sound of an engine from the other side. I squinted at the distant headlights.
“You should’ve gone to the other side,” the woman told me. “I could have told you that’s where the bus was.”
“Why did you come to this side?”
“I don’t particularly want to go anywhere,” she said.
The mood soured. We gathered back at the platform and heard the news from the other side: only six passengers made it on before the driver ran out of change and sped off.
We slept on the train, curled up in the seats while heat wormed its way through the walls. In the morning the carriage had transformed into an oven and I’d turned into a roast vegetable, falling apart. I was parched.
The baggage compartment lay at the end of the train. It only took me a minute to pick the lock. I snuck inside and took tiny sips from my water barrels, hoping that Mister Walters’s client wouldn’t notice anything gone. It tasted incredible. I couldn’t remember what sort of priest was supposed to have blessed the water, but they must’ve been a good one.
There were fewer people than yesterday. I overheard that a family had left in the night—just took off walking, the way the bus went. The remaining passengers avoided eye contact, became their own kingdoms with borders closed. The crooked-nosed man who caught me sniggering would sneak glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking.
At least the conductor seemed like good sport. I found him bouncing a rubber ball against the side of the train and asked when we’d be on the move again.
“Any time now,” he said. “Central office said they’d call—except the telephones still won’t cooperate. I sure hope everything is back to normal soon.”
He had the eyes of a lonely dog. I wanted to pat him and tell him everything would be fine, but instead I sat alone in the sun—at least I didn’t have to worry about sunburn with my complexion. I tried to call Mister Walters and warn him about the delivery but the phones still weren’t cooperating. My local dry-cleaners picked up instead.
I did push-ups in the shade to pass the time and was up to thirty-eight when my phone beeped. Message from Mister Walters. The phone towers had probably scrambled it, because it was all emojis, and my boss was a pedant for grammar and punctuation. A train. Water. A frowning face. A skull.
Night came. I’d been on edge all evening, pacing like an animal at the zoo (not a lion, something much less threatening). The day’s heat had been relentless. I’d snuck out to my water stash one too many times, and I wasn’t careful—people were beginning to notice.
“What’s she planning?” a woman whispered to her friend. A gaggle of middle-aged men threw me angry looks. “Is that lady a bad lady?” a kid asked his mum. “Am I?” I thought.
“Ma’am”, the conductor said, “I’m terribly sorry, but some folks have voiced concerns about your behavior.”
“What behavior?” I asked, batting my eyelashes.
“I’m sure you don’t mean to cause trouble”, he said, “but please be careful. Maybe it’s better if you didn’t walk around so much. The passengers are quite nervous.”
“We’re not passengers” I said. “We’re not traveling anywhere.”
His face spread into an apologetic smile. I didn’t return it, so he left.
I lay alone on the platform and looked at the sky. The stars are so bright in the country, searchlights from distant fortresses. The night shimmered, as if something stirred behind its black curtain. I had almost dozed off when a voice said: “The town is that way.”
I sat up and saw the crooked-nosed man with two burly passengers at his side. There were pockets of people around, and they all made a conscious effort not to look our way. The confident woman and the conductor were nowhere to be seen.
“I know which way it is,” I said.
“Get your things and start walking,” he said.
I looked him in the eye and didn’t move. A middle-aged woman emerged from the train carrying my backpack (how dare she!), and hurled it at me. I’d always been terrible at sports—it went through my hands and the roll-top came open, stuff scattering from the pockets: make-up, coins, a worn copy of Wuthering Heights.
I gathered my things and nobody even helped. I took a deep breath and counted to three (those anger management classes I once took continue to pay dividends).
“My ticket says Sydney,” I said. “I’d like to get my money’s worth.”
“Nobody wants you here,” the man said. “I said start walking.”
A storm brewed in his eyes and his hands balled up in fists. For the first time in a while, I felt legitimately afraid. Underneath the fear lay another feeling, more familiar, and it said: nobody likes you and nobody wants you around.
I picked up my bag and started walking.
