So, it actually pulled out of Central on time!
His friends up the coast warned him the train would start late and probably lose more time on the way. He could only hope they would meet him punctually at Coffs Harbour, rather than assume the train would be delayed. Then again, what did it matter? October is a good time to be stranded on a North Coast platform, if not for too long. The nor’easters are starting to link land and ocean, the air is starting to be holiday air, though the crowds are thin till December.
It would be just after dark when he arrived. The thought appealed: a balmy early evening, smell of the sea, pubs and restaurants filling. Would they all dine in Coffs before driving up to the hinterland? He hoped so. He was in the mood for strolling through the town as a pure tourist, not deadlined for anything, not straining for a gap in traffic, a parking spot. Maybe he would slip into his board shorts. No, better the drab hemp ones. He did not know these new friends too well; Tristan and Noelle were well off, with multiple properties, but they were more hinterland types than beach types. There would be others staying too. They mentioned a lady from Austria, some sort of naturopath…Yes, hemp shorts.
As the train picked up speed after Redfern, just the thought of the weeks ahead seemed to drain some of the Sydney tension from him. He could gaze at the inner city, the liver-brick bungalows, the coloured terraces, the old Summer Hill mansions – and treat it all as a moving postcard.
Really, Paul did not have to do a thing. He had never felt so free.
At Strathfield pick-up, nobody occupied the empty seat next to him. At Hornsby, he was briefly uneasy when a short, plump woman came down the aisle and paused, as if to take the seat. Then, after examining the numbers, she realised her seat was on the other side of the aisle.
When she struggled to lift some hand luggage on to the rack above, Paul stood up, crossed the aisle, and offered to help.
“Oh, thank you. I’m a bit short to reach.”
“Not at all. If you need to take it down at any time…”
“No, no. I’m an organised traveller. Have to be, with my height. Won’t be needing it. But thank you very much.”
The woman sat, then, after some bustle, asked:
“To Coffs. What about you?”
“Oh, just to Broadmeadow, for Newcastle. My sister is getting over an operation. Are you on holidays?”
“Certainly am. And looking forward to it.”
“Oh, half your luck! Lovely time of year to be up the coast, after the cold but before the crowds. Got family up there?”
“No, just friends. We’ll be staying at their farm up in the hinterland.”
“What kind of farm do they have?”
“Oh, sort of a Permaculture, if you’ve heard of that.”
“Like…all natural, with no sprays and so on?”
“Well, more a mixed arrangement, where one things works with another…”
“Oh, lovely. Half your luck!”
At the start of a train trip there is often a political moment, where two strangers – if they are wise – may talk to break the ice but then stop talking, and immerse themselves a bit too abruptly in some private activity. It is how travellers reassure one another that they will not have to spend hours in conversation; that nothing is expected from the accidental bond of booked seating.
The woman opened a magazine, Paul opened his book.
He had chosen two books for the holiday. One was a novel by Marquez, which he had bought years before, during the Magical Realism boom. He had been reading it intermittently over the last months, but did not feel like reading it at the moment. Probably, he had never felt like reading it – and it was now an Oprah Book Club selection. Also, though his own edition long preceded Oprah’s anointing, the cover was very bright. It was a bit of an embarrassment.
Paul decided to place the book on the floor, heel it back under his seat and maybe forget it.
From his small Crumpler bag he drew a copy of J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. Its cover was dark and impressive, but it was also brand new. There is something awkward about reading the first pages of a book in the presence of others. One prefers to be well into a cerebral work, especially, having given it the odd bend or tatter. Paul would make a good start on it now, so he could keep reading it up at the farm without embarrassment.
He tried to read for a while, then gave up and watched the steep Hawkesbury sandstone country: among twisty banksia, the wattles bursting into cream or gold, with yellow-flowering darwinia peas beneath; above them, the ragged gums which would be ringing with cicadas by now; far off, the submerged range forming the National Park, along with islands in a maze of estuary arms; then, after a descent, the grand breadth of the Hawkesbury itself.
