The backs of houses; long gardens. Some neat, others strewn with rubbish. Broken toilet bowls and pizza boxes. They’re narrow these dwellings, the width of a room, a corridor running down the side for access. I wonder if their owners still hear the clickety-clack of metal on metal. Or do they only notice when there are no trains, when silence falls messily around their ears.
I can hear the sound of the train from inside, but it would be a different sound for them, the people in the houses. Inside the carriage there’s a rhythmic song sung speedily. Shuur-de-cum, shurr-de-cum. It’s stopped raining now and I’m relieved. I hadn’t planned this trip, haven’t brought my waterproofs or an umbrella. The bricks of the houses appear darker, almost black like a shadow. Concrete paths roll out from the kitchen doors to the washing lines. I press my face up to the glass window, it’s cold. I squash my cheek upwards then drag my face down. I look like a stroke victim, like Mum. My phone rings, the opening bars of the theme tune from Dr Who. I retrieve it from my pocket carefully, I want to see who it is before I answer. It’s Ryan. My brother.
Mum’s face has aged in the last year, aged faster than time merits. It’s an ordeal to get her to the hairdressers, to have her limp rag-like hair made blonde. The colour lifts her. I should do it for her, but I don’t. She used to tuck it into a French pleat, very smart, not a hair astray. It’s as much as I can do to get a brush through it these days. The damp shame of urine on her old lady slacks. I should be flying to anywhere but here. A part-time job on a perfume counter in the big department store in town. Bright, heady scents over the stench of ammonia. I’m only 19. I lean on the dirty window, crumpled.
A woman about my mother’s age sits opposite me, avoiding my eye. Her face neatly made up in shades of pink and peach, her hands grip a bag. I can smell her perfume from here. Expensive. She could be meeting someone for lunch, a man who isn’t her husband. I think she might be called Susan. She has a shining mop of TV commercial hair and holds her handbag tightly on her lap as if someone might steal it. Her clothes are designer but not this season.
“You’ve leaned in chewing gum.” I startle. Susan has an accent. Not posh, but kind. “You’ve got chewy on your mac.”
I move away from the window. Susan’s right. There’s a lump of chewing gum, from a stranger’s mouth, just below the epaulet on my coat. Tears gather.
“No need for that.” Susan opens her handbag, fishes out a packet of disposable hankies. “This will get the worst off. Put ice on the rest, then when it freezes it breaks off.”
I take the tissue pack and nod thanks. Susan goes back to discreetly looking out the window. I wonder what else she carries in her bag.
Mum was famous for her plastic carrier bag, she took it everywhere. For emergencies. It could contain a flask of hot Bovril, cheese sandwiches on multi-grain, a tin of band-aids. Whatever the occasion she had it covered. It was like her superhero kit, all wrapped up in Coles’ plastic. If we needed it, Ryan and I, she had it clasped in her dishwasher-hands.
There’s a man in the opposite corner of the carriage. He looks sad or is it just his clothes. Various shades of beige that seem to apologise quietly. He raises an eyebrow and I realise my phone is still ringing. I smile and hit the ‘end call’ button. The man looks away and stares out at a building site flashing by his window. Half built edifices, scaffolding, bags of cement.
He looks like a Neville. He has placed a Tupperware container on the table in front of him, I can see sandwiches through the clear plastic. Corned beef and tomato. The bread will turn soggy with those tomatoes. No doubt a train spotter. Neville turns around suddenly, sees me watching him. I go back to my window and the endless line of houses, squeezed out like toothpaste.
I’d mapped out my life. Now I bump into old school friends. Their clean hair, new clothes. Studying at uni or working in the city. Me wandering about, scuffed shoes, supermarket plastic cutting into my fingers. Short conversations. I’d been the clever one. The one who had to turn down her university place. Creative writing, summer school in the Greek Islands. This train was taking me further than I’d been in years. When Dad had still been around there’d been a trip to Brisbane to see St Stephens Cathedral. Ryan and I sucking on sherbet lemons.
The train shudders to a stop, screeching. The driver brakes, not sharply. Not like the time a man jumped in front of the train I was on. Harriet Small and me on a shopping trip into town. The brakes were sudden. A terrible noise of bone on iron. I don’t think it was the bones of an animal. Now the sound is slow and the noise changes, becoming muffled.
Neville looks up sharply. Had I spoken out loud? He looks at me like I’m mad. You’re not wrong there, Neville. Ryan again. No message just a missed call, but I knew what he’d say. Where the hell was I, how could I leave her like that, with only a text message to him and I knew full well that he had enough on his plate with Julie and the baby. Selfish, he’d call me, as if I hadn’t spent the last six months looking after our Mum. I hadn’t been out, except to pick up her pension or a few groceries. I’m young. I should be out there making a nuisance of myself. Responsibility has worn down my shoulders.
The train draws into the station, I bite my bottom lip. I’m in the city, an hour from home. I let Neville leaves the carriage first, bewildered at how far I’d run already. Susan let’s me go ahead of her, gives a brilliant smile before hurrying off.
I need a cup of coffee. The café on the platform is open. It will be awful, but I need to gather myself. I left the house with only my coat and ten bucks screwed up in the pocket of my jeans. I don’t even have a book. I’d usually have a Penguin classic in the left-hand pocket of my ex-army coat, or my favourite romantic sci-fi feminist paperback clasped in my hands.
I stared into the murky liquid the disappointed woman in a stained overall shoved over the counter. Chipped cup, dark pools in the saucer. I pour back the slops and gulp my coffee down. Through dirty windows I can see Neville, the shape of him, standing on the platform with his back to me. His fists clenched. Surely a train spotter would be in heaven here with all these trains. He looks down the track to the country town I’d travelled from. Another one will be along in moment, a fast one. His head jerks and I catch his profile. His aquiline nose. His thick eyebrows that need a trim. He looks vulnerable. I think of Mum, her pale blue eyes imploring. I know fear when I see it.
My phone rings again and I ignore it, place it on the table next to my hopeless coffee. Neville’s back is shaking. Where is his sandwich box? Did he leave it on the train? Why would you go to the trouble of making sandwiches you didn’t intend to eat? Did someone make them for him? I watch him for a moment until I can’t bear it.
The breeze from the tracks leads abandoned cigarette packets in a swirling dance. I put my hand on his arm, he starts. I hold the door for him, bundle him into the café, pull out a chair, scraping the tiles. “I’ll get you a coffee, Neville.” I get myself a cup, the other one has gone cold. I pass it under his nose. I don’t have anything to say so I offer a doubtful smile.
I’d left Mum napping in her chair. I’d placed a blanket over her, I’m not cruel. It wasn’t her fault and we’d never been that close. But I do love her and I’m not sure why I ran away. She can’t do anything for herself, that’s why I had to be there.
“Neville,” he murmurs, his eyes clear. “You called me Neville.” I shrug. We stare at each other. “I’m Colin.” I smile sagely as if this was my next guess.
“Rosie.” We both stare into our coffee — a couple of losers. I should text my brother, but I like it here, no one asks anything of me. Ryan can cope with Mum today. I’ve got Colin. He looks out, beyond the window, to the rail tracks. He wasn’t planning to spot trains today. That’s why he left his lunch behind. Instinctively I grab his hand.
“It’ll be okay,” I say, holding his hands, not knowing whether it will be but not wanting to let go.