I’d been going for maybe fifteen minutes when she caught up. The field of grass had felt stifling during the day, but now in the night, the ground was a carpet and the moon was a lamp and a good wind blew, so I was alright, and then—footsteps, and the sound of creaking leather, and she was panting, of course—how much smoke did she force into those lungs today?
“Hold up!” she said. “Hey! Stop! Don’t leave!”
“I think I might have to,” I replied. “Maybe Woonaburra has a decent pub.”
“I heard what happened. The conductor is furious,” she said. “Looks terrible for the company. He’s afraid you’ll fill out a complaint form. He’s calmed those guys down. It’s OK now. Come back to the station.”
“I’m done with the station,” I said. I thought about those barrels and wondered if I really wanted to do this job anymore.
She sat on the grass and I squatted beside her. She looked fragile in the moonlight, and swallowed and winced before she lit her cigarette.
“This is the longest I’ve been off a train for a year,” she said.
I didn’t reply.
“Just been riding around,” she continued. “Rode trains all around Europe first, until the visa ran out. Got into a good groove and didn’t want to stop, so now I ride around here. We don’t have nearly as many trains, though.”
“No,” I said. “We don’t.”
“So it gets monotonous. I’ve snuck onto plenty of freight ones and everything. Even did two nights on a coal delivery in the west and got a lung infection for my troubles. One day I’ll write a memoir for some trainspotters and really clean up.”
“Why did you do all that?” I said.
“You should know better than to ask. I mean, you could say that I had no job, no partner, nothing better to do. You could say I like trains. Why does anyone do anything?”
“What did you before the trains?”
“I worked in delivery,” she said. I laughed, and she furrowed her eyebrows. A sentence sprinted out of my mouth before I could arrest the words:
“I have a lot of water.”
“I know,” she said. “I saw you sneaking into the baggage car to drink from those barrels. How’d you get a key?”
“Didn’t. Picked the lock,” I admitted.
“Anyway, I saw you in there. But it feels wrong, somehow. I don’t want to get involved.”
“It’s complicated. Hell, that water is all yours, now. Hand it out.”
She shook her head.
“Let’s go back,” she said. “I won’t tell anybody about your water.”
I thought about returning to the station. The train would get moving again, I’d be in Sydney, Mister Walters would chew me out and then there’d be greyhound buses and empty highways and more trains. Standing in that field under a blanket of stars, feeling the soft wind on my skin, I thought that maybe I was done with all that.
“Look!” she said, and pointed away from the station, and I did, and my jaw dropped.
Much later, I’d looked up Aurora Australis in a magazine. The southern lights may appear after a solar storm, it said, and they would look like a white fog when seen by the naked eye, not at all akin to the colorful fires you see in the pictures. But we didn’t see a white fog. The thing we saw poured like a waterfall, out of the sky and back into it, shades of teal fading into blood-red turning to ocean blue, never content to settle on one color, bizarre, dazzling, and my breath was gone. And beneath it—a mirage, surely—was Woonaburra. A church steeple stabbed into the curtain of lights. A Cooper’s Draft sign shimmered above a pub. Rows of thatched roofs, chimneys with smoke lazily pouring out, and the plumes glowed green and blue when they reached the shimmering curtain above.
And just as sudden as it appeared, the lights and the town were gone. I found my hand in hers. We sat in silence for a long time.
“Come back with me,” she said.
We walked back in silence, night yawning around us. We drew to the platform and it was packed—all the passengers were huddled together with the conductor in the middle, his face red, chest puffed out. They turned to me with fear and distrust on their faces and nobody said a word. I expected anger to well up inside, prepared myself for its onslaught, but it didn’t come. I looked them over and felt nothing at all. This was much too absurd.
“So, I’ve got a lot of water,” I said. What the hell.
The line into the baggage compartment stretched all the way to the edge of the platform, and everybody was doing their best not to look my way. People stood holding mugs, buckets, bottles, any vessel they could get their hands on. I watched a kid slurp water from from a baseball cap wrapped in tinfoil. The woman had asked around—nobody had seen the southern lights and the mirage in the sky last night except for us. Maybe they just weren’t looking properly.
“What’s so important about that water?” she asked me.