After Brooklyn, the line went low along a small arm of the Hawkesbury. Paul had seen it before, but that narrow stretch never lost its charm, with its soupy mud flats, oyster crusted sandstone, and crazy little houses only reachable by boat. It’s that point in the trip where you are well and truly out of Sydney. You are up the coast.
Paul regretted that the train would soon be pulling into Central Coast towns like Woy Woy and Gosford. That broke the spell of going north, dragged you back into a suburban reality. For Paul, Woy Woy was a real spell-breaker. He had spent time there years ago…
Why not sleep a little? Why not doze through the whole Central Coast stretch? Woy Woy, Gosford, Wyong…especially Woy Woy.
Paul put back his seat, folded his light Icebreaker top and used it to cushion his head against the window. He closed his eyes, and let the thoughts trickle…
He thought about sex, of course. Mixed with that was a picture of the evenings he would spend at the farm with Tristan and Noelle, and others he did not know. He imagined the Austrian lady, how she might be, what he might say to her…Evenings in the Coffs hinterland…Russell Crowe living near…Paul imagined an intimate circle of people sitting or stretched out on plush, artistic furniture, under a cathedral ceiling…Outside, cicadas and frogs and the whole subtropics stirring in high spring…Someone is attentive to him…the Austrian lady, the naturopath, wants his opinion…is attentive…blonde…not heavy featured at all…
When Paul woke, the train had come to a halt and there was a familiar stretch of estuary to his left: Brisbane Water and Woy Woy Bay, sparkling through mangrove on a clear October day. Why had the XPT stopped there? Drowsy, his head still pillowed on the glass, he stared out, and had to find it pretty. Yet he was relieved when the train moved again, and he did not bother to look over to his right, to the town. He was glad, as before, to be leaving Woy Woy behind.
For a while he stared out vacantly, then tried to doze. Why not? The body probably needed it, as a catch-up after a hectic year. But the nap proved enough, and he was soon fully awake. When Gosford was behind he would walk the aisle, stretch, use the toilet. Then he might eat. For now, he would try the new book.
After some minutes of nudging his unwilling brain into the text, he was distracted by talking and movement in the seats in front. Two people must have got on at Woy Woy while he slept. But the XPT did not pick up at Woy Woy. Perhaps they had moved from another part of the train. Well, he hoped they were not the types to jump about and recline the seats as far back as possible. Such are the little dreads and tensions of travelling on the long North Coast Service.
He heard a woman’s softish voice, and another raspy one which also had a slur to it. The voice put him in mind of something. Then the passenger in the seat directly in front stood, turned, and stared right at Paul, with a frank grin. Of course, he was a Down Syndrome child: hence that voice. Paul smiled back. Again he heard a softer voice; a woman’s hand was placed on the boy’s forearm, and he was drawn back down into his seat.
Paul straightened up a little, returned to his book. Something was tugging at the edge of his mind.
A thought came to him: Woy Woy, that boy…
Paul craned, tried to see over the top of the seats, then between them. He could see nothing. The very short lady across the aisle was observing him, idly. They exchanged embarrassed smiles, then Paul sat back in a normal posture. Again, he tried to read.
Could it really be? But passengers did not get picked up at Woy Woy. Not as a rule. He listened for any conversation in the seats in front, watched for any movement. But there was nothing now. The two had settled in.
Gosford coming up. The people in front started to bustle, as if they were about to get off.
As the train pulled in to Gosford, the boy stood up, clasping a Newcastle Knights back pack. Again he smiled at Paul, and Paul smiled back. Then the woman’s voice:
“Got everything, Davey?”
In the very moment Paul recognised her voice, she stood and their eyes locked. Jane. Jane, but older. She had the same soft but strained features. More strained now.
“Paul. Oh. Hi…”
“Hi, Jane. How are you? Are you…getting off?”
“Yes, getting off. What a pity. How are you?”
