Once upon a time, an old man travelled by train from the goldfields to the great city. The old man took his seat and looked around. Seated at a remove in a row parallel to his sat a younger man with a bony face, his features stony and set hard. His limbs were a living art gallery of tattoos; unlike all others aboard the train he wore no mask and, when asked to show his rail pass to the conductor, he did not speak, did not move, but showed no ticket. The old man felt a sense of implicit menace, not only on account of the younger man’s scowl, but in his very silence, and somehow in his unseasonable short pants and t-shirt, as if he declared he was tougher than others, rugged up against the cold of the day.
Nobody challenged the Man of Silent Menace.
About twenty minutes into the journey the old man smelled smoke. It wafted his way from the parallel seats. He stood and looked for signs of fire. He found none. No-one else seemed perturbed. The old man hoisted his backpack and walked out of that carriage and into the next. He left behind him the smell of smoke and the Man of Menace, and we too leave them now, as they play no further part in our story. The old man walked out and into a different story.
In the next carriage the old man found an empty corner where he sat down and started to read. He heard a voice and, wondering, he looked up. He didn’t catch the words for he was an old man, but he thought he heard ‘looking stylish’.
He turned in the direction of the voice, which was feminine in register, and he found himself facing a young woman who had, indeed, addressed him. The young woman was slightly built, her hair was red and she had freckles dotting her face and arms. Her face was covered, as the man’s was, by a mask. An open laptop computer sat on her knees.
The old man, surprised, because few over his long lifetime had remarked favourably on his ‘style’, asked the woman: Did you speak to me? I’m afraid I didn’t hear clearly.
I said you look stylish.
Golly, thought the man.
Thank you, said the man.
Yes, the cool jacket, the beret. Especially the beret.
The man thanked her again, and asked, (because he was interested in such things), What are you writing?
A story, she replied. I hope it will become a novel. Would you like me to read you some?
The old man said yes, I would. Thank you.
The old man thought, What a fearless young person!
The young woman now picked up her computer, her pink tote bag, her backpack and a fluffy jacket and removed from her corner diagonally opposite the man’s, and sitting herself down opposite him, almost knee to knee, started to read.
The young woman read musically and expressively. Her story told of a father and his young daughter. The father, a magician, delighted his daughter with the magic he practised. He created a world where her mind dwelled in fantasy. The father commanded his daughter never, never to open the trunk which contained his magician’s materials. His tone was tender but firm. The man departed, leaving the trunk in the care of his daughter.
The daughter felt tempted. She too wished to work magic, for she knew that despite the doubts of many, magic was real, its actions were everywhere to be seen, if only one had eyes to see.
The temptation was stronger than the daughter’s resistance. In truth she did not try to resist; she wanted to do what her father did, she wanted to know what he knew.
The girl opened the trunk.
At this point the storyteller closed her laptop and looked up at the old man with a question in her gaze. For his part, the old man had fully entered the world of the story and was sorry that it had stopped. He felt surprised at himself for, being a prosaic old man, he held no belief or interest in the world of magic. He said, I like your story. I liked the atmosphere you created and I’m interested in your characters and in how their relationship will play out. If I had been reading this story I would want to read on. I’d want to learn what happened next. There will be consequences of the child’s action, and I imagine, of the father’s trust or his trial of the child.
The young woman smiled with pleasure.
The old man ventured: I’ve published a few books.
Wow! Where can I find them?
You can check out my blog.
Your blog! Wow!
The old man asked if she was a student. She said I’m doing a degree in Creative Writing and Film, at uni. The man asked the author where she had boarded the train. She named an exquisite mountain village in the vicinity. She went on to describe the farmlet where she and her fearless brother were raised and still live. She spoke of the animals, all of which bore names, she spoke of her creative parents – musicians – who passed on the gifts of music to their children. She said, Dad mowed a maze into the acres and acres of grass behind the house. We grew up in enchantment and imagination. As she spoke she glowed with recall of a childhood of wonder.
The old man thought the woman’s lived idyll somehow echoed the idyll she created in her story. He asked, do you make music too? Oh yes, we all do, we play and sing. I’m in a band. We’re going to cut an album. I write my own songs. Would you like to hear one?
Yes. Choose a sad one.
In asking her to sing to an audience of only one, the man was testing the limits of the young person’s boldness. But she gave voice, sweetly, to the story of an intimate friendship which ebbed and flowed in pain and closeness and ended in estrangement. I hate you/ I love you – she sang. The old man found the song and the singing unexpectedly pleasant. He anticipated the usual tuneless jingle and the usual trite lyrics, but this was bright and sweet and heartfelt, without becoming mawkish. He said as much.
The young woman was greatly pleased. She confided in him about her current girlfriend, throwing in, as if to assure the old man or herself – but I’ve had a boyfriend before her. We were together for four years. I realised I’m not binary.
The old man asked, Would you like to hear a poem? It’s a poem about a weeping man, he said. Probably a sad man, like the person in your song. Yes, please, she replied.
The old man read to her Les Murray’s poem, An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow. The young woman listened without moving, stunned by the music of the lines and the breadth of the poet’s understanding.
Wintry sunshine lit up the little freckles on the woman’s arm. The old man recalled with love his freckled sister as a little girl and the lines their mother used to quote: Glory be to God for dappled things…
The train pulled into the platform. The passengers disembarked. The old man said, Make sure you tell me when your book is published, then he turned left. Taking up her pink carry bag, flinging her pack onto her back and draping herself in her fluffy jacket, the young woman turned right.
In the half-light of dusk in the cavernous space of the railhead the old man set out for the long escalator which rose up and up and brought him to an elevated level. He exited the building, looked about him, realised he was lost and returned to the roofed space. Here he took a downbound escalator (this is really a ‘descalator’, he thought to himself) and rode to the platform level. Still lost, he looked about him, wondering.
Before him stood a young woman. The woman was slightly built with fine freckles and reddish hair. The two exchanged surprised smiles.
The old man thought, this is twice upon a time. The man asked, Which way is Spencer Street?
That way, she said, extending an arm.
Thanking her, he turned to go.
Behind him a voice asked: Would you hug?
Would I hug, he wondered.
She opened her arms wide. The man felt diffident, unusually awkward. Uncertain of today’s etiquette, too-conscious of how others might see him, he held her by her bony shoulder blades while she held him firmly for a time.
Goodbye, they said in unison.