“Special delivery,” I said. “It’s holy.”
“Like from a church?”
“Something like that.”
“Are you in a cult?” She raised an eyebrow.
I smiled. “I hope not. I don’t ask questions. That’s how I keep my job.”
Evening came, and brought clouds along with it. Grey and obese, they blanketed the sky, smothering an indigo sunset. I wondered if something above threatened us, if they were rushing here to provide shelter and safety. Then, they opened their bellies, and it poured.
“Head office called!” the conductor said. He leaned against the train door and I stood in the downpour, drenched and satisfied. Even though we were a meter apart, we had to shout to be heard. “The rain’s washed everything clean! We’re moving tomorrow morning!”
He moved aside to let the woman through. She was struggling with one of the empty water barrels, dragging it with both hands.
“Give me some help, will you?” she shouted. “Get them out here quick, before the rain stops!”
I shook my head. “Forget it. This is a hint to change careers.”
“Hey, you!” she said to the conductor, ignoring me. “You want to help out or what?”
Soon, all my barrels stood on the platform, mouths open to the sky, overflowing with rainwater.
I couldn’t sleep, and neither could she. We nestled in the baggage cart, having loaded the barrels back in—the rain had filled them right up, and we were exhausted from hoisting the things inside (nobody apart from the conductor helped—where are people’s manners?). We lay side by side, stared out of the train window, sharing a pair of headphones. The rainclouds had departed as quickly as they came, and the stars were coins on a velvet cloth. Once the batteries on her iPod died, we talked for a long time, about the lights in the field, about trains and other, more important, things. Things I won’t tell anyone else.
“You worked delivery?” I said eventually.
“I did. A bit like you, maybe.”
“Want my job?”
She opened her mouth, shut it again.
“I’m serious,” I told her. “I spoke to the conductor. There’s a bus to Woonaburra tomorrow morning and I’m getting on it. You can finish the delivery if you’d like, and then Mister Walters has plenty of work. The goods’ll be late, so that’s it for me regardless. It’s just as well. I’m done with delivery work.”
“You’re going to Woonaburra?”
“Ever since I saw the lights,” I said, “the place hasn’t left my mind. I have to go there. I’m not sure why, but I don’t suppose it matters—at the very least, there’s certainly a pub. This station’ll be here, anyway. I can always board a train.”
“I don’t know,” she said, and I think she meant it.
“Sleep on it,” I said.
The conductor woke us up the next morning, rapping a familiar rhythm on the metal door. I’d fallen asleep on the woman’s shoulder. Her jacket was coated in a layer of drool.
“We leave in half an hour,” he announced.
Then he sniffed the air, scrunched his face like a loofah, and was gone. My companion stirred and made a guttural noise, not ready to face the day.
I took a pen and paper from my bag and wrote out everything she would need, how to contact Mister Walters, what to say. I made up a separate recommendation letter for Mister Walters, commending the woman for imaginary deeds. I still didn’t know her name, which made things difficult, but I was content with that. If I found out, that might color my perception of her, alter her place in my inner world—and I didn’t want that to happen. I liked her exactly the way she was.
Her tobacco pouch lay half-open on the floor. I rolled a cigarette, smoked it alone on the platform, looked at the graffitied penis on the station sign and wondered what Woonaburra would be like.
The conductor appeared in the door, concern etched on his face.
“Are you sure, ma’am?” he said.
“Left-hand side for the bus?” I asked.
The woman emerged from train, stepping onto the platform timidly, her usual confidence gone.
“I don’t like goodbyes,” she said. She threw her arms around me, and I held her tight. She smelled of cheap perfume and sweat.
I stared at my feet and she retreated into the train. The conductor leaned out and blew a whistle, waved, and vanished too.
The engines sputtered to life. The train made a sound like a beast sighing, bellowed a farewell, and commenced its relentless motion. I walked alongside as it built up speed, and I peered into every window, ready to wave to the woman, but I couldn’t see her anywhere. The train raced onwards until the horizon swallowed it whole.
I hoisted my bag over one shoulder and started walking to the bus stop. ∞