“Oh, fine. I’m good, good…”
“That’s good…Davey, just wait at the exit there. There’s an older gentleman might need a hand with his suitcase, hon. I’ll follow in a minute.”
The boy walked with authority to the exit.
“He’s such a good kid. Wants to help out all the time…So, you on holidays, Paul. Business?”
“Holidays. Up Coffs Harbour way. Some people I know.”
“Oh, good. That’s good. You’ve probably been working hard. I…Actually, I’d better go or I’ll lose him.”
“Yes, I wish I’d known you were there…Didn’t know you were still in Woy Woy…”
“Oh well, no way of telling. The jaunt was a special treat for him…for David. He loves the XPT and the station master let us on because they had to stop anyway for a medical pick-up. They all know Davey around Woy Woy. It’s his birthday, you know.”
“He wants a Knights jersey, but it has to be from some special shop in Gosford.” Then, dropping her voice: “Also, he needs his medical checks. You know, they get that otitis media problem, the Down kids…and the heart thing…Oh, I’ll have to go. It was a nice surprise, seeing you, Paul.”
“Likewise. Can I help…carry anything?”
“No, no…Well…Bye now.”
“Yes. Bye. Bye, Jane.”
The woman moved down the aisle, then suddenly turned back round.
“He was my decision.”
It was spoken so quickly, and he barely heard it. Then she was gone.
Minutes later, as the train moved forward, he looked for them in the station crowd, but they were gone.
Paul immediately opened the book and began reading. He decided not to stare at pages but to really read. He would get into this book, thumb it, bend it a bit. He would be well into it by the time he got to the farm.
“Run into some old friends?” It was the short lady across the aisle, being friendly, not intrusive.
“Yes…at least, one old friend. I’ve never met the boy.”
“Must be so hard for a mother. Not just a mother, of course. A father too. So hard.”
“Yes, can’t be easy.”
“Still, every Down kiddie I’ve known has been happy. They always seem happy.”
“Yes…That young boy seemed happy.”
With the ice re-broken, both travellers returned to their reading.
Paul’s book was about an academic who sleeps with students. From the blurb and what he had read on the net before buying, the story would move on to accusations of rape, actual rape, lesbianism; gender and race would be themes, of course. It was the sort of thing people should be reading, that he should be reading…but just not now.
He stared out the window. When would he feel really away? After Wyong they would enter the Hunter Valley…Maybe Broadmeadow, connecting with the grimy bulk of Newcastle, was the last downer. After that, the rolling green country toward Gloucester was always nice. Maybe by then you were away, out of that Sydney-Newcastle orbit.
Woy Woy. If he had just been in a different carriage…
After the train pulled out of Wyong, Paul decided to stretch his legs, use the toilet. On the way back to his seat he caught the eye of the short lady, who was ready to risk more chat, now her stop was not far off.
“I don’t mean to be nosey but I heard your friend, the lady, mention otitis media. With regard to the young lad.”
“Yes, I think she did.”
“Nasty thing. Can be really painful. The poor pets have got enough on their plate without that.”
“Yes. It doesn’t seem fair.”
He sat back down, changing the subject:
“So, are you from the Hunter? Newcastle?”
“Newcastle born and bred. Our father was on the docks when, you know, Newcastle was really Newcastle…Did I hear the lady say he had heart problems, the young lad?”
“I think so. I think she said something about heart…Is your sister on the mend?”
The woman gave Paul an account of her sister’s illness and recovery. He showed an interest.
Soon the train arrived at Broadmeadow. Paul helped the short lady with her luggage. After he handed it to her, she pointed at Marathon stadium, to the west of the station.
“I suppose the young lad would love that.”
“Your friend’s boy. Marathon Stadium. Home of the Newcastle Knights. Look, even the station’s got red and blue all over it.”
The XPT was now south of Gloucester.
