Today, I’m sharing a short story I wrote some years back as a homage to the Sandringham train line. I grew up along this line in Melbourne, and our current house is on it too. It was first published in The Wild Goose Literary e-Journal. Enjoy!
The Sandringham train sat at the terminus, ready for its run to Melbourne’s Flinders Street station. Years of faithful service had dulled the silver exterior to grey. Commuters ducked inside carriages, grateful to reach shelter before the light drizzle hardened to a steady downpour. Clusters of kids in school uniforms—the girls with their skirts hiked up—chattered, while city workers read the morning news on their phones or tablets.
Frank, a wizened octogenarian, shuffled to a spot by the window. The seat had been graffitied with angry black scrawls, so he checked it was dry before he sat. The sprinkle of rain hadn’t deterred him from his daily swim along Sandringham beach. This ritual had kept him on course since his retirement 24 years earlier. The only morning he’d missed was the dreadful day of his wife’s funeral.
“Train departing platform one is the 7:37 stopping all stations to Flinders St.” The announcement echoed along the platform and the last few stragglers jumped through the automatic doors before they closed.
The train shuddered to life and picked up speed. It clattered through a railway crossing and stopped at Hampton. A schoolboy ambled on with his bag slung over his shoulder, hands thrust deep in his pockets. Frank noticed the rash of acne on the boy’s face and cringed, recalling his own teenage angst. He’d shown little sporting prowess, so while forever topping his class, he’d never belonged to the popular crowd.
At Brighton Beach, a smart young businessman sat opposite Frank and nodded a polite hello. He pulled some papers out of his briefcase and Frank glimpsed an accounting firm’s logo.
Frank smiled. “Morning.”
Nobody had called him a nerd during his corporate days. His reputation as a relentless prosecutor had intimidated all but the most experienced defence lawyers. He recalled his boundless energy and sighed. These days, he tired more easily. The swim had taken a toll. His eyelids fluttered closed. Crinkles radiated from his eyes telling tales of yesteryear.
A woman boarded at Middle Brighton and sat next to the businessman. “Hey Mike!” She pecked him on the cheek.
“Hi Melanie. You look hot.” The smile in his voice suggested a fire in his pants.
Frank was tempted to open his eyes to see hot Melanie but decided to let the young admire the young. Jagged longing pierced his heart. How he wished he could gaze upon his darling Edna just one more time. She danced in his mind, a carefree 20-year-old, as young and fresh as the day they met.
At North Brighton, a woman in sports gear hopped on. She shook the rain off her umbrella and sprayed the back of Frank’s head. “I’m so sorry!”
His eyes shot open and he waved away her apology. “No problem. It’s wild out there.”
She took the seat next to Frank and Mike said, “Carrie?”
“Mike? My God, I haven’t seen you since…”
“Do you remember my girlfriend, Melanie?” Mike put his arm around her.
Carrie sat back. “Melanie! Of course. We went to school together.”
“It’s great to see you.” Melanie sounded half-hearted. “What’re you up to?”
“I’m a personal trainer.” It showed. Carrie’s arms were finely sculpted, her torso flawlessly toned.
Frank stifled a chuckle. Minutes earlier, Mike had been ogling his girlfriend. Now, he was gaping at Carrie’s generous cleavage.
“Be careful,” the old man muttered under his breath.
The torment of losing Edna due to his own wandering eye still made his scalp tighten. Edna had been determined to remain a virgin until they were married, so he’d only put up a token resistance when the local vixen seduced him. His curiosity and desire were too strong, and he’d tumbled into her smooth, inviting curves. Frank shifted in his seat. Even now, after both women were dead, great stabs of guilt attacked his stomach. If not for Edna’s forgiving nature, he’d never have won her back. His eyebrows furrowed like two furry white caterpillars reaching for a kiss.
“How about you?” Carrie asked Melanie. “What’re you doing now?”
“I teach history at our old school.”
“Weird! What’s it like being back there?” Carrie’s voice held a note of derision.
Melanie crossed her arms. “More fun than being a student. At least I get to see behind the staffroom door.”
Carrie tinkled a false laugh. “Sounds horrific. I couldn’t stand it!”
“Ah, Gardenvale. That’s my stop. Gotta run.” Melanie kissed Mike on the lips. “See you tonight, Babe.”
As soon as she left, Carrie whispered, “That was awkward! I take it she doesn’t know about us?”
Frank wasn’t usually nosey, yet he strained to catch Carrie’s furtive words.
Mike replied, “There’s nothing to know. It was one night. We were drunk.” He sat straighter and packed his documents back in his bag.
Carrie clenched her teeth. Her silence lasted all the way to Elsternwick. Then, “How long have you been going out with Melanie?”
