As I stared through the train window the drizzling rain was painting delicate patterns on the glass as it trickled down. I smiled. What a joy it was to see such a heaven-sent gift in the midst of our severe Australian drought. One appreciates something once it is taken away and nowadays rain certainly feels precious.
Sure, it wasn't a lot of precipitation, I grant you, but it was wet and fresh, and we really had been missing it. The whole country was on fire all summer long. First, we'd suffered the drought accompanied by high temperatures and winds, this then led to fires that gorged themselves on our earth, and finally, smoke invaded every breath we took. The companies producing face masks were making a killing and the air quality in Canberra on some days was the worst on the planet. Furthermore, this was a novel experience for all of us who had lived in our pleasant bush capital for decades without major incident. The people were traumatised. The world had looked on with great empathy. Foreign volunteers flew in from around the planet to assist us. Three of these generous men tragically lost their lives in a plane crash in the Snowy Mountains. The country mourned.
Interrupting my reverie, a young mother made her way down the passageway to the two seats directly in front of me. She had a little girl in tow - a pretty little thing aged around 5 or 6, I was guessing. She was dressed up like a doll, no expense spared there and as we were in first class I was guessing they were from a well-to-do family. I always travel first class by train because it's affordable and most of the time there are no children running up and down the aisles. Well worth the cost.
Opposite me sat two older women in deep conversation about the fires. It dominated all conversations; social media and traditional media was dripping with it. You just couldn't escape. I always tried hard not to tune in, for fear of falling prey to that feeling that this was an apocalypse we were experiencing and the danger of depression settling in and making a home in my heart.
Meanwhile, behind me was a middle-aged woman holding a magazine. I couldn't help but notice that she was talking to herself, quietly, whispering some things about someone she was obviously angry with. Her babble was continuous as if she were actually talking to someone and they were responding to her. But there was no one there. Poor soul. Mental health seems to be of growing concern nowadays and we come across so many people who are not coping with the very real stresses that life presents to us. One of our prime ministers once said: "Life wasn't meant to be easy." He got that right.
Suddenly, there was a voice booming through the speakers near me, announcing that hot food was available in the dining car, as well as an array of beverages including coffee and tea.
I love the country link trains and the service they provide onboard. Over my regular nine-hour route up to the north coast to visit my mother I always got to catch up with my reading and some writing too. I found it was a pleasant way to spend the day and this time, of course, like many of the other passengers it was an escape from the trauma of our home inferno to a coastal town where the smoke was not as bad, the sun still shone and the sea sparkled. It was a very attractive proposition.
After my visit to the dining car to purchase some sustenance, I returned to my seat toting a sandwich and coffee and noticed that the seats opposite me had been taken by a middle-aged couple who looked like they belonged together. They say that pets take after their owners but I had a theory that couples who have lived together for a long time, started to look more alike. Whether that was my imagination or it was a thing, I'll never know. But certainly, this couple had that 'sameness' about them. Both had scrawny necks, like chickens. Bulging a little but twinkling moistly their eyes were a striking blue. Almost turquoise. They were tall and lean and both had very well-coiffed blond hair. They wore what looked like designer-label clothes, not that I was familiar with any of those labels, but they looked good enough to sashay down any catwalk in a fashion show. They were each reading the same novel, which I thought was rather odd, and seemed immersed in it.
I couldn't help but notice the title. "Train Trip Trauma" and thought it was rather ironic. It was akin to reading a novel on a plane entitled "Tragic Plane Crashes". Anyway, there was nothing traumatic about this train trip, I was thinking to myself unless this couple knew something I didn't know.
Quickly, I opened my iPad and googled the book. I wanted to find out what made it so fascinating that they each needed a copy of it. Surely as a couple, you would think they could have shared the book? But perhaps the conversation went something like this:
"You read it first, darling and then I will read it after you."
"No. I insist that you read it first."
"Ok. That settles it. Let's both read it at once and then we can discuss it afterwards."
And perhaps that's why they ended up with two copies.
When I googled the title the first thing I noticed was that there were two authors. A husband and wife who had co-written the book. Inside the cover were their pictures and I was flabbergasted to find it was the couple sitting adjacent, across the aisle from me. John and Lucy Calloway.
So that explained it. The release date was next month but you could pre-order now. I concluded that John and Lucy must be reading advance copies from their publisher. Perhaps they were checking for errors?
As a writer myself I really felt a thrill at this chance encounter and couldn't help myself. I leaned across to them and said in quite a loud voice.
"I do hope that is a speculative text. A cautionary tale perhaps...rather than a prediction of things to come, especially on this train?"
They both looked at me simultaneously and smiled. But then without a word they went back to reading their books. It was rather unnerving and struck me as odd once more.
I decided to get back to reading my own novel, “The Trauma Cleaner”, and forget about them, but it did niggle away at me.
The train rolled on, through blankets of dried-out vegetation and countless burnt trees. It was obvious that the fires had spread far and wide and there were few pockets that had escaped the onslaught.
The hours passed and there was a kind of hush descending among the passengers as they surveyed the damaged landscapes. Some of them began to snooze and I too felt my eyes heavily willing me to slumber. The monotonous rhythmic melody of the train rolling along and the smooth gentle rocking movement tended to lull you into a peaceful nap.
I must have slept for some hours because we were jolted to a standstill quite suddenly and it was dark outside. I woke up with a start and looked around for any signs of life outside. Nothing but darkness.
The couple and the mother and child were no longer there. The two elderly women must have also alighted while I slept. Only the woman with mental issues remained and of course, me.
After several minutes another announcement came over the intercom:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, everyone needs to be advised to please stay in your seats and no one is to depart from the train. Your safety is our number one priority. Unfortunately, we need to advise you that we have come to a crossroads. A place, where there is currently a raging bushfire and its flames are threatening, out of control. We are hoping that if we stay put, the fire will pass in front of us and eventually, we can get going again. Please do be assured that your safety and comfort are important to us. Please remain alert but not alarmed. Also, be advised that one of our staff will be coming through shortly with beverages and snacks to make you more comfortable."
Tension once more became my friend and the woman behind me began shrieking at her invisible companion in a most agitated voice, which didn't help matters. From tension to trauma was a short trip for me now.
I couldn't help but wonder about the Calloways and if they knew this would happen? Is this why they hadn't responded? Is that why they got off early, well before this situation arose?
When the drinks finally came around I purchased not one, but several alcoholic beverages. I opened my Amazon account and proceeded to download their book. It seemed more relevant to me now. More urgent somehow.
I wanted to find out how I could handle my own impending train trip trauma.