Paul had skimmed the first pages of the book, to lever himself into it, so that he would have something in which to absorb himself up at the farm, something he might be able to make a comment about. His brain would not go where his eyes went. Once again, he put the book aside and began to stare out the window. The steep but soft country was pretty now, worth staring at.
Stopping at Gloucester is agreeable. The town does not press up to the station, it rambles on down to it. All around is rolling country, usually green, with that compact mountain range to the east, well grazed on the slopes but topped by gums like a crazy haircut.
For some reason – or maybe for no reason – Paul felt like alighting on to the platform. He stayed aboard, however, and the train pulled out. It seldom stops long at Gloucester.
The scenery heading to Wingham and Taree is tightly banked hills, or wide river flats with a few cattle, old fences and outbuildings, tottering haysheds. It was good scenery just for staring, and Paul stared. Just knowing he would be making the trip had already got him entertaining vague thoughts about big life changes. People often do that on holidays, their minds freed up; but he also thought about where he was heading that evening, whether they would dine in town first. He thought vaguely of the Austrian lady, whether he was somehow meant to link up with her, though he had no idea of her age or appearance.
The new friendship with Tristan and Noelle, this break from Sydney, the Austrian lady…was it all part of some new turning? In the past year he had made some money, met people with money who also had ideas, people like Tristan and Noelle. He had worked on his diet and fitness, successfully; he had joined a book group, with less success; and he had switched to Linux.
Wingham, then Taree. At Taree station, where the stops are extended, he saw a couple of passengers hop off to smoke. He thought of hopping off, not to smoke of course, just to…what?
After Taree, he ate one his own soy cutlet wraps, having skipped the train’s buffet lunch, which consisted of the kinds of food he had been avoiding over the last year. He sipped from a water bottle, filled with coconut water then frozen in preparation for the trip. With nobody near him in the carriage, he briefly thought of pulling back the arm of the seat and curling up to nap. But he would need to take his shoes off and adopt a juvenile position to be really comfortable. And it was not a time for deep sleep, for mental abandon.
Paul put the seat back as far as it would go, again placed his folded Icebreaker against the glass, and stretched out. He would doze or just think, either one. There were those things to think about, things to do with change.
He let his eyes open or close, at their own will, let the thoughts come and go. Decision.
Two words he had heard back at Gosford began to pulse in his brain, to keep rhythm with the muted rumble of the XPT suspension: My decision, my decision, my decision…
He was well into his forties now, the last year seemed to have forward movement to it, but not enough. Was life or his subsconscious or his internal calendar prodding him toward an important turning – a leap, even? Noelle, Tristan, an unknown Austrian woman, a hippy mansion in the hinterland, evenings together under a cathedral ceiling, Russell Crowe nearby. My decision, my decision, my decision…
Was it time for change, for decision? Which one first? Simultaneous? Common sense said to decide first, but had he not read somewhere that change needed to drag decision in its wake? Was it in that Paul Coelho novel they had read for his book group? Certainly, things seemed to be conspiring for change, for large change, for necessary change. My decision, my decision, my decision…
The regional personnel manager for a large corporation had recently explained to him that advancing personalities needed to make quantum moves every three years. Not four and not two. Three. Less than that meant one was impatient, with only sketchy goals; more than that was a sign of a submissive nature and an absence of goals. Because the personnel man’s giant corporation only wanted an Australian presence, not a manufacturing base, much of his job consisted of re-titling and shuffling people, just to maintain the sense of personal advance, in the absence of real opportunities. Interesting. How long had Paul been in his position now? What did he want, really want? My decision, my decision, my decision…
There was a pull into something he could not picture yet. Those business and travel ideas he had entertained, however uncertainly, throughout the last year – were they sound? Perhaps if he used this time on the train to run them individually through his head, not trying to reconcile one with the other, just taking each in turn, letting it take shape…