Carrie raised an eyebrow. “It’s getting serious.”
“Yes.” He clutched his briefcase tighter.
Carrie scrambled through her sports bag and passed her business card to Mike with a wink. “I’m getting out at the next stop. If you want a personal trainer, give me a call.”
Rain-stained Ripponlea rolled into view and Carrie sauntered outside. Mike read the business card in his hand, shook his head and held the card out to Frank. “Want a personal trainer?”
Frank chuckled. “I’m too old for that kind of caper!” But he took the card and tucked it neatly into the side pocket of the sports bag on his lap. He never left litter behind. If only he’d rejected his Carrie as quickly as Mike.
Forgive me, Edna.
The carriage now had standing room only. Frank appreciated his seat; he still had three stops to travel.
At Balaclava, a woman with wild grey hair and a faded red gypsy skirt pushed her way along the aisle, trailing a wake of body odour.
“I told them!” Her voice filled the carriage. “I told them this day’d come!”
Passengers avoided eye contact with her.
She shook her fist in the air. “Nobody listens. None of this would’ve happened if somebody had listened. None of it!”
Mike glanced at Frank as if to say, “What do we do?”
Around them, nervous giggles erupted and died.
The woman swayed off balance and grabbed an overhead bar, revealing a dark stain under the arm of her green woollen cardigan. Her careworn face, chiselled with angst, had traces of beauty, but haphazard makeup, applied as though by a child, distorted her almond eyes and full lips.
“It’s a tragedy! A tragedy caused by sin. None of it should’ve happened. Make way, make way!” She ploughed through the passengers as the train reached Windsor. The crowd watched her disembark and breathed a collective sigh of relief. Chatter swelled.
Frank wondered why she behaved this way. He scoured his mind for cases of precedent, as lawyers and the elderly do. Their daughter, Rebecca, had gone off the rails when she got hooked on drugs. Frank feared she’d lost her sanity. Thank God they got her back. Now Rebecca had her own children, Frank’s grandchildren, the eldest of whom had just given him the greatest gift of all—a great-grandson. He cherished the infant, secure in the knowledge that his genes had survived three more generations. “He’s got your eyes,” everyone said. Nothing pleased him more.
Frank turned to Mike. “I saw another woman ranting like this once before.” His memories drew into focus.
“Back in my days as a lawyer, I was defending a guy against embezzlement charges. His name was … Brian, yes, Brian. I didn’t like him; he was rough as guts. As guilty as sin, that was for sure, but it was my job to get him off.”
Mike waited for the old man to continue.
“Brian’s wife, Trudy, needed to testify to explain their extravagant lifestyle, so we met to review her testimony. Her behaviour was odd, skittish; her answers were vague and confused.”
They reached Prahran, Frank’s stop. He noticed but ignored it, preferring to finish his story. He paused to take a breath, so he didn’t have to compete with the beeping of the opening doors.
“When we won the case, it was like she turned to stone. I noticed a bruise on her collarbone, and it became clear that bastard had been battering her for years. She’d wanted Brian to be jailed. A sour victory. I wanted to report Brian, but I was bound by client privilege.” He shook his head, recalling his inner torment.
Mike leaned forward. “What did you do?”
Frank peered around the carriage before replying, “It’s the one time I broke my oath. I couldn’t sit back and do nothing. I told my wife. She was incensed and insisted on meeting Trudy. I don’t know how she did it, but Edna persuaded Trudy to press charges. Brian asked me to defend him. I could’ve earned a handsome fee, but I handed the case to another lawyer.”
“Wow!” said Mike.
“I never told anyone that story before. I could’ve been disbarred.” He sounded proud of his professional misconduct.
“My lips are sealed.” Mike mimed zipping his mouth. “Oh gosh, we’re at South Yarra. I’ve got to get off. Thanks for the story, mate. You’re a good man.” He shook Frank’s hand.
“It was my pleasure.” Frank’s shoulders sat squarer, lighter for his confession.
They rolled to a stop and Mike strolled away. Frank remained seated; he could continue to Flinders Street and then return to Prahran. There was no rush to return to his empty house. Home loomed large and lonely without Edna. Frank’s eyes drifted shut and he welcomed an image of his wife. His beautiful Edna had gone a little loopy herself in the end, but that was dementia – cruel and debilitating. Their sixty years of happiness outshone those last few ugly months.
The acned schoolboy got off at Richmond, but Frank barely noticed. Pain gripped his heart. His hand clutched his chest and he hunched forward onto his sports bag. Breathe. Think of Edna. Breathe. He slumped and remained stationary, propped by the bag, a smile on his face.
The train pulled in at Flinders Street. Commuters waited impatiently for the doors to open and then hurried away to their various pursuits. Frank remained still. He had reached the end of the line.