There was the idea of selling carbon credits on ebay, but with each credit pegged to a Tasmanian green project, lavishly photographed and documented: very visual, specific, like those paddock to supermarket meat packs he had seen in France. But did he have the push, the aggression? And if the idea was so strong, why was he the first? Others must know of traps, like that collapsing carbon price in Europe, policy shifts…As the objections and fears started to invade within moments, he managed to dismiss them…then moved on to another idea…
With Argentina’s currency so weak for so long, the opportunities for importing from there must be vast. What if he were to spend a year very deliberately combing the country for products? Almost immediately, the risks and obstacles invaded his vision; he saw goods stranded on docks while officials dithered, retailers shaking their heads, finance people staring coldly at numbers…The idea that was clear and compelling just seconds before was now the usual clutter of doubts…No! Paul strained to expel those doubts, he let the idea stand, live a little. Then he forcibly moved on to the next idea…
Those other ideas were bound up with travel. What if he were to travel even more ambitiously, but with fewer immediate goals? Yes, an immersion in Tasmanian wilderness, a combing of Argentina…but why stop there? If good business ideas planted themselves when he was merely ruminating in familiar surroundings, what might not emerge through long and exhaustive travel. And with the Australian dollar king!…But soon the negatives of travel began to creep in: the bad, lonely meal in the foreign city, the fatigues of transport connections, accommodation, language, currency fluctuations, strandings and…No! He would let the vision of an adventurous and maturing experience stand. He would hold that, and keep the rest back.
Three sets of ideas. He would let them linger in his brain as alluring pictures while holding back the swarms of smothering fears, those lethal “reality checks”. Paul again pressed his face to his folded Icebreaker, stared out, then allowed his eyes to close awhile on the long stretch after Taree. My decision, my decision, my decision…
He woke from his light doze as the driver announced, for those getting off presently at Kendall, that access to the short platform was only possible through two carriages. Paul dozed again briefly, then the train pulled into Kendall. The station was leafy and quaint. There was a little souvenir shop, with local produce in baskets and cloth-topped jars. He watched some family members hugging on the platform. Again, that odd urge to alight; but he ignored it, and kept his place.
As the train headed for Wauchope over another long stretch, he thought of the book, of how he really should get into it. They would have quiet times in the evening and after breakfast, up at Tristan’s farm. It would be good if he were well immersed in the right sort of book. He imagined the chat: “What are you reading there?” “Oh, just something by Coetzee I’ve been meaning to check out. You know, the Booker winner.” “And Nobel as well?” “Yes, but that’s not always a recommendation…”
Paul tried again to read, but his mind would not take in the page. Perhaps he should have brought different books. Then again, maybe he was intended to spend this time not just in more education, but in deliberate, ordered thought. The sense of change about to engulf him was so strong. But what was the change? He needed to read through his own life, not to involve himself in fictional characters with their gloom and guilt, all that book club fodder.
The suspension beneath him helped keep those words rumbling through his mind: My decision, my decision, my decision…
He felt fresher now, more willing to think than doze. What about the immediate situation? Tristan and Noelle were interesting people, but what was their interest in Paul?
She was one of those lank-haired artistic women who makes odd choices of clothing, even when the clothing is expensive. At times she was a confident and chummy Dutch woman, at times she was abrupt, mannish. She was certainly capable.
Tristan was jovial, familiar…and a little androgynous, with his man bags and his sneaker collection, his love of anything theatrical, the dress-ups and makeup. Maybe that went with being a successful importer of gym equipment. Did he see business potential in Paul? What was the real connection between Paul and Tristan? They both said they supported South Sydney, and even went to a Redfern game together; but the working man’s club was now a fetish with well-off inner city types. Neither Paul nor Tristan cared that much about the game, or about South Sydney.
But why was he having these thoughts? Tristan and Noelle had always been generous and friendly toward him. Why question further? Was there a hook-up with the Austrian lady planned? If so, their motives were benevolent. They were people who were clever, had money, and happened to like Paul. Why must he look for ambushes when all was well, when he felt so set to change, to expand? No, he would take all that was on offer, make a feast of the coming weeks.
At least these people were not ordinary. He had absorbed enough of the ordinary in his first twenty years, living with too many siblings on the fringe of Sydney, then in drab towns. Schools were public, and cramped. Holidays were taken in cramped tents in cramped caravan parks. With people like Tristan and Noelle, words like “bush” and “coast” had a different meaning. Paul just needed to take a few upward mental steps to join these people; he needed to bury the skinny kid who whined at older brothers over turns at cricket, fretted over the price of some carbonated muck, yearned for that monthly Chinese takeaway…
At Wauchope, there was the usual longer stop, a bustle of retirees and holidayers connecting for Port Macquarie and the coast. Surfboards and boogy boards were dragged along the platform. The urge to simply get off was even stronger now. Perhaps he he just needed movement in fresh air for a few minutes.
He stayed in his place. As the train pulled out from Wauchope, he caught his reflection in the glass on the platform side. Maybe it was the angle, but he looked a little less jowly. He hoped as much, after a year of watching what he ate, working out at least weekly. Up at the farm, he would make a point of going on the odd jog. Perhaps Tristan would have some gym equipment on hand.
Kempsey would be next, a drab spot. After that, the towns had more tone, the air and land seemed more subtropical. Though Paul was wide awake now, the words started rumbling again in his head, an effect of the long trip, no doubt: My decision, my decision, my decision…
The scenery was interesting: the flood plain of the Hastings, some close forest, a vast swampy paddock with water buffalo grazing behind sturdy fencing. That set off thoughts of a trip to South East Asia. Why not? Cheaper and closer. But he would not fall for the usual trap of Australian males in their forties. If he were to get involved with a Thai woman, for example, she would be of the middle class, educated…
Now he realised his thoughts were swimming and flapping aimlessly round one another. He needed to think about the future with some order. Quite suddenly, he needed caffeine. Why not? He was on holidays. He headed for the buffet car.
When he got back, Paul had made the unlikely purchase of a coffee and a can of cola. Oh well. Holidays.
The coffee was drunk quickly, the cola would be for gradual sipping, as he marshalled his thoughts into some kind of order. But after a year with very little caffeine, his brain wanted to dance about, and to hum even more mechanically: My decision, my decision, my decision…
He swigged the last of the cola as the train passed plain houses, truck yards and sporting fields. A river crossing, then Kempsey station. Along with an elderly couple, two aboriginal mothers with prams got off, met on the platform by a large aboriginal group. A boney white youth with tattoos and black-and-silver rapper’s clothes seemed to have jumped off just to smoke. Again, Paul felt that urge to alight, perhaps just to breathe deep, break the train of thought that was now seven hours long, maybe even stop the musical nagging of that phrase: My decision, my decision, my decision…
He rose, walked to the end of the carriage and paused at the exit door. As long as the bony young man was smoking, there would be time to do it.
Paul opened the door and got out.
He walked slowly back and forth. Nobody had noticed him get off, which was good. He did not want station attendants scowling at him, as if he were a strung-out smoker making their jobs harder. From the corner of his eye he watched the young man, who was smoking with a certain bravado.
Now the smoker threw his butt down and got on board again. Paul moved to do likewise, then stopped. He resumed pacing the platform slowly. Nobody was minding him.
The train moved. Paul stopped walking. Then he took a pace back. As the train gathered speed, he merely stared after it. Shortly, the train was disappearing north across the flood plain. He was left standing on the platform as the crowd thinned and made its way to the parking lot.
Why had he done this?
He did nothing but sit on a bench on the platform. The thought stream had stopped, obviously. He was stuck on a country station with all his luggage gone. What did he have? A phone, a small amount of money, a driver’s license and a cash card.
Why had he stranded himself? He knew and did not know. Even the knowable bit was not an explainable bit. He had been wanting to get off, now he was off. His luggage would go north, because it was meant to. Why would he install himself in Kempsey with all luggage? He did not belong here. He had merely wanted – needed, maybe – to get off that train.
He sat staring at the ground. The platform was empty now. A uniformed attendant walked near him with a broom and dustpan, they exchanged glances, nods. When the attendant had walked a few metres past Paul, he stopped and turned around.
“You right, mate?”
“Oh, yes…Well, no.”
“What’s up, buddy?”
“I…sort of missed my train. I was on the XPT to Coffs Harbour. I got off here for a bit…”
“Bloody smoking! I tell you, old mate, you’ve got yourself to blame…”
“No, no. I don’t smoke. I just got off and…sort of missed it.”
The attendant shook his head. He was squat with a yappy voice, the type that country towns breed when they are not breeding elongated types with drawls.
“Well, what about your luggage? All your stuff?”
“Gone. To Coffs, I suppose.”
The attendant kept shaking his head.
“Look, there’ll be another train come in tonight before eight. You should be able to jump on that. I can’t say if you’ll have to pay again or not. Since you weren’t smoking…Look, the Countrylink office is open inside. Go and tell them your problems. You should be able to get a spot on the evening XPT, and they can ring Coffs to have your luggage held there. You can get dinner at the Railway Pub, end of the street, or walk over into town for Chinese. The missus and me, we always get the lemon chicken.”
Paul went to the Countrylink office inside the station and explained his situation. The booking clerk looked at him quizzically as he explained what had happened, emphasising that he had not got off to smoke. This local was tall and angular, unhurried in movement, slow of speech.
“Well, what happened, matey? Why did you get off?”
“Oh, I felt like some air. Country air. You know…”
“Plenty of that around here.”
After showing his license and the old ticket that was still in his back pocket, Paul was given another ticket and booking for a train due around eight that evening, in another four hours. He was not required to pay, and the clerk, after taking a description of his luggage, rang Coffs Harbour to have it retrieved and held there.
“You can get tea at the pub down near the crossing. Or you can walk over into town for Chinese. If you do, go for the prawn cutlets in sweet and sour.”
He sat in the booking office and started to ring Tristan’s number. Then he cancelled, and instead wrote Tristan a text, saying he would be late into Coffs that night and that he would stay in a motel there. He would ring them tomorrow. After sending the text, he turned his phone off.
Paul wandered down the street to where the rail intersected with a broad street leading to the main town and Pacific Highway. There was an automated crossing gate at the intersection and a typical Australian pub-on-stilts. The pub had delicate lacework on its upper balcony and tiling up to the windows of the lower level. The shaded area under the both upper and lower balcony was enormous.
Paul walked in to the public bar, which was almost empty at that hour, and bought a beer. He drank slowly, almost dreamily. It was just that time in October when there is no Rugby League and no cricket, so a large screen was tuned to some horse racing. He stared awhile at the screen, then took his beer to a high stool and bench near a window. He stared out at the country town version of peak hour, as tradesmen, nurses, mothers with schoolkids drove over the crossing around four o’clock. Some cars made a quick thud as they crossed the rails, others made a plop. Paul was surprised at the amount of traffic.
He knew he should ask himself what he was doing here, but he did not. Paul had never had less to do with any place in his life. He had wanted to get off the train, so he did. Now he was here till the next train.
Leaving the pub, he wandered over the rail crossing in the direction of the main town. He knew he should be thinking about what he was doing, but each time he tried his mind went blank. Maybe after seven hours of non-stop thinking, after a whole year of straining so deliberately for betterment, he needed to not think. The brain was an organ. Maybe it got inflamed like any other organ – like an arm or a neck – and needed inactivity.
Kempsey was the right place for his mood, or condition, or whatever it was. He walked past playing fields, a skateboard park, a string of car dealerships. Then the town centre. It had a suburban look with a rural pace; an economy that was limping contentedly along, without congestion or long commuting; appointments here would be flexible, easy to keep or break. The shrewd were making more money than was apparent, the dopes were happy in the pub. Even the Pacific Highway was forced to wind down to a narrow old iron bridge, before bending again to stretch north out of town. People were moving a little lazily, nobody was avoiding eye contact, but nobody was too interested in making eye contact. Kempsey.
The chant was back in his head: My decision, my decision, my decision…
Then he knew.
As Paul strode more briskly, now looking for a particular type of shop, he passed a Chinese restaurant. He stopped, walked back and pushed on its typically white-curtained front door, not expecting it to be open. The door did open, and he stepped into an enormous seating area, which was probably doubled by a cavernous upstairs. Every big-enough town in Australia had one, for half a century, at least. Kempsey really had one, and the business was likely older than its present building. For some farming families of past generations, it was the only exotic place they ever entered in their lives. They went there to eat food nobody in China ate, and they never cared or even thought about that for a moment. Why would they?
Paul had been in dozens of places like this when he was young. Familiar smells of soy, fat and air-freshener. A young local girl was folding napkins at the front counter.
“G’day there, hon. Not open just yet. ‘Nother half hour about…”
“That’s okay. I just wondered if this is the place that has the lemon chicken. And the prawn cutlets in sweet and sour.”
The girl looked at him a little surprised. It was a bit like asking if a milk bar had milk shakes.
“Sure thing, hon. Best on the coast.”
“Really? Half an hour, you’d estimate?”
“‘Bout that. Hungry, mate?”
“Yes. Very. Tell the cook I’ll have both of those. And a large fried rice. Is that…is that creaming soda you’ve got in the fridge? I’d forgotten about creaming soda. Amazing. Creaming soda! I’ll get a bottle with dinner…And Cherry Cheer! Is there a sports store open in town.”
“Sure is. Just across the street and up a bit. Better scoot, hon. They close about half-five.”
“Thanks…Up the street that way?”
“Yep. That way. You should have time before they close.”
Paul had time. He had time.
My decision, my decision, my decision…
Col Critchley, station attendant at Kempsey, was chatting with Kempsey Countrylink representative, Roger Crawshaw, in the station’s booking office. They were between train arrivals, so the station was empty, and there was time for a chat. Roger had a story to tell about the strange passenger from the day before.
“Get this, Col. After I arranged for his new ticket and booking, I told him to lob in here around eight and he’d get a free ride all the way to Coffs. Meanwhile, the Coffs mob had pulled his luggage off the train, so all he had to do was pick it up there. All courtesy of State Rail and Countrylink. You and me.
“Well, he didn’t get on the late train, did he? He showed up here this morning, said he’d decided to spend the night at the Railway pub. Apparently he did, because I rang the pub just to check – I was getting a bit suspicious-like – and they said someone like him had spent the night there.”
“Maybe he got on the grog. Or something else.”
“Maybe, but you’ve seen the bloke. He didn’t seem like he was under the influence of anything in particular. He was just, you know…”
“Exactly. From Sydney. And that’s where he’d come from, according to his original ticket. Sydney Central. Anyway, he said he wanted another ticket, and said he’d pay for it and for last night’s as well. I should have let him pay for the complimentary, but the system won’t let me.”
“Exactly. Bloody computers.”
“Anyway, he’s gone now?”
“Yeah, only it’s funny. He got on a train – I made sure of that – but not the train to Coffs.”
“Not…what about his luggage?”
“Said he’ll pay to have it freighted.”
“So where has he gone?”
“The direction he came from.”
“Good. Sydney’s the right place for his type.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t want to go to Sydney. He wanted to go as far as Gosford, then connect with Woy Woy.”
“Woy Woy. His decision, he said. He stood right where you are now, with just the clothes he had on and – get this! – a Newcastle Knights football tied up in red and blue ribbons. I asked him twice if he was sure…asked if he might want to see a doctor…talk to the cops…phone a friend somewhere, maybe…
“He just kept saying it was his decision. He and his red and blue football are off to Woy Woy.”
“Bloody Woy Woy!”
“Exactly. Woy Woy. With a red and blue football.”